Last week, I finally saw Age of Ultron. It is the first Marvel movie since Thor that I missed going to see in theatres, so I have been anxiously awaiting its DVD release. Now, after a week of thinking about it, I’ve finally managed to compile my thoughts into a mostly coherent review:
Is it a terrible movie? No, of course not. But it’s deeply flawed. I might be able to overlook the film’s problems, or some of them, anyway, if they weren’t evidence that Age of Ultron just doesn’t fit in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
One problem is the film’s script. Now, I’ve always been a Whedon fan, but the Age of Ultron script sounds more like selected scenes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which just did not work for me. The bubbly lines contrasted sharply with the darker tone of the film and of the MCU’s Phase Two overall, the theme of which is that the enemy is closer than these characters realize. All the Avengers films from Phase Two confirm this: the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 is smoke and mirrors, while Aldrich Killian is the real villain; Loki is shown to be the bigger threat in Thor: The Dark World; and seeming allies like Alexander Pierce and Brock Rumlow are the baddest of bad guys in The Winter Soldier. The plot of Age of Ultron aligns with this theme, since Tony is the real enemy, but the quippy, fast-paced humour of the dialogue was terribly jarring.
The more frustrating problem with Age of Ultron is related to the dialogue, but it goes beyond that. To put it simply, Age of Ultron is not about the Avengers as we’ve come to know them. It’s a film about strangers. They look familiar, but they’re like parallel Avengers, pulled from different source material. All the other problems that the film has (and there are many) can be traced back to the fact that these are different people than they were in their own movies. It feels like Age of Ultron (and the first Avengers as well, to a lesser extent) exists in its own bubble, and, to enjoy it, you have to turn off the part of your brain that wants to connect it to the “bigger universe.” The problem, of course, is that Marvel’s goal is to create a sprawling, cinematic universe where everything is connected; therefore, the fact that Age of Ultron is about different versions of the Avengers is unforgiveable.
Let’s start with Iron Man. I buy that Tony Stark wants to protect the world and therefore creates Ultron. In fact, that makes so much sense to me that I am willing to forget that Ultron was actually a creation of Hank Pym, a pacifist. Age of Ultron does a good job in connecting that dot: Hank Pym isn’t here, so the film takes part of Pym’s motivation — world peace — and combines it with Tony’s anxieties. The result aligns with Marvel canon. For instance, in Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Iron Man gets bewitched by the Purple Man and the result is more or less the same.
But that version of Iron Man/Tony Stark doesn’t really exist in the MCU. Or rather, he doesn’t exist anymore. In Iron Man 3, Tony became too protective, built a ton of dangerous technology, and it blew up in his face. He learned from that experience. He grew. He changed. For him to build Ultron, therefore, feels like a big step backwards, like the film hit rewind and went back to a version of Tony that shouldn’t exist anymore, or it created a new Tony Stark entirely.
I get that Tony makes a mistake in Age of Ultron. That part fits in with the MCU’s Tony Stark: he’s always making mistakes. But the film never accounts for why he’s suddenly forgotten the way he grew as a person, and as a superhero, in Iron Man 3, where he seemed to learn not to make mistakes like this. (It also really bothered me that Age of Ultron offered no explanation as to why Tony has at least one suit after destroying all the others, or how the suits are powered without the reactor in his chest.) In sum, this Tony Stark isn’t the Tony Stark we know.
Next, let’s look at Natasha Romanov. There have been a lot of well-deserved negative reactions to Age of Ultron’s treatment of this character, and I could probably rant about it all day, but I’ll keep my remarks short and to the point. Aside from being quite sexist, the film’s characterization of Natasha is another item on the checklist that proves that Age of Ultron does not fit into the MCU that we have come to know and love.
Up until this point, she has been the only female character not slotted into a romantic plot — and when Tony tried that, it didn’t end well. In fact, she has been consistently viewed by the films and pretty much every character in them as aromantic. Note: not asexual — she is a femme fatale, after all, and I have no problem with that.
I don’t even have much of a problem with the fact that she’s pursuing a relationship in this film. The problem I have is with the way that the film frames her choice to pursue a relationship: it becomes the only thing interesting about her as a character, which is ridiculous. Natasha, a woman of formidable skills, is suddenly defined solely by her relationship to a man. Her affection for Bruce Banner is established in the very first scene of the movie as being the most valuable contribution she can make to the team, and that’s a huge problem. It just doesn’t jive with the Natasha that we’ve come to know because, up until this point, the MCU has not contained a Natasha Romanov interested in being defined by a romantic relationship.
