The Marvel Cinematic Universe has grown from strength to strength. Since the debut of Iron Man, Robert Downey Junior’s memorable interpretation of Tony Stark, in all his flawed glory, Marvel has shone as the guiding light of franchise movie making. Since Iron Man, we’ve had numerous additions to both the solo hero films as well as the incredible ensemble movies like Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy.
With such a massive outpouring of franchised content, in such a relatively short time, is it inevitable that one, or two movies aren’t going to quite hit the high notes? When the focus is the action and the visuals (and these days those are almost guaranteed to be flawless,) is the story as relevant anymore? Marvel’s movies have not just succeeded due to visuals, it’s (generally) unbroken stable of actors and characters provide a continuity that’s easy for the audience to delve into.
So what is the MCU’s weakest movie? To be fair to the solo movies, (which don’t have the ensemble cast to distract from weak story points,) my focus will be on the film that failed the most to live up to it’s potential. The movie which had everything it needed to reach epic heights but just didn’t quite cut the mustard.
And that my friends is Avengers Age of Ultron.
BUT WAIT you say, AGE OF ULTRON IS AWESOME, IT”S GOT THE HULKBUSTER ARMOUR, AND THE VISION, AND IT BRINGS IN SCARLET WITCH AND…
And you would be right, those things are pretty awesome, in fact Hulkbuster is so awesome, lets have a quick look at it.
Unfortunately one epic scene doth not a good movie make (isn’t that right, Phantom Menace??). It also needs a good story line, relatable characters and a central theme.
At it’s core, Age of Ultron is a Frankenstein movie, Tony Stark is Victor Frankenstein, the vainglorious mad scientist always thinking what if? instead of why not? Ultron is his monster, it’s again a warning about a hubristic, overreaching science that unleashes forces it cannot control. Like Frankenstein there is a clear father/son freudian conflict that underlines the interaction between Stark and Ultron.
In Frankenstein, fire is used in a promethean style allegory for knowledge, fire can warm you, cook your food and light your way. It can also burn you and destroy everything you hold dear. Tony is still tender about putting his life on the line in the previous film and thinks there is nothing that can’t be solved by technology, but the fundamental problem with technology is it has no morality, the same as fire. It does not distinguish between what it helps and what it burns.
Despite his “no more suits” attitude in Iron Man 3, it would seem Tony is more determined than ever to put a suit of armour around the world. But has any AI film ever turned out for the good of mankind? Ultron takes a good look at the real humanity through the internet and decides they are hopeless and must evolve and that the Avengers are preventing that evolution. How much of that is prophetic of the upcoming Thanos situation is never stated, but it seems to be vaguely hinted at.
So we have a solid theme for the movie, and that unleashed monster/science scenario plays out a couple of times with both Ultron, the Hulk and the Vision with different results. Even at the end of the film after Ultron is defeated, the Hulk can’t help but feel that he is the true monster in the scenario. There are also “monster” repercussions for Stark from his days peddling weapons.
One of the problems in story telling though is when you get further away from your theme, things start to happen for no reason and that’s number one on my Age of Ultron complaint list.
A: Highly Contrived Plot:
There’s a thing people do these days called the nit pick critique. It’s a process of pointing out minor flaws, plot gaps, continuity errors, perceived lore contradictions and generally trivial minutiae and then blowing it all out of proportion to claim…bad movie. It’s rampant in the Star Wars and Star Trek fan zones due to social media, and it’s amateurish and well…kind of pathetic.
It would be a relatively easy thing to do with this movie, but the things I’m pointing out all have a significant contribution to a larger overall problem. Plot contrivance.
Plot Contrivance happens when characters do illogical things or out of character things simply to allow things to happen. And this movie has a long list of them.
Coincidence is normal and a fine thing, in good story writing it’s generally ok to have coincidence as long as it doesn’t continually assist the protagonist or in this case the team of heroes. Writers get around this by using foreshadowing, but even then if there are no set backs, no dead ends or significant costs paid, the rollercoaster loses all it’s twists and turns and becomes a dead straight track, and that’s what the plot of Age of Ultron becomes.
