Marvel's Cine-CHAT-ic Universe: Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015)
We have two weeks to go until Avengers: Endgame brings about the end of an 11-year-long story arc and changes the MCU as we know it forever. So what better time to revisit an old Avengers movie from four years ago? That's right, we're back with another instalment of our less-than-semi-regular Marvel movie email discussion feature, which might even have been a better title than 'Marvel's Cine-CHATIC Universe'.
Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Iron Man 3 (2013)
The Avengers (2012)
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Iron Man 2 (2010)
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Iron Man (2008)
In my review at the time, I said "It's not just better than the first Avengers, but with the two-part sequels no doubt dealing with consequences that will forever shake up the rest of the MCU output, it is likely that this is the best Avengers movie we will ever see"... and I stand by that. This is The Avengers BEING the Avengers, not how they got together, not how they got ripped apart, not how they dealt with a certain cast members fulfilling their contracted number of movies, this is a pretty standalone adventure in which a threat is presented, and they then take down that threat, and it's fantastic.
Ali: I'm not quite as passionate about it as you. I think it's perfectly serviceable and thrilling in parts and has all the charm and polish and action that you expect from thicc Marvel movies. I also think it's not quite as fun as Avengers Assemble and not quite as exciting as Infinity War. Mostly though, I just wanted to mention you saying "It's the Cubans, baby". Is this a thing that people say?
Matt: Sigh. C'mon, we covered this one already:
Becky: I was not enamoured with this movie and did not appreciate watching it again. It’s less of an Age and more of a wet weekend and that is probably the best you’re going to get out of me. Also, Hawkeye and his family are THE WORST but we can get into that later.
Matt: But it's just so beautifully balanced. Yes, Ultron's lips are a bit shit (although I don't see an alternative way to do that) and, yes, a studio-mandated edit sees Thor apparently save the day by taking a bath in a cave, but the sheer juggling act of funny character interactions, compelling character growth, exciting blockbuster action, is perfect. And Joss Whedon gave Hawkeye a purpose! He's no longer the butt of the joke, but the heart of the group and I totally buy that. Fucking hell, if this isn't the best film of the MCU so far, and fucking hell, if I'm not going to fight every last one of you that disagrees with me.
Ed: Now I've finished the Madeleine McCann documentary I'll watch this tonight. Actually the Madeleine McCann documentary really could've done with a big magic robot come to think of it.
Matt: Did you not stay until after the end credits?
Ali: Well, I didn't think we could go lower than Michael Jackson jokes, but here we are, the new bottom. I am torn because on the one hand, hiring James Spader to do the voice of a sarcastic evil robot is a great idea, but the execution of it just doesn't really land for me. For some reason I am on board with super-soldiers frozen in ice and rage monsters and witches and aliens, but Spaderbot was a step too far. Let's all line up to attack Matt, everyone take a ticket and wait your turn. Finally, some conflict!
Matt: I think Spaderbot is great and the only reason there's any issue with him is because his CGI lips look weird. Because of course they do. Metal doesn't work like that, and yet at the same time, you can't have an evil robot villain whose big metal jaws clank up and down every time he speaks, so I understand why they had to go down that route.
More importantly though is the genesis of Ultron; the fact that he starts as a blank program, which then gets informed by its first contact - Tony Stark's ego - so that he ends up with the same God complex in trying to find a complete solution for 'peace on earth'. This then informs everything that Ultron does, but his grand plan for protecting the world becomes destroying all of mankind living on it, because he has misinterpreted the objective. Basically, he's a maniacal despot because he is based on the worst aspects of Tony's - our main hero's - personality. There's a certain poetry there.
Ali: Yes, I understood the themes in the film, because the characters literally say those things out loud. Thank you for the Cliff Notes though, NERD.
Matt: Fair enough. I think my point though is that it allows Whedon these moments of commentary on the human condition, and to have that layered into a film like this is really quite remarkable.
You end up with these two robots: Spaderbot, built of metal with a badly programmed computer brain, and Bettanybot, built with a mix of organic and synthetic materials, and informed by both human and AI brains (he is, essentially, a 'midway point' between Ultron and The Avengers). And both robots stand apart from mankind, able to comment on the nature of humanity from a different viewpoint, leading to that lovely speech at the end: "There is a grace in their failings - I think you missed that" and "a thing isn't beautiful because it lasts". I mean, how often do you have a killer robot in a movie who allows for such eloquent philosophy in a comic-book blockbuster film? Plus, he sings the Pinocchio song!
