Editor’s note: This article is presented as part of the limited article series There Was An Idea…, where every week, the Lewton Bus crew dive into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the run-up to Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War.
In a 2012 interview with SFX, Joss Whedon, then still awaiting the release and reception of his The Avengers, was asked how he would go about topping his film were he to make an eventual sequel. He said the following.
“By not trying to. By being smaller. More personal, more painful. (…) By being the next thing that should happen to these characters, and not just a rehash of what seemed to work the first time. By having a theme that is completely fresh and organic to itself.”
Now, six years after that quote, we all know that’s not quite how things worked out. In 2015, almost three years to the date after the release of The Avengers, Whedon and Marvel Studios unleashed Avengers: Age of Ultron onto the world. A film preceded by, as we’d quickly learn in the days following its release, a highly troubled production process. One that, in his own words, almost ‘broke’ Whedon and caused him to vow off directing Marvel films forever. Everyone pretty much assumed that means he’d be done with the superhero genre as a whole as well… until he wasn’t.
But that is a story for another limited article series. We’re here to talk about Age of Ultron. A film that’s at its heart trying its damnedest to differentiate itself from its predecessor, while also featuring multiple scenes of city-destroying carnage, a big climactic battle against an army of mindless/anonymous soldiers and an ending that promises that Thanos is (still) on his way. Smaller, more personal and more painful, it isn’t.
Or is it? Age of Ultron is a sprawling mess of a film that’s clearly serving multiple masters, but that doesn’t mean that absolutely nothing of Whedon’s original vision made it through. I’ve always been fascinated by what eventually made it onto the screen, warts and all, so I’d like to use this opportunity to take a deep dive into the film and see how much of it stacks up against his original goals.
The Times They Are-A-Changing
Before we do that, it’s important to remember that the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, but especially the grand success of The Avengers changed sequels as we knew them. Before the whole cinematic universe business got off the ground, most sequels were relatively simple affairs. But in the post-Avengers MCU, all the films are so connected to each other, there are almost definitely more indirect sequels than direct, numbered ones. So while Whedon might have have thought he’d be writing and directing a direct sequel to his original film, what he really would end up making was a sequel to The Avengers, Iron Man Three, Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
This makes answering the implied question “what should be the next thing that happens to these characters?” a great deal more difficult than it has to be. Because someone essentially already answered that question for him. Things did happen to these characters after The Avengers, things that Whedon had little to no influence in. Tony Stark went on a road to self-discovery filled with things that piss off stuck-up fanboys, great one-liners and an all-time great supporting child character. A road that ended with him getting rid of the arc reactor, while – as the film’s final line tells us – still remaining Iron Man. Thor… did some stuff of little importance that ended with him getting together with a character we were never ever going to see again, so that at least didn’t give Whedon a lot to worry about.
What did give him a challenge was the road Steve, Natasha and Nick Fury went on in The Winter Soldier. Not only were their characters much more clearly defined and deepened out than Whedon got the chance to do in their film, but their actions also fundamentally changed the world these films take place in. S.H.I.E.L.D. is no more, HYDRA is back in the game and Nick Fury has gone into hiding after faking his death. People can gripe all about the MCU never really changing up the status quo all they want, but that’s quite a lot of things Whedon had to juggle.
So what should have happened next for a changed (Iron) man, a still barely developed thunder god, a man out of time who has almost fully adapted to the modern world, an ageing superspy who’s hiding from the world, a spy who just found out the organization she dedicated her life to was rotten on the inside, a monster who’d realized the secret to his anger, and a previously severely short-charged archer? How could you juggle all those factors and make a “smaller, more personal, more painful” film out of it? I think the movie actually contains the answer to this question; it just skips right past it.
A Test of Character
*takes a deep sigh*
Tony essentially reverts back to his post-Avengers PTSD the moment he lays eyes on the corpse of that big Chitauri dragon monster and invents a monster of his own. Thor goes for a swim. Cap gets some fun quips, some cool moments and firmly assumes leadership of the team, but isn’t really all that developed. Nick Fury shows up a few times. We’ll get to the other returning characters later, but just on the basis of those four, it’s clear Whedon struggled with this.
Tony’s (and by extension Ultron’s as well as Vision’s) arc is potentially highly interesting, but, for reasons best outlined in our own Adam Bumas’ excellent article on the matter, doesn’t work nearly as well as it should’ve. Thor’s arc (or lack thereof, really) is just a mess and while Cap’s stuff works on a basic level, it feels far less engaging than what he went through in his previous solo film. On one hand, a Nick Fury who’s gone so deep underground that he only sporadically shows up when The Avengers really need him is great, but on the other hand his scenes here leave so little impression that he might as well be a non-entity in the film.
