I never know how to answer when someone asks me which Harry Potter book is my favorite. I inevitably panic and say either the fourth one or the seventh one, because both are easy to argue for. But if I sit back and think about it, my honest answer would be the fifth one, Order of the Phoenix, even though I hear a lot of people saying how much they don’t like it. The plot isn’t anything special, and Harry turns into a rage monster halfway through, but what’s awesome about Phoenix is that it’s J.K. Rowling’s storytelling at its peak. It’s not the beginning or the end of any plot thread, and nothing very definitive happens until the very end. It’s 800 pages of filler, really; but it’s all killer too.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron is like that. It’s definitely filler. You get the sense that it’s just marking time until Thanos can finally rocket to Earth and do his thing. But it’s also killer, because it has everything you could want from a superhero movie. Director Joss Whedon took everything he learned from making the first Avengers and cranked the knob up a few notches.
The first Avengers remains a fun watch and, even if its wow factor depreciates with each viewing, one of the very best superhero movies. But its pleasures have depreciated somewhat, its banter losing some of its bite and its action sequences losing some of their oomph. From the very beginning, Ultron feels tighter and more confident in the directions it takes with its characters’ storylines.
Age of Ultron is essentially an artificial intelligence story, with James Spader as Skynet. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) want to create an AI sentinel that will protect the Earth as a replacement for the Avengers, so maybe they won’t have to risk their lives on the whole planet’s behalf anymore. This plan goes awry, of course, spawning a robot who calls himself Ultron and deduces, as they are wont to, that Earth is safest if humanity isn’t on it. So action action banter action newheroes explosion HULK action the end.
If that last sentence turns you off, then this movie isn’t for you. However, if you enjoy a good comic-book movie, then you will love this, because it is the most *comic-book* comic-book movie. The Avengers comic books are always a little scatterbrained since there are so many characters to keep track of, but they’ve also been some of the most fun, with big action set pieces and topical issues hanging out on the margins. Ultron is basically that, in movie form, packed with incredible action scenes and with those topical issues filling in the movie’s edges- don’t think Whedon doesn’t have real-world problems on his mind as he sets parts of the film in a war-torn Eastern European country and an African nation supplied with American black market weapons. And you know he purposefully made the movie’s climactic scene about getting civilians out of harm’s way as a response to modern movies’ tendency to disregard the thousands of human beings that act as collateral in every action scene.
Of course, there’s also the little matter of the flack Whedon has gotten for his female characters in this movie. Leave it to a comic-book movie to inspire the biggest Hollywood controversy of the month. Of course, that’s not to say that superhero movies aren’t worthy of the scrutiny that would lead to such a controversy. But when main plot points in your movie revolve around sentient robots and a leather-clad archer, you’ll have to forgive me if my first reaction to any vitriol directed at your director is mild amusement.
It’s worth talking about, for several reasons. For one, The Avengers: Age of Ultron has almost grossed $1 billion worldwide, enough money that the movie is about to crack the top 30 all-time, which wouldn’t be that impressive for a blockbuster of its status except it’s only been out for 12 days in America. This means more moviegoers are seeing this movie than not.
On top of that, The Avengers series are seen as the tentpoles of the summer movie season. Tentpole season, if you will. For better or worse, blockbusters are how the studios make their money these days, and The Avengers movies are the leviathans in our current sea of blockbusters. Everyone sees them, and everyone focuses on them with hyperattentive laser vision. Also, we’re living in a time when the general population is beginning to notice disparities of equality in popular culture with greater frequency. If there’s something unjust in your movie, the people will notice, and then they’ll excoriate you on Twitter or some other public online forum for shaming. This is basically what happened to Whedon before he took his most recent sabbatical from Twitter. He claims any negative response to Ultron’s female characters wasn’t why he left, but it’s hard to imagine it didn’t at least play a part.
Others have explained the controversy with this movie better than I can. I’m glad we’re at a place where we have to talk about how the industry treats women. It’s hard for one movie to erase an entire industry’s flaws, and I genuinely think all Whedon was doing was telling the stories he wanted to tell. As a man who has strived to tell stories about three-dimensional women for almost his entire career, Whedon seems almost as much a victim of the industry’s failings as the women he champions. Maybe “victim” is too strong a word for a man who has directed two of the biggest blockbusters of all time, but if his comments about his “unpleasant” experience with Marvel are to be believed, it’s also true.
No matter how much he might have been hamstrung by Marvel’s oversight or his failure to right a whole industry of wrongs against women, Age of Ultron is a smash success. The reason so many people can get so angry about different aspects of Ultron is because it’s so successful in other areas. With the first Avengers, we learned Whedon was more than able to manage all of a blockbuster’s moving parts. With Ultron, we’ve learned that Whedon has mastered the skill. The people who don’t suffocate this movie with immeasurable standards might find just a comic book movie. But it’s the comic-bookiest movie they could ever hope to see.