By the time that 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' hit theatres last summer, we'd already experienced 8 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe - a franchise that, love it or hate it, has produced some of the most successful films ever, and morphed Hollywood into what it is today. Yes it's funny to imagine now that before the first 'Iron Man,' the idea of a 'shared movie universe' seemed like a wild fan dream, but thanks to Marvel and their awesome boss Kevin Feige, it's now a reality. Well having said that, Marvel are still the only one's who've truly got it right so far - with the rival DCEU not quite getting off to the start it might have hoped for. But nevertheless, for comic book lovers like me it has been (and will continue to be) a wonderful time to be alive - where we frequently get to see our favourite heroes from both companies adapted and brought to life on the big screen for everyone to enjoy. And nowhere has that excitement we nerds feel ever been so alive than when 2012's 'The Avengers' hit theatres.
The Avengers was just a shameless masterpiece, and it amazed us all at the time how Joss Whedon managed to somehow blend all these big characters that we'd come to love in one film without it turning out like a giant blancmange that just collapses under it's own weight. Now of course, the way he did it (as this genious always does) was to 'think small.' This wasn't a film about superheroes, this was a film about some people with their own personal and relationship problems who just happened to wear brightly coloured superhero outfits (and damn, in Cap's case 'bright' was definitely the right word...)
But it was because so many people took to this awesomeness, and because it was such a well made film, that (as is the way with this type of storytelling) a sequel was announced at 2012's comic-con. And of course, everyone went absolutely bananas. How on earth could Marvel pull it off a second time?
Well, I knew from that moment that 'Avengers 2' was even more of an ambitious undertaking than the first. Naturally, part of the sheer joy of the Avengers was seeing these iconic characters interact for the first time, but Marvel could no longer rely on that magic because we've experienced it before. It would also be far too easy to up the spectacle and ignore the personality behind the first, but with Joss Whedon signed I felt far more confident that this wasn't just going to feel like a bloated case of sequel-itous, but hopefully, an even more personal and far deeper story.
Well, years later, Whedon's 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' hit theatres, with hype levels at peak and excited adults queuing up like gleeful 7 year-olds at the theatre doors. Could they do it again? Well... As many of you may know, the movie was met with somewhat mixed responses. Many recognised it as pretty enjoyable, but overstuffed and less magical than the first. Yes it wasn't hated by any means, but it certainly wasn't universally adored either.
And that's why I decided to talk about this film. Because I happen to absolutely, whole-heartedly adore it. I love to dissect my own and other's opinions, and the potential reasons behind them. So when there's something that I love as dearly as this movie, but that's also disliked by many fans, I find it extremely interesting to consider and think about both sides of the argument - and that's what I plan to do here.
So why, praise, is it "my favourite Shakespeare yet"? Have I gone barking mad? Well, yes, I'll admit that's a slightly odd title, but I'm not just going to leave you hanging there. Allow me to explain my own opinion first, and then why virtually everyone disagrees with me, hence forth, yay verily, unto thee...
Well firstly, for me the bottom line is that 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' is like no other MCU movie, or even any other comic book movie ever made. Yes, there have been some great pieces of film come from Marvel over the years don't get me wrong - with the likes of this film's predecessor, the Captain America movies, Guardians of the Galaxy etc all impressing me immensely. But none of them, no matter how awesome, come remotely close to this film in my eyes. Why? Well I think this is a highly personal, highly independent and downright beautiful movie, and one that I'm very surprised Marvel made at all.
"What the hell am I bashing on about? I thought it was all action and no story?" Yes, Whedon also upped the scope for us (which was awesome...) but don't be fooled! I feel that underneath all that cool action and escapism is an awful lot of very personal, very interesting aspects that many may not consider or engage with. Lets have a little chat about them first then shall we?
So for a start, this film is chock full of some of the most amazingly intimate and beautiful scenes/character interactions of a kind that I've ever experienced in a film of this scale. Whenever you're out of the action, even for a moment, AoU feels like it's ripped straight off a play with a £5 budget, made by a man who gives his love to film and writing at the expense of his family, voice box, and perhaps even a good shave. If that sounds like a complement; it is, because I'm talking about Shakespeare; a man who's plays often have some of the most delicate writing and characterisation of all. In fact it's this development of such engaging human characters that made me reference Shakespeare in the first place, and Whedon's ability shines most strongly in this department.
Take the Hawkeye's house sequence as one small example (in a sea of thousands of great character scenes); I've never felt like I understand these characters so intimately until this moment - they feel like real human beings with real lives and feelings. Yes Whedon brought this quality to the first film too, but by having each and every god-like Avenger (annoyingly bar Thor) stripped back and desperately helpless after being shown their greatest fears in the comfort of one Avengers's farm house, we truly get to feel for these characters. This sequence is genious not only because it's pretty fish-out-of-water hilarious, but also because it's such a beautiful way to learn from and feel for these characters.
