I've read some pretty harsh things about the latest Avengers flick, mostly that it was "underwhelming." I've read great things about it too, but I'm more interested in replying to the negative press with its finger-wagging and shame-on-you-Joss-Whedon attitude. I've seen the movie twice now and fail to see the problems, although I've noticed something else in these bad reviews that links them all together: unrealistic expectations based on over-analysis of movie trailers. What do I mean? Keep reading. SPOILERS AHEAD.
The trend with movie trailers in the past few years has been to include footage and dialogue that either gets re-worked, re-recorded, or cut altogether from the final film. (Why let scraps on the cutting floor go to waste? Put it in the trailer!) Directors sometimes record VO or film clips exclusively for the trailers. Do you remember the first trailer for Batman Begins? It was epic.
Dig that rad voice over. Did it give you chills? Me too. But here's the thing – that monologue never appears in the movie. Neither did half of the scenes in the trailer. I was bummed about it, but not enough to dislike the movie. The same thing happened in one of the Avengers 2 trailers. Ultron never growled, "There are no strings on me," in the actual film. Scarlet Witch had her meltdown in the church, not the street.
And that's ok, because the purpose of the trailer is to grab the attention of people who probably wouldn't see a superhero movie and make them think, "Hey, that looks pretty cool. I should check that out." They aren't made for us diehard fans. We don't need the trailers to convince us to go see it; we've been camped on Whedon's doorstep for this movie since 2012!
Trailers are a bit like political attack ads during election season: they provide sensational information out of context for the purpose of grabbing your attention and piquing your interest. Political attack ads aren't going to convince people who have already made up their minds about who they want to vote for. They're aimed at the swing voters, a pretty small percentage of the populace.
And here we come to the problematic side of fan communities like MP. We get together to share our common love of our favorite properties, but not everyone comes here to share fan art or start a discussion about a movie or comic book. Some people spend their time scouring the net for the next leaked set photo or casting change, perpetuating a rumor mill that churns out misleading expectations. Couple these rumor mills with over-analyzing trailers (120 Easter eggs in this trailer!), mix in desperation and hunger for the movie to just get here already, and it's easy to see how some fans pre-constructed their own narratives about the film. When the real film didn't match the one they've had in their heads for the past 9 months, it caused a pretty big letdown, like they had gone to the wrong movie.
In a nutshell, adaptation theory posits that when a text (i.e. book) is adapted to a different medium (i.e. movie), it's going to change, and this change is inevitable. For Avengers 2, Whedon combined several versions of Ultron for his movie adaptation, in the same way as different fans combined their favorite Ultron versions for their perfect movie adaptations in their own minds. To see how adaptation theory functions with other works, like King Arthur, check out scholar Sorina Higgins' explanation here.
So in defense of Avengers 2, let me address a few of the big criticisms I’ve read about it. I can’t address them all, and I’m not trying to say this film was perfect. But it was better than some fans give it credit for. SPOILERS.
Where the hell did that Banner/Romanov thing come from?
There was no suggestion in the first movie that either character had a thing for the other, and in this movie Romanov comes on pretty strong. I think there's back story to support this; the problem is that it's all implied. Recall the first time we see the "lullaby." There's an implied familiarity to the ritual, despite Hulk's avoidance strategies when it starts. The touching that happens during lullaby suggests a peculiar intimacy that the two have previously rehearsed multiple times. Hulk is a representation of Banner's inner rage, but that also means he's most vulnerable emotionally in this state. The fact that he doesn't lash out at Widow suggests he's grown to trust her, even if it embarrasses him. We see Banner suffering withdrawal-like symptoms after each of his Hulk episodes. It's possible that Romanov is touched by his vulnerability. She's been around tough guys her whole life, so perhaps he triggers a mothering, nurturing instinct that she lost because of her handlers in the Red Room. At any rate, this repeated intimacy has grown on Romanov through their many raids, but this all happens off camera. Unless you pay attention to those subtle cues, it might appear like her infatuation falls out of the sky. There could be room for improvement here; Whedon could have hit us over the head with those details a little bit harder, sure, but I disagree that this relationship happens too quickly.
