Blammo Brigade finds Intelligence. Artificially.
AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON is not just your same ole blammo-fest with sugarbottom; merely the second movie in the AVENGERS franchise, ULTRON has moved leaps and bounds beyond its predecessor. Yes, there is blammo, but interspersed liberally with morally ambiguous characterization, tentative romance, quiet introspection, self-effacing humor and – that trend in modern plot devices – Artificial Intelligence. Oh, and there’s Vision – but we’ll get to that magnificence in a moment… Dare we call this movie a dark symphony? Ooooh, dare, dare!
The Avengers, once again consisting of a god, a titanium-armored physicist, a serum-enhanced soldier, a gamma-irradiated indestructible geneticist, a thigh-kwon-do espionage agent, and a guy who can aim real good. They will soon be joined by a hex-wielding empath and a guy who can run real fast.
Like X-MEN developed into The Continuing Story of Wolverine, AVENGERS is merely The Continuing Story of Iron Man aka Tony Stark aka Robert Downey Jr. (They’re all the same person, right?) All the other Avengers’ roles may as well be extras who punch real good. There’s Thor (Chris Hemsworth; someone wake me when this thunder god decides to use his full powers), Captain America (Chris Evans; throw shield, flash dreamy eyes, punch, repeat), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson; just back dat pearbottom up, darlin,’ don’t say a word), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, the old dog, enters the cast and steals Widow away from Cap), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, who is fleshed out here with mature backstory… TMI, Marvel Studios, T-M-I!). They will be joined by Russian twins, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, adding schoolgirl skirt to the pearbottom quotient; aka Wanda Maximoff, not really known as “Scarlet Witch” except through our a priori comics knowledge), and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, also never called by his “superhero” name, but Pietro Maximoff).
There are also fun cameos by Idris Elba (as Heimdall, THOR), Stellan Skarsgård (as scientist Selvig, THOR), Andy Serkis (as a weather-beaten underground arms dealer), Anthony Mackie (as Falcon, CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER) and Don Cheadle (as War Machine, IRON MAN 2). Samuel L. Jackson is Nick Fury, Cobie Smulders picks up a pearbottom paycheck, Thomas Kretschmann is a HYDRA villain and Stan Lee is – Stan Lee.
But Stark is the one to watch, as he tips into megalomania, and creates the Artificial Intelligence “peace-keeping program” called Ultron, the supposed villain of the piece. (Wait! Didn’t Hank Pym create Ultron? –Get thee behind me, Comics Dweeb!) But if Stark is responsible for the creation of this “villain” then rightfully, ethically and technically, he is the villain. (Don’t blame the children – blame the parents.) He admits this himself in a soul-searching moment, “I’m the man who killed the Avengers.” But audiences will never grasp this nuance – not least because of the way Western moviemaking has conditioned us to regard any ambiguously moral “hero” as a “tortured genius” rather than an actual villain. Movie villains were easy to identify when they were mad scientists using blue bzzz things to make monsters, or Bond nemeses with designs on bettering the world through their fascism… It seems like a billion dollars, cars, chicks, quips, and hi-tech titanium armor will mitigate that “mad scientist” or “evil leader” tag to “playboy billionaire.” When all Tony really is – is an update of that age-old Dr. Frankenstein/Ernst Blofeld trope.
Like any good leader who wants “peace in our time” Tony has turned fascist, with his ranting that he has “no time for a town hall meeting with the Avengers! I don’t want to hear the ‘man-was-not-meant-to-meddle’ medley; I see a suit of armor around the world.” At film’s opening – besides the cheesy/stock action sequence that would pull all the Avengers into a dynamic/wanky single frame – we see Tony’s cool Iron Men drones policing the skies. Even if it’s for peace, well, that’s one man’s version of peace.
Tony unilaterally unleashes Ultron (voiced by James Spader like Vincent Price reborn), who is a computer program, and represented physically by an 8-foot tall golden robot. Being an app, he can travel amongst the web and into innumerable other robots – cue Tony’s Iron Men drogues – so his ideology can be in multiple beings at once. The story is written and directed (by Joss Whedon) in such a way that Ultron becomes conscious by himself after number-crunching J.A.R.V.I.S., Tony’s supercomputer, but again, don’t let Western filmmaking fool you into giving Tony a pass.
