Written by David Holland
If you scroll through episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Hulu (because why wouldn’t you?) you will notice a theme in some of the later seasons. There’s always an episode or two with descriptions that start with a phrase like “So-and-so casts a spell intending to do X, but it all goes horribly wrong.” That’s basically how Ultron starts – Tony Stark and Bruce Banner create an AI global defense program because apparently no one in the MCU has ever seen Terminator. That’s the plot in a nutshell, and we have a lot to talk about, including a brand new section at the end, so let’s get into it.
How Does it Hold Up?
We’re going to combine the “Background” and “How Does it Hold Up” sections for this one. Joss Whedon returns to direct for his second and final MCU appearance. He was originally tapped to direct each Avengers installment, but left after this one. The shooting schedule and logistical demands of a sprawling ensemble cast and the pressures of a franchise the size of the MCU contributed to his decision to walk away, as did the fight over the farmhouse scene (which we will talk about later). James Spader as Ultron was Whedon’s only choice for obvious reasons, even if it means I can’t hear him talk without hearing Robert California.
There’s a couple other new faces – including Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and Vision. The film begins as a second-act ensemble movie should: the team is working together, and everything seems to be going well. They capture one of HYDRA’s last remaining leaders and recover Loki’s scepter, which Stark and Banner promptly use to bring their AI program named Ultron to life and set off the rest of the events of the movie.
“Age of Ultron” recently experienced a bit of a renaissance online (apparently I’m not the only one taking advantage of this pandemic to get in some nostalgic viewing). In researching some background about this movie I learned that the initial plan was for Thanos to be the villain here. Instead, Whedon decided to put in Ultron, which I think was ultimately the right choice, especially since it was well executed. It’s not perfect, to be sure, it’s no Empire Strikes Back. But “Ultron” gives the team that we saw come together in “Avengers” an opportunity to breathe. We’ve seen them develop on their own in solo movies, but we get to see them develop as a team here. The farmhouse scene, one which Whedon had to fight the studio to keep in, serves as a crucial turning point. The conversation between Stark and Rogers serves to set up their conflict in “Civil War”, the relationship between Romanov and Banner is explored, and Barton is humanized by his family. This video provides a great contrast between the farmhouse scene in Ultron and some of the more choppy “moments” in DC films that fall flat. Like I said, the movie isn’t perfect, and Thor’s cave side-plot is a significant question mark. To his credit, Whedon knew there were problems with that scene, but the studio apparently told him he could only fix that scene at the expense of time in the farmhouse, so he fought for the scene he knew was worth it. And hey, it’s not the first time a studio has screwed over Joss Whedon.
We get this theme from the villain – Ultron tells the Avengers in his very first meeting with them that “humans need to evolve”. But he doesn’t get his wish of… becoming the overlord of whatever humans survive his Rube-Goldberg global extinction event? The plan is all a little weird. But there is evolution in this film. The Avengers grow up as a team – By the end of “The Avengers”, the team has saved the day from the bad guys, but in this film it’s the Avengers who create the Big Bad, Ultron is their screw-up. They spend much of the first part of the movie reeling from their failures. They are beyond the getting-to know-you stage of the first movie and the chumminess we see in the beginning is put to a real test. There will be actual consequences to this move – the Sokovia Accords, Civil War, and Cap and Iron Man going separate ways among the most important. Ultron holds a mirror up to the team and they don’t all like what they see. Hulk departs, not to be seen again until Ragnarok. Stark retires, although that doesn’t exactly last. Part of the team’s evolution comes from the addition of new members at the end – Scarlet Witch, War Machine, Vision, and Falcon – who bring fresh perspectives. Even Ultron is evolved from his flat comic book form into a Pinocchio-singing villain whose off-the-cuff jokes and condescension really do reflect certain sides of Iron Man, his maker. The simplest adage about a three-part story is that in Part 1 you bring the characters together and then in Part 2 you rip them apart. The Avengers still exist at the end of this movie, but, even though they “won”, there is no going back. Everything is different because of this movie.
We Need to Talk About Death…
I love the MCU, otherwise I wouldn’t write so much about these movies. But we need to admit that the MCU has a death problem. Take Loki for example: how many times in the MCU has Loki “died”? In the first “Thor”, again in “Thor: The Dark World”, and yet again in “Avengers: Infinity War”. In the last case, Thanos even tells him “No resurrections this time” before killing him on screen. And yet thanks to the time travel plot in “Endgame” we know that Loki is coming back again. Nick Fury died and came back in “Winter Soldier”. Coulson died in “Avengers” and then got his own spinoff TV series. Vision died in “Infinity War” but is half of the title of the upcoming series “WandaVision” so I’m pretty sure he’s coming back. In “Guardians of the Galaxy” Groot – okay, obviously you can’t kill Groot for good, I mean come on. But this is one of my frustrations with MCU films. If we always know that everyone lives, then there aren’t real stakes. And I get that a hero dying and returning is a tried and true part of storytelling, but Gandalf’s return only works because Boromir stayed dead. You have to establish stakes. Remember early on in Game of Thrones when you first realized that point-of-view, main characters are not safe? It upped the tension. Actions had real consequences.
All of this is to serve as a eulogy to Quicksilver. Right before the climactic battle we are told in no uncertain terms that not everyone will survive. Sure enough, Quicksilver sacrifices himself to save his rival Hawkeye and a Sokovian child. And he stays dead. Scarlet Witch doesn’t resurrect him with the magic of their twin bond. Vision doesn’t bring him back with the Mind Stone. He doesn’t even get snapped back into reality in Endgame (and Wanda also doesn’t ask which seems… weird). By my count, in four Avengers movies only three team members ever die for good, and one of them is in this film. The stakes are high, and the Avengers are playing for keeps – that’s part of what makes the movie good. Also a villain voiced by Robert California. I really can’t stress that enough.