Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Ultron Legacy

After seeing Avengers: Age of Ultron, I believe I understand why Joss Whedon is choosing to step away from Marvel to pursue other work. It is a pretty good movie -- better than most action blockbuster fare, better than many Marvel films, and certainly better than any superhero film DC has served up in 7 years. But there are also notable creative misfires in the film. They basically all have to do with where time and attention is being spent in an overstuffed story, and I feel confident saying Whedon himself would never have made such mistakes were he not at the mercy of the Marvel machine.

(Since it seems like everyone saw the movie this past weekend, I'm not going to steer clear of spoilers in the following.)

The film is at its best when it gets the most personal. Hawkeye's storyline is fantastic, a nice apology for him getting the short end of the story stick in the first Avengers. Perhaps because he is one of the least conventionally "super-powered" heroes of the piece, it's revealed that he has found a way to balance a personal life with his "Avenging." Saving the world is less abstract for him; he has a family he's saving while he does it. And he comes off perhaps more brave and noble than the rest of the team too, putting it all on the line even though he is more vulnerable and has more to lose than the other Avengers.

Similarly, the romantic storyline between Black Widow and Bruce Banner worked for me. There's a clear logic that Black Widow, a character bred for fighting and subterfuge, would begin to question that commitment after the events of The Winter Soldier -- where the organization she worked for turned out to be corrupted by evil. And then, in contemplating a withdraw from fighting and subterfuge, it makes sense that she would be drawn to someone who always tries to avoid the fight, and who is open with her about his one great "secret." This put a relationship that matters in play not just for members of the team, but within the team.

But beyond that, relationships and motivations started to get shorted for time. We heard people talk about the longstanding bond of the Maximoff twins more than we actually got to see it depicted on screen. We never learn where Nick Fury has been hiding all this time, why was he in hiding all this time, nor why he decided to come out now. We never really got to delve far enough into the philosophical implications of creating an artificial intelligence, neither with the barely-a-character Vision, nor the inexplicably "just born bad" Ultron. (Stark had built one quasi-intelligence, Jarvis, who turned out just fine. How exactly did Ultron come out all crazy and genocidal?)

And why were these vital bits of character pushed out of the story for time? To make room for material that didn't even truly have a place in this movie; it was just setting up for future Marvel movies. Thor's nonsensical cave spa trip, for example, stole precious minutes of screen time (setting up for Ragnarok and Infinity War) and added absolutely nothing to any kind of character arc for him in this film. And while War Machine and Falcon each got a few nice lines, I certainly wouldn't have missed either of them if leaving them out of the movie could have made the story tighter for the remaining characters.

Not that Joss Whedon didn't get in plenty of good stuff, even with Marvel's master plan tying one hand behind his back. There was, as expected, a lot of great humor. Much of it was infused with character and not just pithy for the sake of being pithy -- Captain America's trouble with "language," Hawkeye's rivalry with Quicksilver, Tony Stark's attempt to scientifically explain Thor's hammer, and more.

Whedon's script also really nails the personal cost when titans collide. The destruction in this movie matters, and the heroes undertake mighty efforts to minimize the casualties. (Quite unlike Man of Steel, where all of Smallville and half of Metropolis are thoughtlessly devastated.) And as a director, Whedon definitely ups his game too. He has always been a fan of "oners" (long single takes), but here includes several of them -- including a long one to open the film.

I feel special mention should also be made of the stellar motion capture performances in the movie -- perhaps the most nuanced yet achieved. The Hulk absolutely looks and moves like Mark Ruffalo, and you can see James Spader's mannerisms captured in even the slightest lip curl of Ultron. (I could wish for Ultron to be less a clone of Spader's character Reddington from The Blacklist, but that's on Spader, not on the amazing work capturing his copycat performance.)

All told, it's an entertaining film. I give Age of Ultron a B+. But its best elements are often subsumed by that unfortunate urge that infects all superhero sequels: too many new characters and too much action. Whedon handles that better than most, but still can't make natural the agenda (outside of his personal aims with the film) to set up the next phase of the franchise.

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