Avengers: Age of Ultron
By Annie Bulloch and Meredith Guthrie
Director: Joss Whedon
Writer: Joss Whedon (screenplay)
Stars: Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, James Spader, Paul Bettany, Samuel L. Jackson
Release Date: May 1, 2015 (U.S.)
Annie: At this point, I can’t view an entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe like I would most movies. Those characters are my friends. I like to hang out with them and see what they’re up to, even if said hangout isn’t the BEST PARTY EVAR. Even if they’re having kind of a rough week. They get a lot of slack from me because we’ve been through some big stuff together and known each other so long.
Speaking of knowing someone for a long time, Meredith and I have known each other for more than twenty years now. We went to college together at University of St. Thomas in Houston, and we co-edited the arts and entertainment section of the now-defunct student newspaper, The Cauldron.* We even won a state journalism award for a piece we wrote together. Meredith and I haven’t reviewed a movie together since 1998, so it’s fun getting the band back together.
Meredith: We won for an article about Star Wars and how Kenneth Branagh smells good. Yes, we connected the two. Yes, we’re just that good.
Annie: This is relevant because Kenneth Branagh eventually directed Thor.
Meredith: I completely agree with Annie: there are movies, and then there are MCU Movies. I know an MCU movie will happen in a world that I enjoy, with characters I like. Even if it’s not my most favorite single movie ever, I know I’ll have a good time.
For better or worse, I also like Whedon**. I loved Buffy and Angel, and I like what Whedon has done with the Avengers. The things I like about Whedon are exactly the things that a lot of other people hate: his mix of humor and OMG THE FEELS, his super quippy language (“Language!”), and his insistence that the things that make us great are also our downfalls. His big old sprawling “let’s save the woooooorrrrld! (…..again)” story arcs are perfect for superhero movies.
Annie: “The thing that makes you awesome is also the thing that makes you suck” is one of my chief philosophies of life. I guess you could say that the things that are good about Whedon are also the very things that make him suck.
Meredith: The plot of the film, without being too spoilery, is this: the Avengers get Loki’s staff after a pretty fun scrap with HYDRA. Tony Stark wants to use it to power Ultron, a planetary defense system that runs on artificial intelligence. What could possibly go wrong? All of it. All of it goes wrong. Avenging ensues.
Annie: I adore the first Avengers film, so I was prepared to not love this one quite as much. And I didn’t! But I still liked it a lot.
Meredith: James Spader plays Ultron. Whoo boy, James Spader. Ever since Pretty in Pink, I’ve thought Spader was magnificent. (Which, yes, says something about me.) Spader’s Ultron is no mere evil robot, he’s an evil robot with an inner life, definite daddy issues, and a remarkably droll sense of humor. If he weren’t so darn set on destroying all humans, I’d want to hang out with him.
Annie: I also have the James Spader thing. He is delightful, especially when he’s playing a jerk. And Ultron is essentially Tony Stark minus any human filters, so that’s some seriously concentrated jerkitude. *cartoon hearts appear around my head* (This also says stuff about me, surely.)
This movie is also a Downey/Spader reunion. If you saw Tuff Turf or Less Than Zero, there’s a BYO emotional baggage element that’s fun for nerds like me.
Meredith: AND ME.
Meredith: If anything, Tony Stark is the more traditional bad guy in this movie, no? Sure, Stark saves the day, but his single minded Quest For Science (!!!) and lingering PTSD from the Battle of New York in the first Avengers movie created the problem they had to solve — even if the quest does lead to some awesome Science Bros moments. I didn’t like Tony for a lot of this movie, and I don’t think I was supposed to — Pepper was out of town, and that’s never good***. Stark’s moral compass has a pretty big dent in it. Still: “Please be a secret door, please be a secret door — yes!”
Annie: Yeah, everything bad that happens is Tony’s fault, directly or indirectly. And he’s not someone who deals well with that part of himself. Denial and overcompensation are his real superpowers. He likes to joke around about how terrible he is to try to deflect how terrible he knows he really is. Self-reflection puts him in a really bad place. Mix that with the PTSD he’s still dealing with from the Battle of New York and you get a classic supervillain origin story. In many ways, he’s a bad guy who thinks he’s a good guy. (The recent Superior Iron Man comic series has gotten a lot of mileage from this.)
I also enjoyed the extended Science Bro-ing, even though a lot of it involves Tony trying to manipulate Banner, who resents it and is obviously conflicted about Tony’s track record for being right vs. wrong about things.
