Avengers vs. Age of Ultron: Evolving the Superhero Team
It’s 2015 and the Marvel Cinematic Universe only continues to grow with each passing year. Avengers: Age of Ultron, released in North America this May, is the eleventh film in the cinematic universe and attempts with mixed success to top its predecessor The Avengers. Age of Ultron is in many ways a different animal. Its structured differently in terms of focus, some characters are thrown in some unexpected directions, it touches on new ideas, and its box office hasn’t exactly been up to par. Now that superhero films are coming out in greater numbers, its time for the superhero film to evolve. Avengers: Age of Ultron attempts this with mixed success. By comparing for the first film with Age of Ultron we can pinpoint how these films have evolved. We can discuss what works and what doesn’t. This article will discuss major plot points from Age of Ultron. If you haven’t seen the film and would like to avoid spoilers, be wary!
The Marvel Cinematic Universe, headed by producer Kevin Feige, is broken down by phases and patterns. It all started in 2008 with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, the MCU introduced its big and small players in solo features before bringing them all together in an Avengers film. The first Avengers film proved to be an experiment in many ways. Writer/director Joss Whedon got to helm the first superhero team film in cinematic history. Although Whedon didn’t have to introduce any of the characters, he did have to bring them all together. He had to create a threat that would force these huge personalities together while still being aware of the bigger MCU picture.
The Avengers opens with Loki, the god of Mischief and brother to Thor, receiving a scepter from some masked alien being. With the scepter in hand, he comes to Earth forcing Nick Fury and his S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to wrangle the established heroes into forming a team. Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Nick Fury, and Loki all had to share the screen. Whedon had the difficult job of making sure a balance was maintained between six heroes and one villain–giving them all something to do. And in some ways he is incredibly successful.
Captain America deals with his new life in the 21st century, Bruce Banner struggles to keep control, Black Widow brings Banner into the fold and takes out a rogue Hawkeye, and Thor just tries to bring his brother home. However, the majority the film focuses on Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. It is he that ultimately saves the world. The other members, of course, play a huge and significant parts in the final battle. Even Hawkeye and Widow, the powerless members, take out plenty hostile alien ships. The Hulk gets to smash the hell out of Loki and Cap saves plenty of civilians. But Iron Man sends a nuclear warhead through a black hole and saving Manhattan.
Despite being a superhero flick, The Avengers focuses on the humanity of all its heroes. They bicker, show weaknesses, and even fail to save one of their own. The action maybe heart pounding and beautiful to behold, but it’s the characters the audience falls for. It’s their faults paired with their talents that makes them interesting. It is very much a character driven story and that was incredibly unexpected from a summer blockbuster.
Unlike its predecessor, Avengers: Age of Ultron did not have the benefit of being the first of its kind. So the newness factor, that probably contributed a huge part on its success, was not there to soften any slights the film might have created. Once again Whedon had to perform a balancing act and this time with several new additions. Age of Ultron opens with bang with the team in midst of battle, attempting to get back Loki’s scepter from Hydra. We see the team we love banter playfully and take out plenty of enemies with ease. But we also introduced to two new super humans known as the Maximoff twins. The twins who were meant to guard the scepter allow Iron Man/Tony Stark to take it believing the Avengers would destroy themselves with it. With the scepter in Avengers’ custody, Stark and Banner play with it in hopes of creating a peace keeping artificial intelligence to be called Ultron.
After several failed attempts at creating Ultron, Stark and Banner leave to let J.A.R.V.I.S run tests on his own. While the Avengers celebrate a victory, teasing each other, challenging one another, Ultron manages to come alive. Unfortunately for our team though, Ultron’s programming works a little well. He tells the team, while embodying a torn up robotic body, that they are afraid of change. They need to evolve and the only way is through extinction. Perhaps a nod to the superhero genre as well as humanity? He releases a small army before abandoning his torn up body to go build himself a better one. While the Avengers gang up on Stark for putting the world in danger, Ultron meets up with the Maximoffs enlisting them to “save the world.”
With added characters that did not receive a solo film, there needed to be room to show who these characters are while not taking away from the characters already established. And for an under three-hour running time this can be difficult. Whedon worked around it by focusing on groups of characters throughout the film. Ultron and the Maximoffs, for a time, play the role of antagonist and caused rifts between group members. Stark and Banner created Ultron and later Vision. Captain America/Steve Rogers and former S.H.I.E.L.D agent Maria Hill become the lawmakers of the team. Hawkeye and his wife provide comfort for the team while trying to balance his home and work life. And Widow and Banner face their inner turmoil and develop somewhat of a romance. Towards the end of the film Vision, an android intended for Ultron’s use, joins the good side and enters in philosophical debates with Ultron about humanity. Thor was the only one really on his own and for some audience members this felt odd.
Whereas the first film saved the majority of its action sequences for the middle and end, Age of Ultron is in many ways one long action sequence. Reflection time is minimal, and when it does occur it happens in groups of two instead of character by character. But this left room for the characters to showcase their best in battle and have their own action segments for the most part. It took Thor, Iron Man, and the Vision to take out Ultron towards the film’s final moments. Age of Ultron is a far more team oriented film then the first one. It balanced between teams and not between solo characters. For some this was a bad idea, as it seemed to short change their favorite characters. Some preferred longer spaces between action sequences. All in all though, the film had to find a new way to tell its story and pull new focus.
