WARNING: BROAD SPOILERS BELOW
There’s a TV Tropes entry called ‘Continuity Lockout,’ which states that long-running fiction franchises can eventually become so dependent on their own canon that it becomes hard to know what’s going on without having been following it from the start.
I’ve mentioned this has happened to the Honour Harrington series. It’s also a perennial problem with superhero comics. And perhaps not surprisingly, it also holds with Marvel’s expansive Cinematic Universe as well. I realized this might be the case when I went last night to see Avengers: Age of Ultron at the theatre.
Unfortunately, after writing it up last year I lost track of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and I think I’m suffering for it as the second movie bringing together the chief heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe finally arrives.
In Age of Ultron, S.H.I.E.L.D has apparently collapsed, and the Avengers are free agents fighting to bring down the last elements of the evil organization H.Y.D.R.A.
Which they succeed in doing, anticlimactically enough.
But in discovering the projects they were working on, they fall victim to the mind games of one of two H.Y.D.R.A experiment subjects – Scarlet Witch and her brother Silver Streak – and Tony Stark (Iron Man) becomes fixated on using it to create an intelligent defense system to protect the human race from the next alien invasion, given how close a call it was when they stopped the Chitauri in the last movie.
Unfortunately, the AI that arises from his project has very much its own ideas about how to go about this. Ultron, so named, goes on a campaign, enlisting the help of Scarlet Witch and Silver Streak and devising a plan to evolve himself and the world to a higher level – no matter the cost, no matter the desires of human beings.
The power and threat of Ultron, and the fact that he originated from within their organization, exacerbates growing divisions between the Avengers, whose mutual friction and desire to get on with their lives threatens to destroy them just as they’re needed most.
So it’s clear to me that I missed a few things by not keeping up with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, since we start the movie apparently at the end of a chapter in the Avengers’ exploits and the new chapter only begins twenty minutes in.
Possibly for this reason the pacing seems a bit lopsided – from what is basically a climax at the beginning, a slow boil winds up to constant chase, chase, bang, bang for much of the movie with little chance to catch our breath.
I was actually surprised to realize that Joss Whedon had his hands directly on the reins for this one. Because my initial feeling was that this felt like a piece of journeywork by someone who’d been taught by Joss Whedon. His signature wordplay and wisecrack humour is present, and very welcome – I was laughing myself silly in a number of scenes – but it almost seems like there’s too much of it. Every other sentence seems to be a Whedonesque joke. And they’re distributed so evenly across characters that it starts to lend some credibility to the criticism about his work – which I usually disagree with – that his characters all sound the same.
Having said that, it pays off big time with Ultron himself. He’s a dark reflection of Tony Stark, and the evident glee he takes in freaking people out, and the blase way he handles setbacks is hugely entertaining. The writing of the villain in general does a good job at making him seem like a real challenge, with the heroes having a fighting chance but not a certainty of victory.
His ‘destroy in order to save’ agenda is also quite chilling, and James Spader’s voice makes his explanations of himself go from ‘chilling’ to ‘blood-freezing.’ That said, given some of his turns of phrase, I would have been interested to see a clearer real-world applicability to Ultron’s way of thinking, which seems to be where it’s going at first, only to go back to the standard destroy-the-world model.
Otherwise, the most evident themes are ones of the challenges of teamwork and the conflict between duty and living one’s life. Hawkeye represents the ideal here, while Banner and Romanov regard themselves as the odd ones out. Both of them are ‘broken birds’ of one kind or another. I do find it odd that both of them seem to have a very narrow definition of living a normal life – settling down and having kids, the latter of which neither of them is capable for different reasons – and it seems oddly old-fashioned to write them this way. Otherwise, they’re both wonderfully sympathetic characters and excellent performances.
Scarlet Witch and Silver Streak I’d met before by way of the cartoon X-Men Evolution, and neither of them are quite as well characterized, both having the old ‘avenge my parents’ background, but Whedon is good at covering a lot of ground with very little dialogue, so I look forward to seeing more later.
By and large, each of the team is feeling pulled away from the others in one way or another, and it’s overcoming this that forms a lot of the final drama, which emphasizes doing the right thing no matter the cost. And ‘doing the right thing’ means more than just ‘kill the bad guy.’ A master stroke is that the priority at the end is to evacuate civilians first, kill the bad guy second. If you want to make a Marvel vs. DC comparison, then it stands in distinct contrast to the amount of collateral damage carelessly inflicted during the final fight scene of Man of Steel.
And gratifyingly the bigger context of the Cinematic Universe is promising to pay off soon: the involvement of yet another of the alien power sources that formed important plot points in the Avengers, Thor: the Dark World and Guardians of the Galaxy has clearly caused a tipping point to be reached, and the involvement of a number of the supporting heroes (including one I don’t even recognize) suggests an all-hands-on-deck scenario in the offing. On the other hand, it might just be a new setup to spin this out even longer…
And I might as well point this out, since I foresee the blogosphere having a respectable flame war about it: there’s a rape joke in the movie.
It comes at the end of a party, where a lot of drinking has gone on, and the men of the team are competing to be able to lift Thor’s hammer. Many impotence jokes ensue, and one of them involves Tony saying that if he can lift the hammer (making him ‘worthy to rule’ per Asgard law) he’ll bring back ‘prima nocta,’ the old idea (also called ‘droit de seigneur’) that feudal lords got first go at bedding young peasant brides before their new husbands did. I’ve always sort of assumed this practice was a myth, but the very idea of it is fundamentally icky.
In general the dick jokes are too numerous for my liking, and it’s especially glaring given this is Joss Whedon we’re talking about. This is the guy pro-feminist geek men get to point to as demonstration of the validity of our cause. The obscurity – and obscenity – of the reference is up there with Loki’s ‘mewling quim’ remark in Avengers, but in Loki’s case it’s meant to prove what a petty, nasty fellow he is, whereas here it’s one of the most charismatic of the heroes.
I particularly don’t like this stuff because all the manly-man talk makes Natasha’s character seem sidelined and made an outsider to the team (she has barely any dialogue in this sequence) and from anyone else but Joss I’d have definitely been on-side with the interpretation that it continues the perpetuation of rape culture in a heroic aspect in popular fiction.
Having said that, Joss is pretty good at giving characters flaws that don’t dominate the story. Tony’s playboy machismo is played as sort of silly rather than admirable, and since the hubris that comes with it is nearly his downfall in the movie, I can see it as not being to his credit without having to make a big production out of it in-story. Joss wrote Xander in Buffy the Vampire Slayer in a similar way – his flaws were his masculine insecurity and possessiveness toward Buffy and Willow, which informed his character but without requiring an entire story built around them to be effective characterization – although it did make him annoying as hell.
The more of this I write, though, the more I fear I’m making up excuses, or that Joss has perhaps overestimated the public intelligence or progressive attitudes by using this stuff when it’s still toxic. Maybe such a joke will be harmless in twenty years, but for now? Anyway, it’s one joke in an otherwise very fun movie and hardly a deal-breaker, just a bit of a letdown from the man who brought us Buffy and Firefly.
All told, Age of Ultron is exciting, well-written, excellently acted, and generally fun. With Whedon apparently now in overall charge of the Marvel Movies, I think he’s spreading himself a bit thin, but he’s earned such a station. The special effects are standard-issue but the set design is great and the music – composed by both Bryan Tyler and Danny Elfman, is superb. The weight of the larger cinematic Universe is working well for it – a payoff should hopefully come sooner rather than alter – and the story is characteristically Whedon from top to tail.