by Nathan Sacks
The influence of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and the Marvel universe on pop culture now reaches Disney and Star Wars-levels of incalculable. It is a common childhood love of many of today’s most notable storytellers. George RR Martin grew up reading those comics, and has said Avengers #9 (“The Birth of Wonder Man”) defined the moral outlook of his Game of Thrones novels. The director of Avengers: Age of Ultron himself, Joss Whedon, grew up with Avengers and X-Men comics in the 70s, and transposed those titles’ serial storytelling elements to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other television shows. I wouldn’t be surprised if Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad grew up a Marvel reader—his Walter White has a monstrous yet tragic quality that is a regular feature of complex Marvel baddies like Dr. Doom, Magneto, and Namor the Sub-Mariner.
Director: Joss Whedon
Producer: Kevin Feige
Writers: Josh Whedon, Stan Lee (comic book), Jack Kirby (comic book)
Cinematographer: Ben Davis
Editors: Jeffrey Ford, Lisa Lassek
Music: Danny Elfman, Brian Tyler
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Joansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson
US Theatrical Release: May 1, 2015
US Distributor: Disney
The eight-foot robot Ultron (James Spader) belongs to a different class of Marvel villain—not so human or tragic, and mostly crazy. In the comics, he is a great villain, a pumpkin-headed robot gargoyle with an adamantium shell. In the film his origin is changed somewhat (no more jack-o-lantern face), but the character’s belligerence and whiny sarcasm remains intact. At root, Ultron is a petulant teenager, a type Spader has no trouble playing. He belongs to a subcategory of science fiction, the evil killer AI. The most prominent examples are probably the Terminator or HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I thought a lot about Colossus: The Forbin Project (1971) in which a scientist creates a supercomputer that promptly takes control of US missiles and declares war on the USSR.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) creates Ultron at the beginning of the film with the help of Bruce Banner, aka the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). The Avengers are now a global team with an immense amount of power, which creates tension within the team and discord abroad, especially amongst the outside world’s many victims of superhuman collateral damage. Stark is worried about being unequal to the task of avenging in an upended post-alien invasion world. He creates Ultron as a peacekeeping program, but as it achieves sentience and accumulates more information, the supercomputer begins to despise the human race (reasonably, Whedon argues with a wink).
The team is now a finely oiled machine decked out in new gear created by Stark. Captain America (Chris Evans) still possesses fortitude, old-fashioned values, and ace survival skills. Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) still agonizes over her tortured past, but also asserts a romantic relationship with Banner/Hulk. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) the Thunder god has relaxed without the weight of ruling Asgard on his shoulder (see: previous Thor movie). Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is thought of as disposable, but proves to be the only Avenger with a healthy outlook on life.
A few new Avengers are added to the movie. Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) are two superpowered twins who are collateral victims of Stark weapons. They come from the country of Sokovia, and Olsen and Taylor-Johnson work hard to coordinate fictional Eastern-European accents. He has super speed and she wields “chaos magic.”
Then there is the Vision (Paul Bettany), a resplendent yellow android who is the most visually fascinating addition to the team. I am sometimes bothered that superhero movies tone down the extravagant costumes for the sake of “realism.” Here, Whedon makes sure to retain the Vision’s 60s pop-art aesthetic (originally introduced, like Ultron, by Stan Lee’s protege Roy Thomas and master draftsman John Buscema), which is surely miserable for Bettany in the makeup chair. A scene between Ultron and the Vision sums up Whedon’s feelings on humanity, and is probably the writer-director’s single greatest contribution to Marvel storytelling.
What makes Age of Ultron stand out most in relation to its Marvel brethren is Whedon’s incredible facility with dialogue and his ability to establish strong character in the quickest of strokes. It’s a shame that this is Whedon’s last film with Marvel, but one can understand as making it reportedly destroyed him. Whedon has always been a major talent, back to the days when he was a script doctor, but especially in the early days of his TV shows like Buffy, his dialogue could sometimes seem needlessly talky, precious, or “look at me” clever. Time has continued to make him a better writer and self-editor. Whedon has learned to hone his dialogue down to a buzzsaw edge, retaining some familiar elements of his style (cliché lampshading, comedic moments shattered by sudden violence, etc.) while ridding it of extraneous fat. He is like the superhero world’s David Mamet, a dialogue-smith of A+ caliber. The one worry I have about the Marvel universe going forward is that they don’t have another writer with a fraction of Whedon’s authorial feel.
As with all Marvel movies, there are some obvious flaws. The CGI has a weightless, cartoony quality in the beginning that is glaring. Characters like Thor and Iron Man seem to bounce around punching villains without possessing any weight. The subplot involving Black Widow and the Hulk’s romance doesn’t end up mattering much. The Scarlet Witch has vaguely-defined powers (telekinesis, matter manipulation) that could have stood some more explanation. I wasn’t, however, bothered by the context-less exposition and references to future Marvel movies, like some reviewers were. For me, these are the filmic equivalents of a throwaway Stan Lee caption (“Who is that strange South African arms dealer? See Tales of Suspense #81!” or somesuch). I can understand how people unaccustomed to this type of storytelling would find it ill-fitting in a film or even cynical, but my sense is some of this film’s confusing, surreal dream sequences (another byproduct of the Scarlet Witch’s vague abilities) will make more sense in a few more years and after a few more movies.
Avengers: Age of Ultron will be massive regardless of what anyone thinks about it. But is it good? For some Marvel zombies, that is a redundant question. A certain breed of film critics (mainly NYC-based) hold up their nose at the idea of “tentpole blockbuster” and “good” in the same sentence. Most healthy-minded filmgoers will see this as a false dichotomy. This is another notable Marvel movie, and taps deep veins of what made the original Avengers team so exciting. For Whedon or for anyone who grew up with this stuff, none of this is surprising, but it is satisfying.