Character development is arguably the most important part in creating fiction. In superhero cinema, there is a stigma that the characters never change. While this can apply to some superhero properties, it certainly doesn’t apply to all of them. For characters to survive fifty to seventy-five years or more they need to evolve just like Ultron says. They need to be thrown through the ringer and then some, to grow and become more. Both Avengers film boasts great character development for some but not all of the characters. The characters that have changed the most from film to film are Iron Man, Black Widow, and arguably Thor.
Tony Stark/Iron Man is the one hero audiences know the most. He received three solo films and is the unequivocal star of the MCU. Stark, a self-described genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, does not quite understand what it means to work as a team. He’s been so caught up with his own adventures, his own life, that he can’t imagine a threat as otherworldly as aliens. In the first Avengers film, he doesn’t trust his future team mates and he doesn’t respect them either. He tells Cap “We are not soldiers.” But when he discovers his antics cause the death of his friend, Agent Coulson, something changes within him. He joins the team and trusts them with not only his life but the lives of civilians. He believes in them so much that he’s willing to sacrifice himself, knowing Earth will not be without protectors.
After the events of the first film, Tony suffers from post-traumatic stress as seen in Iron Man 3. In Age of Ultron Tony’s fear is palpable and can be seen in all his choices. While under the spell of Wanda Maximoff he becomes terrified he’s not doing enough. He fears he will lose not only his friends, but Earth as well because he couldn’t measure up. This pushes him to develop Ultron and not bother to talk to his friends about it. At a glance it seems like Stark hasn’t really changed that much at all. Till you get to the end of the film, when he’s working hand in hand with the team. He tells Cap and the others they will end Ultron together. Even when ending the fight, he shares it with Thor and the Vision. His belief in his team is stronger than it has ever been and that is a delight to watch.
Black Widow also known as Natasha Romanoff is an unexpected star of the MCU. First appearing in Iron Man 2, Romanoff appeared to simply be a spy with little to no emotion. She was simply a pawn in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s game until The Avengers. In the first film we got to learn a lot more about her. She tells Loki about some of her history with the Russian government, and the remorse she felt for lives she took. She tells him she has red in her ledger, and she’d like to wipe it out. We also learn of her close friendship with Hawkeye who she is determined to rescue from Loki’s mind control. We see her get scared by the Hulk and we see her personality for the first time. It turned out she was fun character after all, and not simply eye candy.
Widow’s characterization and development in Age of Ultron has received some negative criticism. This time around she develops romantic feelings for Banner which came about unexpectedly. Although her romance takes up a lot of her screen time at the beginning of the film, there are still some really great moments for her in the later half. It is revealed after Wanda invades her mind that Romanoff was turned into a weapon by the Black Widow program. The program made her a killer thus putting the red in her ledger. The program also forced her to be sterilized, a regret she shares with Banner. At the end of the film she has a chance to run away with Banner and live happily. Instead, she chooses to stay with her team. She will die as an Avenger even if she doesn’t always feel like one. It’s moments like this that Romanoff feels simply like a member of the team, rather than the token female member.
Thor’s role in The Avengers was fairly small. He was there to stop Loki and bring him home. He doesn’t have much of a role other than that. He doesn’t seem to build any strong relationships with the other team members which makes sense in way. He is after all, a god. His scenes with Loki were the best for him, as they showed a compassion in him. His personality was not much on display either. He had a few moments of banter, but they were few and far between.
In Age of Ultron, Thor seemed far more competent and interesting. At his core Thor is a simple guy. He likes to drink, go into battle, and party. Whedon understand this and brings this to the forefront this time around. Thor goes out on his own midway through the film to sow some seeds for the next phase in the MCU. On one hand, this gives Thor something to do and makes him a more important character. On the other hand, it further separates him from the other members. He does build somewhat of a rapport with the Vision, who models himself after Thor. Thor also plays a significant part in the final battle, finally using his lightning power to its fullest.
The villains of both Avengers films have perhaps the hardest roles to fill. They not only have to be interesting and compelling characters, but they have to be the ultimate threat. They have to be worth bringing all the heroes together. Loki had a slightly easier challenge as he was introduced in the earlier Thor film. Loki, in hands of actor Tom Hiddleston, is both heart breaking and menacing. Loki’s hatred for his family and hatred of himself is clear in his acts. He constantly tells Thor he is not his brother and he never was. But you can still detect his longing for Thor’s affection in moments when Thor asks him to come home. These soft moments don’t last long however, and in a flick of his wrist he brings an army down on Earth with a vengeance. He is responsible for killing Agent Coulson and unleashing the Hulk, two huge blows to the team. Loki was such an unforgettable foe that he took over much of the spotlight over in Thor films.
