So I’ve done something like this when I did midseason recaps – see Scorpion for an example – and I thought I’d try my hand at a detailed analysis of what I thought of a recent film as a piece of writing. Since the only recent film I’ve seen is The Avengers: Age of Ultron and since I’ve already spent six whole posts talking about the first Avengers movie (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6) I figured Age of Ultron was a good place to start.
Three things before we start. First off, to discuss how something is written you need to look at the story as a whole or at least from the perspective of everything that’s available. Naturally this involves spoilers. You’ve been warned.
Second, this is not a review. My opinion of the movie is that it was good fun but had weaker writing than the previous movie. There. That’s my review. The rest of this is more an examination of what was going on in the film, writing wise.
Third, like midseason recaps the focus is on writing, not acting, effects or other matters. But I did have a few thoughts on that other stuff so let’s get that out of the way real quick, shall we?
Acting And Effects
The acting in this film is fine. Really, in terms of quality, it’s right up there with The Avengers except Clark Gregg isn’t in it so it suffers slightly. (Yes, I’m that much of a fanboy.) There are a few newcomers to the cast, most notably Elizabeth Olsen as the Scarlet Witch, and they’re just as competent and fun to watch as the others.
The effects are pretty sweet too. In particular there are some amazing shots of the Iron Man suit in action, “Veronica”, or the Hulkbuster as it’s called in the comics, is a lot of fun to see in particular. My one problem is probably Ultron himself.
The decision to make Ultron a completely CG character feels like a mistake. Yes, the effect is impressive but he feels slightly inorganic in the rest of the world. Even the Iron Man suit is a practical effect half the time – usually the half when it’s in close proximity to other real parts of the set so it doesn’t look wonky. Only the Hulk has been CG the whole time he’s on screen and even then he’s not the Hulk the whole time. Ultron’s CG the whole time he’s on screen and the scenes where he needs to be a serious character suffer for it.
In short, Ultron seems slightly out of place every time we see him and that doesn’t help the film’s biggest weakness…
Ultron’s a wuss. Seriously, he never pulls even one win over the Avengers. At least Loki managed to blow up a SHIELD facility, steal critical supplies and raid the Helicarrier and escape virtually unchallenged, to say nothing of his subverting a couple of major SHIELD assets. Ultron doesn’t succeed at anything.
From the moment his shambling first attempt at a body crashes the Avengers’ party they pound him like a red-headed stepchild and send him packing. The one time the Avengers are put off balance it’s by Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, not Ultron himself and even in this moment of triumph we see Ultron’s avatar on the scene blown up by Iron Man. Yes, it’s true that Ultron is supposed to be a kind of hive mind, never truly in one place at one time, but he’s only shown behaving that way once or twice and he winds up locked in a single place at the end of the film with relative ease so even that aspect of Ultron lacks impact.
Ultron’s motivation is also very muddy. I know that he’s supposed to be like Hal 9000, a computer designed to look after people that winds up trying to wipe them out instead, but the problem is that’s a very overdone concept these days and the basic premise hasn’t aged well. When the original Age of Ultron story was written computers were an oddity, no one worked with them very often. But now, when a large portion of the population carries a fantastically powerful computer like a smart phone around in their back pocket people understand computers a lot better. One of the most basic things we know about them is that computers don’t work in the abstract, they are very literal.
Yes, I know there are people who believe strong AIs are just around the corner and continue to insist we’ll have computers thinking in the abstract in no time at all but for the moment that’s pure fantasy. A computer doesn’t think about its creators or what impacts it has on its environment or even how it might carry out their job in a more effective way. They do what they’re told and that’s pretty much it.
Ultron acts like a person with very un-programing like neurosis and obsessions and that’s what makes him so weak an AI character compared to, say, Baymax from Big Hero 6, an AI that acts much like Siri would if Siri were a medical tool that could walk about on its own. In other words, Baymax acts like the AI we are familiar with, Ultron decidedly does not. A person could make the logical jump Ultron did and it might be interesting to know why he or she did. A computer could not make the logical jump Ultron did and attempts to explain why a computer did are never given.
