There are many movies I like. But I'm not writing about those here.
When I left the cinema after watching Avengers : Age of Ultron, the world outside looked brighter and more vibrant than the dark, dour movie I’d been watching for some two and a half hours. This is not a criticism in and of itself, but it wasn't something I'd have anticipated.
Firstly, a bit of background. I am male, but I have never been a fan of comic books. It's not a format I find enjoyble, and this informs my opinion of comic movies and why I'm a little bit skeptical about adapting them effectively into movies. TV Series perhaps more so, but movies not so much. This is also why I do not have any 'baggage' when it comes to loving (or in my case not giving a f**k about) characters like 'Vision' or 'Ultron'. To me, the no-doubt rich comic history of these characters is irrelevant. What matters is the movie, and to me nothing exists outside that sphere.
Should this form of judgement be allowed? I argue that it should. A quick bit of research online suggests that Marvel Comics' monthly sales of comic books is something like $15million (?), and if that's approximately true, what that means is that in all likelihood annual US Comic Book sales will be less than 1/5 of what Avengers Age of Ultron will make at the global box office. Which is to say : Comic Book Nerds? You are not in the majority. You are the most loyal, and most vocal group, with perhaps the biggest vested interest. Are comic book fans more valuable to Disney/Marvel than the averge person? Perhaps. But for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to thrive, I'd argue that it can not rely on hardcore fans alone.
So now you know where I'm coming from when I say that I think Avengers : Age of Ultron was good. I’d give it a 7/10. It was well-made and nobody took an easy paycheck. There was care taken, and skill involved. But it's probably NOT in my top five Marvel films (Avengers 1, Cap2, Cap1, IronMan1 and probably IronMan3 all edge it out). And the problem is, if I had to justify why I didn’t like it more, the reasons would make me reduce it to a barely ‘average’ 6.5/10. Because it consistently failed to engage me, and part of the reason is fundamentally due to the format of comic book movies, which is becoming more apparent.
1. WHEN WE LAST LEFT OUR HEROES....
Who gives a 5hit, right? I mean, Tony Stark had lost all of his Iron Man suits in Iron Man 3; and Captain America was off to find Bucky, Black Widows was out doing something and Nick Fury was wearing a fetching hoodie and vanishing into the night while his tombstone stood sentry after Winter Solder, and.... wait. Did you care about any of that? Doesn't matter, completely unimportant, stop living in the past because ALL of that is in the past, and never referred to. If this movie feels like I missed a whole bunch of episodes, episodes during which the characters went and had adventures that altered their characters because they don’t feel the same.... then that's because they absolutely did, and we're not told how, why, or what happened. And they don't think the same, their motivations have shifted, and it's very jarring. Their growth as characters appears more convenient than natural or organic because it happened off-screen. In addition, I could phrase it as : at times this felt like a movie that was 3hrs 10mins long until it had half an hour worth of content gouged out of it for runtime reasons.
2. ULTRON : BAD OR JUST WRONG? (OR "JUST COPIED FROM 'I, ROBOT' "?)
But the biggest problem is the villain, whose existance effectively arises from two Drunks at a party meddling with alien technology. And those drunks are two of our heroes - and two of my favourite characters. More on that later, but Ultron's ill-thought-out motivation, vaguely 'saving the world by killing all humans' isn’t just a boring AI trope, but it’s also only a slightly enhanced version of the plot of Captain America : Winter Soldier (kill all threats to protect the rest). But that aside, given his plan changes anyway, realistically, asking a robot to 'keep the world safe' is a misnomer. It either means keeping the world safe FOR HUMANS (in which case Ultron's plan is wrong due to convenient semantics), or it means keep the world safe for LIFE (in which case Ultron's plan is ALSO wrong because he's going to destroy everything), or it just means literally keeping this orbiting body safe.... in which case Ultron isn't even necessary.
Or realistically, Ultron is just following a warped agenda based on an improper understanding of a vague AI impulse given to him by his creator, plus weird alien influence you / I / we will never understand, but something to do with quoting Pincchio. And while amusing (?) it's not really cool.
3. AGAIN, NOT SO MUCH "EPIC" VILLAIN AS "CREATED WHILE DRUNK" VILLAIN
And don't forget : Tony Stark creates this nemesis because of a rushed three-day hack job to resolve a personal problem ('let's all retire', I think?), which prior to this movie hadn’t been identified as something he really cared about, with a very convenient time limit (three days) thrown in to ensure maximum chance of making a mistake on something Important. So the result of that hack-job is this movie's villain (and not, say, the two idiots who created him?) Chillingly both the people responsible survive, neither are punished, and one even gets to drive away in yet another brand new Audi R8. If you want to delve deeper, then I'm sorry but we don't have much time since we need to introduce three or four new heroes/villaicncs, some additional support characters, some new set-pieces, and flashbacks.
