TELEVISION AT ITS BEST
by Evan Hernandez
You'll laugh; you'll gasp. you'll geek out, nerd out and go into anaphylactic superhero shock! Avengers: Age of Ultron is, without question, the most overwhelming Marvel movie to date. So many heroes in one film! They're everywhere! Crammed into two and a half hours with scarce room to fire off their one-liners. And, as the credits roll you'll sit there, stunned by a very familiar feeling; the same over-satisfied, semi-exhausted sensation of binge watching all 13 episodes of a Netflix season in a single weekend. Because that is what Age of Ultron amounts to: an entire television season in a single movie.
Is that what we want in a film?
Age of Ultron begins with a bang. No exposition, just wham! Straight into an action sequence, reminiscent of the famous one-take team battle in the first Avengers. If you want to understand what is happening then I hope you watched Iron Man 3, Captain America: Winter Soldier and Thor: The Dark World immediately before entering the theater. Otherwise, you will be lost for a while. But where you are lost is pretty epic, thoroughly exciting, and beautifully shot, so maybe it doesn't matter.
Writer and director Joss Whedon has to hurl you into the movie this way because – as superheroes love to tell us – there's no time to explain!
Whedon is a master of satisfying personality collisions. He's at his best here, but he does not escape his television roots. His plot lines sprawl all over the movie. There are innumerable mostly effective concurrent plots, but they all deserve more time and exploration and the chance to grow.
The titular villain is perfectly voiced by James Spader. Ultron is an intelligence that Tony Stark imperfectly transfers from an infinity stone (add Guardians of the Galaxy to your pre-movie movie marathon) to his network of robots. Its rage and confusion regarding the purpose and value of human life drives the main plot, and begins to divide Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans) as they quarrel over the eternal questions of freedom versus security.
Swirling around this central plot line? A sweet and bizarre love story between The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). A pair of Russian super twins, modeled-after-but-never-explicitly-called Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), are manipulated by the last of the Hydra agents. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America, Black Widow and Iron Man all confront personal demons.
The most effective subplot is probably Hawkeye's (Jeremy Renner). He provides the emotional heart of the film. He seemed almost expendable in the first Avengers, but earns his place in Ultron. Renner's performance is easily the best in the movie, probably because he was actually given scenes that we can relate to in a non-metaphorical way, bringing emotional stakes that are both profound and blessedly ordinary. In the same way Hobbiton is the anchor of peace and joy in Lord of the Rings, Hawkeye's secret opens a door of love, warmth and nostalgia for home; it affects all the Avengers and the audience.
The introduction of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver finally expands the universe of Marvel superheroes. It’s awkwardly obvious in this film that three of our six original Avengers are highly-trained, standard issue humans, and Captain America is mightier in spirit than in super-ness. So, having this pair of supernatural heroes who have to take responsibility for their powers provides some fresh poignancy and some kick-ass action sequences.
It may seem pointless to gripe that an action flick is too complex so long as it is entertaining. But the downfall of applying full-TV-season-level complexity to a film hits home when the most important moment in the movie gets rushed along by the need to fit in another series of explosions. This almost-lost moment belongs to Captain America. At the climax of the film, when all seems lost, he makes a decision which could mean the sacrifice of the entire team. In this climactic moment, his willingness to sacrifice all is contrasted with Tony Stark's desire to achieve peace for himself. For just a second, the tension hangs in the air. The possibility hits the characters and audience.
In Whedon’s preferred television format, this moment would happen in the penultimate episode, referencing to moments leading up to it. The interaction would take up a full, pivotal time span between the last two commercial breaks, and we would savor the tension. In Ultron, the whole interchange is gone before you can let out your breath. We have to resolve the problem so people can get out of the theater and go to the bathroom. We need Tony Stark to crack another joke. We need to set up for the sequel everyone knows is coming.
Ultron should probably be viewed twice: once so you get smacked in the face by it, and a second time so you can make sure you caught everything. And I figure you'll enjoy it immensely both times. But I hope the next Avengers film does what the first one did so well: a single tight, compelling story.