In short, Ultron needed much more build up in this movie, both in terms of his abilities and his motivations. Without it he just feels like a punching bag for the heroes to beat up.
The plot here is pretty run of the mill. The planet faces an extinction level event – a step up from simple invasion and subjugation – and the only people who can stop it are The Avengers. On the surface of it this story is simple, just like the story of the last film. But where the original used it’s simplicity to make room for more character arcs Age of Ultron crams the story full of weird plot elements and set-ups for future continuity. The result is the movie jumping about frantically from one plot point to another. We’ll go from suddenly being at Hawkeye’s house to at an Internet hub in Europe and then over to Seoul, South Korea. The film has definitely crossed a line from “moving briskly” into “choppy”. The plot is simple but it’s hard to follow and that’s definitely a strike against it.
Characters: Arcs and Moments
The best part of Marvel’s The Avengers was undoubtedly the deft use of character arcs, the story somehow finding time to cram in one for each superhero and at least partial arcs for the “normal” shield agents. Ultron has two arcs, perhaps two and a half, one tracing an unfolding romantic relationship between Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff and one tracing the evolution of Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch) from a well-intentioned extremist to a legitimate hero and the “perhaps a half” tracing Wanda’s twin brother Pietro (Quicksilver) as he makes the same journey. Quicksilver’s counts as differentish because he winds up dead, where Scarlet doesn’t.
Of these two and a half arcs, Banner and Nat’s comes off as the stronger and I’m not just saying that because I thought they’d make a good pair. Some people said the pairing seemed weird to them but, given that Banner saw through all of Romanoff’s verbal obfuscations when they first met and he deals with problems in ways she’s not used to I can see how she’d be attracted to him very easily. Romanoff brings the good doctor a sense of levity he’s been sorely missing for a while yet her inability to be honest with herself makes her vulnerable in ways Banner can’t really ignore so a mutual attraction isn’t surprising.
The fact that the relationship goes awry doesn’t make the story arc a bad one. I’m pretty sure the Hulk chose to walk (or rather fly) away from Romanoff because of the way she used the attraction between the two of them to get close to Banner and switch him for the Hulk. For once Banner didn’t see through Romanoff’s ruse because the feelings she has for him are real, not one of the masks she uses to get through life, but that actually makes the betrayal kind of worse. By using a real promise of a relationship to manipulate him Romanoff actually hurt Banner more than she ever could have with a lie. There’s still hope for these two, I think, but they needed some space after all that happened (and in a short amount of time!) so I think this ending is fair to them even if it’s not necessarily satisfying to viewers.
The flip side of the equation is that this entire story arc is crammed into maybe fifteen minutes of screen time. If you read any of my reviews of romance stories during February you know I like my romances to take their time unpacking the protagonists, showing the qualities they like about each other in action and showing how they are gradually starting to think of each other as long term parts of one another’s lives rather than just people they know. Age of Ultron flat out doesn’t do this. At all. The entire film is moving at a breakneck pace and that badly hurts what could have been a romance with a good premise and an interesting twist ending.
The twins have much the same problem. They just didn’t get enough screen time for me to really feel their journey. I’m not sure what they were originally expecting from Ultron, although it obviously wasn’t an attempt to wipe out humanity so I guess their changing sides makes a certain degree of sense. Their story just wasn’t very compelling. It did give Hawkeye a chance for some really great moments, though.
And that brings us to one of the best things Age of Ultron had that it’s predecessor didn’t: Character moments.
A character arc is a series of events with a beginning, middle and end that shows a character changing over time. A character moment is a scene where we get to know the history, motivation and personality of a character better. Age of Ultron is chock full of character moments, some of the best coming near the beginning when we see most of the Avengers and their supporting casts at a party celebrating the toppling of a major HYDRA facility. The Warmachine story, the attempts to lift Thor’s Hammer and the rest of the banter in this scene do a great job letting us see into the minds of the characters and how they work off of each other.
Scarlet Witch’s dream sequences are another good character moment – for Romanoff. We get a glance into her past, the suggestion that she’s probably from the same assassin school that produced Peggy Carter’s rival in this year’s Agent Carter miniseries but still don’t learn so much we aren’t intrigued by her mystery.