NEXT. I will argue every criticism you have for this film until you tire of this whole thread and I win by default.
Becky: So is Ultron Leave, and Vision Remain?
Ali: Ultron is a hardcore nihilist Leaver, he has no grudge specifically with the EU, he just wants to watch the world burn. Vision claims to be Remain but he's a Centrist Dad if ever I've seen one. He's basically Blair. The evil guy with the monocle is Jacob Rees-Mogg. Thor is Michael Fabricant. Oh God, Civil War is basically 'Avengers do Brexit' isn't it. We're heading to a scenario on April 11th where the Conservatives and Labour all have a massive dust-up in an airport car park in Sunderland.
Becky: Maybe Ultron’s motives are more elegant than your usual comic book villain, but I can’t get over the fact that his introduction at the party was exactly like a drunk uncle disrupting a wedding. After that, I couldn’t really care much about his characterisation, because I thought he was just going to say something lecherous addressed to Black Widow’s cleavage and call Captain America a cunt.
Luke: Matthew, I respect your arguments and your points all very valid, but there's just something so... not lifeless (despite the pace)... not stilted (despite the shonky effects and wavering tone)... not shitty (because these films had hit a stride)... not quite right about the whole thing. Y'know? I don't mean because it's slow - the farm family and dinner party scenes may feel like they're from another universe, but they're a welcome attempt to flesh out what happens 'between' avenging. I quite dig AoU as this weird mish-mash of styles through the conduit of Whedon, but that feels like it should come from a TV special, not the main event itself.
Ed: I have now watched a fair bit of it last night before I fell asleep on the sofa. Long, isn't it? When they were at Hawkeye's farm I paused it and realised it was only bloody halfway through. Felt like the setup before the big bit at the end where loads of buildings in a major city get destroyed so I thought there was only about 25 minutes to go.
I suppose it's because I haven't got to the big smashy battle at the end yet but I kind of like how a lot of it's quite small scale. They spend a fair bit of time on scenes like the cocktail party and there are some really good jokes in there. (This feels like the first time Thor was intentionally funny.) My issue with the group ones is usually that you lose a lot of the characterisation in the melee and it's normally reduced to "Stark says something sarcastic" but they spend more time on it here.
Ali: Big fan of the 'Avengers downtime' scenes. Macro and micro gags happening throughout all these scenes - love Thor's expression when Cap makes the hammer wobble. I would be willing to watch up to one hour of The Avengers getting drunk.
Becky: Yeah, those bits really shine but it feels like it would have been suited more to being a TV special to give those moments room to grow.
Ed: There's one cut in it that is very TV. It's when Ultron meets the twins in the church and he's telling them his evil plan, then it cuts straight from that to him continuing to tell them his evil plan, but now in a new location (big magic rock place of some sort I think) after an establishing shot. Watch it again; it's a cut like they'd have in Dallas. WATCH IT.
Matt: The 'TV special' comment is interesting as that's something that often gets levelled at Whedon (I.e. he's a better writer than he is a director). I pick up on that a lot in Avengers Assemble, where I feel like several scenes look visually flat and the colour palette and costumes make the film look a bit cheap, but I really don't see it here. This film looks rich and interesting to me, and that edit/cut you mention Ed sounds like a fair comment but it’s certainly not a problem that’s exclusive to TV. That kind of physically impossible monologuing happens all the time in films.
Ali: My problem with Ultron is that he's just a bit silly. I never really thought he was all that intimidating or scary.
Matt: I actually never saw Ultron as silly - I think he's quite formidable as MCU villains go. There's the sense that he can't ever just die, because he uploads himself into the next bot, and that presents a unique problem for this kind of film.
The only real issue for me is that The Avengers find themselves fighting a whole bunch of mini-ultronbots, just like they had to fight an army of alien soldiers in the last Avengers films, because you can't just have them waiting their turn to fight the big guy. It made me think at the time that you can't ever have The Avengers NOT fighting a horde of some kind, because that's how the dynamic has to work, but at least they addressed that pretty well in Infinity War.
Ali: One thing I will say is that I appreciate that the ending is a little different from your usual blockbuster third act. It is genuinely great to see The Avengers saving people with heroics rather than just all waiting for their turn to beat up the end of level boss with their own enchanted amulets or magic hammers or whatever.