To me, though, Ultron isn’t a villain so much as just… really, really WRONG. And he won’t listen to reason. Which is fine in the world of the movie, because nobody is talking to him and trying to understand. Nobody is negotiating, nobody is even attempting to… and that is that. This movie wants its action scenes, and the plot has to move to that aim, so talking to the villain is out because the villain is evil (sort of) and he has a plan (of sorts) and must be stopped.
4. FORGET PLOT - GIVE ME ACTION
The movie is able to overcome these problems to an extent by basically having nonstop action set-pieces that overload senses you might otherwise use to query the plot, interspersed with the revelation of characters’ internal weaknesses, which meant I now had more fragile heroes I thought I knew but didn't, that I now have to reconcile with.... and they're fighting against a less conceivable villain than I might have hoped. All that, in a movie that’s over two and a half hours long but was hardly ever engaging because it's neither the movie I wanted to watch, nor the movie it's convinced me I want to. Because I saw the trailer, and much as I wanted to not be spoiled by the trailer, I at least would have expected the tone to be somewhat accurate.
The first Avengers film avoided this by being much more vague about the danger - Loki was a 'bag of cats' and whether he wanted to rule for ever or would get bored was just a pretext to get people working together... and THAT was the victory, and the threat was the pretext, which meant that the humorous tone worked. Here, we're meant to care because the villain is genuinely menacing (albeit mistaken), and our characters are worried and scared... but are given little reason to do so and the wry humour and wisecracks this movie often throws out there seem really ill-placed.
5. FORGET ACTION - GIVE ME HUMOUR AND ACTION
I've said this before to friends : it is possible to achieve a balance between humour and action, but even where a ratio of 1:1 might work, doubling both numbers DOESN'T - the two might balance each other out, but they don't CANCEL each other out. This movie couldn't make me care AND it couldn't make me laugh because it was trying too hard to do both at the same time, especially in the first half of the movie where it sets a tone that's really inconsistent and unrealistic given the stakes it's trying to create.
What’s so jarring is that the first Avengers movie used characters AND a villain that we’d seen before in separate movies, and the movie was about putting them all together on the same playing field and seeing what happened. That was Awesome. And The Winter Soldier did something similar : using familiar characters and themes and reimagining them in a different construct.
Here, the pieces are different, and differently assembled, and plot is subservient to action, and most of what happens takes place due to a mistake. And when it didn't have that, it had flashbacks, it had visions, and it had farmstay vacations.
6. BUT PLEASE..... GIVE ME THE BACKSTORY OF THE LEAST INTERESTING AVENGER
Let's talk about the farmstay interlude. Of ALL the Avengers, could we please agree that the one we care about least is Hawkeye? The fact that he has a family is at best useful as a throwaway bit of humour, but surely not meant to be some kind of 'reality' that we're meant to anchor 'human stakes' to. Why didn't they make that NICK FURY'S Family at the Farm? That whole section could become pretty awesome because you'd have contrast between Nick Fury and Family. Instead we get the dull reality of a dull character. Which is... inconceivably boring. And it coincides with our team-at-an-all-time-low-soul-searching undermined by people leaving to go on convenient vision-quests elsewhere (Thor), people being introduced (wife and kids), and the revelation that at least one character knew about Hawkeye's family (Black Widow) while two guys chop wood until one goes to fix a tractor. I forget where Hulk was during this. Probably moping.
7. FUCK IT, THEN. CREATE A NEW HERO
So rather than solve the problem by mending these now-broken pieces, and having them rebuild and work together, something the movie not only should have done but kind of tried to do, the movie then decides that the most effective solution to the problem of the bad guy that's been created is to use space magic to create an all-powerful NEW hero at the movie's 2/3 mark. This will mean that we have that new hero fight the new villain alongside the other two new heroes they’ve introduced who used to be villains, and then kill one of them because it’s easy to kill a new characer that felt like he was introduced as part of a duo SPECIFICALLY so that you could kill one of them.
As for Vison? Um... I have no attachment to this character. Why would I? Once he's in corporeal form he becomes Jarvis, except without humour. As a friend noted, he's basically the Silver Sufer : impassive, and kind of omnipotent. The worst kind of character. He means nothing to me at all. I'm not sure if I'm meant to care about what is basically a placid new powerful Deus Ex Machina whose powers far outweigh that of all the other Avengers.
