Bam! Crash! Pow! It’s time to gather all our scattered comic book heroes into the most heroic and comic booky instalments to the franchise yet. Vastly different to the solo superhero movies and more about the way the team knits together, clashes, and in the end saves the world, the Avengers movies are a feast for the sensations. Fittingly enough, they can leave you in the cinematic equivalent of a food coma, so it’s probably good that they only Assemble every few years.
The trouble with these movies is there’s just so much going on. They’re an endless parade of light and colour and snapshot character development and one-liners (it felt like Age of Ultron’s entire script was composed of one-liners. How did anyone have a conversation?) and things exploding. It’s delirious fun of course because we can’t forget that these are blockbusters—and the Avengers instalments are what bring the franchise’s threads together into the biggest most blockbusting spectacular. That’s what they promise, anyway, and most of the time so far they’ve delivered. I’ve come out of the cinema with my head full after watching both movies, and it took me about a week each time to digest everything that had happened as well as get the theme music out of my brain.
If nothing else it comes from having a main cast of six characters who you all have to give plotlines, and while it helps that you have the solo movies for Thor, Cap and Iron Man, it doesn’t really lessen the load when the cast is increasing in size with every movie (though mercifully Coulson didn’t show up again after being killed off, despite it being retconned in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).
In Age of Ultron there’s none of this villain-borrowing business that sent Loki down to earth with a contrived plotline: we get not one, not two, but three new antagonists—the Maximoff twins plucked from their canon origins and tossed into some Eastern-European rubble (I’m going to precursor this by saying I know very little about the comics, but I do know that whether or not they’re still Jewish in the MCU, it’s still super awkward to transplant a pair of characters with that as a key part of their heritage and backstory into a role that has them volunteering at a Neo-Nazi organisation), and the super sassy and strangely pop culture savvy AI Ultron who adds some more daddy issues to the Stark family as if there were not enough.
Weirdly enough, where villains have oft been the most interesting part of the MCU, in both Avengers movies they’ve fallen a little flat. A lot of Loki’s complexity and menace is swept out the window in favour of a slimy little man we can all be satisfied watching the Hulk beat back and forth like a dusty rug, and Ultron’s philosophical wit and dry humour didn’t quite mix with his black-and-white “I will destroy the world and save humanity from itself” ploy.
And the Maximoff twins, whether or not I do know their comic origins, reek of wasted potential. And that’s even before Pietro got killed off for reasons that had nothing obvious to do with the plot or his development as a character, except maybe that he died protecting Clint, who had spent two minutes coaching his beloved sister into heroism, and Pietro is joined at the soul to his sister or something and so he appreciates that. It kind of just seemed like Coulson’s death (which, again, was erased from existence later), you know, just sort of there so you have at least one main character casualty to prove that this is gritty and serious!
And that’s before I get into Joss Whedon’s love for waifish brunettes with supernatural powers (someone even pointed out that Pietro and Wanda have been wrangled into a very similar archetype to Simon and River Tam from Firefly) who are super spooky (Wanda even gets the B-grade ghost movie treatment and gets fast-forwarded backwards to show how creepy she is, which made the person beside me audibly groan). Or the trope of creepy yet beautiful magical ‘damaged’ girls as a whole, which Wanda is pretty much reduced to until she’s all “What have we done?” and then comes out of her shell in time to become a badass on a superficial level.
All of the characters in these movies have an odd quality to them, which I’m not entirely sure whether to blame on Whedon or the cramtastic nature of the films. They seem like caricatures of themselves; Steve as the golden boy with a pole up his behind and his values firmly rooted in the 1940s (the running in-joke about “Language!” was cute because it was a little humanising detail, but the basis of it was cringe-inducing), Thor is a Labrador stuck in human form who occasionally roars about feasting and warrior spirit, and Tony is the silver-tongued playboy with a heart of gold who’s naturally the hero and leader every time. Clint is a chill guy with arrows, Bruce Banner is the perfect mild-mannered science geek, and Natasha is swooning over him completely when she’s not being the Strong Snappy Female Character of the crew (note to Whedon: having her jokingly bemoan “I’m always picking up after you boys!” doesn’t actually make her any more relevant or well-made as a character).
Now I have nothing against the little romance they have going on… except that it came barrelling out of nowhere, and again, because there’s simply so much going on it didn’t feel like there was any room for it. Black Widow is the only woman in the group, and I’m not saying she shouldn’t have a romantic plotline alongside the friendships she’s been shown to have with Clint and Steve, it’s just… well, in a sea of testosterone and varied character dramas, her story in Age of Ultron sticks out like a very gendered sore thumb. Clichéd as the “spooky villain makes you enter your worst nightmare and it reveals something about you!” trick was, I adored that we actually got to see some of Natasha’s backstory, which has really only been hinted at.
But… of all the elements of it they could have focussed on… they made her emotional conflict, never before touched on, that she couldn’t have children? Now, being forcibly sterilised as part of your transformation into a killing machine is a horrifying thing, but you know, so is being trained to kill people and put through rigorous horrible physical training as a child. It’s understandable that she’d be upset about having that decision taken away from her, because it’s one of a long parade of torments that stripped her of her agency.
And there’s absolutely no reason why Natasha shouldn’t want to have a tiny brood of redheaded beauties, to match Clint’s farm of cute kids, but it probably should have been brought up as an issue before if it’s deemed more important than all the “red in her ledger” that she wanted to wipe clean in the first movie, on a quest to become a better person. Not to mention that all that red is now available for the world to see after The Winter Soldier, but apart from a few throwaway lines the collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t seem to have happened, simply because Nick Fury still being a well-connected badass is… convenient.
And so we can focus instead on Natasha getting all weepy and tender and calling herself a monster in the same breath she says she can’t have kids, which, intentional or not, is a really awkward connection to make (I didn’t even connect Bruce’s declaration that he couldn’t have a family with sterilisation; I assumed it was more to do with turning into a giant green rage monster, and that not exactly being safe for small ones).
Either way, all that tangled web of character life gets thrown to the wayside when aliens attack, or an evil sassy robot lifts a chunk of Eastern Europe into the sky to turn into a meteorite. Things get delightfully ridiculous in both of these movies towards their climaxes, but truly, much as I’m the type to pick at the character arcs, I also admit that these are some wonderfully crafted action movies that capture a sense of fun and heroism that DC’s offerings (so far) haven’t.
The Avengers rescue people and try to clean up their messes, they banter back and forth and are all great friends in the end, and their action sequences are lavishly shot and constructed to kick reality to the curb because they know you’re here for some superhero escapism to make you chuckle, and blast away the dimness of the everyday world with lightning, explosions, and cool flying things. They’re satisfyingly flawed and messy people without the movies being reduced to gritty character studies that toot their horn about how “mature” they are. You can wander into these movies and let your inner child out, plonked happily in front of the screen clutching their plastic Mjolnir or Hulk Hands.
Verdict: the Avengers movies are like nachos—a hot, densely-packed cheesy mess of cinematic comfort food. Not everyone will like them, in fact I prefer the character-focussed side dishes, and in general Joss Whedon’s self-congratulatory writing can leave a weird taste in my mouth. But in the end, they are what superhero movies are meant to be: fun. And it’s certainly opening up the comic industry again, since I’ve seen many, many people loudly recommending comics that give Wanda and Pietro (and Natasha, good lord) a better time.