When The Avengers made all the money in the world in 2012, the first question on many fans’ minds was whether writer / director Joss Whedon, TV superstar turned blockbuster auteur, would work his magic for the already-announced sequel. The Avengers proved the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a successful model, but it would be a year until Iron Man 3 and two years before Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy really proved the franchise could take characters in new directions after crossing them over. Having Whedon attached to a sequel, though, could calm some nerves: At least Avengers: Age of Ultron would be up to snuff.
So what did Whedon do, with his blank check from fandom? Well, he directed a micro-budget, black-and-white amateur adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing at his house with his friends. After that? Marvel mastermind Kevin Feige and Disney chairmain Bob Iger, neither able to let a good thing go, backed a Brinks truck up to said house and said, “So … about that sequel?” (This probably isn’t what actually happened, but it’s how I like to imagine it.) Whedon returned to the MCU with an overall deal not seen from the studio before or since, giving him the leeway to help craft the entirety of Phase Two, as well as more freedom in conceptualizing, writing and directing the second Avengers film.
Age of Ultron is a massive beast, a movie about dualities that is itself the clearest example of Marvel Studios bumping heads with a concrete creative direction. You can see it in the seams: Stretches of pre-viz spectacle (fighting on arms dealer Ulysses Klaue’s ship leading into the Hulk versus Hulkbuster centerpiece) segue into a trip to Hawkeye’s farm. An overlong car chase in South Korea is interspersed with Thor learning about the Infinity Stones. The gorgeous fight sequence in Hydra’s lab that leads into the party sequence (perhaps one of the best scenes in the MCU). The tremendously long third-act battle on Sokovia mingling with great character beats, culminating in a villain’s demise on a quiet hillside after a philosophical chat. It is undoubtedly the most contemplative movie in the MCU, but also the most bombastic and inconsistent.
Although audiences preferred the more straightforward Avengers, funnier Guardians or well-balanced Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Age of Ultron remains a high point for the franchise’s approach to character-centric storytelling. Dualities are at play here, too, as windows into each character. Whedon used the first movie to ask, “Why would these characters come together?” This movie asks why they would stay together.
Captain America is a man out of time, a peacenik who can’t define himself without a war to fight; Black Widow is a spy whose past and very instinct makes her unsure if she can even trust herself; Tony Stark is a man who believes he can fix anything but still can’t quite fix himself and tries to compensate externally; Hawkeye is a badass secret agent who hides a relatively “normal” family; Hulk is Hulk; and Thor is a god who doesn’t know his own power, preferring to hang out with humans rather than take on the responsibility of kingship. Vision, the newest member of the group, is an artificial life-form, a newborn with the most powerful weapon in the world strapped to his forehead.
And then … there’s Ultron. Ultron, most of all. He is a being designed for rationality gone stark-raving mad with megalomaniacal ambition. Stark and Banner create Ultron in a moment of profound weakness. “A suit of armor around the world,” Stark tells his science bro. “Sounds like a cold world,” Bruce retorts. And indeed Ultron is a suit of armor, in a way, his plan ultimately relying on lifting a massive chunk of the Earth to try to destroy it. In many ways Ultron is the son of Stark, every little bad quality of his father with none of the good (far more explicit in an earlier draft of the script).
Stark is really the central Avenger in this outing, the man whose plan starts it all and who ultimately has to end it. Many criticisms of Age of Ultron damn it as a sequel to Iron Man 3, which ends with Stark famously coming to terms with (some) of his issues and removing the Arc Reactor from his chest. To this, I’ve always understood his “I am Iron Man” at the end of IM3 to represent acceptance of (some of his) his weaknesses, a contrast with a bold declaration in the same statement at the end of the first film. In IM3, Stark accepts that he need not be in the suit all the time — that his suit is a tool for greater ambitions. The next step of that self-awareness is his creation of the Iron Legion, the creation of Ultron. After IM3 he has something for which to go home. After IM3, he can let something else do the work.