For a start here, we get a scene between Bruce and Natasha (who's romance may seem slightly out of continuity with the rest of the MCU but still really works) where they discuss why they feel they're monsters deep down (all the Avengers apart from Hawkeye call themselves monsters here,) and why they feel they're failing in their roles as 'hero.' They could run away together, but that would mean leaving this family behind and undoing everything they're trying to do right in "wiping their ledgers clean." Not only is it acted and directed so darn well, but every shot is also set up perfectly and the setting is just brilliant.
Meanwhile, Hawkeye talks to his wife as though he's a soldier going off into battle (which he basically is.) He's seemingly the stable figure on the team, but underneath this soldier's front he's also got problems - he doesn't want to leave his kids behind for another war. His wife turns and whispers "honey you know I support your Avenging." This is not only one of the funniest lines in the film, but it's also pretty real and heart-wrenching because she's talking like a soldier's wife who doesn't want him to go, but has to live with it and support him. The horrible uncertainty of real situations like that go on every day, and this is one hell of a beautiful scene.
Out in the garden, Tony and Steve - the 2 leaders who have both lived in the Avengers family for years, argue over the point of their fighting. Steve will go on Avenging; a (blindly?) moral and patriotic soldier who knows no other way than fight the fight. After all where would the soldier be without a war?
Meanwhile though, Tony has come to realise that the weapon (the Avengers) can cause the war, and that accepting all responsibility is foolish. He's thus created something to help end any conflict - but it's another weapon. He knows no other way of course, and he's still creating his own demons. With his PTSD (and a vision from Scarlet Witch), he's frightened that his family will be killed, but also feels responsible for them and the safety of everyone after the events of the Avengers and Iron Man 3, even if he learns it's too much to take on himself (many parallels have been drawn to Stark and post 9/11 America here.)
In fact in some ways we learn that all the Avengers feel they bear the weight of the world's safety on their shoulders, as with great power, does indeed come great responsibility. Walking away would seem wrong (as Black Widow and Captain America feel), but maybe accepting it all would be irresponsible too (as Banner feels and as Tony also knows deep down).
It'a all beautiful stuff to watch unfold, but what I'm really getting at is that every Avenger has their own uniquely personal and rather beautiful arc to guide them through this story. Hawkeye's house is just one great example of this detail - as are the dream sequences etc. But what's actually so great about all that is that a well thought out character arc and great writing makes the person on screen feel so incredibly real, and as a result you can relate to the situation more, and feel empathy or perhaps relate to the troubles they feel. Shakespeare's stories were so loved because of this, and for me, Whedon's Avengers sequel deals with these 'heroes' even better than in it's predecessor.
Oh but hang on a sec people - it's not just because of the characterisation that this film is so engaging to me; it's also because of it's thematic ambition, and the way the characters service this and benefit from it. Whedon says he's created a very personal narrative; and that's something I believe is often translated extremely well onto film too.
For a start, he not only talks a lot about family (after all that's what the Avengers are - a thrust together group of people), but he also discusses some of his very philosophies on humanity itself. It's not a 'telling' though, it's an exploration of his ideas, and that's a truly beautiful thing to see unfold.
The principal tool for this discussion of course is Vision and Ultron, (who also act rather brilliantly as their creator's alter-egos) as they look at humanity from the outside. Ultron says we're doomed and wants us to end, whilst Vision agrees that we are, but that "a thing isn't beautiful because it lasts." He's on the side of life, and Whedon somehow explicitly shows us that life is an amazing gift here, despite our obvious failings. For an Avengers film to remind me that the fact I'm here is a madly lucky and beautiful coincidence is a pretty unexpected thing, and this feeling is felt throughout. It's achieved not only because it's discussed, but also because life is actually created (in an incredibly intimate and awe inspiring scene), plus the Avengers constantly go out of their way to remind us that this is about saving people's lives. It truly makes me feel like ours and my life is special, and that's a pretty nice feeling right?
But Whedon not only reminds us of the beauty of life here, he also reminds us of our failings, and why "we're all doomed" in the first place. These aren't the basic political arguments of the likes of Civil War; these are deeply philosophical ideas that show us the very problems with our collective and personal selves (something we don't normally get to look at in a film about superheroes lets be honest).
First off, he shows us that he believes people become/create the very things they don't want to see - for example Tony Stark creates another weapon in Ultron, then Ultron searches for peace but only finds more war (Ultron may believe he's above humanity but he's not really). This whole idea is capitalised by Ultron's speech in the church, where he states that "we all create the thing we dread;" an interesting idea that's also kind of true. After all, wars for peace only result in more violence, and people blindly in search of happiness often only find less and less.
