One of the greatest lines in the history of television came in the fourth season of the West Wing. Sam Seaborn has just been asked by Leo McGarry if there is any end for the conflict with the Muslim world other than an American flag flying over Mecca, and if so, why delay the inevitable, what are we waiting for? Sam responds, “That somebody will think of something before we have to do the unthinkable.”
In the Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America adamantly says that any time someone tries to win a war before it’s begun, innocent people die.
Sam and Cap are both espousing the same idea even if it sounds counterintuitive. You cannot destroy your enemy before they’ve become your enemy, you have to have hope that war can be avoided all together.
Later in the film, when all hope for victory seems lost, the Avengers rally behind saving lives before saving themselves. They rally behind the hope that protection will triumph over aggression
Trying to write a review of this film is torturous. Because I want to share with readers the beauty that I experienced, but I don’t want to ruin the fun for anyone who doesn’t want to know. So what I’ll give you are the jot notes. The paragraph openers. The topics I’ll be discussing. But know that if you venture further than the spoiler warning, know that I won’t just be talking plot points, but full-fledged analysis of this amazing film.
I was shocked and jarred by this film. I cried during this film. This film develops its characters (all of its characters) with subtlety and grace. This film weaves an intricate and delicate plot elegantly to form a story worth telling. This film engages in moral debate with conviction. This film is its own film, and is the jumping off point for so many more stories to be told. Avengers: Age of Ultron is one of the best films of this year, one of the best films of the MCU, and possibly one of the best Superhero films of all time.
Here is the spoiler warning.
I was shocked and jarred by this film. Not just because of the massive sound and explosive images, but because the pacing in this film is impeccable. It gives us three giant action set pieces with small breaks in between that capitalize on the horror reflex. Eventually the pain of action will become numb if it doesn’t stop (I’m looking at you Transformers 2 and 3). But this film never does that. The action is beautifully filmed and gives you plenty of breathing room to really absorb what is going on.
I cried during this film, multiple times. I cried when four of the team are being tortured by Scarlet Witch. I cried when Barton’s wife admitted her fears. I cried when Banner denies his feelings because of his fear. I cried when Wanda feels her brother’s death. This film handles emotions on an epic scale and will move you if you let it in and pay attention to the character development.
This film develops its characters (all of its characters) with subtlety and grace. Hawkeye has a family that understands why the Avengers need him despite the fear that causes. Tony sees the end of the world and makes a rash decision because of it only to learn from his mistake later. Rogers grows from his cynical desire to preserve the world into a leader focused on hope for the future. Thor starts acting kingly and becomes willing to sacrifice himself for his people. Ultron is Tony’s fear uploaded into a computer and Vision is Ultron’s hope for the world personified.
The other four characters though are where the film really shine: first, the Maximoff twins. There will be people who whine that this film created Quicksilver just to cash in on his death at the end. They couldn’t be more wrong. Quicksilver was never meant to be the emotional connection to the audience: he’s fridge stuffing. Scarlet Witch is the character you are supposed to empathize with because her rage isn’t blind like Quicksilver’s is. She is the one who has hope for the world. Sure she wants revenge, but what she wants more is to see a world where heroes care more about protecting people than defeating their enemy. So when her brother dies protecting Hawkeye and that boy, she feels that intensely. Her brother was just stuffed in a fridge and she really became an avenger at that moment.
Now for Nat and Bruce. At the end of the first action set piece, the team mentions that it is time for “the lullaby” and Black Widow goes off to find Hulk. When she finds him, she begins a routine designed to bring him down from the hulk state. This sequence is probably a full two minutes and it deserved every second because it created more character development than most films incorporate over their entire running time. You see in Nat’s eyes that she is afraid and in awe and deeply trusting and most importantly that the trust she is receiving from Bruce is of a deeply intimate nature. Just from these few lines of dialogue you realize that since the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, she and Bruce have been developing this technique. You can see in her eyes that she probably ended up on the wrong side of Hulk more than once in the early stages. You can see in his face that he knows how dangerous what he is feeling is. It’s elegant and the film works it to a beautiful and tragic end that moved me to tears more than any other subplot.
The way the film develops its characters is what really sets it apart from the rest of the MCU. The other 10 films do a good job of being action films. None of them pack a truly emotional punch that isn’t simply for climactic effect (Coulson or Groot).