While with those characters, it feels like Whedon either didn’t know or couldn’t fully get across what to do with them, he absolutely knew what he wanted to do with Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye. The scenes focusing on them are where his vision for the film shines through the most. Between those three characters, Age of Ultron does tell a smaller, more personal and more painful story than the original. It’s just a shame this story is trapped in a larger story about a James Spader-voiced robot with ill-defined daddy issues who gets on the internet for five minutes and immediately wants to destroy the world real bad.
Though the Natasha-Banner romance definitely isn’t without its problems, it’s Whedon trying something new for these films, while still getting to some truths at the heart of these characters in the process. Though they suffer at times from Whedon’s snark-filled tone of voice not meshing very well with the sincere themes at work, the two share some beautiful scenes together. Especially their much-derided scene in the farmhouse, which beautifully gets across why these two characters would feel so connected. Though it is a bit weird to have two characters chatting about joining each other in the shower in a world where sex is usually a non-entity, but that is also stuff for another article.
The real star of the show, when it comes to the more personal story somewhere around the heart of Age of Ultron, is undeniably Hawkeye. Making Clint Barton a family man with two children and a loving wife is a stroke of genius, that lends the character a whole lot of everyman charm and makes his time spend as a brainwashed heavy in the previous film all the more painful. It also helps that Renner clearly relishes that he has a meatier role to chew into here, giving a great, warm performance. His big “walk out of that door and you’re an Avenger” speech in the climax is a moment of heart-rousing sincerity on par with any of the original’s big moments.
Which nicely brings us to Whedon’s last1 goal. “[Top the first movie by] not trying to … and not just [being] a rehash of what seemed to work the first time.”
Drones. Why’d it Have to be Drones?
The failure to adhere to this is probably Age of Ultron’s biggest stumbling block for me. The reason all the really quite excellent Hulk, Widow and Hawkeye stuff and the interesting Tony, Ultron and Vision stuff doesn’t really land. I should say upfront that I in no way believe that this was Whedon’s fault. Judging by how much he had to fight to keep much of the farm scenes in the movie, it’s a minor miracle large swathes of Age of Ultron were allowed to be as idiosyncratic as they are. Because Joss Whedon might not have been interested in making a “rehash of what seemed to work the first time”, but Marvel Studios sure was.
And who can blame them, really? After the release of The Avengers became one of the defining cultural moments of our era, it’s more than understandable that they got cold feet at Whedon’s promise of something small and painful. Surely that’s not what audiences would want to see?2 They’d want destroyed cities, set-up for future movies and a climax that explicitly does try to top the first movie. So that is, in part, what we got.
Now don’t get me wrong, large parts of the action in Age of Ultron are tons of fun. My nerd-senses start tingling as much as the next guy’s at the mere mention of a Hulkbuster versus Hulk-confrontation. And the final confrontation taking place on a floating city that the main antagonist intends to utilize as an extinction-causing meteor is at the very least, original. But it all feels a bit weightless, lacking the spark that was very present in the previous films’ battle of Manhattan sequence and this film’s more personal, smaller sequences.
The final, Sokovia-set showdown gets hits the hardest with this. While at its heart, it is a fun and exciting sequence with very tangible stakes, it never quite comes together. A big part of this is due to the decision of giving Ultron a big drone army. What we’re left is with a film that at once really wants to be The Avengers again, but at the same time wants to be a superhero film where the characters are chilling around on a farm for large parts of the second act and a godlike new born character stares longingly at the New York skyline as some borderline-synthwave drones on the soundtrack.
When looked at in context of the grander scheme of things then, Age of Ultron begins feel like something of an inelegant roadblock on the way to Thanos, a feeling not helped by that super perfunctory mid-credits scene. However, when taken on its merits as a direct sequel to The Avengers it works more often than not. That way, you can forget the film essentially ignores Iron Man Three and only nods to the events of The Winter Soldier and just focus on the fact that all your favorite characters are back, and they’re doing more of that cool stuff you’ve liked so much the first time.
Because if you’re going to make a film that is ultimately going to end up a rehash of a very successful original installment, you might as well do your best to fill it with as much interesting thematics and powerful moments as Whedon has done here. It’s a shame Age Of Ultron never fulfills what could have been its ultimate promise. Taking the more realistic new world Winter Soldier created for the MCU and filling it with Asgardian vision pools, kind robot-gods, Andy Serkis’ Afrikaans accent and off-brand mutants and monsters, both of the green and robotic kind. However, I think it gets as close to that as it could have under executive meddling. And that alone, makes it more worthwhile than its reputation would suggest.