Avengers: Age of Ultron (response to a review)

Hello, readers!  This post might seem to come from out of nowhere after such a long silence.  But it’s nice to be back.  : )   Anyway, this post came about because a Facebook friend linked to this review of Avengers:Age of Ultron:

Age of Ultron Is Proof Marvel Is Killing the Popcorn Movie by Sady Doyle

(Note:  Captain America wishes to warn readers that the above link contains strong language.)

I hadn’t planned to post it here, as it’s more of a response to this specific review than a complete review of the movie, but another friend of mine asked me to so she could link to it, which was very nice of her!

Anyway, here it is…

I disagree with this review of Avengers: Age of Ultron (Avengers 2 for short)– I not only enjoyed the movie, but I thought it continued a trend of Marvel getting superheroes right in ways that a lot of “deeper, more serious” movies get wrong.

(Spoiler warning:  This review reveals pretty much the whole plot of the movie, so if you still haven’t seen it and want to be surprised, please don’t read on yet!)

Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye in Avengers:Age of Ultron

I’ll try to respond to Sady Doyle’s article one point at a time.  I agree with Doyle’s summary of what made the first Avengers film good:

“The reason the first Avengers was so much fun, despite its generic, weirdly evil climax in which the heroes prove their valor by slaughtering waves of faceless Stormtroopers with no names or histories or families or feelings, was that it turned a mega-budget cross-over action movie into a hang-out comedy. The most important scenes in that movie are the ones in which the characters just sit around together, bickering, trading opinions, asking each other questions and scoring one-liners at each others’ expense. The Stormtroopers were obligatory action junk. The conversations—will these people like each other, and if so, why?—were the story.”

Absolutely, it was the interaction between these characters, with their extremely different backgrounds and views of the world, that made Avengers such a fun movie.  At the beginning of the movie, Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Thor, and Bruce Banner each had their own individual concerns on their minds.  We saw them meet, in some cases finding common ground, in other cases hastily prejudging one another.  They stepped on each other’s toes, figured out exactly how to push each other’s hot buttons:  “You’re a laboratory experiment, Steve.  Everything special about you came out of a bottle.”  When they’re faced with a more important crisis, though, they put aside their personal gripes and concerns.  They protect each other’s weaknesses and combine their strengths in such a way that the team becomes greater than the sum of its parts.  And the victory is ultimately won thanks to an act of sacrifice.

It’s not deep or complicated, just an example of how flawed humans can tear each other down or build each other up.  Joss Whedon’s talent for snappy dialogue lent itself well to a movie focusing on this theme.

Anyway, Doyle doesn’t think that Avengers 2 has that sort of interaction, because the increased number of characters, battle sequences, and self-references takes up all the time.

But that’s not what I saw at all in the movie.  Even during the action sequences, the banter between the characters showed a group that had become closer and more comfortable with each other in the years since the first movie.  In particular, from the opening scene, it was clear that Captain America had assumed the role of lead strategist, directing the other Avengers.  And as much as they teased him with the “language” running gag, it was clear that they were comfortable having him in that leadership role in the midst of battle.

We also saw more of the Avengers looking out for each other’s weaknesses, particularly in the case of Bruce Banner, the Hulk.  Natasha and Bruce had worked out a way to return Banner to his senses when the fight was over.  Tony worked with Bruce on a safeguard system if the worst happened and the Hulk was set loose on innocent people.

I think part of the issue is that you have to look at Avengers 2 as a continuation of the larger arc running through both Avengers movies.  Not every character has a clear arc confined to this one movie, but it’s obvious from the first scene of Avengers 2 that they have all developed as people and in relation to one another.  And they all continue to develop throughout this movie.  (I think Doyle misses out on a major character focus of the movie, too, because it centers on a character that Doyle doesn’t say much about.)

One reason the Marvel cinematic universe has been so successful is that it has focused on character and has taken the time to allow them to develop naturally over the years.  The success of Avengers was earned.  (I don’t expect DC to be as successful with their attempt to skip all of the character development and do the big Superman/Batman movie first.)