This film weaves an intricate and delicate plot elegantly to form a story worth telling. People have been complaining that the film is “over stuffed”. From Wakanda to Thor’s vision and side journey to the Maximoffs people are complaining that this film spends too much time setting up the future and not enough time on where it is. To put it simply, these people need to re-watch the film again with the knowledge of the plot they gained from their first viewing.
Wakanda may not seem like it was entirely necessary, but think about all the intertwining elements that made it important. It wasn’t just that Cap’s shield was made from Vibranium which is found there, it’s that Ultron’s plan was to create a body from that indestructible material. That makes a tonne of sense given Ultron’s character which means he needed to find an indestructible metal to use. Why not make it Wakanda? It is also that Ultron’s plan for the Avengers was to make sure they couldn’t be turned into martyrs after he wins. So it makes sense for Hulk to go crazy in a poor African country because it seems crueler than if it were New York. That sequence would be the right plotting even if there weren’t a Black Panther movie coming up.
Thor’s visions are the other thing that people seem to be complaining about and it just doesn’t make sense to me. The whole point of the Wakanda sequence was to show what Scarlet Witch could do so we could see Black Widow, Hulk, Cap, and Thor being brought down into their fears. For the first three it all makes sense. Black Widow is afraid of her past, Hulk is afraid of going green, Cap is devastated by being out of his time, which only leaves Thor. Would it really have been as satisfying or as relevant to Thor’s character if it had just been a vision of Natalie Portman in danger? No, Thor is a son of Odin, an Asgardian with knowledge of the wider universe, when he had those visions, it showed that the universe (you know, the thing that Asgard rules) was in grave danger because of the infinity stones. Not only is that not just pandering to the MCUs wider plans or to the fans of the comics, it is perfectly in line with the character we have gotten to know.
The plot of this film is intricate and it does act as a jumping off point for phase 3. But when you actually look at the elements people are complaining about, they aren’t just stuffed in there, they are used because anything else would feel uncharacteristic.
This film engages in moral debate with conviction. Tony and Ultron vs Cap and Vision: while it is the perfect set up for Civil War, it’s also the greatest moral conversation this series has engaged in. Tony, as already stated, makes a rash decision that leads to Ultron being created. And even after Ultron starts running rampant, Tony stands by his decision. “Isn’t that the mission? So we can end the fight. So we can go home.” Then Cap says something incredibly poignant, that every time someone tries to win a war before it starts innocent people die. Later when Tony and Banner are on the verge of creating Vision, Cap is still on this, thinking that Tony is in some WMD craze, trying to create something more invincible than Ultron and Cap sees this as the same pattern that led to Ultron. This conflict is resolved soon but requires some analysis of Ultron first.
I want to take it back to scenes earlier in the film as well that people probably didn’t notice was setting up much of the rest of the film. We know that Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are products of the mind stone. We know that Ultron was Tony attempting to program one of his bots with the mind stone. We know that Vision’s head piece is the mind stone. But did anyone catch on to how Ultron came to be? It wasn’t like JARVIS was just trying different combinations and when one fit he uploaded Ultron by default. The Mind Stone is incredibly powerful and is sentient, it is a computer, it was trying to find a way out. So Tony may have been to blame for giving it the route, but the Mind Stone was trying to get out and wreak havoc. This is why it doesn’t kill the Maximoffs and talks about “giving humans every opportunity” to evolve. He (and by extension the Mind Stone) sees homo sapiens as too chaotic for their own good and wants to end them before they destroy themselves, only letting those able to evolve survive. He’s basically the anti-Hydra. Where Hyrda wanted to get rid of threats for stability, Ultron wanted to get rid of everyone but a few for their own good.
This is why Vision’s speeches at the end of the film about the human race being doomed are so poignant. It capitalizes on everything that Tony and Cap had been arguing about through the rest of the film. When Vision awakens (thanks to Thor) and he has the most important line of the movie when Cap asks him if he is on their side. “I don’t think it’s that simple. I am on the side of life. Ultron isn’t. He will end it all… I don’t want to kill Ultron. He’s unique and he is in pain. But that pain will roll over the earth so he must be destroyed.” Trying to win a war before it starts is tantamount to genocide. That looking only at the long term is futile because in the end all things will die, and there is grace and beauty in how people choose to live. It’s a delicate conversation that I wasn’t expecting in this film, but works perfectly into why the film is about hope. Sure death seems inevitable and it might be easier to just end it all rather than go through the pain – but we hope to find a better way. Our instinct is for life, for joy, for love, for living, for hope. Age of Ultron shows us this, and that’s why it is the best Marvel film yet.