Monday, April 13, 2020

In Defense of Avengers: Age of Ultron

Five years ago, Avengers: Age of Ultron was the unexpected and divisive sequel to The Avengers. Upon its initial release, the sequel was  a weird position of not connecting with fans unless the previous films were watched and had yet to be the inciting incident for more films to follow. It's not the most popular, and often the least favorite film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (as far as Avengers movies goes), but I wanted to take a moment of why I've come to appreciate it over the past year or two.

Nat and Bruce

When you have more than one woman involved in a movie, it's law that she is inevitably tethered to a romantic subplot. With Maria Hill, Helen Cho, and Wanda Maximoff, it was only time before Natasha had the hots for somebody. While most fans loved Hawkeye and Black Widow together, I gathered they were more comrades in arms. Instead, I wanted to see more of Bruce and Nat and was half-lucky that this came true.

To Age of Ultron's detriment, it barely picks up where Captain America: The Winter Soldier leaves off. Natasha has to find another cover after she releases all of SHIELD and Hydra's intel online, while Bruce turns into the Hulk on a dime and smashes everything that moves. Where they meet in the middle is playing into a theme I'll bring up later, and that's the concept of monsters.

For the first time in the series, we start to see Nat as more than 'the girl on the team' or a spy. We see her normalized, flirting, wanting to be loved, wanting to love, and willing to walk away from The Avengers to have her own life. Bruce is also calmer in her presence and affirms Nat she's earned his trust after they got off on the wrong foot in The Avengers. In battle, Nat acts as Bruce's human lullaby; she brings him back from the brink; while she's not 'turned off' by The Hulk, she connects with the nerdier side more. Their biggest moment of connection is when Nat reveals that she was sterilized in the Red Room as apart of her training and equates her inability to have children as being a monster. Her confession comes from a place of vulnerability as Bruce concedes that he shouldn't have a future with anyone because of what he fears he'll destroy as The Hulk. When Bruce takes off in the quinjet after the final battle in Sokovia, Nat goes back to do what she does best: fighting and training the new Avengers. Unfortunately, for me at least, their relationship isn't addressed in Infinity War, but they individually find that middle ground in Endgame. But I always like what was started here.

Nat trying to develop a personal connection shouldn't cancel out that she is still instrumental in the team's biggest combats. While many won't consider her development was handled with the most nuance, way too many female fans were quick to backlash against Nat for revealing that she feels like a monster for not being able to be a mom. But, to me, it's ignorant to not address that women are hyper-critical of each other's lifestyle choices and experiences. Though it wasn't entirely expected, I thought Nat's revelation added more depth (that thankfully wasn't exploited later in Endgame.) And she was ultimately able to find a family for which she was willing to give her life for.

Wanda Maximoff Is The Most Powerful Avenger

Similar to Ultron below, and even Zemo in Captain America: Civil War, Wanda and her brother Pietro represent the bystanders who feel wronged by The Avengers. They know of Tony Stark purely by their town being destroyed by his bombs. After their family is killed, they're taken in by HYDRA, experimented on, and only have revenge on their mind against Stark. While Pietro can move extraordinarily fast, Wanda's sonic powers is ultimately what makes her the most powerful of all The Avengers.

As we'll see in Captain America: Civil War, Infinity War, and Endgame, Wanda's powers work for and against her both in the context of the franchise's storytelling and her own development. For one, Wanda's emotions are closely tied to her powers. After Pietro is killed, she unleashes her pain on all of the mini-Ultron's around them, squeezing the life out of them and ripping out 'their hearts'. Her rage evokes the question if she can control her powers alongside her emotions. We see her training in Civil War, able to control her powers to a point until she accidentally implodes a hospital in Lagos. When she's put into isolation, and her relationship with Vision deepens, he beckons her to question how people see her, namely by fearing her. This is something she ultimately owns up to as she leaves quarantine with Hawkeye by saying that she can't control how people see her, only the way she sees herself.

In Infinity War, Wanda is the only one who can destroy Vision's time stone, but out of love, she doesn't. While the fight in Wakanda begins against Thanos's outriders, Wanda is kept up in the tower as Shuri dismantles the stone. When she finally enters the fight, she can destroy Thanos's army more than anyone else, beckoning Okoye to ask why she wasn't helping them the whole time. Wanda ultimately ends up going against her emotions to destroy Vision's time stone, telling her he only feels her love, not pain, as she kills him to save everyone else. And, finally, in Endgame, when the Portals open, Wanda punishes Thanos in battle so severely, he's forced to command his soldiers to shoot down the rest of The Avengers.

I wouldn't say Wanda's powers are ultimately held back for the sake of storytelling, but in the X-Men comic books, she wipes out most of the mutants and alters reality in the House of M comic book - something that's quite different than the MCU. She's a powerful character that begins in Age of Ultron.

