I have a kind of casual self-imposed policy of watching movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe only once. Sometimes this works out beautifully, as in the case of, say, Thor: The Dark World, which I’m not sure I could sit through again without fast-forwarding to the parts with Tom Hiddleston. Other times I have a temptation to go back and watch a previous entry, usually on the eve of a new entry like Avengers: Age of Ultron. This policy is in effect partly because a good chunk of the MCU films are like The Dark World — sloppy, boring, noncommittal — and a second viewing only highlights these qualities. What do I do, then, if I need me my Thor fix now? I go read a Thor comic.
The real experiment afoot here is one that will fail, but one I hope for anyway: if the longevity of the MCU is the thing the MCU-makers are actually striving for, rather than that rusty and outdated model of making one good movie after another, then can I find a way to emphasize that? Can I enjoy the good and forget the bad and then return to the whole thing as one whole thing, years later, and really feel that longevity in the good and the bad?
Like I said, I’m hoping the answer’s yes and betting it’s no. If this sounds like hedging my bets on being able to watch a movie in the way one reads a comic book, that’s because it is. During Age of Ultron the futility of that became apparent. Whittling down a Hulkbuster-sized summer superflick into something the size of a comic book doesn’t even sound desirable, much less possible, because one should expect a hell of a lot more from the former. One should expect that superflick to be an incredible action movie, a measured thriller, a dark but ultimately uplifting journey. We’re allowed to anticipate that thrill because, let’s be honest, it’s an Avengers movie. An Avengers comic, on the other hand, can be employed as kindling if it sucks and everyone just moves on to the next.
Age of Ultron has all of the pieces. The Gang is back, armed with new costumes and new technology and new backlogs of Marvel movies to roll their eyes at and simultaneously try to live up to. Joss Whedon is back with unenviable task of following The Avengers. And we have a whole cadre of new faces, from the metal mug of the villainous Ultron (voiced by James Spader) to the metal mug of the virtuous Vision (Paul Bettany) to the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance by Andy Serkis. Ultron is jam-packed with heroes, with villains, with people, with stuff. The pieces are visible, but again, this is a movie. Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye needs a family drama because he was slighted throughout Avengers; Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow needs a jarringly clunky romance and a line about sterilization because maybe she’s been slighted, too. The pieces are here but there are simply too many of them to give anything proper attention.
But the scope of ambition is impressive, without a doubt, and given what could have come to pass Age of Ultron might be considered a success. Picture the action of The Hobbit films, from the tree-off-ledge scenario at the end of An Unexpected Journey to the everything in Battle of the Five Armies, and recall how cartoonishly and implausibly “epic” these set-pieces were in a clear attempt to outshine the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. Ultron never stoops to that, and in fact the best action scene in the film might be the best action scene in any MCU outing. Whedon is a competent director with a lovable persona — when Collider inquired after the worst job he ever had? “I once was a Hollywood screenwriter” — and his work here is commendable. His task was to take a jigsaw puzzle called The Avengers (1,500,000 pieces) and a jigsaw puzzle for every MCU flick since and dump all the boxes out onto the table and make one coherent picture out of the pile. The fact that he even tried is admirable.
And that action scene? Hulk vs. Hulkbuster, of course, just as you were promised in the trailer. Actually: just as you were promised in Avengers. This sequence is exhilarating in the way that the first film was, freshly baked and never-before-tasted and nothing held back. Whedon injects humor amid the chaos with ease, and the chaos here is far more calculated than it is in the rest of the film. In this scene we’re allowed to forget that Ultron’s motivation is leaving a lot to be desired, that Andy Serkis is sort of wasted, that the editing of the film is kind of embarrassingly incoherent at times. The Hulkbusting scene, in no uncertain terms, is fun. After that it’s back to work.
…that just kind of slipped out, that back to work phrase. It’s sadly true, though. The Avengers was predicated on clashing personalities coming together to save the universe — Ultron poses a similar, even larger threat, but the good guys aren’t just coming together here to fulfill their destinies. They’re working, and they say as much several times throughout the film. The idea is that they’re doing their duty — one Scarlet Witch line to Hawkeye is “It’s my job”, said with a knowing wink — and their duty, as deemed by Mrs. Hawkeye, is “avenging”. It might’ve been a nice idea except for the fact that watching Age of Ultron, exhilarating as it often is, also feels like a hell of a lot of work for us. Whedon’s scriptwriting and editing is clear, right up there on the screen, and because it’s so clear how much went into this film it’s almost as if we’re putting that much work in, too. Avengers never felt like that, but it’s possible that this symptom of the MCU is one that will exist in every future Avengers-sized entry.
I could conclude with a neat little metaphor about the MCU being like Stark’s Hulkbuster armor. It’s bigger than ever before, built out of necessity, shiny and gleaming and technologically ambitious. It can withstand a lot, and even when a piece weakens and snaps off a replacement piece is already flying in from out of the clear blue sky. But that comparison would cast us, the viewers, as the rampaging Incredible Hulk. We’d be the massive entity that rages on no matter what, pounding against the shock absorbers of this shiny new toy until it cracks. We’d be the thing that actually gets stronger through more fighting instead of weaker. If we were the Hulk we’d be accused of what that Hyde side of Bruce Banner is accused of: being uncontrollable, being insatiable, wanting something to smash, wanting more. That might be a bit too close for comfort.