Thoughts on Age of Ultron: a Movie Critic’s Swan Song
There was a time when I likely would have vehemently taken to my old blog and ripped apart every negative thing I’d read about the new Avengers film. Point by point I’d seek to prove that all the nitpicking was too harsh, that they’d missed the point entirely, and that my enjoyment was somehow cosmically correct vis-à-vis their disappointment. And while I contend that many times film critics do miss the mark, more on that later, that doesn’t explain my reaction.
Arguing with naysayers does nothing to affect my enjoyment of a film. Or my initial enjoyment anyway. As time goes on, Inception has become less of a favorite movie of mine and more of a reminder of how many crackpot theories about it I’ve seen on the Internet, people who thought it was too complicated, people who thought it wasn’t complicated enough, and so on. I would have done well to appreciate my enjoyment for what it was and not as ammo against another’s opinion. This is especially the case for superhero films.
I need superhero films to be great. That’s why I’m as likely to argue the validity of a perceived plot hole in Thor as I am to trounce all over a minor quibble in a British period piece simply because it’s not my thing. Where does this impulse come from? Well, though I didn’t grow up in the worst time to be a nerd (70s? 80s?) I certainly didn’t grow up in nerdvana like we live in today. Because my peers were more interested in sports than stories or more interested in vulgar cartoons than superheroic ones, a big part of me needed what I was watching to be perfect. Whether I had to change the narrative to make it that way or not.
But now, we live in a brave new world.
10 years ago, I wore a Fantastic Four shirt to the premiere of the Fantastic Four movie. The lady taking the tickets laughed at me (perhaps because she’d seen the film already and not because of the nerdy origins of the characters, we’ll give her the benefit of the doubt). Two days ago, when I saw Age of Ultron for the second time (believe it) there was a group of friends dressed as the Avengers. In the afternoon. On a Saturday. In Ashburn, Virginia. Not at a midnight showing or at a special San Diego Comic-Con screening. And people were lining up to take pictures with these well-costumed fans. Children and adults alike. In addition to that, my Avengers t-shirt was far from the only one of its kind. And it wasn’t just nerdy white boys between the ages of 15 and 30 either! Heck, the day of the premiere my middle-aged African-American female boss was wearing a Captain America shirt.
After all this time, my interests are “cool.” So with all that widespread enjoyment and acclaim, why would I react negatively when someone writes a bad review?
Well I am proud to say that even though I’ve done my fair share of griping about it to my fellow fans, I don’t feel the anger of argument. It’s not in me anymore. This may seem minor but for an argumentative born-lawyer like myself, this is huge. It was only a few months ago that I let go of my hatred regarding The King’s Speech not only winning Best Picture, but winning Best Director in a year that Chris Nolan wasn’t even nominated. That was 4 years ago! Ridiculous.
And now this brings me to my overall point (and not even my “review” so hang in there true believers): movie reviews are no good. Film analysis is amazing and I love it. But movie reviews? They’re terrible. In my 65 or so (!!!!!) “Oscar rewind” posts all I ever did was rip apart the achievements of hard-working individuals who happened to make films that weren’t up my alley. Or that I didn’t pay much attention to. Or that I felt like making fun of because I was unemployed and sad. I think a similar thing can be said of most film reviews, for different reasons, and that’s why they’re no good.
Maybe a lot of film critics were annoyed by all the Marvel movies up until Ultron. Just the sheer abundance of them. Or maybe it was the 4th film they watched in a row and they were zoned out. Or maybe they just didn’t care for it. I’ve read some inaccurate things in reviews that I won’t get into here where the reviewer either missed something or hyperbolized a bit much (Thor’s “side quest” that garnered much criticism lasts about 90 seconds) but for the most part, I’m really into this stuff and they’re probably not. And that’s okay.
Even if a review is positive, it’s skewing a viewer’s opinion and thus on some level defeating the purpose of watching the film. If you read ahead of time that Ultron stretches credibility or has too many characters, you’re more likely to be thinking about that instead of just being along for the ride. Or on a different note: if I told you that Captain America was especially funny in this movie then you might not find him as funny. You might expect jokes from him every 5 minutes. When instead I meant to convey that he’s funnier than he usually is. But why do I need to say that? All anyone should know about the movie before they see it is what it’s about, who made it, and who’s in it. That informs whether you want to watch or not. Everything else should be up to the viewer.
