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In the quiet moments of Age of Ultron, Joss Whedon stumbles across some scenes that might be called beautiful. In the film’s dark middle, he gives us cinematography that pulls back and gains beauty over awe; hands over lines where the script drops its focus on throwaway one-liners and brings to its forefront the tension between the heroes as characters and not as action sequence set-pieces. A tense sequence in a doorway. Heroes bordered by windowframes. We find real depth here as an audience—real motivations for each hero as an individual person/god, and not just as a collective world-saving force. And the film is better for it.
In fact, I would even go so far as calling Age of Ultron a good film. While it feels to me like Disney are on the brink of oversaturating the market by churning out an endless list of entries in every Marvel franchise (looking at you, Ant-Man), they have so far been doing it, more or less, while managing to preserve a level of quality. For instance, I stand by Iron Man 3 and Guardians of The Galaxy as two of the best entries so far. And these aren’t unaware flukes—Ultron is definitely drawing on the traits that made Guardians great: true character depth and an appreciation for quiet beauty as a means of elevating and balancing the myriad of action sequences.
At the beginning of Ultron, I rolled my eyes. The slow-motion, the shaking camera, the mystical artefacts, the hit or miss one-liners. All of it felt so—done. Like a rehash. But then that early conflict resolved itself in a way I would call interesting, and the rest of the film kicks off in true form. Tony Stark is a driving force for the plot’s Artificial Intelligence-centred kickoff, but I definitely wouldn’t call him the film’s main character. It seemed to me like Whedon recognised Iron Man’s arc to be over after the end of his trilogy, but still found a way to use Stark’s ending point to conjure believable character motivations that would set off the rest of the plot.
So believable are the character motivations towards the film’s conclusion that I found myself torn and struggling between which of the Avengers I trusted—I was genuinely unsure of the outcome I wanted from the possibilities the film presented in one scene. While it’s not a suggestion of Ultron’s overall quality, this is an achievement not even Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy quite attained. This is a sign of good writing, acting, and filmmaking.
But for every intimate moment between lovers in doorways, for every piece of proper narrative tension—for each of these, there’s a fault. There’s a large enough share of Deus Ex Machina in the final action sequence, which is also around about when the film starts making a few too many assumptions regarding the emotions its audience is feeling. When a certain character death occurs in Age of Ultron, an echoing choir starts up and bleeds out all other noise, and we’re given soft-focus shots of everyone the Avengers are in the process of saving. This goes on for a while, and you know what? No one cares. The character Whedon chose to kill off had the dimensionality of a straight line etched in the sand—no one cared when the tide swept him away. But I guess Whedon assumes that you do, and so he tries to play on emotions that simply haven’t been earned.
And though the fight sequences in Ultron are definitely more scaled-back than the first Avengers film, some of them still go on a little too long, and it’s hard to pay attention when there appear to be no consequences in battle for any of the main characters. The film takes this lack of responsibility to an extreme too, even implying that the heroes are never directly responsible for a single civilian death, which is impossible with the number of buildings felled over Ultron’s runtime.
And while the film tries to have the Avengers grapple occasionally with the morality of their imperialist-style actions a la modern American interventionalism, this lack of tangible consequences causes the pseudo-intellectual aspect of the film to fall flat and crash, and makes many of the interactions feel as hollow as the other one-liners that litter many of the film’s scenes as a substitute for substance. See, in a film where characters grapple with the consequences of their actions without actually showing the audience these consequences in any confronting way, it’s hard to feel that the film is anything more than apologist, sympathetic to modern Western interventionism, if that is indeed the metaphor Whedon was going for (which, with the Banksy-esque Iron Man grafitti across the walls in the opening war-torn scenes, seems to be the case).
But maybe I’m overthinking it.
Because Age of Ultron’s a good superhero film. Is it deep? I don’t really know. The little character vignettes in the film’s centre are for the most part very good, and the Artificial Intelligence subject matter is handled reasonably well in that it’s not the worst depiction in modern mainstream cinema, but it’s not Her, either. And I guess that’s the essence of how I feel about this latest Marvel film: it’s not a masterpiece, but it sure ain’t bad either.