Then there’s the infertility thing. A lot of people a lot smarter than me have already discussed this at length, so all I’m going to say is that Age of Ultron, with its sudden revelation regarding Natasha’s inability to have children, creates a version of Natasha that we have not seen before. This Natasha is focused on the fulfillment of some heteronormative dream and devastated that she cannot have it; these additions to her character feel very out of place. Certainly, infertility is devastating for many women. But to have this woman suddenly defined by what the film solely views as a lack — and to suggest that her success thus far is proof that there is something wrong with her — is to create a new Natasha, one that calls herself a monster.
I’m not saying that the past trauma of her forced sterilization isn’t a feature that could have been added to her character, but the film’s handling of it was so clumsy and sexist (defining a woman only by her relationship to men and by her biological function as a childbearer) that the movie begins to feel like a retcon, a rewriting of the character we’ve come to know over the last five years. Like with Tony Stark, this is a version of the character that doesn’t exist outside this film. On a related note, I’m very curious to see what Civil War does with Widow; back in the Russos’ hands, will she be the Natasha from Winter Soldier or will the Age of Ultron version win out?
Finally, we come to my hero, Captain America.
The only thing that saved this film for me was Chris Evans’ remarkable performance as Steve Rogers. It was not surprising — this guy has been doing incredible things with the role for four years now — but Evans’ performance in Age of Ultron subtly contradicts the film’s attempts to rewrite the character. The first Avengers featured a simplified version of Cap as well, but Age of Ultron’s characterization of Steve neglects the emotional turmoil we saw in The Winter Soldier, which was a huge mistake that the script makes again, and again, and again… To be blunt, Cap’s lines are terrible:
I miss the days when the weirdest thing created by science was me.
Elevator’s not worthy.
But I digress. My point is that he just didn’t sound like Steve Rogers — or rather, the Steve Rogers that we spent so much time with in Winter Soldier — and this would have had disastrous consequences but for Chris Evans. What stopped me from turning the film off was waiting for the next moment where he would do something that made me say, “Oh, Captain, my Captain! Thank God, you’re still in there.” In moments when he wasn’t talking, Evans lets us see the “real” Cap.
For example, Sam asks, “You found a place in Brooklyn yet?” and Steve answers, “I don’t think I can afford a place in Brooklyn.” Sam replies, “Yeah, well, home is home” and the look on Steve’s face in the few seconds of silence that follow is heartbreaking. It’s like he’s thinking, “No, Sam. Home is not home. I have no home,” which is, of course, a sentiment that ran through Winter Soldier. Evans’ subtle performance here creates the impression not only that Steve’s sad about still not having a home (no Brooklyn, no Bucky, no Army, no SHIELD), but also that he can’t/won’t say something about what he’s feeling, whether it’s because he doesn’t want to deal with the fall-out of being that honest with Sam (we all know Sam wouldn’t let a remark like that slip by), or whether he’s just doing his stiff-upper-lip thing again. I’m inclined to believe that what’s running through Steve’s head is some combination of the two sentiments. Just before this conversation, when Sam makes a casual reference to “chasing cold leads” in his hunt for Bucky, Steve gives that subtle twitch that he did so much in Winter Soldier, that little movement that says “Nope, don’t want to talk about that.”
Note, in the image above, the way he reacts physically to Sam’s question and how his first impulse is to bail. Evans does this in Age of Ultron, too, and it’s heart-wrenching.
Evans broke my heart again when he picked up Quicksilver’s body off the ground. For a few seconds, there was something in Steve’s face that screamed soldier, team leader, captain — the one who knows that the bodies of his teammates are his responsibility. He has had to carry them before, and he will have to do it again. And that’s a powerful, pain-stricken side of Captain America that the film’s dialogue unfortunately glosses over.
I find it remarkable that Evans can project so much into silent moments. Like I said, he saved the movie for me. Overall, what struck me most about Age of Ultron was that little struck me about Age of Ultron. It is probably the only Marvel movie that feels forgettable. Regardless, these glimpses of Steve Rogers haunt me.
Age of Ultron had a lot to live up to, and it tried to do a lot. It tried to be dark and deep, and bring in the characters’ inner demons (at least I think that’s what it was trying to do), but the flashes of Winter Soldier Steve Rogers are the only times that it worked, and they feel accidental, organic. Maybe they weren’t. Maybe they were written into the script, but frankly, as I said at the beginning of this piece, I don’t give the script that much credit.
Any film that is a part of a connected series of films needs to fit into that series or account for its deviation. Age of Ultron does neither. Here’s hoping that Civil War gives us back the characters we’ve come to know and love… before they all start trying to kill each other.