I know, I know, Joss is moving on; this is his last contracted Marvel movie, and the Russo brothers (of Winter Soldier fame) will be taking over future installments in the Avengers franchise. But this isn't the sendoff I would have liked. I wanted to miss Joss when he was gone.
Okay. Time to put on my big-fangirl pants and deal. I had very high expectations for this movie and they weren't met, that's all. Most of my disappointment here is that I expected this movie to be as awesome as the first one and it was just kinda goodish. Goodish isn't so bad. It's only bad when you expected better.
For those who want the capsule description, Avengers: Age of Ultron mostly focuses on what happens when the ad hoc superteam of the first Avengers movie has to grow up and deal with the world in a systematic, adult way. Spoiler: it doesn't go well. When Tony Stark decides to use a little evil science to kickstart his world-defending AI system (because what could possibly go wrong with that?), the world pretty much goes to hell in a handbasket and the good guys spend two hours trying to fix it, with mixed results. I'm going to start with the good before I move on to the problematic.
Now, because this is me and I tend to dwell on the things that annoy me, I'll probably have more to say on the negative side of the balance sheet, so I want to establish right up front that as much as I dislike the problematic stuff, I consider AoU a pretty good movie overall. If the first Avengers was an A, this is a B-plus. It's good, okay? You'll have fun. It's just not without its problems, is all. And one or two (or three) of those problems are significant.
All right. Here we go. This is your last spoiler warning ...
1. This is a really darned good superhero movie. Seriously. Everything you look for in a tentpole popcorn flick is here. And it's all done really well. A lot of stuff blows up. There's a whirlwind tour of the endangered globe. There are moments of real excitement and humor. If there's a checklist for how to make a good superhero movie, this one checks nearly all the boxes. Anything involving the Vision, in particular, is damn near perfect (and gorgeous to boot). It's just a well-made superhero movie by the standards of what makes a good 'un.
Early on, a bad guy asks his henchman why their defenses are failing, and his baffled henchman replies, "They're the Avengers, sir." And that pretty much sums it up.
Well, it looks like Nebbish made it out okay, because he's shown (briefly) working for Nick Fury in the climax of the film. And that was probably my favorite part.
Yeah, Nebbish was the best. Because a lot of the other good in this movie was soured by ...
Similarly, when Nick Fury randomly shows up out of nowhere with a helicarrier, it's a little weird. Seriously, dude, where were you an hour ago? And does this mean that you have your own SHIELD faction now, to replace the two that have been squabbling all season on Agents of SHIELD? How did you suddenly become a slick and well-funded operation again at the end?
And perhaps most importantly, why does nobody notice that smashing robot bodies does absolutely no good in the age of cloud computing? There's nothing to suggest Ultron hasn't backed himself up somewhere online. Breaking the hardware shouldn't do anything of substance. So the movie ends with only token evidence that the bad guy has even been defeated, yet everyone relaxes like they won.
I could go on, but ... seriously, there's just a lot of plot holes. Enough to be distracting.
The big romance in this movie is between Natasha and Bruce. And I don't care whether you ship that or not, but I have two problems with it strictly from a filmmaking perspective. First, Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo don't have that much chemistry together. Their scenes feel dull and forced. So you're adding a romance that doesn't work, from a strict filmmaking standpoint.
Second, the romance is pretty much all Natasha does in this movie. Seriously, even Bruce gets to weigh in on the creation of Ultron and how to defeat him. Natasha just gets kidnapped and turned into Bruce's damsel in distress. I don't care what your view of Joss Whedon's self-described feminism is—that is a waste of a good character. Why is Natasha even here if this is all she does? You could have swapped her for Betty Ross and gotten the same results.
This time? Tony is still snarky, but it's pointlessly mean snark—lines like a joke about reinstating prima nocta when he rules Asgard. There were a million jokes Tony could have made while trying to lift the hammer, but somehow we ended up with a rape joke. And yeah, Tony then turns out to be unworthy, which has led a lot of online pundits to suggest that this was Joss trying to undermine Tony's jerkishness, but that's not what bothers me. What bothers me is that Age of Ultron makes Tony out to be the kind of jerk who would make a joke like that. Never mind his development over four previous movies—none of that counts now, because Joss Whedon needs a straw man to tear down.
And then there's the stupidity! In Age of Ultron we get a Tony Stark who is literally unable to learn from his mistakes, even in engineering, which is supposed to be his primary area of genius. Bruce even calls him on it, saying he's "stuck in a time loop" when Tony suggests countering an out-of-control AI with another out-of-control AI, effectively repeating an action and expecting different results. And yeah, it turns out okay this time—but not because of anything Tony did.
