A totally spoilerific review.
It isn’t often that I go to the cinema these days. Going twice to see the same film is a very rare event indeed. I did that with Age of Ultron mainly because I felt I hadn’t had sufficient detachment from the film the first time through to make a decent critical judgement. That’s partially because the plot is very dense, so much of my mind was busy actually following what was going on. It is also partially because I was worried sick about Clint. I’d heard rumors that one of the team was going to die in the film, and Clint was the obvious target because he’s the least powerful and least popular Avenger. When they introduced Laura and the kids I became almost certain that the poor guy was a gonner. Now I feel bad for having been relieved that he wasn’t.
The second time through I was able to sit back and think about the film. There was a lot to think about, especially if you are as familiar with the characters as I am.
A lot of the nerd rage and righteous outrage about the film appears to me to be somewhat misplaced. Nerd rage is always pretty silly, but the rest of it is doubtless because other people have far higher expectations of the characters than I do. The film franchise is obviously selling the characters as heroes, and people expect them to fill those boots. That’s not what these characters are at all.
The X-Men are different. X-Men comics have always been about fighting for social justice, about taking the part of marginalized outsiders against society. The Avengers are not the X-Men. The Avengers are Team America: World Police. They are the strong right arm of the Establishment. Ultron was very clear on that point. Worse, they are (almost) all monsters.
Go back through the film like I did and you’ll notice that’s a recurring theme. It’s not just the Hulk, though he is the most obviously monstrous of them. Tony Stark is a megalomaniac former arms dealer with an alcohol problem; Cap and Thor are professional soldiers used to killing to order; Natasha was raised to be an assassin. Clint is the only one of them who is remotely normal. Expecting them to be paragons of virtue is pretty foolish.
The film touches on the monstrous nature of the team several times. Wanda and Pietro start off believing that the Avengers are all monsters, especially Stark. They only switch sides when Ultron proves to be an even bigger monster. I particularly liked the exchange between Cap and Maria Hill about monsters who allow themselves to be experimented upon by mad German scientists in order to gain super powers. The team does get a chance to prove its worth at the end, but while they do save lots of lives Sokovia is pretty much destroyed in the end. I doubt that many Sokovians will be happy about this.
Much of the feminist outrage is, I think, somewhat misplaced and rather naive given that this is a Hollywood blockbuster we are talking about. The film was never going to be a model of gender parity. Maria Hill isn’t an Avenger, but did get her chance at being a badass SHIELD agent when an opportunity arose. Elizabeth Olsen is reportedly upset that she doesn’t get to punch anyone, but Wanda took down the whole team almost by herself, and is in many ways the most powerful Avenger of them all. As for Laura Barton, there’s no law that says that every woman in a superhero film has to be a kickass fighter. I’ll have more to say about the Barton family later.
Then there is the whole Black Widow and Hulk relationship. It worries me, but not for the reasons most people are upset. My first thought was to ask what the heck Natasha needed that Bruce Banner could provide. Natasha uses men. It is something she was trained to do from childhood. If you are looking for a clean-cut, morally impeccable feminist hero, Natasha Romanov is so not your girl.
I note that when Nat gets captured by Ultron it is Clint who is worried sick about her (just as she was worried sick about him when he was wounded). Banner hardly notices that she’s gone, especially once Stark gives him a science puzzle to play with. And as for what went on in Sokovia at the end… This is a dysfunctional relationship between two very damaged people. It is not going to go well. Expecting it to be a model relationship where both parties treat each other with love and respect is a bit silly.
As for the “a monster because she’s infertile” fuss, it requires a particularly obtuse reading of the film to come to that conclusion, but let’s for the moment assume it is right. Those women getting on their feminist high horses might want to spend a bit of time listening to what is said to infertile women. It’s one of many reasons why I get told I’m a monster, and not a “real” woman. Don’t blame Nat for internalizing the messages that society bombards her with.
She’s clearly very fond of the Barton kids too, and good with them as they like her. Given how close Clint and Nat are, and their history together in the comics, there has to be a reason why they are not a couple in the MCU.
Oh, by the way, Laura Barton: yes, she’s at home and pregnant, but someone has to run that farm and in the few times that Clint is home all he appears to do is play at DIY. So Laura must do it. She probably home-schools the kids too, given how secret the place is supposed to be. Impressive woman.
I suspect that another reason for poor reactions to the movie is that it is very much a film for old people. That’s partly because it is full of little snippets to tantalize people like me who have been reading Avengers comics for decades. The little looks between Wanda and Vision. The quiet introduction of Andy Serkis as the man who will become Klaw (and presumably the primary villain of the Black Panther movie). The use of the Infinity Stones. But it is also because one of the themes of the film is retirement.
Stark’s motivation for creating Ultron in the first place is to provide an automated protection system for the Earth, so that he no longer had to protect it himself. The script doubles down on that by throwing in the Barton family, giving Clint a reason to want to give up Avenging. Then it goes all in by having the Hulk go on a rampage, leading to Banner wanting to run away from it all and perhaps take Natasha with him.
The idea that people should want to stop being heroes, and perhaps instead should want to settle down, buy a home, raise a family — that’s an old person’s story. It won’t fly with people who are young and full of fire.
Of course it doesn’t work. Tony will definitely be back in Captain America: Civil War, doubtless being even more obsessive and foolish than he is in this film. I gather that Clint is going to get dragged into that as well. I really hope they don’t kill him off this time, but Hollywood scripts have an inevitable logic to them. I want him to at least live long enough to pass the torch to Kate Bishop.
Meanwhile, Cap, Thor and Natasha are still very much in the field. They are all professional killers. They can’t imagine any other life. Cap makes a little speech about having to prove to the world that they are not monsters like Ultron, but in the end he realizes that being a monster is his lot. His home is in the army, fighting.
In a strange way, however, Ultron won. He kept on about how the Avengers were the forces of Conservatism, how they were terrified of change. But because of him the team has evolved. It now contains two women instead of one. It contains two black guys. It contains an android and the seed of a human-machine relationship. One day there might even be Billy. Out with the old, in with the new. Progress, of a sort.
Vale, Pietro: I liked you better in that than I ever did in the comics. It was your finest moment.