9. I'D LIKE TO ORDER A SECOND HERO WITH SIMILARLY UNDEFINED POWERS, PLEASE
The two new characters who aren't Vision are Very Convenient. Making them brother and sister gives them a pre-existing relationship which makes them a duo, okay fine. But giving them wildly different powers is the kind of comic book conceit that's meant to be interesting but honestly simply isn't. And yes, I'm aware who their father is, and why He Will Not Be Mentioned. But even aside from the fact that Quicksilver is the same, power-wise, as The Flash in That Other Franchise.... Scarlett Witch seems like she's comprised of a fan-boy's grab-bag of tricks and talents thrown in to character to create a one-person force that could take on a number of enemies. She can implant memories AND throw out power beams AND move shit around telepathically. Does she also make great lattes? Because I could use a coffee.
10. AND BECAUSE WE NEED MORE FACELESS MINIONS...
All the bad guy's minions are more robots, none with personality so you can kill them with no emotion. Didn't we do that in the last Avengers film? Well done.
But hey... you had action. And the action in the movie is cool insofar as it's frantic and audacious. But the flipside is that there are few stakes prior to the final battle because you need all your heroes for the final battle, and as noted, the final battle is undermined by who you're fighting against.
11. THREATEN THE INHABITANTS OF A COUNTRY YOU JUST MADE UP
It was almost a relief when we got to the final FINAL battle, whose means of 'threat to all life on earth' is faintly moronic on the one hand… but also kind of smaller in scope than the nine realms in danger in the Thor sequel (that starred only Thor), and simultaneously less immediate than the three million at risk in The Winter Soldier because at least those seemed like ‘real’ people in the real world rather than the inhabitants of a country whose name you just made up.
In addition, let's be honest, (a) it's fairly obvious you won’t destroy the world since you’ve already announced Avengers 3a, 3b, Ant Man, Black Panther, Civil War and renewed Agents of S.H.I.E.D..... and (b) we’ve barely seen even a single civillian death in this film, so I doubt you have the balls to destroy even the inhabitants of 'Not-A-Real-Country-Istan', Eastern Europe.
12. THE FINAL BATTLE
The final battle is a dour battle filled with no one-liners, no desperation, too many characters in too many different places at once, in a place we don't care about, fighting a villain we've been told is angry but kind of comes off as confused and outnumbered and fighting for his life against a newly arrived hero who is more powerful. And then our heroes start spending more time saving civilians which is (yawn). Noble, sure, but these are people (refer above) from a country we know nothing about, to whom we have no attachment. But please, insert some mothers with children and some pets so I get the (yawn) stakes.
And since the main villain is basically just kind of wrong in the end (except at the VERY end he’s agreed to have been in part RIGHT, and that's just before he’s killed, but thankfully only Vision is there to hear that) we have both a confused villain, and a confused plot, and personality-less minions, facing off against our heroes. That's actually considerably INFERIOR to the villain of the first Avengers film, Loki. And Avengers didn't end with three new heroes ready to join in the (yawn) fight against the Next Big Threat.
Ultron is the product of alien technology aeons old embedded in a stone that's one of six with the power to lay waste to whole planets.... and yet he's defeated by an AI Tony Stark had previously been using mostly to provide pithily phrased updates on his suit's power integrity. How powerful was the bad guy, then, and how big was the threat?
12. PEOPLE ARE GETTING BORED. QUICK! KILL SOMEBODY
In accordance with the rule of putting faceless civilians at risk, please also highlight the threat by killing one of our heroes. But please... make it one of the new ones so I don't care that much.
13. THE END IS THE BEGINNING IS... YET ANOTHER BEGINNING
… and then it ended with a new HQ and the four new Avengers in some kind of large school training hall. What actually irritates me is why are they there? Presumably to get training to join the Big Leagues? What are they all going to do ... lift weights? We've got Thor and Hulk for that. Study ethics? Recall Tony Stark because clearly he didn't study that.
And it's a big hall. Which you know they’re going to want to fill with more new Avengers in the belief that even more heroes makes things better. But they don’t. Because the main problem with more Avengers is that you need to create new/more/bigger villains for them to fight. And more Avengers also means those villains need to be specifically contrived to not be immediately defeatable... but eventually defeatable, either through the introduction of even MORE new heroes, or NEW space magic that's required to be made up.
Which was kind of the movie I just watched, and I don't want to watch more of those movies.
14. WHY HASN'T TONY STARK BEEN ARRESTED, OR STOPPED?
I come out of this movie concluding that the one person who needs to be stopped from destroying the world is Tony Stark. I saw a movie where my favourite Avenger is effectively the villain and pretty much only Thor calls him on it, and it ends with him not arrested. That's not the movie I wanted to watch, and it's barely the story I believe it intended to tell. It actually moves me into the "Man of Steel" universe where I'm forced to conclude that because I am a non-superpowered non-billionaire human on this planet, the biggest threat to me will come from drunken scientists with too many resources and no constraints. No amount of humour will increase my enjoyment factor at that.
