Whedon, Joss (Wri. & Dir.), “Avengers – Age of Ultron”, Marvel Studios, 2015.
Writing reviews of superhero flicks might seem a little out of place on this blog but I’m a Marvel fan from way, way, way back. There’s another reason which makes this review apropos and that is the theme of ‘monsters’ which underlines this story. Whedon is playing with fire in doing this, and throws himself inadvertently into some very hot water along the way, but the notion of what makes something ‘monstrous’ is the question that this show asks us to ponder.
Firstly, let’s get something clear before we hook in: if you’re not a Marvel fan and you haven’t been paying attention to the movies which preceded this one, then you’re in trouble. Stuff happens that you won’t understand and people will show up and then exit whom you will not recognise. This film squarely asks you to pay attention and to do your homework. If you’re not prepared to do the hard yards then you will probably not enjoy watching this. Go and see “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”; you’ll have a much better time. The other option is to watch the following films in this order:
“The Incredible Hulk” (the Edward Norton one)
“Iron Man 2”
“Captain America: The First Avenger”
“Iron Man 3”
“Thor: The Dark World”
“Guardians of the Galaxy”
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”
...And you’ll need to pay attention. You’ll also need to watch all of the post-credit sequences and, if you’re so inclined, the TV shows “Agent Carter” (starting after Captain America 1) and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” (after Avengers 1), although these options are probably for completists only. Then you’ll be ready for this mighty wedge of awesome!
The movie begins by dumping us straight into the action: the Avengers have assembled and are throwing themselves against a Hydra hideout led by Baron Strucker (a bit-part played by Thomas Kretschmann who, frankly, is wasted here. Some might recognise him as the ship’s captain from Jackson’s “King Kong” do-over). Explosions and amusing dialogue proliferate; bad guys eat humble pie, betray each other, or escape; and Loki’s infamous sceptre is back in safe hands once more. Or is it? During the revels that follow, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner tinker with Things Better Left Alone, and they unleash the menacing sentience that is Ultron, a robotic intelligence that immediately dedicates itself to protecting the planet, mainly by eliminating the greatest threat to the planet, i.e. humanity. Newcomers Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch team up with Ultron and wreak havoc on our heroes, who are forced to re-group and lick their wounds at Hawkeye’s secret homestead, where they wrestle with issues of morality and formulate an heroic response to the villainous threat.
Foremost with the Marvel material – and something which divides it sharply from the more white-bread DC universe – are the ethical issues which drive the characters, along with the minutiae of their lives sans capes. Within this crowd of powered leotard-wearers, tensions bubble just below the surface, and characters are quick to cast blame and cry “foul!” on each other. Allegiances are tenuous and hesitant – the glue that keeps the Avengers together as a unit is not particularly adhesive. This is as it should be since, as a result, the characters appear to us as more rounded and realistic. Whedon understands this very well: he plays the contrasts between superheroism and everyday human-ness very sharply, showing that ordinary people can rise to extraordinary things, while extraordinary people may appear disarmingly human. Much pathos and humour is mined to good effect along the way.
The scene with the hammer (“Myew-myew”, or, more correctly, “Mjolnir”) is the core of the film and everything blossoms out of this single sequence. The characters are tested and state their motivations; the notion of “worthiness” is displayed to good effect; and finally, Ultron makes his entrance. Everything that precedes this moment leads specifically to this point; everything that follows is a direct result of it and the clues to the resolution of the conflict lie within. On top of all this, it’s truly hilarious: the look on Thor’s face when Cap tries to pick up the hammer is worth the price of admission alone.
The story wends its explosive way across the face of the planet from here. Trailers and other promotional material carry on about the far-flung and exotic shooting locations, but really, it doesn’t add anything to the overall effect. The confrontation between the Hulk and Iron Man in the “Veronica” outfit (there’s a test for you readers who’ve never looked at an “Archie” comic) takes place in Johannesburg in South Africa, while the recovery of Ultron’s new-made body in its cradle occurs in Seoul. Really though? They could have been shot anywhere. The moment we arrive the action starts: anything that displays local colour or ethnic distinction is immediately blown up in clouds of flame. As a contrast, the scenes that were shot in the fictional East European country of Sokovia were all filmed on a backlot in London and they have far more exotic flavour than the real world locations. Is the planet actually falling into this kind of homogeneous generity, or were the directors desperately trying to eliminate any cultural identity from these locales? Hard to say, but the end result is that it was probably money wasted.
Now we get onto monsters. The word is used 6 times in the screenplay which, in light of the fact that film scripts tend to play up visuals while eliminating verbiage, means that it’s significant (the term “circus freaks” is also used which, despite being an alternative usage, brings the final count up to 7). In every instance, the word is used to indicate that someone being identified in this way is a negative individual, set to do harm. We are asked to determine whether or not an individual is morally ‘bad’ if they are defined by this term, or if they are merely misunderstood. In the case of the Black Widow, the message is unfortunately unclear – the text seems to ascribe ‘monstrousness’ to women who are unable to procreate; the actual intent of this speech is, I think, to describe all who go through the Red Room as ‘monsters’, not every woman unable to bear children, but Whedon’s script is loose enough that a negative reading remains. And, in terms of internet backlash, he is certainly reaping the consequences of his nebulousness.
In the various “Spiderman” comics, there is much talk of power and its need to be used responsibly; also, of its capability to corrupt. In this film, powerfulness is equated with monstrousness, if the ends to which it is used cause harm. Thus, all of our heroes are forced to question the very things that motivate them – the reasons why they get out of bed in the morning. By the time the credits roll, we understand which side of the moral line our guys are standing on, but it’s a long, hard process.
(An example of actual monstrousness can be seen in Jeremy Renner’s recent remarks that the Black Widow in this film can only be described as a “slut”. At the end of this movie, when the ‘next generation’ of Avengers is paraded, I was relieved to see that Renner’s Hawkeye was absent. Renner, as his unthinking comments reveal, is exactly the kind of misogynist monster that this world has too much of, and which it can definitely do without.)
The goal of this film is to erode the notion of what we think of as wrong. Ultron is protecting the planet; the Avengers are doing likewise. Who’s version is the better one? There is an unsettling sense of ‘going with what we know’ in the end result, which may please the general comics fan – in that it maintains the status quo - but which begs the question of whether the Avengers’ goal is truly the most beneficial one. This is where Whedon really does justice to Marvel’s work: sometimes the questions produce answers that aren’t particularly palatable, and the decision to go through with them often boils down to personal taste. Just look at Colossus’s critical decision in “Secret Wars” and you’ll understand what I mean. This is Marvel at its best.
In the final analysis, despite the heroic job that Joss Whedon does to translate the material for all-comers, this is a film for fans. If you know your Marvel, you will get this – it’s a gift with your name on the tag. If you don’t, it will annoy you because you won’t know who certain people are, why other characters behave as they do, where stuff comes from, and why. But then, this movie wasn’t really made for you: it’s a mash note from one Marvel fan to all of the others. Because of this, I’m cutting a tentacled horror from its rating; that being said, I’m getting my geek on and enjoying my exclusive access!
Three-and-a-half tentacled horrors.