Matt: And Ultron's plan at the end is great, isn't it? The fact that he raises a whole city to cause an extinction level event is something new and more refreshing than just "I'm going to take over the world with my death laser", and, again, there's the sense that you really don't know how The Avengers are going to win this one once it is up in the air. It's all actually pretty good at having proper stakes.
Ali: Can someone remind me how they stop Ultron from, as per the movie's official explanation, "escaping through the internet"? I don't recall that particular story beat. I'm sure the answer was based in science and logic.
Becky: I think they stop Ultron through an OS update which basically stopped all his apps from working properly. Didn’t Vision just....lock him out of the internet? How do we know Ultron isn’t on a USB drive somewhere, plotting his revenge? Or reinvented himself as a social media platform full of bots to spread propaganda?
Matt: I don’t think Ultron ever existed in the Internet. I thought he just kept transferring to different bodies, and the way he was defeated was just by destroying all of those. I think you may be getting confused with JARVIS saying that he escaped Ultron by hiding in the internet, and obviously that just makes complete sense and doesn’t need to be questioned.
Ed: I would've stopped him with the MS DOS command c:>taskkill /F /IM ultron.exe
Becky: Or type “Google” into Google
Matt: I need to find some other people to have these thread dissections with. You guys are infuriating.
Luke: Stick around Matt because the next one is Ant-Man and that's quite good.
Ed: Sorry we hurt your favourite magic wizard men, Matt.
Matt: Get back to me when you've watched the whole film, Ed. In the meantime, I don’t judge you for your incorrect opinions, because I know the need to watch this movie came completely out of the blue and there was literally no way you could have planned for this email discussion or even known that it was going to take place in order to prepare for it.
Ed: (a) I do rather take issue with the suggestion that I am underprepared for this conversation having not watched it before it started, given that it began with "About time we started this, I think" as opposed to, say, "We'll start on Wednesday: everyone watch it by then". Also (b) if you think my comments on it are going to be any more considered or insightful once I've watched the whole thing then I hate to tell you you're in for a disappointment. Anyway, I've just turned it on again and am into the home stretch even though there's still somehow 51 minutes of the fucking thing to go.
Ooh, Vision's just shown up.
Luke: They fight thousands of the same CGI robot for about half an hour now while quipping.
Ed: Yes, turns out that's broadly correct. I don't really know why we were told that Ultron was everywhere and in all the robots, then the solution was ripping out the metal heart out of one of them. I'll have missed something, obviously, but the thing with all these endings is that there exists no other structure in superhero films than a final battle in which everyone gets pummelled a lot.
Ali: Yes, it is a very analogue approach to solving a fluid, digital problem - making all the bad robots dead by bashing their heads in. They could have just as easily saved the day by having JARVIS write a malicious codeworm (or whatever, shut up Luke, I don't know what all you script kiddies call them these days) to bring down Ultron's evil internetty plan, but then that wouldn't be very cinematic.
Luke: They could have coded half of them to fight the other half and sat back and watched it.
Ali: I for one would like to see a large third act finale in an Avengers movie where actually 5/6ths of the Avengers realise their presence is not needed and they just sort of need to look busy and generally amble around trying to find problems to solve and things to smash.
Luke: I think this is what sets Marvel apart from the Watchmens of the world - if you took away the global threat and fighting these guys would mostly stand around doing nothing. Whereas the Watchmen and Women had issues besides the supervillains. Except maybe Hulk and Black Widow. Matt come and tell me I'm wrong.
Ali: Looking forward to the forthcoming spin-off series in which Hawkeye's farm struggles to yield a harvest for the second year running.
Ed: No matter how much nuance there is in the villain's plan (and this one has more than most), it always boils down to a lot of smashing. I much prefer the smaller scale ones. Very much looking forward to watching Ant-Man again, the first one I'd uncomplicatedly loved since the first ones.
Ali: It's too big, is the problem. Too many single scenes set in one far-flung location for reasons that do not always feel essential to the story. Not that it's not a nice change to see cities other than New York get destroyed, but how and why did they end up in South Korea again? Was it even South Korea?
Matt: But the fact that it takes place in far-flung locations really sets this apart from previous films, doesn’t it? Until this point, The Avengers have only ever really been America’s Mightiest Heroes, whereas this film finally gives a global feel to the MCU. The Seoul thing is a little weird admittedly and I suspect that’s down to tax breaks and cynical marketing, but I’d still rather that than have it set in NY again.