Meredith: Did S.H.I.E.L.D. buy tech shirts by the gross? “Welcome to the Avengers! Here’s your color coded tech shirt. Have fun looking pectacular!”
(See also: product placement for Beats Audio and Adidas.) Now I’m thinking way too much about the Avengers supply chain management. (“Hey, guys, we’re getting in some new recruits. We’re going to need some silvery blue stuff for the guy and lots and lots of red — but not Stark’s red — for the girl. Also, she’s gonna need a better dye job, so someone bring in a cosmetologist!” I’m really sad that Quicksilver (…spoiler alert? Not really.) never gets a better hair style.
Except when there is no shirt. Thanks, topless wet Thor!
Annie: And my thanks to wet, shirtless Bruce Banner, of which we sadly could not find a picture.
Speaking of Thor, fans have been squeeing for months over the scene where Cap makes Thor’s hammer wiggle. Wait til you get a load of what comes next.
Annie: Hammer-lifting ability is a poor basis for a system of government.
Meredith: Agreed. It also seems to have something to do with capes.
Annie: There’s a GIF from Thor: The Dark World where Thor literally grows a cape while jumping off a balcony.
Annie: We’re getting into spoiler territory now! Look away, people who somehow haven’t seen the movie yet, but still plan to and are reading this!
Meredith: How many movies has Paul Bettany had to wait for embodiment? How many years of “No, really! This part gets so much more interesting down the line!” *Throws confetti for Paul Bettany* *Feels weirdly attracted to Paul Bettany*
Annie: It was cool that we saw a little more of the world in this one. I got excited about the little hint of Wakanda we saw. Augh, I wish Black Panther was coming out this weekend.
I liked that Scarlet Witch wasn’t portrayed as being crazy, which happens too often in the comics. I only have limited experience with her as a comic character, and most of it was right around House of M. Not Wanda’s best day! But here, she’s understandably traumatized and angry, but she’s not out of her mind. And I’m glad the costume department went for a more subtle approach and didn’t try using the Scarlet Witch Pointy Wimple™.
Meredith: Yes! She’s super cool here and not at all out of her mind! *throws confetti* Also, yes!! Wakanda!!! Gimme.
Annie: Speaking of low bars that have been set by previous works, I also liked how much effort the characters put into trying to keep civilians out of harm’s way.
Meredith: I actually marked that down as a Really Good Thing. I’m super tired of disaster porn where thousands of people die and the audience is supposed to ignore that because the heroes are ok.
Annie: If I wrote super hero stories, my characters would spend most of their time talking about their feelings and how they view themselves, so I enjoyed that aspect of the movie a lot. Thor isn’t really the introspective type by nature, and Tony can’t deal with it on an honest level very often.
Meredith: Introspection gives Tony a rash.
Annie: Indeed! (Speaking of which, do you think the Iron Man suits are self-cleaning? Because it has to get awfully sweaty in there.)
I think the Hulk/Black Widow pairing was interesting because they have a lot in common in ways that might not be immediately obvious. They’re definitely putting more effort than Tony into acknowledging and balancing the warring sides of their natures. The inner monster you acknowledge has less power than the one you pretend isn’t there.
Meredith: I liked them together! I fully admit I may have liked it because of “Mmmmmmm, Ruffalo…” I liked that Hawkeye/Black Widow became a “best friends” relationship. I like it when men and women can be besties but not romantic. That’s weirdly rare in pop culture. I did NOT like the “My inability to have kids makes me a monster” thing. Ew.
Annie: I thought the thing that made her feel monstrous was more that she had been made that way in order to become a better, more efficient killing machine. (Not that it actually works that way, but I can see the KGB trying to avoid a Kill Bill scenario.)
Meredith: I get that, but it follows a stream that makes women without kids “less than” in ways that gross me out? I’d be MUCH more willing to be down with a “I’ve killed a cast of thousands and had a good time with it = monster” storyline.
Annie: As a woman without kids, I’m certainly sensitive to those issues. Even if you don’t want kids, it’s awful to have that choice removed from you against your will.
Meredith: I agree 9000% percent — but I’d say that makes the KGB monstrous, not her? Bruce is a monster because of his Science(!!!) obsession. It was an unintended consequence of his own choices. Hers is not. Natasha never had a choice? ANYWAY, back to the squee?
Annie: Almost back to the squee! But first…Bruce’s monster was unleashed by a science accident, but growing up with his abusive father is what put that monster in him in the first place. Bruce and Natasha both FEEL monstrous, mostly because of things that were done to them and became part of them. A lot of their issues hit close to home for me personally, so I responded strongly to that material. Feelings are messy!