Good news, though. Apparently after three years and two movies of sitting on a throne, Thanos has finally gotten out of his chair. I assume it'll take him another two years to shower and get dressed. I've also forgotten why I care about Thanos. In Guardians of the Galaxy, I saw one of this Lieutenants back-talking at him, steal an infinity stone from him and get away with it, and neither of his two daughters particularly respected him. The guy is not coming across as particularly evil or formidable. Or smart. Or mysterious. Or funny. But please... make sure you split that movie into TWO movies.
SO LET'S SUMMARISE EVERYTHING:
"Drunken Tony Stark unleashes Alien AI on a pretext we'd never been exposed to til now; and then sober Tony Stark weaponises the AI he's already had and easily it beats the shit out of the Alien AI, which ends up being more confused than evil.... all while Earth's Mightiest Heroes become a civilian evacuation team and fight mindless personality-less minions for the second Avengers film in a row. Btw, I think the Age of Ultron lasts about three days from his birth to his destruction. To Be Continued."
Some More General Observations:
16. TOO MANY IMPOSSIBLE THINGS
The strongest movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been the ones that built on concepts previously introduced, and didn't ask you to believe in too many new implausible things at once without giving you a lot of time (or even an entire 'Thor' movie) to get used to them. It's easier to believe that the crazed villain of the first Avengers movie was a petulant man-child because we saw him in one of the previous movies. It's easier to believe that World War II's Hydra infiltrated Shield because its existance was known and its plan was long-term and clever, just as it's easy to believe that a good organisation can be infiltrated or that good intentions taken too far can lead to great evil.
For me Thor The Dark World failed because absolutely everything (except the Thor/Loki dynamic) felt contrived and made up. Iron Man 2 failed because it threw in too many plots as if it desperately had no idea what the audience wanted, plus it had no clue whether to be a comedy or a drama. Guardians of the Galaxy was a ton of fun, but the logic of the last half hour took a holiday sipping margaritas on a beach somewhere while the movie concluded.
As for Age of Ultron? Overall, I felt this movie expected me to believe and accept far too many things at once, used frantic pace to accomplish that, and gave me too little in the way of enjoyment in return.
17. TOO BUSY TELLING THE NEXT STORY
I don't know if every comic book fan thrills at the merest mention of yet another part of the Marvel Universe with the possibility of spawning more stories, but to me it's a constant distraction. Marvel needs to stop setting up new stories, and start telling me the stories it's telling. Setting up Civil War, setting up Infinity War - this is not what The Avengers should be about. Why can't I leave the cinema feeling like something good just happened, rather than me getting an ad for two more things, both of which will separately give me yet two more things....just more chapters in an unending series of chapters.
18. FUTURE STAKES
The only thing Marvel wants to protect is the eternal continuance of further Marvel movies but it thinks it can only do that by raising the stakes each and every time. But once you've put Earth at risk, and once you’ve put nine realms or the galaxy at risk, what’s left? Seriously, what’s left? I think deep down, Marvel doesn't care about cities, countries, worlds or universes because these things can always be recreated. And once you include alternative universes and multiverses, there'll be an inbuilt 'reboot' button and no pretense of consequence for any decision because then you can kill and revive or create and destroy and reincarnate anyone at any time.
And I'm care factor zero when all rules of reality are off the table, so no thanks.
19. COMIC BOOKS ARE NOT THE SAME AS MOVIES
There's a reason why I never got into comics, and multiverses and pantheons of superheroes and trying to make me care when anything can be reset, rebooted, retconned or just shown to have happened to a clone/ alternate/ doppelganger. It's nowhere near as compelling to me as... to the kind of people who find that compelling.
Comics are ONE way of telling a story - an episodic, week-on-week, month-on-month, decades-spanning evolving story. Turning that form of entertainment into a movie is not as simple as grabbing the an issue of Marvel Comics and taking its story, changing a few characters and lines of dialogue, and turning it into the new Avengers movie. You don't do that, any more than you could take a 40 hour gaming experience in Mass Effect 2 and turn that into a coherent 2.5hr movie, because the pacing and character issues are completely different across media.
There's a reason they give out Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay, you know. It's because it's not easy AT ALL. Comic Books get to use Space Magic and build up characters and worlds over decades, but a movie is not a comic book. And there are still more movie fans than comic book fans, and perhaps Marvel/Disney ought to consider that.
20. CIVIL WAR?
Honestly, if Captain America : Civil War is just a way to introduce more heroes to fill that hall of Avengers in prepartion for Infinity War, then I'm out. If Avengers 3a and 3b involves a half a dozen villains fighting FIFTY Avengers AND the galaxy is at risk AND people are cracking jokes AND they've presumably already announced Avengers 4 and 5 beforehand to follow?