Greetings everyone, so Avengers 2 dropped this past weekend and the reactions to it have been a little surprising. While the world hyped it up to be the second coming of Robot Jesus, the end result was a bit more flawed. Is it still worth your time despite this? Well Mike and I sat down to have a chat about just that. What follows is a transcription of our correspondence. It’s like a podcast for your eyes! Brace yourself guys, this is a long one. Also beware some minor spoilers.
Zach: So Avengers? I’m curious to hear what you think, since I believe I might have a contrarian opinion on it. Not that I didn’t like, I actually liked it a lot, but I also had issues with it, and it’s kinda fascinating to me that I liked it despite all that. Especially considering our completely different backgrounds coming into this, as I have no prior Avengers knowledge, other than what I’ve seen from the first movie, and a couple of the other Marvel movies, whereas you’re coming from the background of much more known Marvel lore. So what did you think about Age of Ultron?
Mike: I think we might be a bit on the same page. I thought it had some pretty severe structural and storytelling issues, but much like the first one remained extremely entertaining in spite of all that. Probably mostly due to all that great casting work that’s been happening for the past decade.
Z: I can’t agree more on the storytelling and structural issues. One of my fears of how the Marvel movies are so intertwined is that at some point they’ll work their way into a corner such that a person coming in blind will feel completely lost. Unfortunately, I felt a tinge of that this time, there was a conversation early on where Stark and Banner started talking about Ultron, and they did so with such earnest and weight, but also out of nowhere, that I really felt like I missed something. Wait, am I supposed to know what you guys are talking about already? Did I miss the required reading? Ultimately, it felt so rushed, which I can appreciate in some sense, because I think it succeeds as a pure action film, the whole “let’s get on with it already” style of writing. But I feel like they were trying to do more than be just an action movie, therefore the breakneck pace adds unwanted dissonance.
It’s funny, until you just mentioned it, I didn’t even process that Ultron made a bigger version of himself*, which is a good enough segue into agreeing with your points on Ultron. James Spader’s voice work was really phenomenal, and truly elevated the character. But there was a moment near the end where I had this intense feeling of déjà vu: “You know, if you replaced all these robots with weird aliens, then you’d basically have the ending of the first Avengers.” I think I’m starting to have what I’d call “infinity stone fatigue,” it’s all starting to blend together for me. I also found myself reminded of the animated Justice League two parter “Tabula Rasa” that had a very similar set up: bad ass killer robot that the JL can’t stop, and I was almost hoping Ultron would go in a similar philosophical direction, instead of the “now the Avengers have to fight a million robots” angle.
M: It seems like so far the single character films have done a pretty good job of being self contained. Captain America: The Winter Soldier being a particular standout. Age of Ultron definitely felt like you needed to see previous films to make sense of a lot of things. Interestingly enough most of that stuff was B plot though. If you strip out all the Infinity Gem stuff you’re still left with a movie about a robot AI that that is trying to kill humanity. And arguably it might have been a “better” film on its own. However, I think that a lot of Marvel’s success has come from continuously building to the next thing. I like the fact that they planted seeds for both Captain America 3 and the next Avengers films. It definitely makes this one feel a bit clunky in places.
How did you find Whedon’s directing this time? I think the writing was still distinctly him, but some of his artsy flair seemed missing here. This is a bit ineffable, and I may have missed something, but for instance one of my favorite shots from the original is during the final battle when the camera pans to a mirror and we watch Captain America from that view. It only lasted a few seconds, but the whole movie was filled with lots of these small visual moments that added flavor to the film, and was something that a typical movie director wouldn’t do. This time out I felt like I was missing a lot of those little visual embellishes, almost like Whedon was a bit more conservative. Could this be a time thing? Has Marvel’s insane-o 100 year timeline started to rush things? Or was there too much to try to put in this movie already?
M: It was definitely serviceable action directing. I knew who was where and what they were doing during the action scenes which is often my biggest complaint with modern action movies. I think he’s maybe abandoned, whether intentional or not, those smaller visual flairs for the more over the top fancy stuff. When your movie starts with a 5 minute long digital tracking shot, that’s a lot to live up to for the rest of the run time. I had no specific complaints about the direction. But nothing especially stood out to me either.
