Avengers: Age of Ultron releases tomorrow! Huzzah! I am so pumped! I’m gonna cheer on Captain America and Iron Man and Hulk and Thor! And the rest! Can’t wait to see Earth’s mightiest heroes go up against the evil techno-tyrant Ultron! It’s gonna be great! It’s —
Well, let’s temper expectations a little bit. Age of Ultron, for all its potential awesomeness, should have a few asterisks attached to the awesomes. Here are few reasons why:
- It’s the second Marvel Cinematic Universe team-up film. As we explored last time, the first Avengers film had high expectations and goodwill because of its shared-universe, franchise-blending novelty. But this time people know what to expect. Which leads to …
- Some reviewers (and fans) will just plan be in more of a mood to look unfavorably on the familiar. Novelty-based goodwill lasts only so long. Soon the Next Big Thing has become Yesterday’s Big Thing. It’s just too big, and that frankly trips the nasty human impulse to root for failure. This is an unfortunate side effect of popular culture. Which leads to …
- Early reviews lean mixed-positive. One must skim to avoid spoilers, but the reviews I’ve caught indicate the story has too little setup and ignores plot questions. Some called the first Avengers slow, but it very pleasantly set up all its pieces. Which leads to …
- Surely the story has too many pieces, given the weight of 10 franchise films, more than a dozen arguably lead heroes and side heroes plus new ones, a horde of robot villains, end-tying from previous films, setups for future films, and cameos galore—some of which were likely thrown in at the last minute by studio request. Which leads to …
- Director Joss Whedon could be brought down (not that I would suggest a thing) with six words. Just six: “Don’t you think he looks tired?” And he does. In interviews he sounds exhausted and is very honest about it. Only slightly less does he seem to disclose some tensions with the famously autocratic Marvel Studios. You get the idea that Whedon wants to kill people and have them stay dead and Marvel does not; Whedon may want to explain more of the story and Marvel might not.1 After this film, Whedon will depart the franchise. But his legacy lives, which leads to …
The Avengers understands heroes and humanity
Whedon wrote this little essay about the film for the CD notes of The Avengers soundtrack, back when they still put soundtracks on actual CDs. It sums up why I find joy not only The Avengers but any superhero story—DC, Marvel, whatever—that joyously and honestly explores the humanity yet true heroism of people who use their powers against evil.
“I still believe in heroes.” Nick Fury said that… well, he said it in the trailer. It’s not from the film. But making a trailer means boiling down the essence of a film’s meaning, and that’s mine, with this. Heroes. Flawed, textured, uncertain and often unworthy, but come the main event, ready to give everything. For us, for each other, for the greater good. …
Music tells us, “This matters.” Defines these extraordinary people: Look how sad they are. Look how tall they are! Look: They’re all together, standing back to back, enemies (and a circular dolly track) all around them, a team at last. That’s a moment that thrilled me twice: Once, when I thought of a good enough reason to put it in the movie (because it had to be good enough), and once, much more strongly, when I sat in the room while Alan Silvestri conducted an 80-piece orchestra, playing his Avengers theme over that shot. That’s the moment I turned to Kevin and Jeremy, my producers and friends, and said “I’m experiencing joy. I’m feeling it right now, as it’s happening. That’s rare for me, so make note.”2
You couldn’t get to that heroic moment without first honestly (though in some clichéd ways) showing how these heroes’ backgrounds and beliefs and powers first clash. That’s another source of joy in the film, and more so for true comic geeks than for me: Seeing Iron Man go up against Thor, and Thor vs. Hulk, and Cap vs. Thor (briefly) and Iron Man vs. Cap.
Some of it’s just-for-fun, because superheroes are meant to fight one another before they band together to fight the villains. And some of it’s a bit deeper, such as when Thor is forced to fight the Hulk but doesn’t want to. I love how Thor does not simply throw himself into battle but tries to reason with the beast by reaching Banner first. Once that proves futile, however, Thor turns to his brash-warrior side and takes the upper hand. And of course, Tony Stark’s personality clash with Steve Rogers could make its own film (and will).
But hero-vs.-hero conflicts are only side quests. The story’s central conflict rings true and bears surprisingly regal weight. Loki, self-exiled rebel prince of Asgard, invades Earth with startling efficiency, and he’s burdened with glorious purpose: to become a king, any king.
There’s a reason why fans remember Loki’s boasts and seemingly thoughtful philosophy—enough to turn them into thousands of internet images and parodies—because they have the ring of truth. We can think of true-life villains like him. But some real-life villains have actual conviction, unlike Loki who is clearly trying to fake it until he makes it.
“I’ve come to set you free … from freedom,” Loki states, and he’s clearly trying to persuade himself. “Is this not your natural state?” he demands of a crowd of people cowering before him. Again, he’s not a “pure” dictator; as Stark later says ,he’s a mere diva. That does not make Loki any less dangerous. But his own attempt to persuade himself of his own high-minded ideals makes him interesting, and evil, and not too serious, all at once. It’s genius.
So are the scenes in which each hero confronts him in their own ways. Cap simply comes at Loki for physical combat. Thor begs his lost brother to give up his mad dreams and come home and only fights him as a last resort. Stark taunts Loki on his own emotional turf and out-tricks the trickster. And of course Hulk smashes the Helheim out of him.
All those awesome reasons are why I ultimately care little if some reviewers (or myself) will half-heartedly embrace Age of Ultron because it’s familiar, or if the story has some fill-in-with-extended-edition-style holes, or if some characters get short screen time, or if the film’s soundtrack-creation clearly had some issues that brought the sudden addition of Danny Elfman as co-composer along with the fantastic and underrated Brian Tyler.3
I don’t expect perfection or even some kind of joyous experience like Whedon recounted. All I expect from Age of Ultron are glimpses of joy, echoes of themes such as the timeless battle of good and evil, and of course those heroes—“flawed, textured, uncertain and often unworthy, but come the main event, ready to give everything … for the greater good.”
And we get to enjoy stories made by people who either believe in true heroes or at least want to believe in them, long enough to make the story soar and fight and win. Thank God.
- See also: the cut scenes from The Incredible Hulk and star/cowriter Edward Norton’s departure from further Hulk ↩
- I’m glad Whedon experienced joy, though it’s a bit sad that it’s so rare for him. Maybe it’s because he and other storytellers spend so much time breaking their backs to make stories for others. And maybe someday we’ll be able to make stories as pure experiences of joy. ↩
- Okay, of all the things that could go wrong with Age of Ultron, this one somehow bugs me more. ↩