Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Review - Avengers: Age of Ultron

This review contains spoilers.

In 2005, Joss Whedon gave an interview for Wizard Magazine in which he discussed his dislike of crossover events and his desire to ignore them when structuring his story arc for Astonishing X-Men volume 3—a title that he wrote for Marvel from 2005 to 2008 (1). A year later, in another feature article for Wizard, Whedon reiterated his personal dislike of crossovers and expressed frustration with being unable to work on characters that hadn’t already been defined by the efforts of other creators (2). I mention these decade-old articles because I think they speak to the fundamental problem with Whedon’s recent take on the Marvel Cinematic Universe—his inability to do his best work in the collaborative crossover environment. The majority of the film’s flaws—from the seemingly retconned characterizations to the Deus ex Machina that saved the day in the final fifteen minutes—can be traced to this core issue: that Whedon, uncomfortable with the developments that other writers/directors in the Phase Two cohort had implemented, chose to ignore the majority of those developments in favor of making a film that was a direct sequel to The Avengers, rather than a sequel to the Phase Two films as a whole.

In terms of its basic premise, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a film that could have grown out of the elements from previous films in the series. However, the film was primarily characterized by a disregard for the aspects of the franchise that Joss Whedon appears to have disliked (3). As a result, Age of Ultron did not take Tony Stark’s character development in Iron Man 3 into account. It did not in any way acknowledge the conspiracy at the heart of Thor: The Dark World. It did not incorporate the recent character development of Steve Rogers or Natasha Romanoff into its portrayal of those characters. And it made a mockery of the principle plotline of Captain America: The Winter Soldier—that S.H.I.E.L.D. had been largely dismantled and that therefore it was well-nigh impossible for Nick Fury to ride in on a massive helicarrier (that just happened to be loaded up with everything the heroes needed to evacuate a flying city that no one knew was going to be a flying city) and save the day.

These are not insurmountable flaws, of course, and character/event retconning has been the bread-and-butter of comic book franchises since their inception, but because the script did not provide any transitions between the Phase Two films and Age of Ultron, Whedon’s retcons are incredibly difficult to swallow. We never see any acknowledgement of the lessons Tony Stark took away from his battle with Aldrich Killian—that building an army of drones was not an appropriate way to maintain control over his (or anyone’s) life; any acknowledgement of the grief and guilt that Steve Rogers felt (and must have continued to feel) upon learning that he had failed to save his best friend from a fate worse than death; any acknowledgement of the immense uncertainty that Natasha must have struggled with in the aftermath of creating a world that knew both her name and her incredibly conflicted past. Even the barest of dialogue exchanges would have helped the audience to transition from these status quos to the new foundation being laid by Age of Ultron—and yet such exchanges were almost entirely absent (4). And the fact that they are absent is a major failing of the film.

These failings are, I think, attributable to the fact that Joss Whedon is at his best when he’s able to work on his own, largely free of the creative constraints that crossovers and multiple storylines present. That freedom is what made The Avengers such a good movie. Whedon was, for the most part, working on a blank canvas with a fresh palette, and with that latitude he made something great. In the post-Phase Two world, however, as the storylines got more and more out of Whedon’s control, the situation became one in which he could not do his best work. It’s unclear why no one stepped in to help Whedon overcome this struggle, or perhaps why he refused to accept their help (5), but in the end this fundamental conflict between what the MCU needed and what Whedon wanted made for an extremely muddled movie.

Age of Ultron was fun while it lasted but impossible to think about too deeply once it was over because very little about it made a lot of sense. The motivations of our heroes were largely at odds with how the characters had previously been developed, and the attempt to write them with the same basic motivations as those that they had in The Avengers complicated Whedon’s ability to handle other aspects of the film’s narrative. The mechanism by which Ultron was created and the basis for his behavior was confusing; the motivations of the twins were never adequately explained; the narrative arc of what happened to JARVIS and how he “became” the Vision was extremely incoherent; and Nick Fury showing up to pull off a Hail Mary during the film’s climax strained credulity. It’s not that the film was bad, exactly—it holds up as well as most action films of this nature do—but the high bar set by such films as Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Guardians of the Galaxy makes it difficult to settle for something that is just okay.

In many ways, Avengers: Age of Ultron was a film struggling to live up to (perhaps impossibly) high standards and find an emotional arc that really mattered (6), and it missed the mark largely on the basis of the fact that Joss Whedon—for whatever reason—just couldn’t seem to bring himself to interweave the threads of the larger crossover event into his movie. Instead of taking the rich material that he had been given in the form of the preceding Phase Two films, he stuck with the dynamics that he had established in The Avengers. The result was a film that was (in terms of its narrative beats) almost indistinguishable from its predecessor, decidedly retrograde, and a hot mess with a fundamental lack of stakes.

