On Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron is the sequel to The Avengers, and also (essentially) serves the conclusion to Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, who appeared at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Thanos from The Avengers, and Guardians of the Galaxy, also appear.

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Unfortunately, the character, Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow, who previously appeared in Iron Man 2, The Avengers, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, is known for servicing the story of the male superheroes, as according to The Daily Beast article, “The Avengers’ Black Widow Problem: How Marvel Slut-Shamed Their Most Badass Superheroine“:

In 11 Marvel Cinematic Universe films thus far, strong female co-leads have only appeared in larger ensemble team-ups, primarily as lethal and emotionally impenetrable femme fatales who double as love interests (shout out to Guardians of the Galaxy’s Gamora).

Meanwhile, Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America have fronted multiple stand-alones as complex superheroes with their own extended individual journeys to explore, but it’ll be another nine movies before Marvel finally rolls the dice on its first female-led superhero movie.

When time finally does come to enfranchise the women of Marvel with the same big-screen platforms that their white male counterparts have enjoyed for nearly two MCU phases, it won’t be Johansson, one of the Avengers’ most bankable movie stars and the only one to score a $458 million global hit last year (Lucy) in her superhero offseason, who gets the shot.

Instead, that honor will go to Captain/Ms. Marvel, Marvel’s 1970s-era “modern gal” borne from/for the women’s lib crowd and an occasional presence in the Avengers comics. Of course, her history comes with its own controversial baggage. (See: “The Rape of Ms. Marvel.”)

Over the course of four movies, including Avengers: The Age of Ultron, Scarlett Johansson’s token lady Avenger has been positioned as a seductive foil to as many different male teammates. And although her Age of Ultron flirtation with Bruce Banner is the first to be confirmed as a canonical romance, Marvel’s orchestrators have never been subtle in shipping her all the way around the Avengers block.

That wasn’t always the case. Black Widow had a playful introduction to the franchise in 2010’s Iron Man 2 in a scene that jokingly admonished Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan, and by extension, the fanboy audience, for reducing the deadly secret agent to an object—before Natasha Romanoff (undercover as Natalie Rushman) drops a flying armbar on Happy, even Pepper Potts warns Stark that the comely redhead is a “very expensive sexual harassment lawsuit” waiting to happen.

After exposing her true S.H.I.E.L.D. agent identity, the former Russian spy then paired off in 2012’s The Avengers with Renner’s Clint Barton/Hawkeye for a storyline that tore the stoic archer’s walls down for the audience’s benefit, and hinted that there was more to their shared history than just battlefield camaraderie.

Just two years later in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, you’d think Black Widow earned the right to brawl and battle her own demons, just like the boys. Nope. Playing sultry therapist to yet another Avenger, Black Widow was partnered with Evans’s Steve Rogers/Captain America in service of pulling the hero out of time into the 21st century. They even shared the franchise’s fan-baiting first Avenger-on-Avenger kiss.

Age of Ultron sees Black Widow yet again employing her feminine charms to help advance a fellow male teammate’s personal growth. The Hulk can now finally control his rage-outs, but her soothing female touch and cooing ministrations are literally the only things that can calm him. In exchange, the nerdly Bruce Banner ignites Romanoff’s long-suppressed lady feels, or something—Whedon gives his favorite character the kind of female troubles only a man can write. The result is an overdue character exploration for Black Widow that still manages to reduce the baddest bitch in the MCU to a shell of a superheroine who’s sad she can never be a complete woman.

In a 2013 Newsweek interview, a post-Avengers, pre-Age of Ultron Whedon expressed his frustrations that the Hollywood machine is designed to not support female superheroes—regardless of how much power players like him want to diversify the landscape. “Toymakers will tell you they won’t sell enough, and movie people will point to the two terrible superheroine movies that were made and say, ‘You see? It can’t be done,’” he said.

“It’s stupid, and I’m hoping The Hunger Games will lead to a paradigm shift. It’s frustrating to me that I don’t see anybody developing one of these movies. It actually pisses me off. My daughter watched The Avengers and was like, ‘My favorite characters were the Black Widow and Maria Hill,’ and I thought, ‘Yeah, of course they were.’ I read a beautiful thing Junot Diaz wrote: ‘If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.’”