Other great character moments abound in the visit to Barton’s “safe house” and the way the various Avengers bounce off his family of entirely normal people.
For that matter, Clint “Hawkeye” Barton feels a lot like the main character of this movie with all the great character moments he has throughout. Between his family showing up, his successfully resisting Scarlet Witch’s mind control, the constant hinting that he’s about to get dead only to wind up still breathing at the end and the speech he gets to make at the end about what it takes to be an Avenger and we walk out feeling like we’ve learned more about him than anyone else. Since he’s had less screen time than any Avenger that didn’t debut in this film that’s nice to see.
Not that the other characters don’t have some development. We get to see Captain Rogers behaving as the actual leader of the group and he does so with a humility and good grace that lets him avoid all the terrible cliches that often accompany leaders who claim strong moral cores and instead lead by his own example as much as his fighting prowess or intellect.
Stark is his usual glib self and Fury puts in an appearance as the more laid back but still formidable former superspy he’s become after the dissolution of SHIELD. It’s a good movie for touching base with all our heroes even if only a handful of them undergo serious character growth.
And let me say that neither character arcs nor character moments are strictly superior to one another. Good stories can be entirely one or the other. But great stories have character moments synched with advancing character arcs – and Age of Ultron doesn’t have that. While it’s a matter of personal taste I tend to prefer character arcs to character moments so, while I like this aspect, it wasn’t as strong for me as the good arcs in the first film. The character moments are still well written, though.
The Vision and The Tower
Okay, a special word about my two least favorite parts of this film.
While I feel the plot of the story is a little dated in it’s approach to Ultron that’s not what I feel it’s biggest weakness is. That would be the fact that, after failing to create a functioning AI with the Ultron project, Tony immediately turns around and tries to implant an AI claiming to be JARVIS into the body Ultron built in Seoul. Yes, I know Tony’s schtick is hubris. But seriously, it’s hard to believe he didn’t learn any caution after the first AI went rogue. He didn’t even test the program he found to make sure it wasn’t a part of Ultron masquerading as JARVIS. This is just dumb, and feels like a complete undoing of most of his character development in the franchise up until this point.
Tony Stark stopped building weapons and faced rogue weapons contractors because he’d learned to take a little responsibility for his actions. Tony’s creating Vision cuts against that. The same story ends could have been achieved simply by having JARVIS sneak past Ultron and into the Vision body on his own – JARVIS out coded Ultron once after all. Or, better yet, the Vision could have been activated by some other agency that found it after Tony attempted to disposed of it. Both of these would have let the Vision be around for future movies and the latter option would have kept Vision from being shoved into an already over full movie. Poor writing decisions all around.
Also, the Hulkbuster sequence is a great action set piece. But the ending? With a massive tower collapsing followed by grit covered survivors staring at it in shock? I’m not sure what that was supposed to say.
Was it a 9/11 reference? Then it was in poor taste. Doubly so for the slapstick way the scene ended.
Was it not a 9/11 reference? Then how did it get through the editing process? It was in poor taste and everyone who worked on this movie was blind.
Was there supposed to be some sort of moral to the imagery? If so, it was poorly communicated. And in poor taste.
So I watched this movie and came out of the theaters stoked. How could that be given all the griping I just did?
That’s easy. It is a fun movie.
The action is big and bombastic and, while it doesn’t have quite the insane physicality of a wuxia film or the grit of an 80s action film but it’s exactly what we’d expect of a modern action film, only more so. In particular, the gratuitous use of CG to create “look, it’s like a comic panel” moments on screen will make you giggle or cringe. Personally, I liked them.
Robert Downey Jr. Is back with his muttering and off kilter improv moments and they even manage to find new fish-out-of-water gags for Captain America. And there are superheroes doing superhero things, saving people and scaring them at the same time, using cool gadgets and pulling impossible stunts. When the movie is weak it’s weak but when it’s fun it has to be experienced to be believed.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron is not the strongest movie in the MCU, it’s probably not even in the top three. But it is fun and exciting, to the point you can almost forgive it for poor writing (or, more likely, poor editing). I just wish it had better story writing to go with the spectacle and wit.