Being a “peacekeeping program,” Ultron comes at us with the line, “I’m here to help,” like the thoughtpolice in Orwell’s 1984, or like Republicans shilling for the Koch brothers while cutting your benefits and telling you it’s an improvement. Ultron takes “peacekeeping” to its logical end, using his A.I. reductive reasoning to discern that Mankind has to go. He means, like, totally. Poffy concurs. Mankind is now the Earth’s problem, not the solution. With the propensity for birthing more offspring than are being allowed to die, it’s not even Man’s miniscule augmentation to “climate change” that is destroying the Earth; nor his wars or reality shows; rather simply, overpopulation and its attendant logistical survival problems (which is why there is widespread poverty), which include raping Earth’s resources, making it unpeaceful for all life. That, and his CONFOUNDING STUPIDITY.
Tony’s mission statement is later repeated by Ultron – “peace in our time.” If Ultron was intentionally “evil” then it would be a sarcastic jab at Tony, but if Ultron sincerely believes that eradicating humanity will bring peace, then it is just a courtesy reminder.
Every synopsis you read will claim Ultron is the “villain” but he is NOT. He is an A.I. that runs a scenario to its logical conclusion and determines organic life is pointless because it ends in death. (Life is a means to an end – merely serving to propagate genetic material across lifespans). Humans are organic and they actively destroy all life as well. In the name of peace on Earth, they deserve extermination. Sagan and DeGrasse Tyson might remind us we are the same molecular material circulating as starstuff in a closed loop of unending beginnings. All nihilism aside, we’re still pointless. Self-awareness makes us erroneously believe in “purpose” but that’s debatable if the ultimate denouement is death. And reality shows.
Though AGE OF ULTRON raises A.I. issues (to its credit), it merely scrapes the surface, rather than dive into intricacies (like EX MACHINA, THE MACHINE, or even CHAPPIE), to make way for blammo. And pray tell, the punching stylings of our supers need to be revisited from time to time to keep the Attention-Deficits in order. (That whole Iron Man/Hulkbuster sequence has got to be the most superfluous piece of eye-jiggering diabetes-candy since the last TRANSFORMERS debacle disguised as a movie. A friend suggested a title for this review: “Age Of Dulltron,” and Lord knows, I’m tryin’ Ringo, I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd and make you the righteous movie, but with this collateral damage-fest, maybe it means that you’re the weak, and that CGI is the tyranny of evil men…)
So to the movie’s discredit, the A.I. element is simplistic. The Avengers tell Stark, “Ultron can’t tell the difference between saving the world and destroying it. Where do you think he gets that?” implying that A.I. is “bad” “evil” “contra humans.” (Almost like the JURASSIC PARK series misrepresents carnivorous dinosaurs – a natural cog in any ecosystem – as “evil” villains.) But how can any kind of “Intelligence” – artificial or otherwise – be villainous? Well, here it is, personified by the mechanical man with the faux-British accent, quoting the bible and Pinocchio in equal jest. (He loves his fantasy books, that Ultron!)
Then, riding a bucking steed of electric lightning, comes… VISION!
Oh Captain my captain. Oh Vision my vision! J.A.R.V.I.S. and an Infinity Stone had a baby and his name was – Vision. (Wait! Wasn’t Vision created using the brain patterns of Wonder Man? –Get thee to a nunnery, Comics Dweeb!) Vision is Paul Bettany, eternally the voice of J.A.R.V.I.S., at last joining his actor cohorts in outlandishly colorful tights.
And he is uber cool. He is Mr. Ice. He is The Breeze.
With powers beyond imagining, wisdom beyond comprehension, and hued in deep purple like Jon Lord – so he must be a god… Martin Luther King should have said, “I have a Vision.” Survivor should have serenaded Rocky with “Vision Of The Tiger.” That guy cured by Jesus should’ve shouted from the mountaintops, “I was blind but now I have Vision!” He’s aloof, soft-spoken, incorruptible, inscrutable, all-knowing, all-powerful, the zero-Kelvin coolest Marvel cat of all. That scene of Thor, Iron Man and Vision in a line, like a rock band at a row of mics, all beaming power rays at Ultron – now that’s what superhero movies were made for!
I need to put my pants back on.
