Marvel’s flagship film franchise landed its second installment this weekend, assembling the Avengers to take on Ultron. Secrets were revealed! Tears were shed! Scenery was chewed! Spoilers for sure after the break: welcome to the Chat Cave.
Drew: At this point, I think our expectations for Marvel movies are pretty well-calibrated. Love ’em or hate ’em, it’s unlikely you’re going to be surprised by your reaction to Age of Ultron. There’s a comfort in that, but it’s also at least a tiny bit deflating — that lack of mystery robs the experience of some excitement. In the world of problems, that definitely falls on the good side, but with Marvel making their ever-widening scope look so easy, it’s hard not to get at least a little jaded. Which is to say: I thought the movie was exactly what it needed to be — it was good enough, it was fun enough, and it was action-packed enough. I enjoyed it a great deal, but nothing about the experience was particularly surprising; the characters were quippy, the villains evil, and the endings happy.
The one moment that did surprise me — very pleasantly — was the reveal of Hawkeye’s secret family life. As much as I may love the eternal screw-up that is Clint Barton in the comics, a wife and kids works for Jeremy Renner’s take on the character, and the chemistry between Renner and Linda Cardellini was enough to give Hawkeye the weight he’s needed ever since he was introduced back in Thor. Plus, in spite of what I’ve just done here, it’s not a moment that folks are likely to spoil. Unlike character deaths or intra-team romances, “Hawkeye has kids” isn’t so juicy a detail that people will casually mention it in front of friends who haven’t seen the movie yet. Or maybe it is. What do I care? I’ve already seen it.
Patrick: I also had a predictably great time seeing this thing. I think I’m a little less concerned with the grind of getting MCU movies with this kind of frequency, if only because these are perfectly disposable experiences — popcorn flicks in the truest sense of the phrase.
But, given Whedon’s pedigree and reputation for writing strong female characters, I was a little bummed out by Black Widow’s role in this movie. She’s a hardcore badass, so she technically fits the “strong woman” mold, but so many of her character beats were dictated by her gender. Bruce Banner gets to have scenes that aren’t about that relationship, but Natasha’s not really granted the same leeway. Even in the heat of battle, she’s got the added responsibility of “be pretty and calm Hulk down.” Plus, she even makes the joke about always having to “pick up after the boys” when retrieving Cap’s shield in Korea — which sorta grossly casts her as the group’s mom.
And then there’s Natasha’s big secret: part of her Red Room training ended in ceremonial surgery that rendered her infertile. She reveals this when she’s trying to relate to Bruce, saying that they are both monsters in equal measure. The character caries shame about this infertility, and no one disabuses her of that shame. Having a woman declare herself a monster because of her inability to reproduce feels remarkably antifeminist.
Greg: Patrick, I tend to agree with your reading of that rather icky scene, which is a shame because so many terrible things were foisted on Natasha in her Red Room training that could’ve taken the place of this emotional revelation (I had to shoot and kill lots of people as a kid!) that have no inherent gender relation, and are objectively more “monstrous”. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is one of the more badass elements of the MCU — every time she had a dope action beat I uncontrollably whispered “Cool!” out loud — so it’s a shame that there are still some hills to climb in terms of putting her on equal footing with the men. However, I’d like to give big props to Mark Ruffalo for calling out Marvel on some of that bullshit.
With that big criticism aside, I gotta say that I really dug this movie, and while Patrick called it disposable, it gets better in my brain the more I think about it. Drew, you say the Marvel machine is well-oiled and unable to surprise, but I found lots of spicy moments in this dish. Whedon’s screenplay felt 10 notches more personal, more funny, more layered, filled with callbacks and ironic echoes, and darker in an earned way. The performers felt 10 notches more comfortable, playful, and engaged, particularly Robert Downey, Jr., who infused Stark with a sense of personal accountability that fit snugly amidst the snark. And, holy cannoli, I cannot get enough of the jolt in the arm that is Ultron. James Spader knocks him out of the park with a grabbag of eccentricities, evil yet alluring, that refrain from feeling forced. Whedon seems to be the only MCU writer/director that knows how to deliver a villain on equal footing with the heroes, and while this is a great swan song, I’m sad to see him go.
Spencer: It took me two viewings of Avengers: Age of Ultron to really solidify my feelings about it, but after a shaky first impression, you can count me in as a true fan. I’m digging the character work, which is more subtle than the first, but just as powerful: I was touched by Steve’s long-time-coming acceptance of his life as a soldier/superhero, intrigued by the way Tony’s desire to save the world has him making weapons again (he’s come full circle), and charmed by Hawkeye’s affable new attitude and ironic position as the team’s only normal/well-adjusted person.
