Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

What’s the point of destroying the world, super villians?

The problem with the world-destruction-brand mad villain is that it is by definition illogical. What’s the point of destroying the world? Ruling it, sure: you can be the boss of everyone, never again subject or victim to anyone or anything. But if you destroy the world, or at least its population, what is left to rule, to gloat victory over? It’s a theatrical move – but you can’t stage a show if you remove the audience.

Ultron is the world-destruction-brand mad villain – and so “mad” becomes the operative word, one which unfortunately can then function the catch-all for any leap – or lack – of logic. And so, despite the potentially terrifying concept of the Earth’s first artificial intelligence going genocidal, and despite James Spader‘s really enjoyable performance, Ultron is ultimately the far less interesting of the new characters introduced in this film – the new face most worth watching is Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maxmioff, aka Scarlet Witch.

In a movie this big, with this many moving parts, I don’t want to confuse the main narrative with sequences that are ultimately macguffin.

Fantasy Sandwich

I get that the nightmare / vision medley is part of introducing her character, but here’s my problem with dream sequences in this particular movie: it’s fantasy laid on top of fantasy, with an extra layer of fantasy in between – and, even for a comic book movie, that’s just too much fantasy.

First: the already fantastic notion of these superheroes requires continual orientation. Not only do their powers range in type, from pseudo-scientific to supernatural, but as the story progresses these powers are also being defined / elaborated upon. For example: Hulk can now be talked down by a “lullaby”; plus Hulk and Banner seem to share consciousness, or at least have somewhat overlapping subjectivities. These two developments are either progressions from, or were just unclear in, the first Avengers film.

Second: there’s the new fantastic concepts introduced in this movie: the artificial intelligence of Ultron (and later the Vision), and the next-level superpowers of Scarlet Witch (Captain America’s “enhanced” human powers are strictly physical extensions of our own, which makes them easy enough to quantify, but Wanda’s powers are supernatural and not clearly defined – at first she seems to merely affect the (sub)consciousness of others, but later her powers are shown to be powerfully telekinetic).

Third: the dreams / visions themselves test the not-yet-clear boundaries of this movie’s new reality. How “real” are these visions supposed to be within this reality – premonition, abstraction, or merely distraction? The goalposts aren’t just shifting, they’re floating: how far do I suspend disbelief? Where do I draw the line to understand what isn’t reality for the characters?

I’ve enjoyed Joss Whedon dream sequences in the past (Buffy‘s always moved with a Lynch-lite fluidity), but Ultron‘s reality isn’t grounded enough to make its dreams any kind of departure; they pulled me out of a story that was already struggling to grip me (why does Ultron decide to kill humanity? What is Wanda’s plan for revenge on Stark, which I’m gathering was the whole point of her and brother Quicksilver’s story? What are all these different characters’ desires, concerns, arcs – whose are merely subplots, whose will I need to follow so that the coming events will make sense to me?). Dream sequences can be also be lazy plot devices, weak substitutions for actual, earned character motivations. But what’s worse than a hand-waving dream sequence? A hand-waving dream sequence we don’t even see. Thor’s hot tub vision motivates him to do a 180 on his opposition to Tony’s mad science, then drop in, help create, and vouch for Tony’s creation of the Vision. In a movie this big, with this many moving parts, I don’t want to confuse the main narrative with sequences that are ultimately macguffin. I can roll with an expanding definition of “superpowers” if you show me limits – otherwise, there are no stakes, and I can’t emotionally invest in the story. If anyone can do anything at any time, then I won’t care what happens.

why why WHY does Hollywood still insist on evoking 9/11 in its Summer blockbusters, after 15 years?

Ultimately, I think I only watched this movie to the end to simply view unfolding spectacle. I didn’t follow much of what happened in between, or why; some ideas were interesting, but I didn’t feel invested in any of it. I’m sure I remember caring about the characters more in the first Avengers – I certainly did in Iron Man 3 and the Captain America: The Winter Soldier – so why didn’t I care here?

Joss Whedon is a genius though, and he balances an incredible number of elements – particularly in the action scenes. Exhibit A: the mind-bogglingly complex train-and-plane chase sequence, which manages to incorporate multiple action threads, humour and character beats without us getting lost. Exhibit B: the rapid-fire exchange just before Vision is born, in which a half-dozen character conflicts crossfire in single-line dialogue bursts with laser precision and crystal clarity (like the provoked-by-the-sceptre scene in the first Avengers).

There are other parts that work well: the Vision hammer gag; its setup scene, the party (particularly Cap’s hammer-nudge, and Hemsworth‘s face); and the Iron Man / Hulk fight – simple premise, exciting to watch – though its city-destruction-terror-porn completely turned me off (why why WHY does Hollywood still insist on evoking 9/11 in its Summer blockbusters, after 15 years?). But the whole Hawkeye safehouse section didn’t work for me. I get that there was potentially important work for that section to do, but it felt like little more than a breather in between two overstuffed halves of the film: I don’t care that Hawkeye’s a family guy (I don’t care about him in general); I sense no chemistry between Bruce and Natasha, and I found Black Widow, as the sole female Avenger, more interesting not being a love interest; and Tony and Cap’s philosophical head-butting wasn’t particularly interesting (though I understand it will become important – just not in this movie). That last one is saying something, too: I’ve been really invested in Tony Stark’s character since the first Iron Man, and the second Captain America movie made me look at Steve Rogers (and finally appreciate Chris Evans‘ wonderful portrayal) with a lot more attention. If the tension between them is going to drive the next Civil War film, there needs to be a lot less going on around them than there is here.