For this reason, I will not be reviewing this film. Nor do I wish to review any film ever again. Because my experiences and my opinions matter to me but everyone else should have theirs too. I’m not saying it’s bad for anyone to review stuff, just for me. Because reviewing for me is really a constructed argument on why I’m right and someone else is wrong. And that does no justice to the artform.
However, what I will do is point out some of the profundity in Ultron because it meant a lot to me and I think that’s worth sharing. One last time.
Mild Spoilers ahead!
A fascinating idea that began in Iron Man 3 quite literally in the opening narration, is that we create our own demons. Ultron, the character, is very much a Lucifer-esque figure. He was created to be a beautiful savior and instead turned on his creator, called himself God, started strutting around with horns, and talked in a silky smooth voice so great that you love him even as you hate him (dammit James Spader is great at talking, on that everyone can agree).
Conversely, the character of Vision is a Christ-like figure. This is established early on with the “Jarvis take the wheel” quote from Tony to go with his “Jarvis is my co-pilot” bumper sticker. Jarvis eventually becomes the Vision, created from largely the same materials as Ultron but with a zen-like outlook that focuses on humanity’s strengths and not its foibles.
At one point in the film, Cap says “this isn’t just about beating Ultron, it’s about proving him wrong.” The film is as much a battle for the souls of the flawed individuals within the Avengers as it is about defeating yet another supervillain bent on global annihilation. This is especially important considering where all of the Avengers come from. Aside from Captain America, who is obviously perfect both physically and personality-wise, everyone has a dark past.
Thor’s ego led to destruction on many planets and gave his brother Loki the galaxy’s worst case of daddy issues.
Tony Stark’s thirst for money and fame, and his dad’s same pursuits, created the villains in all of his films and in this one.
Black Widow has “red in her ledger” from her assassination days that she’d like to rectify.
Hulk’s internal demons are still a threat. He doesn’t just supplant his anger issues for reasons of inner peace.
Hawkeye…is perhaps more enlightened than the rest. It was thus unsurprising to learn in this film that he has a family. In order to be a good husband and a good father he understands that you can’t hold grudges. You can’t let every mistake someone has made color their whole identity. As Nick Fury said, “trouble always comes around.” You don’t need to create more trouble by being bogged down in the past.
Which is why my favorite scene in the film comes when Scarlet Witch is lamenting her earlier role in Ultron’s ultimate plan. “It’s my fault!” she says. Instead of the usual comic book-y response, Hawkeye offers something refreshing and uplifting: “It’s your fault, it’s everyone’s fault, who cares?” He then continues: “It doesn’t matter who you were before or what you did…if you step out that door, you’re an Avenger.”
It was my favorite scene in a movie that contained Iron Man fighting the Hulk. Not since the much-aligned Spider-Man 3 have I seen the theme of forgiveness come through so strongly in a movie, comic book or otherwise. And it was about the toughest kind: self-forgiveness. Perhaps because he’s well-balanced enough to be a family man and also a robot-killing machine or perhaps due to some backstory we’re not privy to, Hawkeye became the most enlightened Avenger in that moment.
If Tony Stark could forgive himself for creating weapons that put people in harm’s way, then he wouldn’t have felt the need to over-reach and attempt to create a world-saving robot that almost became the world’s destruction.
Age of Ultron is all about our sins. The ones we let consume us and the ones we move past so we can move forward. Tony at least (temporarily?) defeats his sin of pride when he admits that the only way they can win is by working together. Cheesy for any other movie or any other character in this movie. From narcissist Tony Stark’s lips? Powerful.
I could go on about how great it was that the music incorporated previous themes from other Marvel films, or the amazing one-shot stretches of fighting, or the great Whedon dialogue, or my excitement for how this set up Phase 3. But I won’t. Because all that stuff is about the same as what I get from any number of other films, albeit to a lesser extent for the most part.
But what I took away from only this, and thus the main thing I’m sharing, is that even a movie featuring a modern-day Robin Hood shooting a bunch of robots alongside a psychic Russian girl and her silver-haired speedster twin can hit on a nugget of real human truth. That in the end, you can’t just beat Ultron. You have to prove him wrong. To do that, you have to forgive yourself and forgive others. So that what the Vision sees in humanity can become its definition.
With these realizations, it becomes quite clear that my former moniker: “the cynical critic” is no more. And as such, this not-quite-review is my last. I don’t regret my rampant cynicism because it helped make me who I am today. But I forgive myself for it.