Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, James Spader, Paul Bettany, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Don Cheadle, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Linda Cardellini, Julie Delpy, Helen Kim, Stellan Skarsgård, Thomas Kretschmann, Andy Serkis
Director of Photography: Ben Davis
Music by Brian Tyler, Danny Elfman
Edited byJeffrey Ford, Lisa Lassek
Written and directed by Joss Whedon
Rating: 8 out of 10

(no real spoilers)

Avengers: Age of Ultron is basically what you want it to be: an entertaining movie based on comic books that has exciting action and fun Joss Whedon dialogue. The movie delivers on all those promises and that’s enough for an enjoyable comic book movie for me. It doesn’t go that extra step that Guardians of the Galaxy went, but on the other hand it has a much more fascinating villain and a more coherent plot overall. The character interactions are fun and this time, unlike the first movie, every character gets enough opportunities to shine. It is amazing to see how many actors these movies are able to gather. It’s hard for me to tell what such a movie is like without having the background knowledge of the comics, but as a comic reader it is hard to deny how much fun it is to see those characters come alive and do their thing. Not everything makes complete sense and, just to be clear, this is no masterpiece of moviemaking (despite some great shots). It’s a fun movie, a million times better than the dreadful Man of Steel (especially concerning the disregard for human life), proving (likes Guardians) that comic book movies are not all alike. It was mostly what I wanted it to be.

As much as I admire Joss Whedon for his great character work and amazing dialogue, when it comes to thematic and cultural aspects, his Marvel work is as conventional as any other piece of fiction (unlike Cabin in the Woods). One of the central questions of the movie is whether humans are worth saving. Ultron, the artificially intelligenced villain, thinks humans are the cause of all evil and wants to either improve or exterminate them. Nothing new here, that’s what AIs have been trying to do in sci-fi movies for decades. The idea here always is that humans eventually prove themselves because, hey, of course humans shouldn’t be exterminated. The problem is that almost any movie with such a premise than (unconsciously) tries to show that humans actually are pretty bad. A news footage montage of wars and riots usually does the job (as it does here).

At least twice in the movie a superhero asks the question if humans are worth saving and… doesn’t really answer. They have seen a lot of evil shit over the years, so even they aren’t sure. It all boils down to the all familiar Humans are flawed trope again. In one (cinematically wonderful) scene a character explains:

Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won't be. But there is grace in their failings.

That, more than anything, shows how hopeless we are as a culture. We are not willing to sacrifice ourselves or be all killed, but on the other hand we think so little of ourselves. We admire our civilization because it seems so goddamn cool, but we somehow hate who we are. As I said many times before (always rephrasing Daniel Quinn), if we think humans are the problem (and not “just” our culture), then we might as well let an evil robot get rid of us.

More interesting are the movie’s contemplations about peace and security. Both are concepts that are valued very much in our culture and the movie’s shows how we get them all screwed up. We see peace as an ideal we need to reach globally, but we actually know it’s more of an illusion. Never in the history of humans has everyone lived in peace. The difference we have established in our culture that the conflicts are not balanced anymore. Instead of taking and giving some from time to time, we now fight wars to conquer, to win once and for all, making each war more destructive than the previous one. The Avengers as a group are not trying to establish peace because the very idea of superheroes is being reactive instead of proactive. They aren’t trying to change anything but just endlessly deal with the results of what’s going wrong. Not accepting a certain amount of conflict and not working on the roots of problems will both not achieve peace. Because we know that we cling to security to protect us from the bad things happening anyway (instead of trying to make the bad things not happen in the first place). Tony Stark’s problem is exactly that, being unable to look at the origin of problems, only building more and more walls to deal with the problem at the last possible moment (and sacrificing personal freedoms in the process).

Finally, let’s talk about the controversy about the female characters. There is this “open letter to Joss Whedon” by Sara Stewart accusing him, the self-proclaimed feminist, of misusing the women in his movie by depicting them in stereotypical ways and using tropes that are only used for women. Surprisingly (also to myself), I very much disagree with this article. I think it’s poorly written and the argumentation doesn’t really hold up. First of all, I think Stewart is exaggerating the depiction of women. There are only two female superheroes compared to six to eight male ones. That’s not great, but is somewhat to superhero comics and will hopefully get better in the future. And it’s not Whedon’s fault. But both women characters, Black Widow and the Scarlet Witch, are never shown as weak or passive and only rarely need the men’s help. Especially Black Widow gets some of the coolest hero moments of the whole movie (and Scarlet Witch gets at least one really great moment), making it clear that while a minority they can keep up with their male counterparts. Margaret Cho comes off as a very intelligent scientist, who is mind controlled for a while, but so are all the other heroes within the movie.

The most controversial part is Black Widow’s secret from the past and yes, it wasn’t necessary to give her that, but it doesn’t feel wrong to me. She’s not desperate because of it but instead proves to be a very nuanced and multi-faceted character, not just a tough woman. And many of the men are allowed to be emotionally vulnerable too. Whedon managed to make Natasha Romanoff one of the most interesting and compelling female characters we have right now and while not everything about her portrayal is perfect (or the fact that she tends to be sidelined somewhat or doesn’t get a solo movie; Marvel certainly still does a lot of things wrong), her character is a good and also unique example. Does anyone really expect Wonder Woman to be as well-written in the DC movies? Thor is a much more underwritten character in this movie in comparison. As much as I wish a multi-million dollar franchise movie was more progressive and daring, we should be happy that it isn’t worse than or as bad as almost any other movie blockbuster movie. Write open letters to all the people who still depict women as sex objects or victims because that is still the biggest problem.