April 30, 2015

Shadowcon Mini-Views- Avengers: Age of Ultron

It was very okay.

I actually have to give Joss Whedon a lot of credit here. In recent interviews, he's been saying just how much of himself he poured into this film, and it shows... but I'm not sure that he poured in all the right bits.

As I was watching this, I got this sad feeling in my chest, because I knew that Joss Whedon wanted to do so much... and that's ultimately this film's downfall. Upon reading initial reviews of the movie, I kept reading the words "disjointed" and "overstuffed", and I think those are apt descriptors for this movie. But I think a better phrase would probably be "too short", because almost nothing in the film gets to breath. And that's terrible, because a lot of what is in the movie, a lot of the seeds of ideas that pop up in here, are actually really great. And upon reading that Whedon's original cut of the movie was apparently three and a half hours long, it just makes me sad that so much got left on the cutting room floor.

So what is here? What have I actually taken away from this movie as it stands on its own? Well, I think the biggest success of Ultron has to be the jaw-dropping fun factor! I mean, this film is loaded with action scenes, most of which succeed in being entertaining as hell, and when those were going on, I just sat back in my seat and let the action wash over me like the great wave of awesome it was. There are so many great chunks of fight in the movie, and Whedon's classic camera and directing work just make the whole thing flow. The dialogue and wit is dialed up to eleven here, and most of it works. Something was off in the theater I was in though unfortunately, I think, because I couldn't make out many of the quips that the various characters were making at or about each other. However, the dialogue is sharp, and what little there is saved for thematic or character development is executed rather well.

The same can't be said for the plot, which is straightforward enough in concept, but again, in practice gets muddled thanks to how much of everything else there is in here. By now, if you've read synopses for the movie, early reviews of the movie, or are privy at all to the trailers, you probably know the gist of it. Tony Stark creates Ultron, an artificial intelligence that is supposedly programed to protect the world where the Avengers can't, with the end goal being to supplant the Avengers entirely. But of course, he turns evil and wants to kill everything. And here we have one of the biggest problems of the film: almost none of the questions raised by or about Ultorn are given any time to be properly addressed and discussed by the characters. There's one scene right after Ultron reveals himself, attacks, and then leaves, and the Avengers are all standing around, talking about what Stark has just done, and then it cuts to a completely different scene. It's as if, in trying to get the film down to an appropriate length, Whedon didn't know what to cut, so he just cut a little bit from every scene in the film, so that while the gist of the themes and subtext is there, you never feel like it's addressed very well.

And that goes double for the characters. There are some great scenes with the team just hanging out as friends, which is awesome (Whedon's quippy dialogue of course serves its function well here), but many of the thematic and character arcs themselves just get lost in all the goings on of the movie. One romance plot in particular starts off very well, subtle but definitely present, and then drops out of the film entirely in order to make room for either another character's arc or more action. Tony's arc in particular feels the most stunted out of all of them, which is a shame because this could have been the heart and soul of the movie. This ties in with the villain, which I'll discuss below, but really I think this could have been a great way to center the work instead of having yet another strand dangling. The interplay between the main five characters works, but it works only so well because between these five characters, the film doesn't know if it wants to be an ensemble piece, or have a tight focus. While an attempt is made to tear them apart from a narrative standpoint, they never really fracture, and I think that not having them break apart completely was a big mistake. There simply wasn't time.

That's not even discussing the new characters introduced, because among roughly four main character arcs, the writers felt the need to throw in more people, and unfortunately these new characters suffer a lot. Quicksilver, Scarlett Witch, and (mild spoiler if you haven't been paying attention) Vision, all feel very wooden. Much of what they do is in service of the plot (or indeed created by the plot), and so none of theme get to be fleshed out in any way. Vision in particular is written to be more about his powers than anything else (something that really pisses me off- you'll know it when you see it, Danny), and that's a real shame, because Paul Bettany is awesome, and they nailed the costume! The twins too feel super shoe-horned into things, and an emotional impact at the climax of the film just fell flat for me because by this point, the two characters had been lacking so much in character development that I honestly forgot that one of them was even in the movie.

However, the villain of the piece, Ultron, he's awesome. Oh sure, most of what he says is bullshit (and again a clear casualty of Whedon having to cut the movie), but it doesn't really matter what he says because James Spader's voice is like audio rich cake! I love it! Still, being an AI hell-bent on destroying the world... not exactly the most original thing ever, and that's made all the more apparent by the fact that barely any discussion is had regarding the parameters and consequences and fallout of him being online, Stark's hand in making him, or any of the broader philosophical questions that should be raised with a topic like this. Oh sure, there are fragments of conversations sprinkled throughout the movie about it, but none of these scenes coalesce into a solid theme or through-line that we can follow. And it's not as though Whedon himself is incapable of constructing such a theme or even just a single hash-it-out scene (indeed, I was very excited by what Whedon had to say on the Ultron character, thinking that we could finally have an awesome moral debate amongst the Avengers about him; sadly, that was not meant to be). Instead, we get a lot of dialogue said by Ultron meant to sound smart, but really doesn't come across as anything other than... well, frankly it sounds like Joss Whedon himself, but without any of the actual intelligence behind the words. When he said he put himself into writing Ultron, I didn't think he meant literally, but there that is.

With regards to how this whole film fits into the larger MCU... well, read Den of Geek's many posts about this film to come; I'm sure they'll have a lot more to say on it with regards to wider lore than I do. But I have to say that, besides one of the Infinity Stones making an appearance, there's really not much in here that interferes with the focus of the film. Seeds are sown for Captain America: Civil War, which is good (and if the battles in that thing are anything like this, I'm gonna be a very happy camper), but most of the film remains largely stand-alone, which is a plus in my book. I know there are people out there who are all about the wider web that Marvel's supposedly weaving, but for me, I like these films to be able to stand on their own first, with the MCU gimmick as a nifty bonus. This film does that, but its ability to actually stay standing, well, it kinda topples under its own weight.

Age of Ultron is trying to do a lot. It has a large cast of characters, a breakneck-speed plot, thematic undercurrents, multiple theaters of focus... but as I said, barely any of these things gets a chance to actually breath and flourish. Whedon has tried to pull off Cat's Cradle, but has unwittingly knotted up the yarn. The film isn't complex, it's just complicated, and I feel that had Whedon been able to keep his three-and-a-half hour film, it would have all worked out. Instead, we're left with this. As an action film, this is great! I had a hell of a time laughing at the sparky dialogue and just enjoying the spectacle and having a good time. But as a Joss Whedon film, this sadly might be his weakest movie to date (not counting that Alien thing he did way back which doesn't matter). It's overcrowded, overfed with action, and malnourished in character development, thematic through-lines, and focus. It's a real shame, as this was the movie I was most looking forward to this summer, but it's ended up being... not a disappointment per se, but more of a case of setting sights too high. Did I like it? Sure, I liked it. But I'd warn all of you to go in with reserved expectations.

That's all I can really say.

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