Instead of calling this a review of AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, I want to talk about finding the HEART in PLOT. Yes, AGE OF ULTRON is a big huge action movie. Yes, it’s fluff and fun and who thinks about intimacy and feelings when there’s stuff to blow up that looks awesome at the same time? And I LOVE big huge action movies, so it’s not like I’m not trying to compare apples to oranges. So, yes, AGE OF ULTRON is fun, it’s watchable, it has some moments, but it’s lacking in something critical to making audiences really connect with the action, really feel the stakes that are at risk, and from a writer/director who I know can do so much better, that left me disappointed.
What’s missing? Intimacy. The emotional relationship between the central protagonist and antagonist and how that relationship and emotion becomes central to the story/action itself. For example, in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, the heart of the battle between good and evil, between S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra is the relationship between Steve Rogers and his best friend Bucky Barnes. We see the depth of their history in flashbacks and the despair Steve feels that Bucky not only doesn’t remember Steve, but that he’s being used for such ill purposes. At the heart of the superhuman over-the-top unbelievable action is a very human, very relatable, very believable story of best friends who love one another and who fight for one another. And not only is this part of the story, but it effects the action itself – will Captain America be able to kill the Winter Soldier? It increases the suspense and anxiety the audience feels because there’s a chance, a big chance, that a good guy like Captain American might just let the Winter Soldier win because he can’t kill him.
At the heart of the previous AVENGERS movie, also written and directed by Joss Whedon: the age-old battle between brothers. Especially when one brother, Loki, always feels lesser-than the other, Thor, this attempt at a power-grab is understandable and again the risk that the “good” brother will somehow lose because they are not willing to compromise their moral integrity by killing their brother raises the stakes and plays on the human encoding we all have that hopes the “bad” brother will somehow feel the same way and come around. In THOR, you had that same battle, obviously – same brothers, but added to the mix is Thor’s love for a human girl whose research DIRECTLY plays into the plot/action. Even something as fluffy as ARMAGEDDON: who doesn’t remember Liv Tyler reaching her hand out to the television screen while her father, played by Bruce Willis, gives up his own life in order to save her fiance and father to her unborn child? Or another classic, THE ROCK: the honor that Ed Harris’s character feels in taking a stand, albeit misguided, is understandable and relatable, and very very human.
Walter Murch, a God in film editing, film sound editing, and film in general (THE RETURN TO OZ anyone?), writes in his must-read book “In the Blink of an Eye”:
What [people] finally remember is not the editing, not the camerawork, not the performances, not even the story – it’s how they felt.
HOW THEY FELT. Yes, the cinematic wonder of TITANIC is amazing, but the reason little girls (and bigger girls) went over and over and over again was because of the love story between Rose and Jack. That’s what people remember and take with them from the movie.
Now, granted, AGE OF ULTRON tries to have some human component, but the problem is that it is completely tangential to the central action. It’s not integrated into the plot at all. The budding love story between Black Widow and The Hulk is touching, and makes the ending feel more complicated in a good way – like all Shakespeare comedies where there is always at least one heartbreak, at least one character vilified and exiled. But it’s not enough. It’s not tied into the story so while I care, I wasn’t worried as the story progressed. Their love wasn’t at stake when things got more difficult in the plot. Similarly with the relationship between the two enhanced twins, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, they are bad guys at first and even if they are redeemed at the end, I can’t feel Scarlet Witch’s pain.
What WOULD have been central to the plot and was touched on but never developed into anything real or interesting? Ultron’s rage at his maker – Iron Man – and the fact that that rage comes FROM Iron Man himself. The whole Pinocchio metaphor was genius, but it stayed within the realm of the philosophical, the cerebral, and never became the heart of the movie. Rage is a powerful motivator, but I never truly felt it. I was shown it, I was TOLD that it was rage and that Iron Man shared it himself, but it never became part of the action or consequences or developed into an emotional component of the story. Joss Whedon recently said that when he cut out all of Loki’s scenes in AGE OF ULTRON:
The movie has so much. It’s so filled. We didn’t want it to feel overstuffed. I really wanted to have Loki in it, but I understood the decision that there were now too many voices in the chorus.
I think there was too much in general, and the result was a loss in emotion. The hook that keeps me hanging by the edge of my seat as I hope the good guys win at the end. Next time, I hope. What makes Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams some of my favorite Hollywood writer/directors is the fact that their superheroes are so terribly human and often fragile and vulnerable because of it. It’s the stuff of Greek tragedies, and I look forward to every project they produce. In this case, it just wasn’t enough.