Nature vs Nurture

Age of Ultron sets up The Avengers against a HYDRA base in Sokovia. We're meant to feel like it's going to be another heros vs Nazis story. But as the wanna-be baddies fall to the background, Ultron steps forward and brings up the question of creation and nature vs nurture. After Tony and Bruce engineer Ultron, he recognizes humanity's inhumanity after browsing world history. Without having time or the skills to build empathy, Ultron's feral mindset can't discern between innocent and guilty. To him, war and peace are the same thing. It's also a line that's easily blurred between two camps in the middle of war - the other party is always guilty of the transgression cast against them - an issue that the U.N. will designate later with The Accords.

But Ultron's presence is one half of the equation to think about if a monster in itself is evil, or if its circumstances forces it to become evil. Similarly, and in contrast, Vision is made up of nearly all of the same material as Ultron but with an extra dose of Tony's ingenuity and Bruce's objectivity. Instead of going down the same path as Ultron, he learns from his environment and recognizes the grace in humankind's failures. He is the nurture to Ultron's nature; both godlike and born from a big bang (Vision can even lift Thor's hammer). As an artificial human hybrid, he doesn't have a desire to consume and destroy like Ultron. Vision recognizes grace in humanity's failures. Where Ultron sees humanity's only salvation as destroying humanity itself, there is a balance of life and death with Vision. Much more than just computerized vibranium taking the form of human flesh, and awesomely voiced by James Spader, Ultron becomes a trend for villains in the MCU from this point forward.

Sets Up The Avengers Downfall More Than We Expected

The most recognizable scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron is Tony's vision of the team dying and his conversation with Steve about ending the fight so they can go home. His decision to create Ultron is inevitably opposed by Steve, drawing the line between the two that will never be fully healed again.

"It's the end, the end of the path I started us on."
"You've come up with some pretty impressive inventions, Tony. War isn't one of them."

For all intents and purposes, Tony's fearlessness and innovation affords The Avengers to unite with all the latest gadgets. But it also comes at the expense of his ego and his impulsive nature to protect. The end path he refers to is failing to leading Earth to an uncertain annihilation. The more subtler end path is Stark hammering the first nail in The Avengers' coffin by inventing Ultron without consulting the group. No matter what his intentions were, once he and Banner preemptively take matters into their own hands, the lack of trust with the group is never the same.

Vying for peace, ultimately, becomes a matter of circumstance. We, on the side of the heroes, might always see what they do as right. Aliens invasions need to be stopped, Hydra is a tyrannical regime, etc., but as villains become more humanized and less 'evil doers twirling mustaches', Age of Ultron initiates what Civil War continues - The Avengers's visibility to the rest of the world invites more conflict to rise against them.

Heroes or Monsters-In-The-Making

Age of Ultron has plenty of moments of the team kicking ass and taking names. The first several minutes, in particular, matches the same epic fight in New York City against Loki's alien invasion. But, it gradually embarks on a different turn by still packing in elaborate action but more character development.

With the rise of Ultron, the heroes start to look themselves as the monsters Ultron says they are and as the culprits that some enemies will see them as. As second-nature as it has become for the characters to fight and seamless they work together, they're also subtly looking for change - Hulk can't reconcile himself from The Hulk, Nat willing to walk away from the fight, Hawkeye wants to retire, Thor investigates Asgard and being a God, Steve trying to find his place in the world, and Tony wanting to start a new life with Pepper, the group explores who they are when they're not avenging. The Avengers can have their morals, can rescue as many people from imploding cities, can do their best to stop alien outbreaks and war, but that doesn't stop how the world will see them as when the dust settles. They have to find a part of themselves outside of 'suiting up'.

Setting the super enhancements aside, they are still people who want the same things - family, peace, love, meaning. A part of them is grappling with their own personal redemption and the meaning they give to their 'monster moniker' lets them fail or succeed in the quest. Tony's efforts to save the world, and the characters differentiating themselves from their jobs, eventually can't be distinguished by the inevitability that some parts of themselves will have to be destroyed in order for them to be 'saved'.

Unexpectedly, Age of Ultron subverts expectations after the ultra-crowd-pleasing  The Avengers. Whedon tries to direct the film as if it's not just another blockbuster with a less-technicolor visual palette and implementing more background into the characters. Contrary to the masterful shot of their battle in New York City, their heroism isn't a perfectly-wrapped box of awesome-sauce. It takes a certain kind of person to save the world over and over again. And, though the film has pacing and writing issues that doesn't resonate with everyone, it manages enough light-hearted moments to make the characters human, humor for levity, and action to make it the comic book movie we expect from Marvel.

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