Ultron made a splash in the trailer for Age of Ultron, while doing his own rendition of the oddly fitting Pinocchio classic, “No Strings.” Portrayed in motion capture and voice by James Spader, Ultron is a wonder to behold. Featuring intelligence above the human race, Ultron philosophize about humanity and his very existence. In typical Whedon style, he is charismatic and can turn vicious on a dime. His hatred for Stark and his pity for humanity can be detected in every move he makes. His physical body, an imposing sleek metallic giant, would send anyone running for the hills. Unfortunately though, Ultron does not make a real lasting impression to the Avengers. Yes, he does cut off a piece of city and turn it into a meteor. Yes, he does have Wanda force the Avengers into a mental break down and eventual hiding. But what could have been his greatest weapon, the Vision, was taken from him and turned into a hero. He does not physically kill an Avenger, which was all it would have taken to push him above and beyond. Ultron is a remarkable character. He’s loquacious, super intelligent, and endlessly interesting. He just needs to be pushed a little further.
MCU films are not typically known for their depth. There are, for the most part, feel-good popcorn flicks. Some critics have commented on this saying the comic book movie needs to become something more. The Avengers films are not completely without ideas though. The first film builds on ideas of what makes a hero or solider. Age of Ultron possesses a common theme of becoming and or making a monster. Although not as deep or “adult” as The Dark Knight’s themes of anarchy and chaos, these themes are well explored through the characters and their development.
The Avengers brings together plenty of misfits, people who in another light could be considered menaces. A man out of time, a spoiled rich boy, a rage monster, a Norse god, a spy, and an archer, sounds like an odd combination. They are as Banner puts it “a ticking time bomb.” None of them, with the exception of Stark, meant to be superheroes. The fates were thrust upon them by forces beyond their control. What do any of them know about being a solider? Cap was trained in the army but he was fighting people not aliens. Through their adventure the team realizes they may not be a perfect soldiers, but they are heroes. In a world where threats come from the sky, a hero can be anyone.
Age of Ultron introduces a villain literally made by the heroes. Ultron was meant to end the fight so that the Avengers wouldn’t have to exist anymore, the world would be safe. Tony messed with an alien power he had no hope of controlling and created something that could potentially end the world as we know it. But as Ultron tells the Maximoffs, everyone creates the thing they dread. Invaders create Avengers. Avengers create villains. Throughout the film there are jokes thrown in about Ultron being Stark’s son. And he is in many ways. Even Wanda points out that Ultron and Stark share a warped sense of reality—in addition to being talkative, cocky, and stubborn in his goals. Like Tony, Ultron only means to “help” the world by cleansing it of its monstrosities. If Tony is Frankenstein then Ultron is without a doubt the Creature.
Other Avengers such as Romanoff and Banner feel in many ways that they were turned into monsters. The Maximoffs too were turned into “monsters” by circumstances. No matter if it was an accident like Banner or experimentation like the Maximoffs and Romanoff, it is ultimately your decision if you are a monster. Whatever havoc or destruction you may cause accidentally or purposefully you can atone for it. Although there seems no hope for Ultron, the others are and will become heroes. In one memorable scene, Wanda is overwhelmed by the battle Ultron and his drones have created. She blames herself and begins to fall apart. But as Hawkeye tells her it doesn’t matter if it’s her fault or not, “you step out that door you are an Avenger.”
In 2012 when Marvel Studios and Walt Disney studios released the first Avengers film, it grossed $623.4 million in North America alone. It was even more successful overseas where it made nearly $900 million. It was the highest grossing film of 2012 and earned the third biggest gross in all of film history. Its success rate was high as other big blockbuster films such as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I and James Cameron’s Avatar. The film even managed to stay on its throne until this past April when Furious 7 hit theaters.
Age of Ultron hasn’t been in theaters for very long at this point. Its current gross is at $191.3 million worldwide and is expected to go up. The film is now under its predecessor, but is expected to surpass it in the coming weeks. The fact that it did not surpass its predecessor opening week, came as a surprise to many financial analysts and fans alike. It’s suggested that the boxing championship on pay-per-view between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. that weekend is to blame. The sales figures for that fight surprised many by earning $250 million that weekend. But there are other factors as well, such as some of the mixed reviews coming from Europe and the possibility of superhero fatigue. Age of Ultron is after all the eleventh out of a series of films. Does this mean Marvel Studios is going downhill?
The superhero film has evolved since 2012. The casts and personalities involved have gotten bigger. The conflicts and threats have gotten complicated. And the audience which used to be very niche, has come to the mainstream. As superheroes films come out in shorter time periods will non-comic book fans be as forgiving to mistakes? Guessing by some of the mixed reviews, it seems not likely. Perhaps the second place number is a sign for the film industry to up their game? The superhero film can survive. If they continue to evolve and change just like the characters did in Age of Ultron. The superhero film can no longer recreate the exact success of 2012 but they can create a new success.
The differences between The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron primarily lie in how it focuses on groups of two, the changing characterizations, its themes, and its opening box office. When you have a film that is beloved and praised as well as The Avengers it can be hard to top. For some viewers it can’t be done. Some do not want to accept taking a character in a new direction or taking away their screen time. Sometimes a new villain can’t quite top the old one. All in all a sequel that pleases everyone is impossible. The important thing is that the creators are willing to take risks. And Age of Ultron certainly is brave and that regard.
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