Review: Sorry To Disappoint, But I Actually Really Loved Avengers: Age of Ultron
I know, I know.
The following is a mostly spoiler-free review of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Any blatant spoilers will be hidden behind spoiler tags. If you don’t want them revealed, don’t put your mouse over the hidden text.
Maybe it makes me a capitalist sheep. Or maybe I’m a weird feminist, or a Joss apologist, or an easily-brainwashable hype-bot. But regardless, I thought Avengers: Age of Ultron was awesome, and I’m not even going to apologize.
My overwhelming feeling upon finishing Ultron was just how much I’m going to miss Joss Whedon at the helm of these ensemble films. He’s come under a lot of fire recently, but when it comes down to it, Ultron’s best feature is Joss; like in the first Avengers, his signatures saturate everything from the frequent laugh-out-loud one-liners (including direct references to Joss’s other works) to the painstakingly-creative fight scenes. You can tell a lot of thought went into how the team would fight together after developing routines borne of multiple battles; there’s a ton of co-operative moves, with everyone using each others special items, working off the others’ strengths to their advantages. The choreography is as pretty as what we see in the Red Room.
The film spends an admittedly large amount of time doing service to the greater franchise, setting up future Marvel films and taking away from the in-the-moment feel of Ultron – it’s hard to always be focused on what you’re watching when you’re freaking out about Black Panther and Civil War and is Captain Marvel going to show up? and the Infinity Gauntlet and more. But given that, old favorites get some fun cameos, and the new characters – like the wonderfully-sassy Ultron, the surprisingly-likeable Maximoff twins, and immediate fan-favorite Vision – get their fair share of screen time, if not heavy character development. That’s to be expected, though, and it’s why Marvel worked so hard to set up most of the original Avengers team with their own films before dropping them into an ensemble – otherwise, it’s a lot to fit into just a few hours. But given that, even our core team finds the time to delve deeper into their psyches and relationships, dealing with their faults and shortcomings in a way that has “Joss” stamped all over it.
Okay, now for the thing you’re all waiting for.
There are lots of wonderful critiques out there of Ultron’s treatment of its women; Jen Yamato’s “The Avengers’ Black Widow Problem: How Marvel Slut-Shamed Their Most Bad-Ass Superheroine” and Sara Stewart’s “An Open Letter To Joss Whedon From A Disappointed Feminist Fan After Watching ‘Age of Ultron‘” are particularly thoughtful and eloquent pieces. I understand their perspectives, and respect those writers for bringing attention to something that they felt was problematic and misogynist in the film. You might even think that I would be more than ready to slam Whedon for the representation of women in Ultron after he essentially called me a bad feminist in front of 1.14 million people. But the cool thing about being a feminist (as noted in that linked article) is that there’s no one way of thinking; we don’t all share a hive mind, and we can disagree about things – and in Ultron’s case, I’m going to have to do just that. I’m sorry if that’s a let-down, readers; but I have to be true to myself, and to my experience watching the film.
The thing people seem to be the most disappointed about with regards to Black Widow’s representation in Ultron is the side-plot about her distress over the Red Room. But where some viewers read that moment as a devaluing of her self-worth , I interpreted it more to mean that Nat felt an anger and a moroseness over having her ability to make those choices taken from her at such a young age – an age when you shouldn’t be able to voluntarily consent to such a procedure. Nat’s experiences in the Red Room left her without agency; brainwashed, coerced, and made, out of necessity for survival, into the weapon she is today – and part of that involves , and part of that involves her lack of remorse for killing. I think a moment of vulnerability for Nat doesn’t make her any less of a Strong Female Character, but instead helps shape her into what we’re all constantly demanding anyways: a complex and nuanced female character, with emotions and a traumatic past and an imperfect reaction to present circumstances.
And that’s another point worth making: this side plot is an incredibly brief character moment for Nat in an otherwise action- and quip-heavy film, and frankly I’m glad they took the time to give Nat any backstory or characterization at all (especially given the fact that they haven’t had the opportunity to do so in her own solo film). But Bruce, Steve, Tony, Clint, and Thor also have moments of darkness, vulnerability, sadness, and self-doubt in Ultron; and, I would argue, both Bruce and Steve’s are equally about their inability to have a stable family or future, Bruce because of his awkward Hulking, and Steve because of his dedication to war.
It’s also worth mentioning that Ultron passes the Bechdel test without question, and that in many instances where background actors would typically be played by men, you can tell they made a conscious choice to be gender balanced (for example, there’s a scene inside a supercomputer in Olso where two of the three programmers assisting Tony are women). Additionally, Ultron is completely absent female nudity or even outrageous moments of male gaze. There are no shots comparable to the close-up of Gamora’s boobs as she zips up her new Guardians uniform or her butt as she ascends the stairs in Peter’s ship; the only people we see shirtless or changing in Ultron are Bruce, Thor, and Quicksilver (and I would argue the Thor scene in the lake comes dangerously close to being played for the female gaze). They do an excellent job of shooting around Scarlett Johansson’s pregnancy, giving her plenty of action and some cheer-worthy moments.
Then there’s the other ladies. Cobie Smulder’s Maria Hill finally gets something to do other than be awesome at talking, shooting the crap out of many robots and remaining poised as heck in the process. Tony replaces Jarvis with a wonderful new Irish gal, Friday. Newcomer Claudia Kim shines as Dr. Helen Cho, a world-renowned geneticist, and it was a welcome relief in such a globally-based film (and for a similarly global organization like SHIELD) to hear her speak her native Korean with her co-workers in the Avengers tower. And Scarlet Witch is the second-most powerful person in the entire film (next to Vision, of course, who outclasses them all), making her own choices, destroying her enemies with abandon, and even upping the creep factor – her rapid horror-movie movement early in the film is one of my favorite stylistic choices and I wish we could have seen it even a bit more.
That’s not to say Ultron is flawless in its representation: the “prima nocta” line was unnecessary and made me uncomfortable, but luckily flies over the heads of anyone not immediately acquainted with the term. Linda Cardellini is criminally underused, though I think she plays her part with conviction. I still wish Maria Hill and Scarlet Witch hadn’t been whitewashed. I also firmly believe that the Avengers and other ensemble superhero films are much better served without a romance subplot entirely; this movie didn’t need one, Guardians didn’t need one, and I didn’t need to see the only female member of the Avengers falling in love during the end of the world. I much prefer Nathan Edmondson’s current loner Nat in the comics – I just don’t see her falling for anyone on her team (or at least not acting on it if she did).
Ultimately, Ultron is not a perfect film – I still rank it beneath both Guardians of the Galaxy and the original Avengers – but it’s like spending a few hours with those awesome friends you haven’t seen in a few years because you’ve all been so busy. You’ll laugh (a lot); you’ll get a bit anxious; they might even make you a bit teary; and when you’re done, you’ll wonder how the time went so fast. Ultron is a good time – but there will always be a part of me that wishes we could have seen what Joss originally had planned for us, because there’s no doubt it would have been great.
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