Has it been three years already since The Avengers came out?
At the time, that film seemed like a minor miracle.
On the one hand, it was sort of a sequel to three existing superhero franchises — four, if you count The Incredible Hulk, though it didn’t bring back any of that film’s main actors — and there was always the risk that it would be affected by the same sort of sequel fatigue that was already evident in Iron Man 2.
On the other hand, the unprecedented, dynamic mix of personalities — Tony Stark’s brash cynicism, Bruce Banner’s self-doubt, Steve Rogers’ earnest idealism, and Thor’s macho swagger — gave the film a freshness that made it feel like an “original” film, and in the hands of co-writer/director/ensemble expert Joss Whedon, it gave each of its heroes a chance to shine. Plus it was just a really fun film, to boot.
Now comes the follow-up, Avengers: Age of Ultron. And this is indisputably a sequel in just about every sense of the word: bigger, louder, sillier (and not always in a good way), more ambitious and, alas, less satisfying than the film that came before it.
It gets off to an okay start. First the Avengers attack a fortress in the fictitious eastern European country of Sokovia, seeking to root out the last remnants of the villainous organization Hydra. (I particularly like the way Captain America throws his motorcycle at a tank or truck, turning his mode of transportation into a weapon.)
Later, they attend a party at Stark’s headquarters, and there is much amusement to be had as each member of the team tries to prove that they are “worthy” enough to lift Thor’s hammer. (Thor, who very confidently tells his colleagues that they won’t be able to do it, actually looks a little worried when Rogers gives it a go.)
But then the party is crashed by Ultron, a multi-robot-inhabiting artificial intelligence that has just grown out of one of Stark’s pet projects. And from there on, we get a series of fight scenes and plot twists, the narrative connectedness of which would take too long to explain, but one thing I do remember is that it wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as the original film.
Part of the problem here may be the change in villain.
The first Avengers had Loki, who had a personal relationship with Thor, was played by the charismatic Tom Hiddleston, and whose pompous insistence that he be worshipped as a god was neatly sent up by the various Avengers, most notably Hulk.
Ultron, in contrast, is a grim machine that wants to destroy humanity because his programming has convinced him that it’s the only way to bring peace, which suggests a certain simple-minded naivete on his part, yet he tosses off his dialogue as though he were already bored with the conventions of this genre, which is odd coming from a character who didn’t even exist until after this story got started.
Another part of the problem is that we’ve seen much of this before.
The artificial intelligence that Stark was working on — the program that evolved into Ultron — was supposed to be part of an automated “shield” that would keep the entire planet safe, which is reminiscent of the drone-like weapons that Captain America defeated in his last solo movie. Once again, our heroes have to save us from the technology that they themselves created to protect us.
Also, this film introduces a new version of the superfast quasi-hero Quicksilver, but it doesn’t do anything with him that is even half as enjoyable or cinematically engaging as the kitchen sequence in last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. (In this film, Quicksilver is not a mutant, but gets his powers through Hydra’s genetic “enhancement” program.)
And then there is a plot twist that really lays out some of the movie’s key themes but also just kind of stretches the suspension of one’s disbelief to the breaking point.
I won’t give it away, but suffice it to say that when a certain character’s… partner… says, “I totally support your avenging, I couldn’t be prouder,” most of the critics at the screening I attended laughed, and it wasn’t clear to me whether we were supposed to. (A friend who saw the film in Europe tells me the audience there did not laugh.)
One of the more interesting things about this film is the way it plays with God-talk — and how the “gods” of this film are actually created by human beings.
Ultron quite consciously describes himself in God-like terms. He likens his humanity-destroying plot to the Flood in Noah’s day. He justifies his plans by saying things like, “When the Earth starts to settle, God throws a stone at it.”
And in reference to vibranium — the metal ore that Captain America’s shield is made from, and which proves essential to Ultron’s plans — Ultron borrows a line from Jesus and says, “Upon this rock I will build my church.”
But then, in the third act, something happens — and I would almost consider this a spoiler, if it weren’t for the fact that Marvel has already revealed it in posters and clips. (Still, if you don’t want the last part of the movie spoiled, stop reading now.)
Eventually the Avengers get their hands on a machine that Ultron was using to create a permanent body for himself that would combine vibranium and organic tissue — and instead of letting this body fall into Ultron’s hands, they upload a version of Jarvis, the artificial intelligence that serves as Tony Stark’s virtual butler, into the body, and the resulting entity is a benevolent godlike being called The Vision.
So instead of merely bringing Ultron down from his self-appointed pedestal, the way the Hulk so hilariously brought Loki back down to earth, Avengers: Age of Ultron actually sets up a “good” godlike being in opposition to Ultron’s “bad” godlike being.
And lest we miss the point that The Vision is meant to be a kind of god, there is a bumper sticker in the cockpit of Stark’s plane that says “Jarvis Is My Co-Pilot”, and The Vision himself simply says “I am” at one point, in a way that clearly evokes the name God gave for himself at the burning bush. (There is one other thing The Vision does that testifies to his godlikeness, but I won’t spoil that here.)
But The Vision is still fundamentally a servant of humanity, even a “slave”, as Ultron puts it. And this line jumped out at me, because only a day or two before I saw the film, I had watched the third episode of A.D. The Bible Continues and compared it to the equivalent passages in the book of Acts, and there, the apostles often refer to Jesus as God’s “holy servant”.
The notion of a god (or God) who is also a “servant” is an interesting one, and even a deeply biblical one. But whose servant is he? Jesus ultimately comes from the Father and serves him just as we do; being a servant is part of his true humanity, and ours. But The Vision is a creation of Tony Stark’s and is still, in some sense, doing his will — even if he seems to be better than Stark and all the other humans on some level.
Ultron makes the point repeatedly that he is going to take things to the next “evolutionary” level, partly by creating his own body. Tony Stark, before uploading Jarvis into that same body, tells Bruce Banner that they are “mad scientists” and that they need to “own” this side of themselves by doing the very meddling with nature that all the science-fiction stories say they shouldn’t — and since The Vision turns out so well, maybe Stark is vindicated, or redeemed, or something like that.
Maybe, as far as this movie is concerned, humans really can play God, by making new gods. The biblical prophets and early Christians used to slam pagan idols for being deaf and dumb, but that critique wouldn’t apply to Ultron and The Vision, who can certainly hear us and talk back to us, and then some. The fact that our experiments in god-creation sometimes fail might not mean we shouldn’t try again.
But I digress.
Age of Ultron does have its moments. It’s a reasonably full package of action scenes, quick quips and occasional moments of pathos, and there is probably quite a bit here that fans of Joss Whedon will enjoy. But there’s still something missing, and as my friend Steven D. Greydanus puts it, it could be because the film is simply trying to do too much: “the more there is going on, the less we feel it.”
I left the first Avengers exhilarated; the second, not so much.
Maybe it needed some schwarma.