At Strucker’s Castle, Tony Stark, for no viable reason, steps out of his armour to look around simply to make him vulnerable. Scarlett Witch who wants revenge against Stark for her parents deaths at the hands of his weapons has him at her mercy, but rather than using her powers to attack him or kill him, she simply induces a psychotic dream that he needed to have for the greater Infinity War storyline.
Then she claims that she believed Tony taking the sceptre would cause him to self destruct. She also behaves oddly by briefly zapping Steve Rogers and disappearing again for no apparent reason except to spell out to him that there are ‘enhanced’ beings around.
Bruce also seems to be acting out of character, Stark needles him that he’s like a puppy, any time anyone yells at him he shows his belly. Yet Banner also just goes along with what Stark wants to do. The Banner we saw in Avengers was a strong and fiercely independent person, not this sort of sidekick to Tony.
The Helen Cho story line is also pretty rigid, even though they use Hawkeye’s injuries as a foreshadow, she just happens to be at the party where Ultron is born. Ultron somehow works out she could be useful later and doesn’t kill her, and she just happens to have all the necessary expertise and equipment ready to go for the creation of Vision.
The pursuit of Ultron has no dead ends, no costly mistakes, within five minutes of going through files of Strucker’s known associates, they have already worked out he will be at the arms dealer Klaw’s hideout and arrive at exactly the same time.
When they need a retreat because Ultron is all over the internet wreaking havoc (that we never see so can’t relate to,) conveniently Hawkeye just happens to have a secret farm, that only Nick Fury knew about and of course ten minutes after getting there who should they run into? Nick Fury. What does Nick Fury have, all the other elements they needed to make the story work.
Then they pretty much second guess where Ultrons next point of call will be and all the elements conveniently come together for the creation of the Vision. Black Widow is conveniently kidnapped and sloppily imprisoned so she can reveal the location of Ultrons operations, which given he’s been working with Scarlett Witch and Quicksilver, shouldn’t really have been that much of a suprise anyway.
At every juncture in the plot, the Avengers, through either coincidence or convenience, continuously move directly to each point with little effort or cost and never get it wrong.
B: Two Dimensional Villain: Literally everything the MCU got right with Thanos in Infinity War, they got wrong with Ultron. Thanos was the embodiment of a well rounded villain, he had clear cut motivations and a compelling mission. He had weakness’s, he paid a significant cost for them in the death of Gamora. He had a distinct self-derived moral code, even if that was at odds with the protagonists. He was highly relatable while still being relatively despicable.
Ultron had fairly confusing and vague motivations. A mission based on a warped interpretation of the Avengers retarding humanities evolution and some android Oedipus complex? He had some interesting and cool dialogue but lacked a hard edge due to some questionable humour. He’s a walking cliche espousing a trope we’ve seen a thousand times before, that human creates machine, machine thinks man is the problem and sets out to exterminate them. The Matrix, Terminator and Battlestar Galactica story lines use this as a main trope and a thousand other movies use some version of it.
There seems to be two kinds of villains in Marvel’s stable, one’s that get to hang around and develop such as Loki, Winter Soldier and Thanos. Then there seem to be the disposable ones that are just there to get the overall arc to a point it needs to be at such as Red Skull, Malekith and now Ultron, and these don’t seem to get the same level of depth as the others. And they are written out of existence quickly even though they were recurring threats to the comics version of the Avengers.
C: Power Nerfing:
This is an complaint that can be made against many of the other MCU films but in this instance it ties back in to my first argument, plot contrivance.
There is very little consistency between the power or durability of either the hero’s or Ultron and his clones. Ultron and his clones seem to vary from super tough and resilient, to being about as hard as store mannequins depending on the requirements for the story or scene. For instance Hawkeye and Black widow are relegated to taking on the foot soldiers in many other scenes, but in the finale both can take down Ultron drones easily.