And that’s a great shame for everyone.

1) “Joss Whedon’s X-Men,” Wizard: The Comics Magaine, no. 165 (July 2005). During the course of Whedon’s run, Astonishing X-Men operated without reference to such events as “House of M,” “Decimation,” and “Messiah Complex,” amongst others, and his practice of writing independently of major Marvel crossovers set the standard for the title when it passed into the hands of other creators like Warren Ellis, Greg Pak, and Marjorie Liu.
2) “The ABCs of Joss Whedon,” Wizard: The Comics Magazine, no. 180 (October 2006). This article can be read at The Ink & Code.
3) According to a BuzzFeed piece, Whedon’s post-Avengers contract with Marvel engaged him to weigh in on the creative direction of the Phase Two films—a process he enjoyed when other production teams took his advice and was frustrated with when they “missed the point entirely.” “Joss Whedon’s Astonishing, Spine-Tingling, Soul-Crushing Marvel Adventure,” BuzzFeed News (April 20, 2015).
4) Clint Barton’s characterization, while not set up in any way in the previous MCU films (and at serious odds with the 616 characterization of Clint that is so beloved), is apparently drawn from the 1610 Ultimates universe, and I’m not entirely certain what I think of it. On the one hand, I think it opens up some interesting ways to read the dynamics of the character in The Avengers—as described in this post by tumblr user Tea Berry-Blue—on the other hand, I feel that the inclusion of the traditional wife and kids family unit did very little for the narrative of Age of Ultron other than to function as a deliberate attempt to mislead the audience into thinking that it would be Clint Barton who died rather than Pietro Maximoff and to provide more weight to the implication expressed in the Natasha-Bruce romance subplot that women who cannot bear children are somehow flawed.
5) A recent article in The Playlist reveals that many of (what I consider to be) the film’s most cumbersome and tedious segments—like the plethora of dream sequences and the extended stay at Clint’s farm—were things that Marvel wanted excised from the film’s final cut and that Whedon was determined to keep in. “Joss Whedon Shot An Alternate ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ Ending Where [Redacted] Doesn’t Die & Much More,” The Playlist (May 4, 2015).
6) The fact that Joss Whedon elected to try and establish an emotional arc by including a major character death was, I think, a major missed opportunity. The Avengers found its emotional arc not in the death of Agent Coulson but in the moment when Tony Stark realized that he was the sort of man who would lie down on the wire and let the other guy crawl over him—a character development that is, ironically, missing from this film. Age of Ultron was rife with the potential for a similar kind of arc, and it’s too bad that Whedon couldn’t quite find it—or couldn’t quite trust that it would be there without a major character death. (For my money, Hawkeye’s secret family life could have been put to incredibly good use in this respect. Imagine if the film’s narrative had combined the knowledge of everything Clint Barton had to lose, along with his history of mentoring Natasha Romanoff, his obvious willingness to step into that role with the twins, and an immediate feel-good return on that investment with Pietro saving Clint's life without dying himself and then going on to become Clint’s most trusted lieutenant/sidekick/etc. Now that’s an emotional arc that I could get behind.)


  1. I agree with a lot of what you say here, and you bring up interesting points. One thing to note, though, is that the SHIELD helicarrier & Nick Fury saving the day crosses over with the tv show Agents of SHIELD. The episode prior to the movie premiere set this up and it has been a plot arc of the season. This past season was a bridge between Cap 1 and Age of Ultron. It is an extension of that and did not come out of nowhere. Whether people like it or not, the tv show is part of the MCU now. It makes 100% sense within that context. The episode after the movie release dealt with the fallout of that helicarrier. For reference, I'm referring to this statement:

    "And it made a mockery of the principle plotline of Captain America: The Winter Soldier—that S.H.I.E.L.D. had been largely dismantled and that therefore it was well-nigh impossible for Nick Fury to ride in on a massive helicarrier (that just happened to be loaded up with everything the heroes needed to evacuate a flying city that no one knew was going to be a flying city) and save the day."

    1. *Cap 2 (not 1)

    2. In all honesty, I stopped watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. at the mid-season break because I got tired of its sloppy writing and horrible treatment of minority characters (I have been reading the recaps at Comics Alliance to keep up on any major developments, though), so you'll have to take this opinion with the requisite grain of salt, but...

      ...from what I can tell, Coulson's development of the helicarrier for Fury was not an ongoing plot arc of the season aside from an earlier mention of "Theta Protocol" (a buzz phrase that could have been turned into anything the writers needed it to be at a moment's notice... which is smart planning for a series in a shared universe). The fact that Coulson turned out to have been building a helicarrier on the sly is... in fairness, no less plausible than the concept of helicarriers to begin with... but it's still hard for me to buy a helicarrier that just happened to be equipped with everything the Avengers needed to evacuate a floating city that no one knew was going to be an objective. I'm willing to suspend my disbelief pretty far, but Fury's appearance at the end of Ultron struck me as an example of a writer writing himself into a corner and needing a miracle to get out again.