Ed: Tell you what I really liked: Hulk's apparent choice to cut himself off and fly away into space because he thinks himself a destructive force without which the world would be better off. It's sincerely touching. When Ultron scanned the whole internet do you think he spidered the entire Shiznit site or just looked at the Truthful Oscar posters then fucked off like everyone else does?
Luke: He probably re-upped them to imgur. Uncredited, of course. The most evil thing you can do.
Ed: The FIEND. I could get on board with the global extinction thing after a couple of caveats, but this?
Luke: Worse than Perez.
Ali: Tell you what, I had forgotten that Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch were even in this movie.
Ed: I'd forgotten their names. I had White Witch and I got as far as The Flash (because he effectively just is The Flash, only dressed like a Bulgarian in Ladbrokes), but I knew it wasn't that because he's with the other mob.
Matt: I can’t believe you guys don’t really care much about Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver here. They make such a difference to the MCU in this film where we finally have - along with Vision - some characters with some actually powers rather than being really good with a weapon or a fist. I think they really make an impact in this movie, especially when the focus is still on the ‘core’ group. Do you think the problem is more that you feel the film is too overly stuffed?
Ali: Yes, the whole film feels a bit over-stuffed - that's why you get about 60 seconds spent with Thor and Selvig doing some ancient ritual in a rockpool without any context. Yes, I'm all for more quieter, character-led moments, but they're few and far between - there's too much of everything, too many new characters (Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, Vision, Ultron), too many locations to follow and too many motivations to track.
Matt: Maybe the difference in opinion here is that I’m quite happy for it to be really dense. These are films that I watch again and again and again and I like that there’s so much packed in here. You can say that it’s too stuffed full of... stuff... but what’s the downside? You’re not confused about what’s happening at any point. I mean, it’s not like it’s difficult to follow: the cape-wearing goodies are trying to stop the bad robot from destroying the world.
Ali: To his credit, I think Joss Whedon did an amazing job pulling it all together (it's little wonder he didn't want to do any more), but Age of Ultron is - to use common internet parlance - a 'chonky boi'.
Becky: A chonky boi with too many chonklets. Too many ideas crammed into one space and the pacing is off. Too many characters and not enough focus to care about the B-list cast brought in. The twins probably could have been quite good if there’d been a bit more on them and less of Hawkeye’s farm.
Matt: But, even though there’s an (over)abundance of characters, when we talk about Whedon doing a great balancing act, it’s in the fact that none of the characters end up getting a short thrift. They all have a character journey and growth except for maybe Thor, but that really is an edit issue. It’s telling that Thor’s magic cave vision is so important that it informs the basis for Ragnarok - so we know that he goes on an important journey in this film, we just don’t SEE it because Marvel Studios cut it.
And I guess then it’s just a question of weighing up an equal amount of action against all of these character amounts, which results in a long, packed film. But, fuck it, I love it. Make it longer. RELEASE THE WHEDON CUT.
Becky: I fear this may turn into a Matt-style essay, but Hawkeye is THE WORST. Seriously, who is this guy and what has he done to justify a whole middle segment about him and his family? That whole bit just makes me so angry.
Ali: It's generally assumed the Hawkeye section was to make up for the fact that he didn't appear in the first Avengers movie enough, which is not the best reason for middle-section I've ever heard, but it works. I have no beef with Hawkeye per se, nothing against the guy and I quite like Jeremy Renner in the role. Apparently, there are some great recent Hawkeye graphic novels by Matt Fraction, and I would very much support a low-budget, Ant-Man style spinoff genre movie featuring the character, but it feels an awful lot like imbalance to feature him so heavily in an Avengers movie.
Matt: I like the fact that Whedon spent time in this film with the guy who should be hopelessly outmatched. It's not like the film doesn't address the fact that he's basically just a highly-skilled, athletic Eric Bristow - they mention it all the time, but somehow that makes him a more compelling character. He's out of his depth, but the fact that his conviction to fight the good fight anyway - that ANY good he can do in this situation is worth it - is even more honourable than all the guys with powers and magic laser beams.
Becky: Yes, he’s out of his depth. Do we need a middle third devoted to him though? He’s just not a compelling character for those exact reasons.
