“Avengers: Age of Ultron”: Joss Whedon, Please Try Harder

Shannon and I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron opening weekend, and hoo boy. I was not impressed with Joss Whedon’s take on the Avengers in his first go-round, and I had heard enough mixed reviews of AOU (from those lucky sods across the pond who got to see it a week early) to lower my expectations even more, so I was not anticipating a masterpiece here. I was hoping for passable, and expecting mediocre, and I got… well. I certainly got something.

I think it’s easiest to break this down into a few positives and negatives, and then look at everything. The SPOILER WARNING should go without saying.

THE GOOD

The Vision! My robot Frankenstein Jesus boyfriend! So, so happy to see him in this movie. Paul Bettany was awesome, and that’s not just holdover from my A Knight’s Tale-era crush on him. Just weird and inhuman enough, without being uncomfortable. The costume is perfect, and the incorporation of the Mind Gem was a really nice touch. Wish they’d spent more time with him, but I’m excited to see him in Civil War.

The Maximoffs! I had my hesitations about how Whedon was going to handle these two, for several reasons. One, he took two prominent Jewish characters (in the comics, they’re Magneto’s kids) and had them sign up with literal Nazis, which doesn’t sit well with me at all. Two, Whedon has a thing for a very specific kind of psychologically unbalanced but lethal young woman — notably River in Firefly — and I’m generally not here for that. But, as things turned out, I was pretty pleased with their characterization. The issues I expected were definitely present and not resolved in any way that I found satisfying, but if I manage to divorce these characters from their comics counterpart then I find myself liking them.

Concern for civilians! I hate it when superhero movies smash stuff up just to smash stuff up, and this one did a good job about evacuating civilians and being aware of bystanders. So good job, I guess. Gold star for not being Man of Steel.

THE BAD

Ultron. He had so much potential to be a really engaging and compelling villain, but he was reduced to another killer robot with a killer robot army. For someone who’s so interested in Ultron as a character, Whedon didn’t spend any time exploring his motivations aside from “humans are weak.” Wasted potential. Probably should have been deeper in Uncanny Valley, too, from a visual standpoint.

Steve Rogers — or more specifically, how Whedon writes Steve. That joke about Steve not liking strong language is so representative of how badly Whedon does not get Steve. He was raised in Brooklyn during the Depression and then joined the army — what part of that says “does not like swearing” to you, Joss? Explain yourself! Contrasting Russo Cap with Whedon Cap is like comparing an actual, living person with a cardboard cutout, and it’s terrible.

Tony Stark. God, when will I be free from Tony Stark? Or, more importantly, when will Whedon actually hold Tony accountable for his actions? How many weapons of mass destruction does Tony have to create before someone realizes that he’s not really a superhero if all he does is clean up his own messes? This is to say nothing about the glaring lack of continuity between AOU and Iron Man 3 — Tony destroyed all of his suits, and now they’re just… back?

Also, that prima nocta joke was gross. Couching a rape joke in antiquated language doesn’t make it less of a rape joke. This might have been in character for Tony circa Iron Man, but five movies later it seems to undercut all of his attempts at being a decent person.

The gender ratio. There’s a bit at the party where Maria Hill asks where Pepper and Jane Foster are (literally, she asks why there are so few women around), and Tony and Thor make their girlfriends’ excuses. That scene was transparently Whedon trying to head his critics off at the pass. Lampshading your lack of female characters doesn’t make it okay! You can’t just wave a Nobel Prize at Jane Foster off-screen and get to keep your feminist filmmaker pin, Whedon.

But come on: Erik Selvig was in this movie, and Jane wasn’t. Go home, Erik Selvig! And speaking of Erik Selvig…

Thor’s vision quest. What the hell even was that? Not adequately explained, not really necessary to the plot, not handled well narratively. There had to be a better way to introduce the Infinity Stones and the Vision without getting this clunky.

The character death. Come on, Whedon. Killing off a character we barely know in order to take a shortcut to pathos is just sloppy, at this point. Please try harder.

THE UGLY

Literally everything that happened in Clint’s farmhouse. I turned to Shannon about five seconds after Clint’s family was introduced and told her that I hated everything that was happening, and she said, “Oh, girl, I know you do.” Being a comics fan has made me pretty resilient when things I don’t like happen to my favorite character, so I tend to roll with it. Rarely do I outright hate things, but oh man, I hated so much about this movie, and about 80% of what I hated happened on that farm.

I get that MCU Clint is not Comics Clint, however much I might want him to be. They’re in separate universes, and there’s bound to be differences. That being said: In what universe is Clint Barton happily married with three children? This Clint has about as much in common with comics Clint as he does with comics Kate at this point — shoots arrows, named Hawkeye. That’s about where the similarities end. From here on out, I’m mentally smushing a few things together in the MCU and pretending that Bobbi Morse’s ex-husband on Agents of SHIELD is actually Clint in disguise. That makes about as much sense as anything else in this movie.

Speaking of things that barely make sense: What the holy hell was going on with Natasha and Bruce? I am never one to decry the addition of a romance plot (“Heck yeah, let’s see some people fall in love!” —me at every movie, ever, regardless of genre) but this was… yikes. They had me at first! I was on board! They’re dramatically different people who both have trouble being people, and I would have loved to see that kind of cautious, careful relationship unfold. That first scene with her calming him down was great, but from there it went straight off the rails. Natasha being so open with her feelings was hugely out of character — “I adore you,” seriously? — and let’s not even get into the whole Red Room sterilization thing. Let’s just not even go there.

THE VERDICT

Joss Whedon is very good at witty quips, but you can’t make a screenplay entirely of one-liners, and this movie lacks any kind of real cohesion or message. Could have said some cool things about posthumanism, what with Ultron and the Vision, but didn’t. Frankly I think that Joss Whedon felt penned in by the restrictions of working in a huge franchise, so he ended up just patching together something adequate that kept the power that be happy instead of actually trying to make a good film.

Combine that lazy writing with Whedon’s blatant disregard for any kind of continuity between The Avengers and other Marvel films, and you end up with something like a pastiche. It’s got all the trappings of a Marvel movie, but I don’t know who these people are. At this point I’m just assuming that Civil War is going to introduce the Skrulls in order to explain Whedon’s sloppy characterization: “Surprise! All your faves were body-snatched, and that’s why they were acting so weirdly!” We can only hope.

If I was less invested in these characters, or less familiar with the franchise, or just cared less in general, I probably would have had an okay time watching an okay movie. As it stands, I care a lot, and I was deeply disappointed.

Basically I’m going to pretend that about 80% of this movie never happened. Only 353 days until Captain America: Civil War. Have at it, Russos. Fix this mess.

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