In defence of Avengers Age of Ultron: Without it, the Marvel Cinematic Universe would crumble
Joss Whedon probably regrets saying all those things about Marvel. Shortly after the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, his second film for the studio, made a couple of years after having delivered one of the most successful blockbusters ever in The Avengers, the director went on a spree of interviews in which he washed everyone’s dirty laundry out in public.
Not only did he describe making Ultron as a ‘really, really unpleasant’ experience, he even went so far as to bad-mouth the first Avengers movie, which remains, to this day, one of the best-received Marvel has produced. “When I watch it, I just see ‘flaw, flaw, flaw, compromise, laziness, mistake,’” he said in a Vulture article suitably titled, How Avengers: Age of Ultron Nearly Killed Joss Whedon.
Reading his interviews from back then paint a disjointed but fairly accurate picture of how things might have transpired. While Ultron wasn’t as enthusiastically received as its predecessor - reviews were largely positive but not universally ecstatic - it was no slouch either. It’s never easy for a sequel to outperform the first movie, especially when the original sets the benchmark for an entire genre. But, if the original Avengers was to be removed from the picture - its staggering box office and its lasting impact - Ultron would be the highest-grossing Marvel movie ever. The film has made more than even Black Panther, and we all know what a cultural landmark that film is considered to be.
But perhaps with all the bad press and the frankly unrealistic expectations leading up to it - don’t be surprised if something similar happens with Infinity War. That’s just the nature of the beast - the one thing that got lost in the cycle was that both Avengers movies are an anomaly. As Whedon later said in an attempt to make things right, “I got to make, for the second time, an absurdly personal movie that talked about how I felt about humanity, and what it means, in very esoteric and bizarre ways, for hundreds of billions of dollars.”
And he’s right. No one else could have made those movies but him. They’ve been doused with the unmistakable (and unshakable) fumes of Joss Whedon - self aware, giddy, and absurdly film literate. And the scenes that feel the most Whedon-y were unbelievably the ones Marvel was least impressed with - sort of like how Patty Jenkins had to fight to keep the No Man’s Land sequence in Wonder Woman, objectively one of the best, most significant moments in any superhero movie ever.
Speaking to the folks over at Empire, Whedon revealed that it came to the point that Marvel “pointed a gun at the farm’s head and said, ‘Give us the cave, or we’ll take out the farm’ — in a civilized way.” What Whedon is referring to are two scenes - one is pure Joss Whedon and the other, even on the third or fourth viewing - which is where I’m at with Age of Ultron - feels shoehorned in.
The scene at Clint Barton’s farmhouse is somewhat of a miracle - even Whedon has to understand that. Just the fact that it exists in a movie as massive as Ultron is an achievement for which he deserves all the Vibranium in the world. That scene singlehandedly reminds us of the inherent humanity of these larger-than-life superheroes, the hidden motivations, the fears and insecurities that they all harbour.
It arrives organically after a city-crushing action set piece that makes it necessary for the Avengers to lay low for a few days. And what better man to come through than the one who’s always pushed around for being the dead weight. Hawkeye is in many ways the heart and soul of this movie, and seeds of his emotional arc are laid from the very beginning, which is why his character’s arc has the most cathartic conclusion. And I’ll bet every Marvel collectible I possess that they’ll mine this humanity for all that it is worth in Infinity War.
The ‘cave’ that Whedon refers to, on the other hand, is the quick scene that immediately follows the farmhouse sequence. Thor, unable to shake off the vision he saw under Scarlet Witch’s spell, goes off in search of Dr Erik Selvig for answers. The scene sticks out like a Hulk in the DCEU - but a lot of the Infinity Stones storyline usually does. Marvel wanted to set up Thanos for the future in a movie that really didn’t have any room for him. On the other occasion they did this, director Edgar Wright quit Ant-Man weeks before shooting was scheduled to begin. Joss Whedon, the then de-facto godfather of the Marvel Universe, raised a Cornetto - a tribute to Wright’s popular trilogy of films - on Twitter.
Age of Ultron was a victim of its own success. Marvel had created a monster with these movies, and surpassing themselves with each new one was - and remains to this day - an almost impossible task. In situations like this, the challenge then becomes to push laterally rather than upwards, which is what Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther did with such remarkable success. This externalised internal battle is sort of like a giant, shiny metaphor for Ultron himself, who is the literal manifestation of the side to his personality - egotistical, narcissistic, childish - that Tony Stark would rather keep hidden.
And it shows that Whedon never had anyone but James Spader in mind for the role - the slight cock of the head, the playful deadpan is such a signature Spader move.
Age of Ultron is also - and I guarantee you that you never noticed this - another step in the homogenisation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Director of Photography Ben Davis has worked on four Marvel movies, composer Brian Tyler on two (not including the music for the Marvel logo that unspools at the beginning of every movie), and Infinity War will be editor Jeffrey Ford’s seventh MCU film.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it owes a great debt of gratitude to Age of Ultron. Despite immense pressure, it really is the best possible example of the creative tussle that comes with making these movies. It has that Marvel sheen, but at the end of the day, it’s still a ‘baldly, nakedly…absurdly personal’ movie by Joss Whedon.
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