And his wife is a perfect example again of how Marvel underwrites its female characters. She’s the barefoot and pregnant fantasy woman who, despite bringing up small children and being on the brink of giving birth in the middle of fucking nowhere, is just there to make sure that HE feels ok. Screw the fact that she’s on her own and running things, wondering if she’ll ever see the (presumably) breadwinner of the family again, let’s make sure that Hawkeye doesn’t feel inadequate amongst the bigger boys. And he totally deserves to question his relevance to the Avengers, because he brings precisely zero to the party. This is what you brought in Linda Cardellini to do?
It’s banal to the verge of being offensive. If Whedon is meant to be a champion of leading women, then why is Hawkeye’s wife (I can’t even remember her name) such a non-entity?
Ali: I preferred this conversation when we were just needlessly ragging on Matt for his stupid little robot movie. I get the concept of positioning Hawkeye as 'just an ordinary guy with a family' so his wife's scant screen time never really bothered me, she's just a cipher. You can't have it both ways, Becs - you can't hate Hawkeye with the force of a thousand hurricanes AND complain that his WIFE isn't getting enough screen time. What next, A FEMALE SUPERHERO MOVIE?
Becky: If the output of Joss Whedon has taught me anything, it’s that I can have it all.
And the two go hand-in-hand for me: the worst character gets the most screen time (at the expense at the others, but most of all Black Widow) and they can’t even give him a three-dimensional wife. It’s not that she gets scant screen time, it’s that she is literally just a terrible stereotype whose only purpose is to wipe away Hawkeye’s tears and tell him that they all probably like him secretly, they’re not intentionally leaving him out. He’s not conflicted over whether he should leave his small family in order to save the world, he’s worried that his little bow and arrow doesn’t measure up to Thor’s hammer and she just tells him that even though he doesn’t have any super powers, he’s just as good as they are, because he’s her superhero, honey (I’m paraphrasing here). And he’s not as good. He’s basically Rachel in Friends when Ross tells her to go long in the football episode, he just hangs around on the periphery. As soon as his arrows run out, what does he do then? I’m sure the novels are great, but unless some of that is used here then they serve no purpose here.
She doesn’t even get to come across as selfless by imploring her husband to leave again and go off and save the world, she’s just a doe-eyed sow ready for him to come back and impregnate her again.
Luke: YES BECKY FUCK EM UP!
Matt: I always thought Hawkeye's wife had been portrayed as quite an empowering figure in the film - someone who knows what the Avengers need when they don't know it themselves - and criticism about her being underwritten has a lot to do with Marvel just not having enough decent female characters in its bank. Properly fleshing out an entirely new character, who isn't an Avenger, in a positive way, in a film that's already jam-packed full of characters would be nigh on impossible. I get the point though. I think that it’s easy to view this as more about fragile male egos whereas I think the issue is a little more nuanced than that, but I take the point.
Becky: I don’t agree with Whedon not being able to create a rounded-out character in the time he had. Look at Coulson, he’s had relatively short screen time but I know he’s endearing and I like him, even without watching Agents of SHIELD. My issue is, yes, the character can do that for the Avengers, but is portrayed in an extremely stereotyped and tired way that renders her one-dimensional.
And then there’s the whole Black Widow thing, who gets a couple of good action scenes but wait, she can’t be a ‘real’ woman because she can’t have kids, and that’s her only driving force. Why is being infertile only a problem for Black Widow, and not say Captain America, who’s gets upset because his junk got shrivelled as a side effect of the super serum? Why don’t male superheroes have invasive procedures to stop their desire for kids hampering with their missions?
Matt: The monster line is tricky, isn’t it. I feel like the way that should be interpreted is that what makes her a monster isn't her choosing to become sterile, but that she effectively chose to be committed to taking lives rather than... bearing life? I feel like that's what Whedon is getting at there - it's more a reflection of how she regards life, and pregnancy/sterility becomes a neat mirror to her career as someone who kills freely. But you're absolutely right - it's hugely problematic, because of how it can be interpreted and I think Whedon's at fault for totally misjudging that.
Becky: It’s hugely problematic. Particularly when compared with Hawkeye’s wife: their shared characteristic is their fertility, or lack of it. Like I said, none of the other Avengers have issues with taking lives versus what they bring into the world. And it’s not like Black Widow made that choice, she was sterilised against her will to make her a more effective solider. But no mention over whether Bucky ever got his nads cut off.
Matt: Um… still, best film ever, right? Yes, best film ever. Great. Glad we all agree. Let's leave it there. Ant-Man next.
The crushingly inevitable Star Wars group chat email thing: Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
And The Rest