Sunday, November 6, 2016

Sunday Best: Top 25 Superhero Movies of All Time #23 - Avenger: Age of Ultron

Joss Whedon had an impossible set of expectations to meet with his sequel his critical and commercial blockbuster that was The Avengers.  His goal was to make a superior film in the mold of The Empire Strikes Back.  And while the sequel falls short of the original, it is still an excellent comic book film.

Avengers: Age of Ultron follows the events of the previous Marvel movie outings.  After retrieving Loki's scepter from Hydra, Tony Stark aka Iron Man decides to use its to create an artificial intelligence that can protect the world that he names Ultron.  But Ultron, as happens in most science fiction, decides to kill humanity rather than save it.  What follows is a world-spanning, action epic that pushes the Avengers to the limit.

But as eye-popping as the action is, what makes this movie work is the work Whedon puts into the characters and their relationships.  The plot feels a little too familiar with an evil villain trying to destroy the world, etc, etc.  Instead of using the plot to drive the story, he uses the plot to give us wonderful little character moments.  These moments could have been better integrated into the plot, but they are wonderful nonetheless.

An example of this is a story I read where the Marvel executives wanted to put a scene in where Thor goes to have a vision in a cave but they wanted to cut the entire sequence at the farm.  Whedon argued that the farm sequences were the heart of the story and refused to put in the cave scene if the farm was cut.  This illustrates the two different aesthetics:  Marvel wanted to build into the movie future story elements while Whedon wanted to slow things down and spend quality time digging deeper into the characters.

Whenever I rewatch this movie, the parts to which I always gravitate are less the action set pieces but the character scenes.  When those two things overlap well, as they did in the opening scene, it is a pure joy.  But mostly we find these moments in the down time.  The party in the Avengers tower is full of fun and humor.  I especially love the after party where they try to lift Thor's hammer.  And here is an example of Whedon setting up something in the first act that serves as a major character tipping point right before the third act with Vision.

I particularly like the relationship between Banner and Black Widow.  The seeds of their relationship can been seen in the original Avengers, but it is nice to not only see it grow but make sense of it.  When she talks about how Banner is different because he avoids a fight because "he knows he'll win," their entire attraction makes sense.

And of course, bringing Hawkeye up to center stage was an excellent move.  Rather than being the "useless" Avenger, Whedon shows how his humanity is the grounding for the team.

Everyone else does a fantastic job as well.  And we can see the second part of what I like to call "The Iron Man Breakdown," which began in Iron Man 3 with Tony's post-traumatic stress.  In Age of Ultron, we see him try to avoid the next world-threatening calamity by passing the buck to Ultron.  We see it finally come to a head where he finally tries to over-correct and become and authoritarian in Captain America: Civil War.

While I have been focusing on the character interactions, there are some truly wonderful action moments as well.  The best and most memorable is without a doubt the Hulk vs. Iron fight.  Creative, exciting, funny, and immensely satisfying.

Part of drags this movie down a bit is the incessant feeling that Age of Ultron is not its own movie.  It is a vehicle to set up Thor: Ragnarok, Captain America: Civil War, Ant-Man, and the next Avengers films.

The other thing that keeps this film from being higher on the list is the creeping nihilism that sneaks into Whedon's stories after too long.  The Avengers is bright and optimistic.  But there is an underlying pessimism under Age of Ultron.  When Ultron says to Vision that humanity is doomed, Vision does not argue.  In fact, he agrees.  The Empire Strikes Back is remembered for being dark, but that was done in order to give meaning to the hope the rebellion had.  Age of Ultron is dark in a way that feels as if we are pulling back the curtain on human nature and finding it wanting.

Despite these two deficits, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a movie that deserves its place in the comic book movie cannon as the #23 greatest superhero movie of all time.

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