To me though, there's a far deeper idea explored by the fact that we "create the things we dread;" a kind of blissful unawareness of ourselves (this is also reinforced later). What I'm getting at is that if we knew what we wanted and knew our 'end games,' we wouldn't be trapped in this cycle, yet the beautiful thing with this film is that it never tells us what our 'end game' should be; it just tells us that we're doomed, and that one day we'll all die a rather pointless and meaningless death. That's probably why Joss said in his interviews that 'he's pretty messed up,' but really he's right to me. We are indeed doomed ladies and gentlemen, and that's probably why we're so unwilling to reflect on our end games, as we're fundamentally scared of death (the Avengers certainly are anyway).
This lack of reflective ability is probably also why none of the Avengers ever feel like they've truly succeeded (the team is almost a microcosm of humanity itself), as they're mostly unaware of what they're personally trying to achieve outside of the prospect of "winning the battle." Many are never really in sight of the "end game," and when they are (ahem, Tony Stark), it all goes tits up because it's a strange concept to them as it means leaving the cycle they're in and ending the Avengers - they're all scared of change. This in turn is why the Avengers always feel like they've failed - each character succeeds really of course, but rarely feel content with their actions or abilities because they're not sure what they want.
This movie also shows us our failings far more explicitly than that though; by using Ultron. Yes a god like Vision agrees with him (which makes him right), but Ultron's the one who makes our problems stand out most clearly. For starters, the AI sees many of our collective issues when scanning the internet and attacking JARVIS; wars, politics - all a stupid game to a newborn creature. And in fact, everything's stupid and futile to him; religion (the church scene), money (the boat scene). It's brilliant as it enhances that feeling of our blissful stupidity, and makes us realise how crazy all these things are, and how aimlessly we all wonder around following these practices (as I suggested earlier).
But all of this great stuff - the characterisation, the themes etc; it all leads onto the main reason that I adored this film - the way it makes me feel. In the end, 'feeling' is what movies are all about, and this is always the way you judge it initially because it's what you leave the theatre with. In this article I've attempted to begin to summarise the reasons why AoU makes me feel the way it does, but really, even if I couldn't fathom why, this film would still be my favourite because of that.
So what actually does Age of Ultron make me feel? Confused, bored, disengaged? No, you may have felt that and that's cool (I'll talk more about that in a sec) but from my perspective, this movie made me feel awe-inspired, and genuinely humbled. Normally when you watch a film like this you're on top of everything, enjoying the creatives show you what they have and lapping it up like an excited dog. But this isn't like that; it's above me, and thus it makes me feel like a very inferior human being (but also one who's very lucky to be here as I've said), yet one that's also looking at something far more intelligent and awe inspiring. In time, I've thought about it and re-watched it multiple times; coming to realise why I feel that (as I've discussed), but on it's own, that's a rare and brilliant mix of feelings for a film to bring.
For one, I'm humbled and awe-inspired because of how intelligent it is. Even if I wasn't (and still am not) fully on top of the themes discussed, the questions and ideas raised in the moment are truly fascinating. Like when watching a Nolan film; it takes years of debate and dissection to fully fathom everything that's being discussed, but you still enjoy it because you feel the seeds of interesting questions and answers being planted in your mind as you watch. But unlike a Nolan film, this also has the ability to engage me through the great characterisation I talked about earlier, and the beautifully poetic manner that the intelligent themes service and also benefit from the characters in turn. More awe is sparked by the incredible action pieces and visual style (this is the most beautiful Marvel film to date), and all in all you've got yourself an incredible movie experience; one that brings awe, as well as humbling intelligence, and humour and action in the right places to avoid over-saturation. Yes I've said how brilliant I think this film is, but it's all those great aspects combining together that makes me feel the way I do about it.
So whilst I truly adore Age of Ultron (and I'll never properly be able to explain why in full glorious detail), I'm aware that many of you think I'm a crazy fool for thinking so, and whilst my own opinion intrigues me, other opinions intrigue me far more. That's why I've thought a lot about why most people disagree with me on this one, so hold your horses ladies and jellyspoons I'm about to talk about that...
Now the first reason I think many of you didn't love AoU comes from the very fact that this film feels 'above' you and humbles you like I said before, and whilst I loved all that, I'm aware some of you may not have. Perhaps you just don't like feeling that you're not on top of all the things that are going on here and in your head? That may sound patronising but I don't mean it to - attempting to think about everything in the moment and watching this 'from the outside' isn't wrong, it's just a different way to watch films. You're the kind of clever analytical people who prefer stuff like 'Captain America: Civil War' that I don't like so much - where you consider everything and enjoy slotting it into your brain. Whilst that's never the appeal for me, I can totally see that if you tried to reason with everything whilst watching it and really thought about some of the more technical or story elements, this film could easily be considered a convoluted mess that loses itself on manier occasion. After all, whilst I've discussed all these 'amazing' things, I can't deny that fitting it all in must have been a challenge for Whedon, and that really, from a logical storytelling point of view, he fails on many occasions.