The key to Marvel’s and DC’s success in bringing “childish” superhero tales to modern masses is not so much the fantastic production values (although that doesn’t hurt), but moral ambiguity; less delineation between good and bad, right and wrong, evil intent and good intent gone awry. Rather than portraying outlandishly-garbed two-dimensional do-gooders foiling bank robbers (remember Kirk Alyn’s 1948 SUPERMAN and George Reeves’ 1952 series, foiling “crooks” in hats?), these are adult adventures with some blammo thrown in for the kids who can’t spell moral ambiguity yet (that would be everyone in America up to age 35).
Though Marvel has left DC in its dust with this “Marvel Universe” cross-pollination of movies (as opposed to DC’s oft-promised/ill-fated/off-grid JUSTICE LEAGUE projects) it’s time to go the whole hog and renounce this constricting PG-13 rating (I know it’s for box office reasons, but box office desperation can be mitigated with less outlandish salaries, less intrusive advertising/tie-ins and less unnecessary CGI), and move these summer tentpoles to a heavier grit with R-rated conundrums. These protagonists are already dealing with moral ambiguity, searching for the best way to be right in a world that is always wrong. Extend that to casual swearing and innocent deaths, and we’ll have real emotional powerhouses on our hands – movies that can probably win some of those hedonistic, hubristic, suckhole awards you people are always giving to the wrong recipients.
Many bystanders die in this movie, but it’s not graphic and it’s implied; disguised by the colorful action and quips and cutaways. You think not one solitary soul was killed or maimed in that Iron Man/Hulk battle? You think not one citizen just fell to their death when a whole city was levitated by Ultron and people were trying to evacuate in a panic? A car with a family in it goes over the edge and Captain America tries to hold it, triceps thrumming, dreamy eyes fluttering in anguish – but he loses it!… In slomo it falls – but no worries, little kiddies, suddenly raising it from below is Thor… everyone happy and gay. Goddamit! Show them lose a few people now and then, for the emotional impact. It would highlight the toll these heroes have to bear every time their vaunted powers do not necessarily fail, but are simply inadequate to deal with the enormity of the problem.
Hawkeye says to Scarlet Witch: “If you go out there, you fight, and you fight to kill.” Let’s break it down: Wanda Witch has truly super powers – she can warp minds and shoot frickin’ laser beams out of her hands. (Her hex powers are represented very dramatically with her “Dracula hands,” ramped film and vermilion contrails. That schoolgirl skirt is just gravy. And that sugarbottom is dessert.) First of all, why would she be hesitant in killing things that are trying to kill her? I guess Hawkeye’s warning illustrates it’s not just the power – it’s the WILL to use it judiciously. The movie is hinting at that heavy emotional burden spoken of above, but it doesn’t follow through – because these robots she eventually burns down are just electronic drones; they’re not organic beings, or unwitting followers of a duplicitous leader. She might as well be hitting Ctrl+Alt+Delete.
Prime ass (as in assassin) Natasha flirts with Hulk. It’s official: bigger is better. But the movie will surprise us with its tragic denouements and unresolved throughlines. Marvel Universe offers us a myriad of upcoming films where fates will be decided (not to mention contracts merged, agents baffled, and Spider-Man traded like a baseball player).
In any media where humans are on the verge of being wiped out for their CONFOUNDED STUPIDITY, there is always always ALWAYS that Cringeworthy Speech No.5 that mitigates our idiocy. Unfortunately, it is Cool McCool Vision delegated to deliver that numbnut speech here: “Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings.” By definition, there is NO grace in failing – that’s why it’s called failing. And failing so calamitously so often means we are NOT worthy of being alive, much less presuming ourselves “rulers” of this planet, for which we are not even “stewards” or “butlers” rather a virus that is wiping out other life forms to the detriment of the ecosystem. Kill us. Kill us NOW, Ultron!
By the way, Mr. Ultron, if you really want to kill all humans, there’s no need for this much punching. The Avengers don’t ever need to be hit even once with all your Iron Man clones. They can band together and punch to their heart’s content (and there’s a very cool group sculpture of them doing just that during the end credits) but there’s a much better way to wipe out humanity. (I’ve advised Mr. Terminator and Mr. Decepticon on this exact same method – none of you dopes will take my advice.) You’ve got access to every computer system on Earth. Simply… shut everything down… and watch Mankind fall to its knees after five minutes of not being able to access their bank accounts, their launch codes, or a reality show.
If some writer would come up with an intelligent storyline (artificial or otherwise) that doesn’t insult our intelligence, now that would be a… VISION!