by Andrew Collins
Let’s start with an example. Early in the film Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson), who begins the film as a pawn of Hydra, uses her mind manipulation powers to secretly implant visions of darkness and despair in Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth).
Immediately I realized what was happening. The tension in the Avengers films is always between unity and division – as long as they can band together and get along, they will save the day. So as soon as Stark has a vision of all the other Avengers strewn lifeless amid ruins while another alien army streams through, it was obvious how it would function as a plot device. The problem was that I experienced it merely as a plot device, as a third-party observer, rather than empathizing with Stark’s horror and fear.
The same goes for Cap and Thor. Tony Stark’s vision at least incites him to foolishly create the Ultron program, which backfires in the worst possible way, but the other conflicts feel like footnotes.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t interesting character breakthroughs. In a budding romance with Bruce Banner, Agent Romanov (Scarlett Johansson) becomes emotionally vulnerable, revealing that she is more than a badass, leather-clad body. Yes, even the steel-cold ex-Russian spy is a human being like the rest of us, filled with regrets, hopes, fears, and insecurities. The same goes for her non-enhanced Avengers counterpart Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). It turns out the equally cold-as-steel master archer is a tender family man when he isn’t jetting around the world with superheroes, and we learn that he wrestles constantly with the age-old warrior’s dilemma. Does he stay here at home as a present protector for his family, or lay his life on the line for humanity’s greater good?
As an aside, in Hawkeye we also find one of the most comically honest moments of the Avengers series. “Nothing of this makes sense,” he tells a shell-shocked Scarlet Witch during the film’s climax. “The city is flying, we’re fighting an army of robots, and I have a bow and arrow.” It’s one of those subtle violations of the fourth wall that reminds us how it really is absurd this genre can be. And yet here I am, a grown man gleefully throwing my hands up for the ride like a ten-year-old boy.
As far as villains go, Ultron is a pretty good one, a true secular antichrist who believes humanity is beyond saving, and therefore the only way to redeem the world is through their annihilation. As a character who has zero regard for human life, he serves as an absolute point of contrast to the Avengers, which the film takes pains to point out are one hundred percent for human life.
As Kate Erbland points out in The Dissolve, beating the bad guy is merely a means to the end for the Avengers. Saving people is their mission. We see this in Age of Ultron every step of the way, from the opening battle sequence where Iron Man deploys robot drones to keep citizens away from the fight, to the very end, where Captain America insists that they will not pull the trigger to foil Ultron’s plot until every last citizen is safely evacuated. It sounds recklessly naïve, but at a time when many superhero stories favor angst, grittiness, and darkness, it recalibrates the genre, reminding us that superheroes are meant to be, well, heroic.
The Avengers’ humanism doesn’t quite free the film from the aforementioned problem of narrative excess. But perhaps letting all of these knotted strands of characters hang loose is the only way to make a movie like this work. When you have a dozen characters with major story arcs, there’s no way to satisfactorily complete all of them. With the Marvel brand firmly entrenched through blockbuster after blockbuster, from the first Iron Man to last year’s delightful Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s Avengers-universe films are starting to feel like parts of an epic TV miniseries, with each installment getting bigger, more colorful, and more destructive. Just look at all the characters slated to make an appearance in the next Captain America film: Spider Man, Ant Man, Black Panther, and Crossbones (not to mention most of the preexisting Avengers cast). We might as well just call that Avengers 3 and get on with the next chapter before the final showdown with Thanos.
So far Marvel’s plan has worked pretty well, but how much longer before Marvel’s steps become plodding? With Age of Ultron, I fear we’re starting to get close. It had everything I expected in an Avengers film – nothing less, but unfortunately little more.