Romanov’s sorrow about her sterilization gets under some people’s skin. I didn’t interpret this as an implication that she’s somehow less of a woman because of it. I thought it added a layer of tenderness to an otherwise mysterious and hard-ass character. She only brings it up because Scarlet Witch dug it out of her subconscious to rub her face in it, and she was trying to relate to Banner, who has a similar problem. It makes sense that she feels upset or regret about this because the ability to give birth is part of who a woman is, whether she wants to be a mother or not. We never find out if she wants to be a mother, but we don’t need to know that in order to sympathize with her. Having sterilization forced upon her is monstrous; it doesn’t matter what her preference for motherhood is. Additionally, I think this helps her see Banner as a kindred spirit, since she and Banner are the only ones who are what they are because of circumstances beyond their control. Cap, Thor, Iron Man, Hawkeye – they all chose to be what they are. Based on the movies, it was her choice to join S.H.I.E.L.D. and try to make amends for her past deeds, but she didn't choose to be molded into a killer, as far as I know. And of course Banner didn’t choose to be Hulk.
My favorite character barely got any screen time
Unless your favorite Avenger is Stark, then yeah, I know what you mean. Thor was absent from the movie for long stretches, and more screen time was given to Barton, Banner, and Romanov than to Thor or Cap. Stark got a lot of screen time because RDJ was probably the highest paid actor on the project, and because it’s his paranoia and fear that creates Ultron. Still, I recognize the limitations of a team-up movie. Avengers works much better in an extended medium like comic books or TV shows. Those mediums allow all the Avengers to take turns being the focal point of different stories each week/month. In a 2 ½ hour movie, not so much.
So what’s a director to do? Give more screen time to the characters who don’t have their own franchises. Captain America will get plenty of attention next year in Civil War, and Thor’s Ragnarok is looming on the horizon as well. We don’t need to use Avengers movies to develop their characters that much. We still got to see them work together to bash shiny robots, and that’s the whole reason superhero team-ups exist.
Ultron isn’t scary
I don’t know which source text fans are comparing this to, but this is definitely adaptation theory at work. Directors are going to rethink classic characters; it’s inevitable, and I defend Whedon’s choice to create this nuanced version of Ultron. “He’s too much like Tony,” some have complained. What would you prefer? How about the transsexual Ultron from Brian Michael Bendis’ “Ultron Initiative” story, in which he takes on the female guise of the Wasp? Or would you prefer he maintain his original Oedipal complex and try to marry Pepper Potts? Based on some fan's descriptions of how they think Ultron ought to be, it sounds like they wanted Brainiac more than Ultron. James Spader was superb as Ultron. His growly voice created that sinister effect, but he also gave Ultron some human qualities; because, let’s face it, if Ultron really was just all about the murder, he would be boring. Ultron’s confusion about himself and his origins make him volatile and memorable. He’s more than just a force of nature that the Avengers have to overcome. He’s bitter, angry, and confused, which makes him far more dangerous.
Here are some criticisms I have about the film:
• Ultron’s origin is a little rushed. It’s like ten minutes from the first mention of his name to his first attack on the Avengers. That’s a little too fast, but I can forgive it because it was still awesome.
• Whedon missed an opportunity to demonstrate the disagreements between Iron Man and Thor. Thor comes from a world where magic and mysticism are common place, but Stark is the classic Cartesian rationalist. In the source materials, they often have disagreements about magic and mysticism, and Ultron would have provided a great opportunity for them to discuss ideas of spirituality and the soul.
• I would have liked to see news footage after the Hulkbuster fight, like sound bytes from concerned citizens or politicians talking about the danger of letting these masked vigilantes run loose. Instead, Maria Hill gave us a summary.
• Editing could have been a bit tighter in a few scenes (the team when they found Jarvis destroyed, Banner and Romanov at Barton's house, etc.). If you look closely, you can tell where they've put together multiple takes.
• I thought vibranium was really strong. Cap's shield seems to be the only piece of vibranium that's indestructible; Vibranium-Ultron took some pretty heavy damage when Thor, Vision, and Iron Man triple-teamed him. That confused me.
• Some of the stunts were over the top to the point of destroying the willful suspension of disbelief (car/bike stunts in Cap vs. Ultron, Quicksilver/Barton/Quinjet scene).
Other than that, I thought it was a great movie. Lots of fun, lots of explosions, and lots of hope. It's good to go to the movies and have a great time.