According to Roger Ebert:

At one point in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the hammer-swinging superhero Thor (Chris Hemsworth) tells the android villain Ultron (James Spader) that “there’s no need to break anything.” “Clearly you’ve never made an omelet,” Ultron replies. It’s nice when a movie hands you a metaphor like that. The second “Avengers” is a gigantic omelet combining everything in writer-director Joss Whedon’s refrigerator, pantry and spice rack, and dozens of eggs are broken in its creation. This film about a team of good guys battling a brilliant, genocidal robot is bigger, louder and more disjointed than the first “Avengers”—which, like this new installment, was a crescendo picture, meant to merge strands from solo superhero movies within the Marvel Universe. But it’s also got more personality—specifically Whedon’s—than any other film in the now seven-year-old franchise. And in its growing pains you can see a future in which these corporate movies might indeed be art, or at least unique expressions, rather than monotonous quarterly displays of things crashing into other things, with splashes of personality designed to fool people into thinking they’re not just widgets stamped out in Marvel’s hit factory.

You shouldn’t go into it expecting a smooth ride, and you should know that there are basic ways in which it’s not up to snuff. There’s too much over-edited “coverage” by multiple cameras, as opposed to true direction with purpose and flair. (Marvel farms out the planning of its action scenes to second unit crews and special effects artists long before the actors arrive on set, which might account for the choppy, incoherent, “just get it done” feeling of some early showdowns.) It isn’t until the final third that the movie’s destructo-ramas develop personalities as distinctive as the film’s dialogue scenes. Between Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Thor; a number of supporting and cameo players; and several new leads, including Ultron’s henchpersons, the twins Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), there might just be too many characters, even for a two-and-a-half-hour movie. (Whedon’s pre-release cut came in at three-plus hours; could this be one of those rare cases where longer is better?) The film will do nothing to quell complaints that the superhero genre is sexist: Black Widow is involved in yet another relationship with a male Avenger and burdened with a tragic backstory equating motherhood with womanly fulfillment, and while Scarlet Witch has some pleasingly Carrie-like rampages, she isn’t given enough to do.

Still, given the band-of-heroes conceit and the mandate to serve as a high point in an ongoing mega-narrative, it’s hard to imagine “Age of Ultron” handily dispatching any of these problems. And as in the first “Avengers,” which was also overstuffed, Whedon manages to refine the main players’ personalities and set them against each other, often in logistically complex conversations between five or more people: action scenes of a different sort.

Captain America and Tony Stark/Iron Man are at the heart of this one. They’re always more intriguing when set against each other than when they’re claiming the spotlight in their own movies, but Whedon, who also serves as a consultant and dialogue polisher on other Marvel entries, has taken their conflict a step further by drawing on events in “Iron Man 3” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” It’s Stark who creates the titular bad guy—with the reluctant help of scientist and part-time Hulk Bruce Banner—in response to trauma he suffered while battling Thor’s brother Loki and his extraterrestrial allies in the first “Avengers.” Ultron is supposed to serve as a Skynet-like artificial intelligence network that detects apocalyptic threats and swiftly destroys them. Cap saw the horrific outgrowth of this mentality in the second “Captain America,” in which millions of alleged terrorists were nearly  wiped out by S.H.I.E.L.D. in simultaneous extra-judicial assassinations. Cap is appalled both by the Ultron project itself and the fact that Stark started it in secret because he “didn’t want to hear the ‘man-is-not-meant-to-meddle medley’” from his fellow Avengers. He was right to worry. Like many a sci-fi robot or Frankenstein’s monster, the creature has a different idea of what constitutes a threat (spoiler: it’s us).