Don Cheadle’s character James Rhodes takes a shot from one of the Iron Legion and is thrown through a plate glass window onto a lower steel gantry, and comes back with an bit of a sore shoulder?
In the Hulkbuster scene the Hulk takes all the punishment Stark’s armour can dish out but is conveniently knocked out by a single sucker punch simply because he’s having a moment of doubt?
Despite Tony’s Iron Legion suits being similar in design to his own, none of them seem to have the durability his suit does.
Scarlett Witches power seems all over the place, at first she’s sort of psychic and can induce some sort of temporary psychosis, something she abandons in the final act for a sort of telekinesis and power blasts and we never see her doing anything sort of mind related again? Wouldn’t that have been useful against Thanos? The answer is her power is whatever the story needs it to be.
In an action film there is a formula of sorts, for each climactic and epic action sequence you follow up with a slower sequence to allow the audience to absorb what happened and to relax a little before you hit them with the next big fast paced action sequence.
Usually the largest quiet or introspective slower paced event, follows where the protagonists get beaten down. If the protagonists are just continually beaten down time and time again it can make the film seem to drag. So you introduce a rest and recuperate scene, where the hero’s can discuss their situation, heal wounds and regather for the finale.
The slower scenes in this movie just don’t always seem to work, the initial scene in Stark Tower where everyone is just chilling at the bar and playing with Thor’s Hammer is probably the only slower paced scene that doesn’t seem to just drag the movie down. This is a rare glimpse of the Avengers just being human.
Some of the action scenes are also dragged out a little and a exceptionally cheesy. But so much time is taken on the exodus from Sokovia it’s really kind of hard to believe there was anyone left there at all. Quicksilvers little gag is pretty good I’ll admit but the rest is just so slow.
There is significant impact on this film by trying to jam a lot of pre-emptive material for the next films as well.
E: Ultron’s Ultimate Doomsday plan isn’t all that smart.
Ultron plans to artificially replicate the great extinction of the dinosaurs on Earth by lifting a city miles into atmosphere and dropping it, with some extra thrust from reversed engines, to create an artificial killer meteor.
There are two factors in a “killer” asteroid, mass and velocity, the difference between lifting up a 2km disc of rock and dumping it again, even with engines attached is the same difference between someone shooting you with a bullet, and someone throwing a bullet really hard at you.
Planet Killer asteroids are not destructive because of their mass, compared to the Earth which has a mass of 5,972,200,000,000,000,000,000,000kg even a mile wide asteroid is a pebble. But you throw that pebble around the sun a few hundred billion times and allow it to attain a velocity of 98,000 feet per second and THEN it can be a significant danger. Most asteroids impact the earth at about 17 kilometers a second.
If you take a flat chunk of earth and take it up into the upper atmosphere, even with significant thrust, there is no way you can attain that sort of velocity. There are dozens of other factors at play as well, Sokovia is a sort of disc more that spherical and will attract more drag with less mass than a spherical asteroid.
Now that is a very, very misleading and significant fault in a series that consistently tries to portray several of it’s members as science or physics genius’s. And lets not forget, Thanos literally drops a moon on Iron Man, uh, no global catastrophe, big bang but no extinction event. So even in universe it’s all a bit lame.
F: Severe lack of exposition:
Despite being part of a line of franchised movies, no individual movie should take the assumption that everybody watching has an encyclopedic knowledge of the the overall story line or has seen every single movie or TV show related to it. It’s safe, if you are making a sequel to assume the audience has seen the original, but really outside of that anything introduced should have exposition.
When we first see the Avengers they are attacking the Hydra Base of Baron Strucker, but unless you were watching Agents of SHIELD you would have absolutely no clue where they were, what they were doing there or who Baron Strucker actually is.
IN CONCLUSION :
So while other movies, such as Thor 2 or Iron Man 2 or 3, could have easily been contenders for the weakest MCU product. I believe that Age of Ultron ultimately trumps them as the one that least managed to live up to it’s potential, not because the end product was so bad, per se, just that it could have been so much better.
Let me know what you think of the movie in the comments.
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