Meredith: Feelings are messy, and Whedon is often very good about this. If that ONE sentence had been a wee bit different, I’d be nine billion times more ok. I’m still overwhelmingly positive about the movie!
Annie: And I don’t remember how it was worded, exactly. But that was my impression when I saw it. Either way, I would’ve gently argued with her that despite how she may feel, that doesn’t make her a monster. Girlfriend needs a therapist and a hug.
I wonder when the Soviet Union dissolved in the MCU. In Winter Soldier, they establish that Natasha was born in 1984. That would make her 7 when our world’s USSR ended. But I guess in the MCU, Julie Delpy’s School for Murder Girls was still going strong about 2001? Maybe it’s the HYDRA influence.
Meredith: I can buy into this! HYDRA’s gonna get you. Yes, you. You right there. Also me.
Annie: Back to the squee: you’re right, Paul Bettany has the android hotness. I want him to be in all the movies. And I want him to talk about his feelings about humanity a lot. I would happily watch a three-hour movie in which Vision and Ultron discussed the relative merits of humanity with equal parts philosophy and sass.
Meredith: Yes, please. Yes, really please. *inarticulate inarticulateness*
Annie: My fanfiction would be the least-read of all time. But it might be very popular with a very small audience!
Meredith: I’ll read it. And maybe co-author it. Probably co-author it. Bang on your door as you write.
Annie: That’s gonna get awkward when the sexy parts happen. (Not in the Ultron/Vision talking stories. I’m sure that’s somebody’s thing, but not mine!)
Since we’re into spoilers, here’s my speculation: I think they killed off Pietro because there’s already a Quicksilver running around in Fox’s X-Men franchise. It’d be weird to introduce Wanda without him, but I’m okay with her not having to be part of a unit.
Meredith: This is my thought, too. So. Many. Quicksilvers. So little time.
Annie: Clint’s speech to Wanda in the bombed-out building was great. I’m glad he was clear on how being an Avenger wasn’t something she had to do.
Meredith: Yes! And “the past is past. Now is now. If you’re good now, you’re ok by me.” This is his whole philosophy of Natasha being his BFF. Hawkeye is the most balanced of all the Avengers. He does his job, he goes home to his (secret like whoa) family, he takes people for who they are in the moment. How and why did he get so zen?
Annie: And not being like, “You’re a coward if you don’t run outside and fight these killer robots.”
Speaking of brave people, my favorite character from Winter Soldier showed up on the Helicarrier! It’s Cameron Klein, the desk-duty S.H.I.E.L.D. guy who refused to launch the HYDRA attacks even when future-Crossbones put a gun to his head! That guy is rad. I want to be friends with him.
Meredith: I saw him! The theater cheered when he came on screen. I was With My People.
All in all. I give this movie a hearty endorsement. Yes, it has all the same Whedon issues. We know this going in. It’s still a whopping good time and something I want to see again soon!
Still — yes, you’ve given Black Widow great big juicy parts of everyone else’s movie. In terms of screen time, I’m willing to bet she’s second only to Iron Man. Good. Great. GIMME MY BLACK WIDOW MOVIE, for all that’s holy and jumpsuit-clad! She needs her name in the title! She needs merchandise! (Hell yes, I’m excited for Captain Marvel, but it’s not a zero sum game! I want both!)
Annie: I also want both. And more Agent Carter and a Ms. Marvel TV show. Not just because they’re female characters (although representation is crucial), but because I really like those characters. Honestly, I hope MCU Phase 5 has a Squirrel Girl movie.
So yeah, I liked this movie too. It didn’t give me the same triumphant feeling the first Avengers film did, but I had a good time and look forward to seeing again. (Steve threw an entire motorcycle, for crying out loud! I need a GIF of that clip that’s also a tattoo somehow.)
Age of Ultron still felt like a wild weekend spent with old friends, some of whom are going through some rough stuff right now. And I’m excited about the rise of the next wave of Avengers. I love to watch this universe expanding.
Meredith: Me too!
*Several years ago, the university’s administration decided it didn’t want a student newspaper that functioned independently and could be critical of them, so they shut down The Cauldron. I suppose the lesson there is that if it’s good enough for North Korea, it’s good enough for UST.
**I acknowledge Whedon’s feminism Has Issues. Many big spikey (…heh) issues.
***Shakes fist at Gwenyth Paltrow for being so Gwenyth Paltrow-y. Still enjoys Pepper.