The first Avengers wrote the current Marvel movie formula. It’s something they’ve stuck to very carefully since then. From a monetary standpoint, it’s been highly successful.
But from an artistic standpoint, it’s been a case of diminishing returns. The new Avengers movie shows why. Marvel and Disney seem so stuck in the formula that they’re unable to break it using the very series that should break the rules, no matter how many talented people they hire.
I want to emphasize that I didn’t find Avengers: Age of Ultron to be an outright disaster. It’s well-directed (particularly the opening scene) not badly written (although some of the jokes, such as the one involving Captain America scolding Iron Man for bad language, isn’t funny the first time and goes downhill from there) and does have a few good moments with its characters. But it’s not as good as the first one and it seems rather disinterested in explaining itself.
I’ll tell you what I mean. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr once again) and Ultron (James Spader). In Iron Man 3, Stark destroyed all of his suits and renounced his identity. But he still appears here in his Iron Man role with no explanation in the context of the film.
They do try to explain more of Tony’s motivations with the creation of Ultron. Ultron started out as a program Tony designed so the Avengers could retire and the world would still have protectors. Stark finally cracks the secret of this new program when the Avengers recover Loki’s staff at the start of the film. Of course, within ten seconds of going online, Ultron decides that humanity must be destroyed and that the Avengers are the true enemies of the world, based mostly on their recent actions in the fictional country of Sovokia (where Loki’s staff was being held) that harmed many civilians. That would definitely be an interesting dynamic and, indeed, many superhero stories discuss how the heroes attract the villains and may be causing more harm than good to society.
It is not handled well in Ultron because Ultron remains a cypher. We never understand HOW he came to this conclusion or whether this is a choice he’s making or some sort of suicide desire that Stark secretly had. It would be great if he had more scenes with Stark alone to explain what’s happening. The most we get is Ultron singing “I’ve Got No Strings” from Pinocchio. In addition, nobody on the Avengers team seems to care that it was Stark who unleashed this entity that may destroy the world. Even his attempts to fix the problem (I will say no more to avoid spoilers) don’t address this failing. All of the Avengers yell at Stark, it still gets done, and then everyone forgets that Stark once again went behind their backs.
I’ve often singled out Stark as my favorite character in these films, but this time I found myself drawn more toward Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) who is slowly falling in love with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). It’s the sort of dichotomy that made The Hulk such a popular character. Hulk himself even gets a few moments of humanity when he sees the people who are afraid of him after his rampage. Banner wants to feel love but knows that such a relationship could prove dangerous to the world. I also liked Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) victims of violence in Sovokia who realize that the Avengers may still be the heroes after all. I wanted to know more about their past and more about their relationship.
It would have been more interesting to focus on one character and see what motivates them and how they overcome their own demons. But Avengers once again tries to shoe horn as many characters in as possible. This means that no character is given prominence – everyone is given equal time. It’s a shame because some of the Avengers are boring. Captain America (Chris Evans) once again is obsessed with the past and the fact that he outlived the love of his life. (Agent Carter, of the vastly superior ABC tv show, makes a small cameo). Thor is stuck doing nothing while Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) reveals his secret family. It’s just too much for an action film. I found myself distracted trying to keep up with everything to the point I was unable to get emotionally invested in anyone.
Are there good things here? Of course. I liked the scene when, as a party game, each Avenger tries to lift Thor’s hammer. The opening action sequence is well done and I also liked the Hulk/Iron Man fight from a technical standpoint. There’s nothing about The Avengers that really feels incompetent and I can see why a mass audience who wants a brief distraction or brief entertainment will like it. But I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I’ve seen everything the film had to offer before and in this age of sequels, I’m tired of properties unable to take risks. You laugh, but the first Avengers was a huge risk. I wanted that feeling back.
I said in my review of Guardians of the Galaxy that Marvel could find itself in real trouble down the line if it doesn’t change. I see that trouble brewing with Age of Ultron. There’s no longer any thrill in this sort of film – we know what the ending will be, we know that the characters are not in any danger, and we’ve seen everything the actors can do with the characters. I will not say that Avengers is poorly made, but frankly I’m bored. Daredevil just got a show on Netflix that’s an absolute joy. Avengers, no matter how well made it is, just feels limp.
Postscript: Normally I would not address something like this, but one aspect of the film has attracted some attention from those annoying “social justice warriors.” For some reason, they feel Black Widow’s kidnapping in the film is “degrading to women” and demonstrates Whedon (who created one of the strongest modern female superheroes in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is a “sexist pig.” This is absolute nonsense in terms of the plot and in terms of the character.
I find it ironic that such individuals seem to promote minority viewpoints but cease looking at characters like Black Widow once they find she’s a woman. To them, her womanhood is all they need to see. There’s no need for nuance and no need for strength or figuring out what she does in the story. They see her in mild peril and decide that it’s degrading just because her character happens to be a woman. That’s unfair and, if I may be blunt, dumb.
The scene involves Black Widow being kidnapped by Ultron as she is trying to recover something for the team. (Again, avoiding spoilers here.) Ultron wants to use her as leverage against the Avengers.
Sounds like a “damsel in distress” scenario where Black Widow waits for the menfolk to come rescue her. But it doesn’t play out that way at all. First, the kidnapping is a random event that could have easily happened to another character. She was not targeted for being a woman. Second, it makes sense to target her; she doesn’t really have any superpowers and thus would not put up as much of a fight against Ultron. And she doesn’t just sit back and wait – she uses the limited resources to engineer her own escape and absolutely does not act helpless. It’s also not a major plot point and is resolved in five minutes or so. This is not a depiction of a woman in peril. This is something that happens to a character to further the plot and get the team to where Ultron wants them to be. That’s it – no theme about the subjugation of women, nothing that take’s Black Widow’s strength away, nothing. It was a narrative choice using a character that made the most sense. Think about it this way – do you think The Hulk is someone who could be kidnapped?
There are a lot of real issues facing the world today about violence against women. Stop trying to win your moral credits and pretending like you’re helping people by being offended by a five-minute scene in a movie that you are either unable or unwilling to examine in its proper context.
You’re not helping your cause.