Article might contain mild spoilers about a film you might not have seen yet. You stand forewarned.
Captain America stands before a group of baddies. He stares them down. One tries to jump him from behind.
The Captain back fists him without even looking behind him.
“Not gonna take me head on?” He asks, coyly.
The Captain then proceeds to maul through several non-descript baddies, effortlessly.
Black Window comes on the scene. Driving a motor cycle. Which she then back flips off as it bowls over a whole group of enemies.
She lands in perfect stance.
“Not leaving me out of this, Captain?” Black Widow says while flicking her hair.
Captain America looks above him. His eyes narrow.
“Heads up!” The Captain shouts as he holds his shield above his head.
Thor comes down from the sky and smashes his Hammer directly onto the shield.
The shockwaves take out all the surrounding enemies.
Thor floats down onto the ground, looking disdainfully around.
“Nice of you to drop in” Captain America says as Thor, via telekinesis, brings his Hammer back into his hand.
The above sequence, while not actually specific happenings in Age of Ultron, could describe pretty much any of the numerous actions scenes which take place. And yes, while it’s cool to watch Thor, Ironman, The Hulk, Captain America, Black Widow, Hawkeye effortlessly dispatch waves of appropriately hapless baddies, therein lies the rub.
The original Avengers movie was an unexpected film that was unexpectedly good. Unexpected because ten years before it would have been considered absolutely crazy to suggest studios would ever invest hundreds of millions of dollars into what is essentially triple-A nerd-porn, and unexpectedly good because the creators of the film actually made it work.
The Avengers, with all its characters in silly costumes and inter-movie continuity, was – at its heart – a film about a bunch of misfits being forced together by circumstances, and having to learn to put aside their differences and work together, in order to achieve the greater good and their own survival.
What’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron about? Well. More of the same. But kind of less…
Age of Ultron unfortunately is bland.
The reasons are two-fold. Everything that happens in the movie has been done and seen before, and while that’s okay (a lot of things have been done before), none of these things are done in a way that actually makes you care.
My opening sequence is indicative of the overall problem. All of the action scenes in Age of Ultron have numerous Avengers using their superpowers to mow down numerous baddies with ease. The Avengers have the same attitude towards smashing up opponents as professional drifters have to doing donuts. And, yes, it is cool to watch someone do donuts in a souped-up Maserati, but that’s all it is.
If you watch the UFC regularly you see that, aside from just watching two highly trained athletes put their skills against each other to see who can come out tops, there are two others things that can engage an audience in a fight on a deeper level.
One is a Grudge match.
At UFC 182, the then light heavy weight champion, Jon Jones, matched up against long time bitter rival Daniel Cormier. The fight was a marketer’s dream; not only were both men undefeated in MMA, both men hated each other. They had brawled publically at a press event, and afterwards, unaware that the mics were on, Daniel had called Jon the ‘Scum of the Earth’ and said he’d ‘Spit in his face’. Jon responded with a death threat.
Obviously, come fight night, the PPV sales were massive. Because people wanted to tune in to watch two men who hated each other try to hurt each other.
To bring this to a movie perspective, in Man of Steel, apart from the fight scenes between Zod and Superman being visually spectacular (actually far more so than any of Age of Ultron’s duels), what made it so engaging was the visceral sense of how much the two combatants loathed each other.
In contrast, none of the Avengers seem to actually give a damn about their opponents. All adversaries being viewed as little more than target practice. It seems even the ‘Big Bad’ can incite barely more than disappointment in the heroes. The Hulk’s rage in the film seems as though it could be just because he stepped on a tack pin.
Another aspect of fighting which will engage the casual fight fan is a struggle.
In Jon Jones’ long undefeated career as Light-Heavy champion, the one fight that is considered his greatest, and one of these greatest in Light-Heavyweight history, was against Alexander Gustafson. Not because it was one of the many performances where Jones effortlessly broke down an over-matched and out-classed opponent, but because it was one where both he, and his challenger, were pushed to their limits.
It was a match where Jon desperately tried to find a way to win – against an opponent who seemed to have an answer for all of his favourite techniques. It was a fight where his opponent clung on, when the tide had turned, in the hope that he could win the decision. It was a match where both fighters were truly tested.
The ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ isn’t considered a great fight because Ali made George Foreman look like a weakling. It’s a classic because Ali had to endure the monster that was George Foreman. In movie terms, an example is The Incredible Hulk’s showdown between the Abomination and the Hulk. The Hulk having to face and somehow defeat an opponent who physically outmatched him in a grinding slug fest that ended with both combatants broken down. Far more engaging than watching him tear through a bunch of non-descript baddies who offer all the resistance of Play Doh.
None of the Avengers in Age of Ultron are actually ever tested by their opposition. Sometimes they take a hit and have to take a breather. But then they’re back to taking names three shots later. Occasionally they get into sticky situations and, briefly, it seems as though they might be in trouble. But then one of their mates steps in and gives them a hand and it’s all good. The Avengers are all too ‘cool’ to find avenging difficult. And it makes for quite undramatic action sequences.
Oh course, the original Avengers had the same problems in retrospect. But the film was saved by the novelty of being really the first of its scale and kind. Age of Ultron actually, rather disappointingly for a sequel, downgrades the scale from the first – the set pieces being more restrained than the originals. And as actions movies involving a team of highly competent individuals dispatching droves of suckers are a dime a dozen in today’s movie market, a lot of Age of Ultron suffers from an uncanny sense of deja vu.
In keeping with the theme of coolness or, more appropriately, aloofness, Age of Ultron is a film that lacks heart. Despite witty banter and Avengers saying ‘how can I trust you?’ dramatically, there’s not really a lot going on between them.
It’s made worse by the conspicuous absence of any of the leads’ love interests. Now, you don’t have to have a relationship between two people who find each other sexually attractive to give a film heart, but it is certainly one way of doing it.
There’s a thing going on between Brue Banner and Black Widow but, despite the leads having great chemistry and there being sexual tension, that seems to be all there is to the relationship. There’s something about how both can relate to each other because they both feel like they are ‘monsters’. But compared to The Incredible Hulk’s pairing between Betty and Bruce, where you could feel how much the two loved each other and how desperately sad they were that life was tearing them apart, it’s pitiful.
There’s also a bit of thing between Hawkeye and his non-descript wife. But as she’s nothing more than a female ‘please don’t hurt yourself while saving the world because then I’ll be sad’ stock character, it’s hard to buy.
I should make it clear that I am not saying the Avengers’ Age of Ultron is in any way bad. Not by any stretch. What Age of Ultron is, is acceptable. Competent. Passable. Okay, but not great. It certainly hasn’t lit the world on fire as its predecessor did, and I feel – given the downward trend of most sequels in film – it was to Joss Whedon’s benefit that he left when he did.
If we are going to be getting superhero films for another decade, filmmakers are going to have to give up the idea that you have to try to make superheroes cool. Superheroes are already cool. They sell. Everyone gets it.
Why not see Superheroes struggle and give a damn?