      Additionally (and this is obviously just my take), but even accepting AoS as canon, which I do, the entire premise of rebuilding S.H.I.E.L.D. has always felt like Whedon and Co. (I realize that the AoS creative team is no longer Whedon himself, but rather his brother and sister-in-law) digging their collective heels in and refusing to accept where the Cap2 creative team took the franchise. Whedon et al had an idea for a show that was about S.H.I.E.L.D., and they were given the greenlight to do that (even though they were warned from the outset that S.H.I.E.L.D. was going to be dismantled). Rather than work within the parameters established by Cap2 to come up with something truly innovative—and really bridge the gap between Cap2 and Ultron—the creative team of AoS immediately went to work rebuilding the parameters of the pre-Cap2 world to the best of their ability.

      I don't know, Nonny. I look at AoS, and I just think: for someone who claims to be a stickler for stakes that stick, Whedon has a really strange way of showing it. But if it works for you, that's totally cool. We certainly don't have to agree on every point.

    3. One further point that just occurred to me. And this is not meant to be snarky towards you, Nonny, this is just me trying to work my way around to figuring something out at two in the morning.

      Joss Whedon recently gave an interview in which he said that as far as he was concerned Coulson was dead in Avengers2 and that AoS was its own private corner of the universe. Dead for all intents and purposes in Ultron, but alive in terms of canon. (I guess Coulson is now the Schrodinger's cat of the MCU.) So by Joss Whedon's interpretation of Coulson's status, the Deus ex Machina that AoS went out of their way to provide for the film should be discounted. Obviously, Whedon is completely wrong about Coulson's status, but.

      It is kind of totally a mess.

      Anyway, I didn't say before in my previous response, but thank you for your feedback. It is appreciated.

    4. Your opinions on AoS show are, of course, valid. I wasn't arguing the merits of the show. I was simply responding to this statement:

      "therefore it was well-nigh impossible for Nick Fury to ride in on a massive helicarrier"

      --which is canonically false. That's it. You are more than welcome to hate the show and dismiss it. That fact is the show bridged the plot gap between Cap2 & Ultron, which made Fury's helicarrier 100% possible and probable. I'm not here to convince you to like AoS or Whedon. I just wanted to point it out to you because in an essay on how Whedon ignores MCU canon, you yourself ignore MCU canon.

    5. O-kay.

      But why, though? Why did you want to point this out to me? Why is it important to you to shove my nose in the fact that I don't watch AoS anymore and therefore wasn't up on the latest three-minute canonical fix that the show provided as if that somehow invalidates my entire argument?

      You're getting into a degree of fake geek girl "gotcha" arguing that I don't particularly want to get embroiled in, but what the hell, I'm feeling salty so...

      Is it really ignoring canon to argue that it is implausible that Nick Fury would have been able to muster the resources to build a helicarrier—a piece of equipment that probably costs billions of dollars and would have required funding requisitions and manpower allocation that neither Fury (nor Phil Coulson, by the way) would have had access to in the aftermath of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s official dissolution? Or is it merely discussing the way such a plot point suggests a general refusal to work with the parameters established by other creators in the series? Because the point of my argument was not whether or not the MCU happened to address Nick Fury having a helicarrier at some point (during the pre-credits opening of a television show episode that aired after the film in question was released); the point of my argument was whether or not having that Deus ex Machina device was indicative of larger pattern of behavior on the Whedon creative team's part.

      Ignoring the real-world ramifications of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s dismantling (which both AoS and AoU do) suggests an unwillingness to accept those developments. The canonicity of those developments and their subsequent retcons have nothing to do with my original argument. I'm not arguing about canon. I understand that canon is flexible. I understand that the minute Whedon wrote his poor characterizations into the MCU they became canon, regardless of how I—or anyone else—felt about them. I understand that Nick Fury having a helicarrier is canon, despite the fact that it is (AoS and Phil Couson notwithstanding) hugely improbable. But what do those poor characterizations and improbable plot points say about Whedon's attitude toward other developments in the MCU? And how did that attitude negatively impact the finished product of his film?

      And why do you want to take my examination of those questions and turn them into a failure to understand canon that you can write off as an incorrect...

      Oh wait.

      I just answered my own question.

  2. Just discovered your blog and loved your very balanced and well written review.

    I too found this movie a little disappointing. I guess Joss just had too much going against him (from a creator's perspective) to deliver a movie of his own taste and vision (pun intended).


    1. Thanks very much. I'm glad you enjoyed the read!