I will admit to being confused, along with Doyle, by the way that the Vision was introduced to the story by Tony seemingly repeating his exact mistake from the beginning when he created Ultron.  Maybe the filmmakers wanted to surprise the audience by hinting at disaster, then revealing that Tony turned out to be right all along, but I wish they had spent a little more time reacting to the implications of that scene.  I do see that as a weakness in Avengers 2, just as Avengers 1 has its army of faceless, disposable bad guys that conveniently deactivates when you blow up the mother ship.

In balance, though, the performances of Ultron and the Vision were interesting enough that I was willing to forgive a lot.  Ultron was a very different villain from someone like Loki, who knows that he’s going to kill a lot of people and just doesn’t care, smoothing it all over with lies.  Ultron was weirdly sympathetic at times.  I got the impression that Ultron was deluded enough to believe that his way was the right way, with his repeated claims that “They just have to see, and then they’ll understand…”  Just as he reacted to severing a man’s arm with “oh, I didn’t mean to do that– look, you’ll be all right…” he somehow thought that what he was doing was necessary and ultimately good, even though it was clear to everyone else that his standards for “evolution” were going to leave the Earth empty of life aside from Ultron himself.

We didn’t get to see much of the Vision, but he mainly stood as an interesting contrast to Ultron, as a savior who thinks (knows) that humanity is doomed, but thinks that their fragility makes them more precious, not less.  The scene between him and the last Ultron model was more thought-provoking than anything I’ve seen in summer superhero movies for quite a few years.  My family has had some interesting discussions about how both Ultron and the Vision style themselves as humanity’s saviors, but both of them represent our prideful attempts to save ourselves based on our own virtue– neither offers a Christ-like salvation.

I can agree that Avengers 2 never had a moment as awesome as the Hulk interrupting yet another pretentious Loki speech about godhood by simply pummeling him like a ragdoll. (And honestly, I don’t know how you can expect to repeat the magic of a scene like that, that was built up to so perfectly.)  But Doyle’s characterization of Avengers 2 as utterly devoid of character, depth, or thought is such a severe overreaction in the other direction that it feels like Doyle came into the theater looking for ways to be disappointed.

There’s plenty of reason to criticize Marvel as well as the comic book and film industries as a whole based on their treatment of female characters.  By all rights, Natasha Romanov should have her own series of movies and would not constantly be shoehorned in as a potential or actual love interest for one male character after another.  I don’t like the way the only female character in the story is hyper-sexualized either.

But I think it’s going too far to dismiss Natasha Romanov’s character development the way that Doyle does:

“Defining your female character’s motivation solely around the Betty Crocker axis of ‘wants boyfriend’ and ‘wants babies’ is 100% disgusting.”

In her most vulnerable scene, Natasha reveals to Bruce Banner that she was sterilized as part of an abusive training process that sought to produce remorseless assassins, and that she still wrestles with the emotional and psychological scars of that mutilation.

I can’t simply reduce this to “Well, she’s female, so of course she’s upset because she can’t have babies.”  Natasha reveals her personal anguish and self-loathing over her violation not just as a woman who can never bear children but also as a human whose life was reduced to being expected to murder others without remorse.  It wasn’t without remorse; it has taken its toll on her soul, and it was this pain that Wanda Maximoff was able to bring to the surface just as she brought nearly all of the Avengers’ personal demons to torment them through dreams that were harmful half-lies and half-truths.

The context is that she reveals this to Banner, who until now has seemed to be the Avenger dealing with the most inner turmoil.  We know from the first movie that the depression from fighting to keep the Hulk under control led him to attempt suicide.  In this scene, we see another reason for Banner’s turmoil– he has lost the ability to have the life he hoped he could have– a family is an impossibility for him.  The pain of not being able to have children is one that Bruce and Natasha share.  I think the scene was effective in showing that both men and women struggle with these issues.

And I think it’s also telling that Natasha ends her story by saying, “Still think you’re the only monster on the team?”  She is saying this to a man who literally transforms into a terrifying, enormous green monster when he loses control.  Isn’t that a powerful statement about the lasting effect that abuse has on a person’s self-image?  Isn’t the fact that both Natasha and Bruce continue to show their true nature through their choices to help others a positive message?

