Last weekend when I watched Molly’s Game I tweeted the below:
If Molly’s Game is the Sorink-iest movie to ever Sorkin, Avengers: Age Of Ultron might be the Whedon-iest Movie to ever Whedon. I’ve long linked the two in my head. They’re both TV Titans, theater dorks, and overfully pleased with their own cleverness.
I also happen to be a big fan of both of them.
There’s a moment in “Once More With Feeling,” the musical episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, where Buffy stops the Scooby’s theorizing about their foe with a simple, “I’ve got a theory, it doesn’t matter.” Her point becomes that as long as they’re all together, they’ll prevail. They do. Of course they do.
Nick Fury delivers a similar speech to The Avengers as they sit around Hawkeye’s kitchen table halfway through Age Of Ultron, then Vision and Cap do the same about a half hour later. Ultron is also full of grey villains who switch sides (Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver), excellent team work, and a deus ex machina of an ending predicated on, “the true avenging was the friends we made along the way!” tropes.
So, yeah, there’s a lot to like here if you’re a Joss Whedon fan. Which I am.
But there’s also a lot to dislike, if you’re a fan of the MCU, which I also am. There’s a pretty steady stream of fans who insist that Whedon “doesn’t get,” Captain America and Thor, and I don’t think that’s it. Neither of them behave out of character in Ultron, but I do think that Whedon isn’t interested in them, particularly.
He is interested in Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, so the movie focuses on them. And, he’s interested, as he always is, in the normal guy who dances with gods. There’s a reason why Xander Harris and Winifred Berkle and Wash are so well fleshed and beloved by the fanbases (Well, maybe not Xander, people have kind of turned on him…) it’s because Whedon’s enamored of that guy.
So Hawkeye gets some real stand out moments, where as Thor and Cap fall a little bit more flat here than they did in The Avengers. Tony, meanwhile, is at his most insufferable here. Truly, it’s astounding how arrogant and misguided he is. But, as always Robert Downey Jr. sells it. I happen to not totally hate the Banne/Natasha pairing, it’s not great but again, it hinges on the performances, ScarJo and Mark Ruffalo do well.
The problem is, I don’t know that Joss Whedon belongs in film, even film that is essentially long form TV like the MCU. If Age Of Ultron were a season finale, the fact that two cast members get basically side lined would be mostly OK. Not great, but OK. But this is an ensemble movie, and two main characters, especially one who was coming off of a huge shift in status quo, like Steve was, and needed strong direction in the first place, like Thor, not having any kind of arc, is problematic.
So yes, the movie has some big problems. But the stuff that works, really, really works. James Spader’s voice performance as Ultron is a hoot. The big action pieces are a excellent. The birth of Vision is a lovely piece of sci-fi whackiness, and my God, that “when you step out that door, you’re an Avenger,” moment is a heart string tug.
But it’s a mess. And Whedon’s gone on record saying he wasn’t interested in playing ball with the Infinity stones storyline, which I think also contributes to Thor’s sidelining. And honestly, watching the movie, you see what it could have been if he’d had his way. It probably would have been quite different. But his reach exceeded his grasp. I joked last week that I think the movie broke his brain.
Whedon took a long break after Ultron, and listen, it’s not like it was unearned. But I think he also knew that he whiffed it, and he needed to regroup. He didn’t get what he wanted and the work was subpar, for him, for the sandbox he was playing in. It’s far from his worst work. (There are some clunky ass episodes of Buffy and Angel and ya know, Dollhouse exists.) It’s also far from his best. Joe and Anthony Russo take it from here, and they do it really, really well.
Next week, things come back to Earth, for a little while, at least. Ant-Man and Captain America: Civil War come due, and once again, we’ve got two movies that I like a lot. Especially Ant-Man. (Also, really, except for Dark World there aren’t any MCU movies that I dislike. And even that, I more nothing than hate.)