Z: Right, I don’t want to imply that Whedon’s directing was actually bad or anything, just that there are elements of his usual style that I found missing this time. As far as the action being competently filmed he gets an A+. Again, broken record, but it does work as a decent action movie, but unfortunately it’s kind of one where the plot is just an excuse for the explodey bits to happen.
I’m glad you brought up that Thor bit, ’cause man, Thor jumps in the magic water that had to be specifically introduced in a movie that already feels rushed from so many elements had me scratching my head, might as well have him just disappear and come back. And as I said before, that resulting scene confused the hell out of me, I mean I got the basic idea: Ultra Jarvis is a good guy now, I guess, who’s tough enough to punch the bad guy, but it seemed particularly sloppy. I wish there was more done with Ultra Jarvis, perhaps some delving into the philosophical differences between these two super robot/android things. I found both entities extremely fascinating, but unfortunately they just popped onto the scene and immediately got to business without enough time to get to know them, and I really wanted to get to know them.
To answer your question, I wouldn’t say the character killing pisses me off exactly, it’s such a trope of the action genre at this point that you almost expect a character to die by the end. Though it can definitely feel manipulative if not done right, and I can see that being a problem with Whedon as he often doesn’t set up and pay off the deaths in a way that makes them work story-wise. Instead he seems to go for the surprise factor, that whole nihilism of the universe factor, which isn’t exactly welcome in an Avengers movie. Again, I think this was handled so much better in the original, it had the set up, the pay off, it was integral to the story, and was tragic in the right ways. Here it was just kinda like, “Um, I guess they’re dead now.” And unfortunately that’s kind of how I felt for a lot of it: “Oh I guess this is happening now, okay.” Quite a bit of set up that didn’t pay off, and quite a bit of stuff with no set up.
Speaking of, what’s your take on the Black Widow/Hulk thing that seemed to go nowhere?
M: The relationship between Hulk and Widow is interesting to me as a fan of the comics partially because it’s something completely contrived for the films, as is Hawkeye’s secret family. And both of those things sort of succeed and fail for different reasons. I do like the idea of them pairing up Bruce and Natasha. it seems like there is some good stuff to mine there. And I think Ruffalo as Bruce is secretly one of the better characters in the film even if it’s not as showy as Stark or even Captain America. But yeah, him bailing again feels like setting up for something that will happen later. There are no specific plans for a standalone Hulk movie but considering the next Avengers chapter is two movies I can foresee the team getting to a point where there’s seemingly no hope and somebody, likely Widow, has to go find Hulk.
Z: I am rather surprised that despite all of my complaints I still find this movie good. Are competent direction, witty dialogue, solid acting, and great looking set pieces enough to outdo all of the other problems? The same problems, I might add, that I viciously complain about in most modern movies. Apparently the answer to that question is yes, in this case at least. We’re probably coming off really negatively here, so I want to emphasize that I did really enjoy this movie, but there are definitely problems.
One thing I love about this movie, along with the original, is there is so much emphasis on protecting innocent people, that’s a huge element to me regarding super heroes, one that was sorely missing in that dismal Man of Steel movie, and I so appreciate that it is given such focus here. Also, I absolutely love that there are members of the Avengers that are just normal dudes – er dude and dudettes – that can completely hold their own with the likes of super soldiers and gods. I always appreciate well developed non-super characters in super hero stories, and Whedon does allow these characters to truly shine, miraculously making them as bad ass as the powered heroes.
How about you, any other positive notes to talk about?
M: Absolutely, but first to re-iterate. There are entire sections of this movie just dedicated to the heroes saving people. It happens more than once! And it’s not just a throwaway shot of Iron Man dropping some sexy lady off outside city limits. The Avengers make a plan to evacuate a city before the giant, huge, massive, monstrous, final battle takes place in order to save lives. And when things go wrong, they continue saving people instead of immediately going to fight the big, bad, evil guy. It’s refreshing and it seems like something that Marvel has pushed with all of their movies. Heroes should save people.
Z: All good points, I feel like we’re actually agreeing far more than I originally anticipated. That’s grand, as I thought I might be universally black sheeped for my opinion.