Doyle fears that the only message in the Avengers movies is “Punching is better than talking.”  For some reason, Avengers 2 was so disappointing that Doyle now sees even a favorite scene from Avengers 1 as conveying that message.  I suppose it could be seen either way.  I think that Avengers 2 is the same in that regard, which brings me back to another simple thing that these movies get right:

It allows its heroes to actually be heroes.  In the climactic battle sequence, dizzyingly long as it may be, the major focus of the Avengers is to save the lives of as many innocent people as possible.  Ultron taunts them, claiming they can never succeed in saving the people of the city of Sokovia, but they ignore him and keep doing everything they can, putting themselves in danger so that others can escape.

You wouldn’t think that would be remarkable in a movie about superheroes, but we’ve recently had a Batman series that paid little attention to civilian casualties aside from its shock value, and a Superman movie in which so much collateral damage took place from the climactic fight that there shouldn’t be much of Metropolis left at all.  If I lived there, I might not like Superman much better than General Zod; I’d just want them to go fight on some other planet.

It was refreshing to see the Avengers actually put some thought into sparing the lives of innocent people even in the seemingly impossible situation of fighting enemies with no regard for human life.  (One of my favorite moments was when Tony Stark finds an empty building under construction and decides to buy it so he can destroy it a second later in order to bring the Hulk’s rampage to a stop.)

As with everything else, they accomplish this through teamwork, even accepting help from former enemies to get people to safety.  You have the great scene of Clint Barton (Hawkeye) instructing a terrified Wanda Maximoff about what it means to be an Avenger.

Which brings me to the biggest thing that Doyle’s review seemed to miss about Avengers 2.  The most important character in the movie was Hawkeye.  That’s right, the bow-and-arrow guy we knew almost nothing about because he didn’t get his own movie series.  The guy who seems to be hopelessly outclassed by a group that includes a technologial genius, an enhanced super-soldier, a Norse god, a rage monster, and a trained assassin.  He can’t fly or run fast or punch through walls– he’s just got these fancy arrows.

Despite the fact that Hawkeye seems to constantly need rescuing by the other Avengers, in this movie he is the glue that holds the team together when things are at their worst.  (And it’s not just that they bond over rescuing Hawkeye, as Tony jokes early in the movie.)

We finally learn a little bit about him, and we find that he’s a family man who lives on a farm with a wife and two kids, with one more on the way.  He never mentioned his family to the Avengers because he wanted to keep them safe, but he clearly talks to his wife about the Avengers based on how she greets them all with recognition the moment they enter her house.  That’s important, because it means that he considers the “real” Clint Barton to be a husband and father, not the comic book hero Hawkeye.

I think the central scene of the movie is a private conversation between Clint and his wife Laura.  She tells him that she sees the amazing abilities that the Avengers have… “these gods…” she says.  “You don’t think they need me?” Clint asks.  “Actually, I think they do,” Laura says.

The central struggle in Avengers 2 is the Avengers against their own greatest fears, revealed to them by Wanda Maximoff.  It’s Hawkeye who is prepared for her attack, and he is the rock for the team, keeping their focus on the task.

And who is Hawkeye’s rock?  His wife, an unassuming woman named Laura with two kids to care for, soon to be three, who plans home improvement projects with her husband and always has the door open for company.  She is the reason the Avengers don’t fall apart.

This is the humanity and real life at the core of Avengers 2 that Doyle seems to have missed.  It gives focus to what the battle with Ultron is really about– as Nick Fury says from a seat at Laura’s dinner table, “All this laid in a grave.”  The message is that heroes are ultimately ordinary people, and there are a lot of ways to be a hero.

(Just one other note on a minor matter:  Doyle complains that Laura “names her baby after someone she never met, on the premise that her husband once slightly got along with him for about two hours. Stirring!”  I think the reason they named the baby after Pietro Maximoff was that Pietro literally gave his life to save Clint’s.  That seems to outweigh anything else that might have happened between them, doesn’t it?)

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