All of which makes “Age of Ultron” a metaphorical working-through of America’s War on Terror, with Cap representing a principled, transparent military, answering to civilian authority, and Stark as the more paternalistic military-industrial response to 9/11 type threats, treating the masses as unruly kids who aren’t allowed a voice on grounds that all they’ll do is squabble and finger-point while the enemy-du-jour gathers strength. There are accusations of hypocrisy from both sides. Some of Whedon’s dialogue has the sting of political satire: Cap warns Tony that “every time someone tries to win a war before it starts, people die,” a not-too-veiled slap at post-9/11 American foreign policy, while Ultron chides Cap as “God’s righteous man, pretending you can live without a war,” a comment that indicts the United States itself, if you read Cap as a beefed-up Uncle Sam. Ultron, meanwhile, is another example of faith in technology run amok. He fancies himself a robot deity and creates other, smaller robots in his own image (all of which speak in Spader’s voice), but he’s the sadistic God of “King Lear,” a wanton boy smiting flies for sport.

For all its missteps, “Age of Ultron” is remarkable. If it’s a failure, as many critics insist, it’s a failure like Ang Lee’s “Hulk,” “Superman Returns” or “The Dark Knight Rises,” which is to say that it’s much more distinctively personal than most of the superhero movies whose titles are synonyms for success. There are points where the movie evokes not other Marvel spectaculars, but Whedon TV series like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel,” where the fun came from watching heroes and villains who were aware of themselves as heroes and villains work through psychological issues while trading screwball comedy dialogue along with body blows. In its lumpy-porridge way, this film makes a better case than any other Marvel picture for the notion that quarter-billion-dollar-budgeted, CGI-festooned slabs of multimedia synergy can be art, too, provided they’re made by an artist with a vision, and said artist appears to be in control of at least part of the production. (I say “part” because Whedon is on record suggesting that this movie’s production broke his spirits; that could mean that what we’re seeing onscreen is the best he can do, considering that the true auteurs of the Marvel films are executive producer Kevin Feige and his marketing department.)

Amid the usual quota of quips and lightning and robots and explosions are moments of pathos, splendor, sentiment, and operatic horror. There’s quotable dialogue, delivered with the deadpan camaraderie of Howard Hawks (“Bringing up Baby,” “Rio Bravo’), and scenes that evoke earlier classics without feeling too obviously like homages. The interaction between Black Widow and her erstwhile sweetheart, Bruce Banner, channels King Kong: she interrupts his Hulk-outs by holding up a slender hand with slightly curved fingers, and after a moment’s hesitation, the green giant reaches out in kind, like a curious ape touching his reflection in a fun-house mirror. A lyrical slow-motion set-piece sees the Avengers battling waves of Ultron’s android minions in a ruined cathedral, like the Bishop gang fending off Mapache’s army in “The Wild Bunch.” The circling camera movements are echoed in the film’s credits sequence, which visualizes the film’s heroes and villains as figures in a classical sculpture: Marvel in marble. The design touches are swell: Ultron might be the most overtly Jack Kirby-esque apparition in any Marvel film, his expressive face comprised of thin, overlapping plates.

Key lines tease out the superhero genre’s kinship to horror. “Maybe I am a monster,” a character admits. “I’m not sure that I would know if I were one.” Conversations and monologues consider the relationship between chaos and control, creation and destruction that drives not just action cinema but life itself. “When the universe starts to settle,” Ultron says, “God throws a stone at it.” Most surprising and welcome of all is the way Whedon builds criticism of the superhero genre’s disinterest in property destruction and civilian casualties (displayed most callously in “Man of Steel”) into the plot. “Ultron can’t tell the difference between saving the world and destroying it,” Scarlet Witch chides. “Where do you think he gets that?”

It would be silly to position Marvel or Whedon or their fan army as underdogs. Once a niche genre, superhero films are now practically the official culture of the United States, and this entry will make a fortune no matter what anyone says about it. Still, I hope that even as people buy tickets out of habit, they’ll see that there is, in fact, art happening on the screen, maybe for the first time since Marvel’s march through American cinema started. “Age of Ultron” proves that a movie with stealth fighter jets, levitating cities and Hulk-on-robot fisticuffs can be as freewheeling as a no-budget indie. It’s a shame to think that this film will be dog-piled for its imperfections rather than applauded for trying to prove that a seemingly inflexible genre can bend into strange and surprising shapes.

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