Going into Avengers: Age of Ultron, I was more pumped for a movie than I have been in a while. The trailers made it look like everything I wanted out of an Avengers sequel, hell even the ominous theme music got my blood going. But as I sat in the theater for two hours and forty minutes, this slow feeling of…emptiness crept over me. I was enjoying myself, and there was plenty in the film to like, but by the time the movie was over, I walked out feeling unsatisfied. And I knew exactly why. Two things occurred to me that do not bode well for the superhero film genre going forward.
Number one: I can see this kind of thing done better every week and not shell out $12 a ticket. When Marvel debuted Iron Man, and ended it on the whole “Avengers Initiative” note (their first end credits stinger!) there was palpable excitement in the air. No one had ever done a “shared cinematic universe”, much less with a property with as much nerd potential as Marvel Comics. There was no Arrow, no Flash, no Gotham, no Agent Carter, and most importantly, no Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.(here on out for brevity’s sake referred to as “AoS”). And while it’s true that TV still has yet to match films on the scale of an Avengers or Man of Steel, it gets closer every week,
(especially in Man of Steel’s case, because that movie was garbage, and worse than Superman Returns (yeah, I said it)).
While Gotham or AoS may not have the star power or the money for really convincing special effects, they have something that Age of Ultron was lacking – time. Television shows have twelve to twenty-four episodes to build a world, characters, motivations and relationships, and build those to a climax over a longer period of time. Age of Ultron had to introduce and explain Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, Ultron, and the Vision, along with providing character arcs for each of its returning characters.
This shit gives me a headache. And I’m a fan.
Oh, and it had to set up the plots of Black Panther (Andy Serkis’s Klaw, Vibranium, Wakanda), Captain America 3: Civil War (Tony vs Steve, “enhanced” vs regular people), Thor 3: Ragnarok (Everyone in Asgard is dead and Thor is losing his shit), Avengers: Infinity War Parts 1 & 2 (Thanos, Infinity Gems, new, untested Avengers team), and the next season of AoS (which I’m assuming will be one big lead up to Civil War). In under three hours. And while it performed admirably, a lot of the new characters suffered for having less time to grow. Thor just kind of was there, and his flashback/nightmare told me that he was only there to remind us to go see Thor 3, otherwise his role in the film could have been done by just about anyone. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch were interesting, but I never really felt they went anywhere. I guess what this wall of text’s point is that TV can do serial stories and “shared universes (I throw up in my mouth now a little every time I am forced to type that)” much better than movies because they have time to build an interesting world and characters you give a shit about.
(except Barbara on Gotham. No one cares about her, or anything that happens to her character, especially the writers)
And right now there’s a golden age of superhero shows, with AoS, Agent Carter, and The Flash standing out as the best of the bunch. Huh, look at that, two Marvel shows that I give more of a shit about than the Avengers sequel, because they are (mostly) well-written, (mostly) well-acted, and can take the time to give us interesting villains, like Calvin Zabo or my God, have you seen Tom Cavanaugh’s Reverse-Flash? One of the most compelling performances on TV, even when he’s in full scenery-chewing mode, and most people have never seen it.
Point number two: The standard “superhero” genre film is dead. I had thought Marvel had figured this out, and that’s why we got a 70’s political thriller called Captain America: Winter Soldier, a goofy space opera called Guardians of the Galaxy, and a Shane Black Christmas action movie a la Lethal Weapon called Iron Man 3. But Age of Ultron is almost a step back in this department, doggedly hewing to the old “Supervillain creates doomsday weapon to wipe out humanity” trope without really doing anything new with it. There were no personal stakes for any of the characters, or at least no stakes that they seemed to care about. Ultron’s whole motivation was vague and unclear. To use my two earlier samples as contrast: In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Kyle Maclachlan plays Calvin Zabo, also known as Mister Hyde in the comics. His big plan? Reunite with his family, whom he blames (and kind of rightly so) S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA for losing years ago. He’s a rage monster, and he does awful things, but he at least has a compelling and believable reason for doing so.
We have enough time with the series so that we can see Zabo run through a range of emotions, and since it’s Kyle Maclachlan, you can’t help but like the guy, even as he tries to kill our heroes.
Over on The Flash (yes I’m going to gush over it some more, get used to it), the big bad of the season has been hanging out and cracking jokes with Team Flash. He (Thawne/Wells/Reverse-Flash) has been busy changing the course of his own world’s history so he can not only get back home, but also kill the Flash. However, he realized that the only way to get home was to create the very hero that he came back in time to kill. Wells even muses on the irony of his situation. It’s a fantastic dilemma, and a fascinating thing to see Tom Cavanaugh play around with, ginning smugly and punning it up.
I STILL want a 15 season prequel starring this man and his amazing smug face.
So what’s Ultron’s motivation? Uh, he watched all of Youtube, and decided humanity needed to die because we aren’t…I don’t know. Wasn’t really clear, even with a great but ultimately wasted performance by James Spader. Ultron mentions that everyone creates the thing they fear most, and it’s an interesting theme that goes absolutely nowhere. The rest of the world outside of the U.S. seems to hate The Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D., and that’s interesting and believable. Too bad you just get the vaguest idea of that concept before it’s dropped for witty banter and meaningless punching. I’d have rather swapped out the Hulk/Iron Man battle for a quiet scene of Ultron, Tony, and Bruce having a chat, talking about their motivations, trying to come to an agreement. SOMETHING other than dudes and chicks punching a cartoon monster bent on destroying the world for no real reason, which pretty much sums up the movie (also sums up Green Lantern, which is not good company to be in). I thought Amazing Spider-man 2 proved to studios that the superhero film as a genre was over with, but sadly it appears I was wrong.
So as an entry in the ongoing “MCU”, Avengers: Age of Ultron is okay. But you can also wait for the DVD/Blu-Ray, which will apparently have a THREE HOUR AND FORTY MINUTE CUT OF THE DAMN MOVIE. If anything, it will improve the film’s biggest flaw, which is that it feels rushed, overstuffed, and the emotional beats feel unearned. Hopefully all of that narrative connective tissue that the movie was lacking will be there. But if not, you can always turn on the TV and see something better anyways.
It’s a B-Squad JLA, and it’s free.