Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

This was never going to be easy. Marvel’s first Avengers movie was an event which I have no qualms using hyperbole—massive, era-defining, the best (perhaps only) pure comic book movie ever made. The series of films it launched—Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; the House of Ideas is one of the few entities capable of using such language and coming off as anything other than hubris-filled and building castle in the air—is arguably one of the longest sustained streaks of quality any studio making cape movies has ever seen. Some—those who like their movies to be Art instead of entertainment, who think Coppola was slumming when he made The Godfather [1], who appreciate the finer things in life, and defecate on populist and genre fare with the trained reflex of a dog exposed to a bell—have wearied of the current superhero boom. Someday soon, they cry, audiences will weary of superheroes and develop a sense of taste in their movie-going habits. This is, of course, absurd. The idea that the American public will give up superhero movies for, say, British historical drama, or walk out of Captain America: Civil War en masse to watch a trenchant work of anti-capitalist satire from one of the rising stars of the Bulgarian film scene is ridiculous, because at no point in the history of movies or entertainment has the American public shown much of an inclination for High Art of the sort these critics champion.

My point is, there is a looming possibility—which fanboys fear and highbrow cinephiles [2] anticipate with glee—that Marvel Studios will produce a movie that is not very good, that is unentertaining, that is flat-out bad. It’s inevitable, statistically speaking. We’re eleven movies in; Marvel has public plans through 2019 and secret plans through 2028; and it’s accepted wisdom, garnered from decades of superhero movie making, that franchises tank after the third installment. Marvel will make a bad movie, somewhere down the line; it’s inevitable, statistically speaking. Law of averages, y’know.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is not that movie. Not for me, anyway. It’s an overloaded, overstuffed blockbuster that sees the ambitions of its predecessors and doesn’t quite meet them. But it still does what it’s meant to very well; it’s on the good side of competent. It’s also clearly a Joss Whedon movie, filled with his signature bits and pieces—little character interactions, one of which (between Thor and the Vision) sticks in my head because it’s a thing only the two of them would be capable of discussing, strong female characters [3], the usual. Take that as you will. The leads are excellent, as usual; Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson are the Avengers’ MVP’s and James Spader as Ultron might be the best Marvel villain since Loki. The effects work is top-notch, although Ultron’s lips are a touch too mobile. The fight scenes are well-done. The formula has yet to fail. The newcomers are commendable, particularly Paul Bettany as the android Vision.

This is not to say that it’s a perfect movie. Thor’s subplot was a waste of Chris Hemsworth and Stellan Skarsgaard [4]. Ultron’s plot is incoherent. And there’s a whole mess of issues related to representation—having two characters historically depicted as Jewish and Roma retconned into nationals of a fictitious Eastern European country (I think Slavic, but I could be wrong), a reference to the “African coast” without pinning it down any further, a scene between Natasha and Banner that angered feminists. The biggest criticism I have is that there’s not enough—Anthony Mackie was one of the treats of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and he’s shoved off on a missing-persons case for the majority of the movie, only to come back as a member of the new Avengers [5]. Don Cheadle, despite being part of the MCU from nearly Day One (shut up), is sidelined, although he gets the invite for the final battle [6][7]. Hawkeye has a little goatee and it is the worst.

But—and this is a big but—none of the above matters. What matters is the movie. And I have to reiterate that it’s damned good. Not Marvel’s best, by any stretch of the imagination—the shock that Phase One had of seeing Captain America punching Nazis and Thor and Loki running around a Kirbyesque Asgard, of seeing Iron Man, the Hulk, Cap, Hawkeye, the Black Widow, and Thor occupying the same space, of realising that this comic book movie, based on a B-lister easily confused with a Black Sabbath song and a triathlon, was good, has worn off; it’s Marvel’s world, now. It’s not as perfect as The Avengers or as fun as Guardians of the Galaxy. But it’s not the worst Marvel has yet produced.

Bottom line:
Not Marvel’s best, some questionable moments, but overall a decent enough VFX-heavy blockbuster. Four stars, of a possible five.

__
[1] Strawman. Total strawman.
[2] I follow a lot of movie blogs for some ungodly reason, and it strikes me that part of the current cynicism towards superhero movies has as much to do with the people expressing the cynicism as with their objects.
[3] Whedon as a feminist filmmaker is a can of worms I’d rather not touch; I’m a white, cisgendered man, so what I have to say about feminism is going to be—I don’t want to say less valid but something like that. I will say that he’s better as a writer and director of women than 90% of his male colleagues in my opinion.
[4] Trust me, this is a bad thing.
[5] [Deep breath, long pause] I am baffled by Sam Wilson’s failure to show up for the final battle. Not only is the entire battle predicated on saving the population of a city, not only does it take place largely in the air, not only was Sam trained in airborne rescue in the military, not only is his entire power set based on flying to the point where he’s named after a Goddamn bird, and he was the breakout character of Winter Soldier, but his exchange with Steve during the revels seemed to set up the Falcon having some role in the climax.
[6] Also missing: Agent Coulson. I didn’t need him to have an extended part—just a quick cameo on the Helicarrier’s bridge, Fury thanking him for digging it out mothballs, Coulson saying, “If you need any more help, you know where to find me,” boom, over and out.
[7] I want something where Sam and Rhodey meet up in a little hole-in-the-wall, drink a few beers, and shoot the shit, compare notes on being the “black sidekick,” swap war stories. That’d be nice.

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About docmagnus

I write things and draw things. Sometimes I do both at the same time. Sometimes I put what I wrote and drew on the Internet for people to see.

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