Apparently, this movie just couldn't get along without a version of Tony Stark who was so obviously wrong about everything that no rational person could agree with him on anything. That's a terrible way to set up an antagonist for the upcoming Civil War movie. What's the matter, Joss? Couldn't be bothered to write a little complexity and nuance into someone who had to be on the wrong side of the argument?
I'm not so understanding now.
The Captain America we get in Age of Ultron is nothing like the one we see in the other MCU movies. He's the most hidebound member of the team, primly correcting Tony's casual profanity (and reacting with very little grace when ribbed about it later). This is just dumb. The guy fought through World War II (in the American infantry!) and casually says things like "light the bastards up", but he has a problem with Tony saying "shit"? That's so far out of character that it's a non sequitur.
In fact, there's very little of the Steve Rogers we've come to like in other movies. The guy who tried to drink an entire pub and cried himself hoarse when Bucky died in The First Avenger is now saying things like, "If you get killed, walk it off." The guy who dismantled an Orwellian intelligence organization in Winter Soldier ends up apparently running one. And even when Sam Wilson says he's happier not being an Avenger, Steve goes and makes him one (presumably because he knows Sam can't tell him no). There's no indication that he's still actively trying to find the person he nearly killed himself saving in his last movie; Bucky's not so much as mentioned by name. Even during the downtime on Clint's farm, Steve never seems to pause and reflect on his gaping emotional wounds. He's the Tin Woodsman to Tony Stark's scarecrow—no heart, no brain.
This isn't The Wizard of Oz, Joss. Heartless Steve Rogers is not what I bought a ticket for.
Let's discuss the elephant in the room—the "monster" line.
At one point, Bruce tells Nat they can't be a couple because he can't have children. Nat replies that she can't either—the "graduation ceremony" in the Red Room was a mandatory surgical sterilization. Okay, fine, bad people do bad things. But Nat then goes on specifically to say that the sterilization was done so she would be a better assassin (because having a hysterectomy makes you a better murderer?) and tells Bruce that he's not the only monster on the team.
And that is where I put down my popcorn.
I'm sorry, but "monster"? Let's be charitably dense and say this isn't what it looks like—this movie saying an infertile woman is a monster because she's infertile. Let's say Nat thinks she's a monster strictly because she's killed a bunch of people. Let's ignore the fact that she was discussing her infertility right before she switched to the topic of monsters, and that she explicitly said she was rendered infertile so she'd be better at doing monster stuff. Let's assume that Joss in no way meant to imply that non-motherhood equals monsterdom, that he never meant to say that a woman who can't have children should consider herself no longer human. Let's even assume that this is not a reflection of the movie's view, just a moment of character for Nat—that she holds this idea, true or not, because that's just how she feels and feelings don't have to be logical or popular with the audience if they work as part of a character's overall arc.
That still leaves the fact that Nat calls herself a monster, on a par with the giant green rage machine that just destroyed a city, and nothing and no one in the rest of the movie contradicts that point of view. Bruce never says, "I don't think you're a monster" (even though the Hulk is shown in a middling positive light in other scenes). No one is shown treating Nat like a hero, unless you count Clint naming his next kid after her (sort of), which was apparently the plan even before the M-word entered the conversation. Steve makes her his second-in-command, but since this is the Steve Rogers who tells hypothetical dead people to walk it off, he might as well be amending "monster" to "useful monster". Of the two people in the movie who appear to care about Nat, in the end, one leaves her and the other is understandably distracted by all the kids he's got.
And that's about 50% of Nat's role in this film (the other 50% being her damsel-in-distress routine).
Sorry, but that's not the Natasha Romanoff I bought a ticket for. I want to see the version that's slowly discovering she isn't a monster—the consummate spy of Iron Man 2 who became a steadfast best friend in The Avengers and whom Steve Rogers explicitly trusted to save his life in Winter Soldier. I want to see the Natasha Romanoff who's never perfect, but who keeps growing. Who doesn't accept the "monster" label. Who takes her vicious, sexist codename (Black Widow, poisonous man-eater) and shoves it down the throats of everyone who dismisses or underestimates her.
Natasha Romanoff is not resigned to being a monster. And damn you, Joss Whedon, for implying that she is, or should be.
And it had its moments. The Vision was gorgeous and very well done. There were moments of joy and wonder and fear. But when it comes right down to it, a group of characters I loved—had come to consider my friends, in the way really good fictional characters become your imaginary companions—either didn't show up or were treated so poorly that they'd have been better off staying home.
It's a pretty goodish movie. If it were anything other than an Avengers movie made by Joss Whedon with the Avengers in it, it would be an excellent movie. But it's not.
So I give it a B-plus. And after I saw it, I went home and Googled Chris Evans' tweets about filming the next Captain America flick.
Maybe my imaginary friends will show up for that one.