But he’s still Tony Stark, a man whose ambitions, ideals and narcissism often get the best of him. Age of Ultron’s greatest storytelling flaw is that it doesn’t make Stark pay a price for the massive disaster that is Ultron. Captain America: Civil War tries to rectify the problem but it still feels somewhat insufficient.
Anyway, other contrasts: Jarvis versus the Mind Stone. Hulkbuster versus Hulk. hero versus monster. The raw humanity of Hawkeye’s farm versus Thor’s spiritual journey.
There are stories of behind-the-scenes drama between Whedon and the studio about certain sequences in the movie. Whedon’s Thanos tease at the end of the first movie was there to be “something cool,” but the reaction led to Marvel settling on an Avengers trilogy ending with an Infinity Stones storyline. As their film trilogies are meant to be viewed somewhat as standalone trilogies, that put the burden on Ultron to include some connection to the Stones concept, including a full explanation. This turns out to be Thor, shirtless in a cave and having a vision. Whedon, however, was more interested in taking the characters to darker, more personal places. The edict reportedly came down from on high: Keep Thor’s quest for the stones or remove the visions and Hawkeye’s family sequences.
The latter would have been a shame. After getting short shrift in the first film — what with being zombified and all — Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) gets a chance to shine in this film as it’s revealed he has a wife (Linda Cardellini … Lindsay Weir herself!) and children who live on a farm in the countryside. After Africa, the Avengers need a safe house at which to stop and recharge their batteries, and Clint takes time to reveal this secret to the rest of the crew.
A lot of people take issue with the farm sequence, as it encompasses a huge chunk of the film, but it’s essential. At 141 minutes, the film was then the MCU’s second-longest, featuring 17 principal characters in addition to guest stars —some welcome (Julie Delpy) and some not so much (oh … hi again, Selvig). It is nice for our characters to take a much-needed breather and get away from the life-threatening Ultron and, moreover, everything else the franchise has thrown at them to date. In that respect, maybe they didn’t spend enough time at the farm! (I kid.) But Cardellini’s earthy performance especially sold me on the love between her and Hawkeye.
Whedon largely fell from public view after Age of Ultron, producing projects but not releasing any new self-driven films or TV series. He was attached to Batgirl for a time before leaving that project, and his involvement in trying to salvage Justice League is better left undiscussed. His reputation took a hit in recent years after his ex-wife released an accusatory letter, and the current wave of progressive-leaning storytelling about women, LGBTQ and non-white characters have given his older work a sense of “not good enough.” There was a three-year moment, though, between 2012 and 2015, where his was the mind every geek, every entertainment writer was latched to, looking for clues about where he’d take the franchise. What he’s left us, now with the hindsight of as many years, is the two-sided, billion-dollar-grossing, perennially underrated, red-headed stepchild of the most successful movie franchise in history.
Midwest Film Journal will post new, weekly entries of “The Marvel Decade” until the release of Avengers: Infinity War on April 27, 2018. Each entry is written by a different writer — some familiar to readers of the site and some fresh faces handpicked by members of the group. Each writer chose a Marvel movie that inspires insights or personal connections that they will highlight in their piece.
The MCU is a franchise that’s popular largely because of what it means to so many people, and that’s something we aim to capture with “The Marvel Decade.”
Join us again next week as guest writer Jeremy Cahnman takes a look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s, uh, smallest film — Ant-Man.
PREVIOUSLY IN “THE MARVEL DECADE”
Iron Man (2008) — Evan Dossey
The Incredible Hulk (2008) — Nick Rogers
Iron Man 2 (2010) — Joe Shearer
Thor (2011) — Aly Caviness
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) — Sy Stiner
The Avengers (2012) — Craig McQuinn
Iron Man 3 (2013) — Rachael Derrick
Thor: The Dark World (2013) — Will Norris
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) — Salem
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) — Mitch Ringenberg