It’s been three years since the original Avengers movie, and a lot has gone down in the Marvel cinematic universe since then. We’ve seen spectacular efforts like Guardians of the Galaxy and Winter Soldier. We’ve also been afflicted by dreck like Thor 2 and Iron Man 3. Age of Ultron (PG-13) brings the whole gang back together for an action-packed romp to shame all other action-packed romps. That’s all good and well, but did it live up to the hype? Oh yes, and then some.
By now, I’m sure you’ve seen enough of the trailers to get the basic plot. An artificial intelligence (Ultron) originally spawned by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner has taken it upon himself to target the Avengers as the world’s biggest threat and has decided that they (and basically the rest of humanity) must be destroyed. That sounds pretty simplistic, and it is. That’s ok, though, because (a) it works for what the movie is and (b) there’s just enough wrinkles to keep the plot side of the equation from becoming dull.
Joss Whedon is back in the director/writer seat and only disappoints in the slightest. As far as what works, it’s pretty much everything. Pretty much. The action choreography is fantastic, and that is saying something as it feeds directly into the plot. Whedon injects his trademark wit and one-liners, but this is ok. We aren’t talking about Attack of the Clones (or even Thor 2) where action is constantly interrupted by slapstick idiocy. This is more about how water cooler talk at the office would play out if your office happened to be a battle for the fate of the world.
Also, in the first film, our heroes were really just getting to know each other. Their battles showed that. In the sequel, we are clearly seeing a group that has evolved. They use coordination and teamwork and are far more mature than what we saw before. At least as far as fighting goes. More on that in a bit, but back to Whedon.
Great choreography? Check. Great acting? Check. Great story? Check. Great editing and pacing? Not so much. The biggest flaw in how this project was handled is its sheer scope. You pretty much get slammed with action from the opening credits. When it finally slows down enough to move things forward, the effect is jarring. The plot is good. The action is good. They just aren’t knitted together all that well. It’s a shame because there are parts where my brain was playing catch-up on some of the character conversations, and I still feel like I might missed something.
Let’s talk about the acting for no other reason than the last two big Marvel movies have definitively shown that voice characterization is real acting. I couldn’t help but be impressed by Bradley Cooper as Rocket in Guardians of the Galaxy. I was equally, if not moreso, impressed by James Spader as Ultron. We can debate whether or not this was good casting or good acting, as Spader is almost always playing a soulless and amoral character. His speech and delivery lends itself to that, though. It was hugely effective in this case, and he deserves the accolades he’s getting for the performance.
On another note, Chris Evans is a good actor. When people hear me say that, they often throw rocks at me. That doesn’t make it not true. He has truly made the Captain America character his own. This is his fourth movie in the role, and what we’ve seen is a very organic and sincere “growing up” process. In Age of Ultron, he is the leader of the team and everyone acknowledges that. This is a far cry from where he was in the first Cap movie. This isn’t a function of story or writing. It’s how he has changed the way he carries himself and presents himself as Steve Rogers.
As far as Catholic themes go, I’ve been directed to a review by Fr. Barron in which he pretty much rips the film for be “Nietzschean.” For the moment, I’m going to look past the fact that just about any super-hero movie can be seen as Nietzschean one some level. Superman, anyone? That doesn’t make it bad unless it promotes such a view as good. What Fr. Barron ignores is that the main thrust of Nietzsche’s views come from the bad guy here. Ultron definitely qualifies as the Ubermensch, and Whedon is overt in showing him as such, whether it’s putting quotes from Nietzsche directly into the robot’s mouth or referencing him in deity-like terms. I’m not sure how making the bad guy do these things is supposed to be negative or in opposition to the Gospel.
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Fr. Barron also sees these themes in the Vision, another artificial construct created to oppose Ultron. He introduces himself as “I am” which Barron sees as another push against a Christian message. I have no doubt that it is but not in the way that he thinks. Whedon is certainly not a Christian and probably means this as a dig against us. Whedon also has a very low opinion of humanity in general (see Cabin in the Woods if need proof). Fr. Barron misunderstands Vision as a “savior” when he should be looking at him as just another example of how human beings can’t really fix anything. Moreover, if left to our own devices, we mess things up on a colossal scale. Vision admits that nobody, not human beings, himself, or anyone, can save humanity from itself. For all our failings, though, he admits to a glimmer of “grace.” Yes, that’s the word he uses. As if to drive this point home, the only reason Vision is trusted by the team as a whole is because of a couple of supernatural signs that they are granted.
Are there Nietzschean themes in Age of Ultron? Sure. Are they promoted or shown in a positive way? Not in the slightest. In the end, there is a good bit that Catholics can take away if we focus on the reason for humanity’s internal problems as a consequence of original sin and how, yes, we cannot be saved by any efforts of our own.
One more thing. There is a moment in this film that I will be using from now on in every single pro-life conversation I have that involves contraception or sterilization. It is powerful and moving and involves a major revelation into a particular character’s past. This cannot be overlooked as a positive Catholic message.
From a content standpoint, there are a few sexual innuendos, but they flew WAY over my kids’ heads (ages 7 and 11). There is some minor profanity but no blasphemy. There’s ton of violence, but it’s largely bloodless since the main antagonists are robotic.
Overall, I’m going to give it the prestigious three tiara ranking. I have rarely had this much fun in a movie. There are flaws, but they don’t overwhelm how much of an absolute blast it was to sit and just be completely entertained out of my mind.
Review by Throwback. Throwback blogs at Popin Aint Easy.