However, the appeal for me lies in the very fact that the film humbles me and makes me feel like I'm immersed in something more intelligent where I'm not on top of everything, whilst none of the messy story elements ever properly bring a lack of individual event continuity, or take me out of it any degree either. I'm the kind of person who gets engrossed by a film and 'watches from the inside,' but you may like to analyse or feel everything makes sense logically, and that's absolutely cool.
In fact if I'm being honest, from a film-making perspective I would agree that this movie fails frequently. Sitting and analysing it without getting engrossed by it would make me realise all of it's apparent failings and in truth AoU would probably deserve a rating of about 3.5. However, I think of films in a slightly different way; considering how it makes me feel, then dissecting why afterwards. That means that I'm never giving movies I don't like high scores because they're 'well made.' Well made Age of Ultron may be not so, but bloody engaging and ambitious it is.
There is one other big reason that this movie is disliked by many though, and that's the way that Joss handled the character of Black Widow. This was an infamous point of criticism because a lot of fans of the character felt she was wrongly written and retreated to become a simple 'love interest' or 'damsel in distress.' I respectfully disagree, but I also completely understand that if you have an idea of how a character should be and it's played wrongly in your eyes, then that can ruin your perception of a film entirely (not that that could ever excuse the abuse Joss Whedon suffered as a result, but that's another matter). For me though, Black Widow is explored the most and portrayed the best here because we get to learn more about her, and she gets to learn a lot more about herself. In her previous movies she's using her cool bravado to cover up her issues (much like Stark does with his humour) which is why she appears so awesome and bad-ass. However, after the Winter Soldier she's realised she has to become her own woman and start seeking her own pathway, which is why she's starting to think about finding a partner (Banner's more the 'love interest' to me as she's the one seeking him out), or running away from the team. I wont go into it all here though as I've written a lot about this character's arc before (as she's probably my second-favourite MCU character) so you can catch up on her full Age of Ultron story here to hear me explain my version of events in full. If you disagree though, I get it, and I can see how that could ruin the film for you to some degree.
So I've gone some way to covering why I loved the film so much, and I've also talked about why I think many of you might disagree with me. But what does all this and the response to it say about the future for our MCU, and for our beloved Joss Whedon? After all, if a film isn't received particularly well, it can have huge ramifications on sequels and other films in the universe, or the people behind it. Well, I suppose all it means for Whedon is no more Marvel projects (at least for a while), and it also probably means he's doubting his crazy intelligence and ability as a filmmaker. I don't doubt for a second though that he'll be back to film or TV soon (which I very much look forward to) so the real question sits on the shoulders of Marvel. What did this film mean for the future of their awesome cinematic universe? Well the bottom line is that Marvel took a huge gamble with Age of Ultron; it was wildly ambitious, hugely expensive and madly independent, and probably directly as a result, it didn't do quite as well as they might have expected.
In response though, Marvel-parent Disney did the only right thing yet again. Instead of deciding to never make an ambitious or independent film in future, they completely released the reigns on the studio; leaving everything in the hands of boss Kevin Feige. Now lets not forget this is the man who pushed for Joss' vision to be realised in full during AoU, and the one who realises that to retain their audience, they need to keep their content fresh and exciting. What will this mean? Well I think it means it's far more likely that we'll see even more independent films come from Marvel in the next few years.
Yes it's a more risky strategy of course, but hopefully with a hugely talented group of auteur directors, we'll end up with films as clever and ambitious as Age of Ultron, that maybe lose some of it's glaring technical flaws.
And auteur directors we do have, because (with the exception of their biggest films cleanly handled by the Russos) we've got a very exciting list of extremely able filmmakers tasked with headlining the future of the MCU. The likes of Scott Derickson, Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler are all people who are likely to make some very exciting independent movies that we can all get our teeth into, without the possible restrictions of constant set-up or the old Marvel 'creative committee.' The first test will of course be November's Doctor Strange where I hope it's really as weird and wacky as they say it is, and not as mediocre as the trailers still suggest...
But there we have it; Avengers: Age of Ultron was a humbling and awe-inspiring film that I massively adored, but one that most other people hated for it's technical issues. It's also a turning point in the MCU though, and a film that signifies many exciting things to come.
But what do you think? Did you enjoy Age of Ultron? If yay or if nay, why? And what do you think it means for the future of the MCU? Let me know in the comments peeps, I'd genuinely be fascinated to hear from you!