“With everything that's happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old-fashioned.”
~Agent Phil Coulson, The Avengers
Tony Stark is an evil, evil man. We lose sight of that, because we see through his eyes, and his evil is humanised, sanitised, then finally redeemed. We get to see him as a tortured soul, a man whose failings come from fear and whose heroics reveal the truth of his nature. But he is the arms dealer for whom redemption is to keep all the weapons to himself. In doing so, he gets to be celebrity and underdog, both a born billionaire with immense destructive power at his fingertips, and just one man against a world out to get him. Make no mistake about it, Tony Stark is evil. And so are his Avengers.
Age of Ultron tries to grapple with this. It tries valiantly, it tries desperately, but it is ultimately a failure through and through. For by the end of the movie, the heroes must be heroes and the villains must be villains, the ideological critiques of the movie written off as untrue as the credits roll, or the audience may not return next year. Whatever themes or philosophies the movie is attempting to convey are crushed by the weight of the Marvel franchise machine.
It's a far cry from The Avengers, which was perhaps the most thematically coherent and successful movie in the MCU. However, The Avengers thematic aims were a full 180 degrees from those of its sequel. It functions as superhero propaganda, an unabashed celebration of American Exceptionalism, positively dripping in 9/11 imagery. Nick Fury calls the events of the movie his promise to worlds unknown, and to the members of the security council that supposedly oversee him: this is why we need superheroes, he says, and this is how they have to be.
And a promise it was too, from Marvel to the audience. The Avengers was the studio’s go big or go home moment, an ideologically condensed statement that had to not only sell the audience on its interconnected commercial strategy, but invest them in the values of the Marvel universe. The Avengers may lack the outward awfulness of say, Transformers: Age Of Extinction but ideologically, it aims for an incredibly similar spot. It is an all-american story of the power of individualism, the might of an intelligence and defence organisation shown through a chosen powerful few conflicting personalities, as they fight a childish and incompetent god who leads a faceless, heartless, identical army. It was a runaway success, and marked the moment when people stopped showing up to see their favourite characters banter, and started showing up for the Marvel brand.
After such a strong statement of intent, there was nowhere for Marvel to go thematically but inwards. It had to start truly interrogating its own values, for to do otherwise would bely a dangerous lack of self awareness, any long running storytelling franchise finds longevity through thematic introspection, otherwise it stagnates. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was Marvel's first substantial attempt at self-examination, as Captain America begins to question his loyalties to S.H.I.E.L.D. and the moral integrity of the Good Guy organisation is for a brief moment, uncertain.
Alas, the movie does not have fully have the courage of its convictions to go all the way. S.H.I.E.L.D. is brought down due to the discovery of a Hydra infiltration, an easy audience signifier for villainy, rather than due to failings on its own terms. Nick Fury, the man initially behind the Insight Project, gets to remain a hero due to his refusal to "having the courage not to [murder 20 million people]." Black Widow's monologue on capitol hill at the flies completely in the face of the movie's commitment to critiquing American imperialism and overreaching surveillance, as well as the War On Terror:
"You're not gonna put any of us in a prison, you know why? Because you need us. Yes the world is a vulnerable place, and yes we helped make it that way. But we're also the ones best qualified to defend it."
But such a monologue is necessary to maintain the integrity of the Marvel universe, for without it the fantasy would be broken. Our heroes must be above the law, above consequence and under all circumstances necessary.
I don't mean to make The Winter Soldier to sound like a total failure in how it deals with these themes, because it isn't. It does a lot right, including using Steve Rogers, an in-universe tool of American military propaganda, as the main force for criticism of the current military and surveillance system. And ultimately, S.H.I.E.L.D. still falls, and it is made clear that such an organisation is unsalvageable. The Winter Soldier's criticisms are often unconfident, but they are, for the most part, coherent.
Not so with Age of Ultron, a movie far angrier and pointed in its criticism. The movie positively seethes at the notion that the Avengers could possibly be a force for good in the world. The Avengers themselves are, for all intents and purposes, a privatised S.H.I.E.L.D., funded by Stark and managed by Maria Hill. On top of that, the setup of the movie is strikingly similar to The Winter Soldier; Stark's motivations are identical to those of Alexander Pierce. He wants to create a device to end the war before any can begin. Like all good villains, Stark is driven to the acts he commits for human reasons, in his case an egotistical fear that everyone he knows and loves could die in another alien invasion, and if that happens, it would be his fault for not acting. So he creates Ultron.
