Directed by: Joss Whedon. I had to see this for a real review for a real publication, and if you’ve seen some of my real reviews before, you might notice a different tone, different feel, and definitely a different length from the “reviews” I do here. For instance, I shy away from first-person writing for my real reviews, and I have to offer some plot summary for the uninitiated reader, whereas on this blog, I don’t give a shit. This one was an example where I had to crank out the review the very next day after viewing, instead of giving it a bit of time to digest and get some distance (my preferred method)—it was like an Offhand Review, but I wasn’t allowed to say “fuck” and I had to keep it under 350 words. And looking back now, surprise surprise, I’m not entirely happy with that review. I think I missed a bunch of stuff and sacrificed some things in that artful struggle of brevity vs clarity that I have yet to master. And there’s something really bizarre about the gravity of writing something as banal as a film review, but when I start seeing other people’s reviews, and they’re all basically the opposite of mine, it shows me that either I’m way off the mark and I don’t know how to read films properly, or everybody else is off the mark and I’m a fucking genius and time will tell, or else nobody is right and nobody is wrong and the entire enterprise is just a bunch of meaningless words in a godless universe. In this case, the stakes are pretty low—I thought it was a better movie than the first Avengers, most other people thought it was kind of a so-so followup to the brilliant first Avengers; I thought all the other superhero movies full of amazing socio-political insight like Captain America 2 were actually kind of flimsy versions thereof, but that this one was pretty interesting; I didn’t get lost in all the new characters like everybody else seems to have, and actually I thought this movie did a great job of avoiding the pitfall that lots of X-Men movies fell prey to, jamming as many characters in as possible with no time to do anything with any of them. This is not like posting a review of Birth of a Nation as “a very nuanced and even-handed summary of objective American history” and having to backtrack on it later—again, the stakes are pretty low here. But in retrospect, this movie is definitely not an example of a placeholder sequel that also “stands as a completely coherent” movie in its own right, as I did state. There’s no way that I would recommend this to someone out of the blue, without any Marvel context. I guess I meant that I just felt this movie in a way that I didn’t feel the others. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention to the first Avengers, but this was the first Marvel movie where they actually paid some fucking attention to the characters—and I mean, these are some pretty fine hairs to split in this “cinematic universe” that has nothing but a never-ending series of magical MacGuffin stones to tie it together narratively, and the emotional centre is shared between human beings and talking CGI raccoons. And I guess this opinion probably isn’t shared by everyone, for whom the characterization of the rest of the movies was just ducky, and I’m just being contrary right now. Fair enough. The other big thing I wish I’d done differently was, I wish I’d included something, even just a line, about the fucked up gender politics in this movie. I totally didn’t get the controversial rape joke (I, like most people, didn’t know what prima nocta was), but that’s some pretty dark humour for a quick little one-liner. To give it a quick summary, the gender politics in these movies are fucked, and I don’t think adding in one other lady hero, even if it is my childhood favourite Scarlett Witch as played by Elizabeth Olsen (after her great role in Oldboy), will put much of a dent in that. Maybe I’m just being fancy, but I’m not the only one who found the whole sterilization subplot a touch patronizing and just all-around unnecessary.
Now, as for the movie itself: it was fully in keeping with my regular estimation of these things—it was just fine. Where it got really interesting was the character of Ultron, the very flawed, drunken, Tom Waits performance injected into him by James Spader’s voiceover and by the CGI animators. Usually the intelligent robot subplot is pretty boring, but this CGI robot has more life than most of the characters in this universe, villain or no. Ultron’s irrational hatred of humankind kind of reads as another flat, 2-dimensional cartoon villain non-motivation, but I felt like the film went some way towards accounting for that irrationality as a part of Ultron’s contradictory human-robot dichotomy: his irrational hatred of humans makes him very human, and it makes him, as a super intelligent robot with what amounts to a very human case of violent psychosis, very terrifying. The inclusion of The Vision was super welcome, partly because I love that character from the comics, and partly because I’ve had an admiration/man-crush on Paul Bettany since Gangster No.1. Mostly, though, when I was watching this, I was trying to build my fancy film analysis muscles and look at what this plot is actually doing in a major Hollywood film in 2015. What I saw was, unsurprisingly, a lot of reaffirmation of predictably conservative American ideology. The depiction of Tony Stark here (and in all the movies), as a weapons manufacturer committed to world peace is a nice bit of extremely obvious American ideology: the contradictions inherent in this idea are meant to be glossed over and taken as a given. And when, in this movie, Stark secretly develops the ultimate, terrifying weapon as a means of protecting the Earth from harm, it doesn’t take a genius to see the real-world parallels. Where it gets really juicy is when you look past the Cold War nuclear weapons allegories and compare this movie’s plot to modern foreign policy. The Avengers are in turmoil because a supreme consciousness brought into being to fight evil turns out to be evil itself, and it uses its power given it by the Avengers not to protect Earth, but to destroy the Avengers and the entire Earth. I can see how some people might be resistant to the idea that you can compare this plot to America’s creation of al Qaeda to fight the Russians, or to the way that the invasion of Iraq in order to “stabilize the region” actually brought about, almost single handedly, the complete de-stabilization of the region, and the creation of ISIS. But for now I’m gonna go on sitting with that comparison on my lap. One thing I won’t budge on is the way that the film’s resolution comes about by way of the same logic that I saw on display during the latest big debate on gun control in the States. When the shooting happened in the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, I remember reading a quote from the NRA leader, something to the effect of: “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” As a non-American, it struck me how extreme that statement was, like something that should have been a Freudian slip, a complete short-cut of logic, a blatant example of irrational, fearful, stressed-out, fuzzy logic, was declared confidently in a deliberate statement by an official. And, setting aside a giant conversation about how fucked up that argument is, you definitely see it in movies all the time. That assertion is at the heart of the Iron Man films, and kind of all of these films, because it’s at the heart of American culture, from the nuclear bomb onwards (and of course, well before that). Ultron is the ultimate weapon, but due to freak circumstances (not fully explained by the film), he was imbued with a motivation to act for senseless destruction. The only thing that stops him is The Vision, another human-robot hybrid, even more supreme than Ultron, endowed with a MacGuffin Stone: in other words, a bigger gun, and a gun that’s inherently, almost magically predisposed to act for the forces of good (again, kind of skipped over by the film). It’s pretty standard shit, but it’s interesting to see these things in action. Anyone who tries to be skeptical about things like “ideology”, you can point them to shit like this—it’s very real, and it influences the way we perceive the world around us, from our escapist superhero movies (not particularly important) to our gun legislation (super fucking important). It’s literally a magic fucking hammer that shows us that Vision is a “good guy with a gun” and not a “bad guy with a gun.” If only there were a magic hammer at the gun store. And while we’re going past 1500 words, one more thing. I was reminded of an idea from my old film prof in a discussion about Hollywood film of the late 80’s through to modern day, something about a prevalent mistrust of plurality, of the postmodern condition of a fractured culture where a multiple, fractious, unpredictable and moving set of meanings causes instability and anxiety, and how that’s usually manifested in film as a shape-shifter, a master of disguise, and/or clown figure—Nicholson’s Joker and Jim Carrey’s Riddler in the Batman movies, Malkovich’s villain in In the Line of Fire, etc. I can’t think of a ton more, but Ultron’s terrifying plurality and lack of permanence, his unpredictable ubiquity enabled by advanced technology, and its portrayal as something terrifying instead of reassuring, is some interesting shit to chew on.