But this film also has way too much going on — it really would have benefitted from a little more room to breathe. Vision’s presence is commanding, but he gets little screen time and no explanation for his powers. Ultron’s a phenomenally entertaining villain, but his motives never feel all that well established and seem to fluctuate scene-by-scene (I understood him more because of my knowledge of the comics than from anything Whedon gives us). Tony’s creation of Ultron causes a lot of friction, but is ultimately left unresolved, and while I understand that this is likely setting-up the Civil War storyline of Captain America 3, it leaves Age of Ultron feeling a bit aimless.
That’s not to say the table-setting here isn’t exciting — I nearly jumped out of my seat when they name-dropped Wakanda, and I love the New Avengers roster — but Age of Ultron often feels more interested in setting up future Marvel movies than doing anything else, including fighting Ultron. The first Avengers saw the team form, but how has Age of Ultron changed the team? Lot’s of things happened to the Avengers, but I can’t really find any sort of thematic arc for them beneath all the spectacle. Is that really that big of a deal for a blockbuster superhero movie? To be honest, I’m not even sure myself . Like I said, I love this movie; in fact, it’s already my fourth favorite entry in the MCU (behind Avengers, Cap 2, and Guardians). It’s got humor, spectacle, action, and character galore. It may just be too big for its own good.
Patrick and Greg already covered it well, but the biggest problem I had with this movie was the treatment of Black Widow. Besides the awfulness of the “monster” line, the romance between her and Banner just doesn’t work. It works on paper, but Johannsen and Ruffalo don’t have that kind of chemistry, and it ends up feeling more like a black hole plot-wise than anything intriguing (the platonic love between Widow and Hawkeye was far more engaging). Widow and Banner/Hulk were a much more interesting pair in the first movie, so I can see where Whedon was coming from with this approach, but it just didn’t work out.
The rest of the issues I had with the movie were minor enough, and I can easily glaze over because the movie was so much fun, but this is the one area where I cringed more than once during the course of the film.
I didn’t remotely interpret the infamous Black Window scene the way a lot of other folks are. Natasha only brings up the infertility because Bruce is making the case that he could never start a family with his Hulk problem going on; Natasha responds that she can’t either. While explaining WHY she was made infertile as part of Red Room training she basically went on to explain that it made her a more detached and merciless killer which is what prompted the “monster” line. I didn’t see “I’m a monster because I’m infertile” ever being the direct implication. I also have a hard time seeing the creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer ever entertaining that notion. They recently tackled even stickier pregnancy/birth issues in Buffy Season 9 comics, for instance, and did so with a great deal of thought and purpose.
Or, I guess it’s worth clarifying (if a bit obvious) that the procedure in itself didn’t make her detached or a killer but in combination with the other indoctrination she was undergoing as part of the larger process the result and the intention were to make her a more detached, merciless killer for the persons she served. That ultimate result is where she found her common ground with Banner’s Hulk anxieties and used the “monster” metaphor as the clearest and most direct way to convey that she kind of gets what he’s dealing with.
I understand where you’re coming from. And I can (obviously) understand why Natasha would be so upset about being forcibly sterilized, and I can also understand why Natasha would consider herself a monster (her guilt over her past actions is a key component of her character — “red in my ledger” and all that).
But the actual dialogue in the movie — whether it intends to or not — makes it sound like Natasha is equating her sterilization with being a monster. I don’t really think that was Whedon’s intent — your explanation of the scene makes more sense — but the execution kind of undoes the intent here. As I talked more about in the article itself, that was kind of my whole issue with the Natasha/Banner stuff in general: On paper I can absolutely see the connections and why the scenes should work, but somehow it never comes together the way it should on screen.
TL;DR: Subtlety is great, but Whedon could have been a blunt with this point. Once we have to jump through these kind of hoops to properly explain a character’s reasoning, it’s just a flubbed scene.
I mean, a ton of people had the same issue as you, so there’s no arguing that it wasn’t made clear enough. I just can’t believe so many people out there would think Joss was up to something like that in light of his previous work, and his vocal criticism of Marvel/Disney being too chickenshit to make a female-led solo movie. Beyond his history of creating tough but realistic original heroines, he obviously cares about this stuff a lot to have been calling out his employers while still making movies for them. I can’t help but see the whole thing as a huge misunderstanding. Though, I also felt there was legitimate chemistry there, which is of course not an opinion everyone shares.