Ultron is the perfect antagonist for the Avengers, a character created to ideologically challenge the values of the characters, and by association, the audience. "You protect the world, but you don't want it to change," he says in one of his now twitter famous trailer speeches. Ultron's position is that the Avengers are bastions of a harmful status quo, forcing their ideals on those who do not want them, the very thing standing in the way of progress. The movie's opening action scene features Stark's unmanned "Iron Legion" flying into a Sokovian city, only to be greeted by a crowd of unhappy locals who never asked to be saved. Until the final setpiece, Ultron's a relatively sedate villain, staying out the way as the Avengers travel the globe, leaving a trail of immense destruction in their wake all by themselves. After the hoo-rah celebration of The Avengers, and the uneasy criticism of The Winter Soldier, Age of Ultron tackles head on the American Exceptionalism of its titular superheroes.
And nowhere is its anger more pronounced than in the characters of Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, known here as The Twins. They submitted themselves to Hydra experiments, because they were orphaned as children, trapped in rubble for three days, with nothing but a unexploded Stark Industries shell for company. They are the human cost of Stark's actions, previously kept helpfully offscreen. In one of the movie's best scenes, again using Steve Rogers as the harshest American critic, he defends The Twins to Maria Hill, who's so far been giving them a dismissive villain exposition.
Hill: "File says they volunteered for Strucker's experiments. That's nuts."
Cap: "Right, what kind of monster would let a German Scientist experiment on them to protect their country?"
Hill: "We're not fighting a war."
Cap: "They are."
The Twins have a clear desire: to get revenge on Stark, and an empathetic backstory that hooks the audience into their desire. In storytelling terms, they are the closest thing the movie has to a protagonist.
Which is what makes the movie's eventual climax so hollow. The Twins are good guys, and the Avengers is where good guys belong. The 'reward' for their goodness is to be assimilated into the very culture that they were railing against. The movie spends two thirds of its running time ideologically tearing down the inherent imperialism that the Avengers stand for, and then throws up its hands and begins a hoo-rah crowdpleasing final setpiece in the style of the original film. Surprise! Ultron doesn't just want to take out the Avengers, he wants to end all life on earth, but not if the Avengers punch him in the face first.
As the final sequence begins, Cap says "It's not just about stopping Ultron, it's about whether he's right," and yet at no point is there even an opportunity for them to prove him wrong. There are no thematic stakes to the final battle, nothing close to say, Return of the Jedi, which is maybe the most famous example of a blockbuster ending in a battle of philosophies. The movie wraps up with a distressing sense of obligation, and all of its ideological perspectives are thrown out the window for a punching match, because to truly confront them is incompatible with the needs of the Marvel brand.
Those critical themes need to be there to give the villain credibility, so they may speak threatening monologues that will go viral when teenagers hear them in trailers. But they cannot be allowed to be more than window dressing, lest they overshadow or call into question the core values that The Avengers succeeded on. There is another film next year, and when the audience leaves the cinema, they need to want it. I suspect this unresolved tension is at the heart of Age Of Ultron's more muted reaction than the original. On paper, it does all the things that The Avengers does, it has the same crowdpleasing action, the same commitment to small moments of character work, but on a deeper level, the movie is at war with itself over what it wants to say and what it wants to be.
When the dust settles, Vision and Ultron talk philosophy for just thirty seconds, and we get perhaps our best glimpse into the more quiet, painful and introspective movie that Whedon consistently said he wanted to make.Then Ultron dies, and Thor begins spouting off a trailer for Infinity War. The status quo is restored, but it is not earned, and a palpable sense of apathy hangs over the epilogue. They'll all be at it again in Civil War anyway.
In the very last scene, Wanda, the only surviving Maximoff flies into frame, cementing herself as a full time, All-American Avenger. But neither her or her brother confronted Stark, their very real pain was never resolved, it just evaporated when the plot required. After everything, her character motivations are rendered irrelevant, and her arc crushingly inevitable: the Marvel universe is one of heroes and villains, and the heroes all fight under the same flag.