Age of Ultron, Its Wins and Its Flaws

As with the first Avengers, Ultron is all about the entertaining little things:

  • Bruce Banner and his beats by dre
  • Trontasha on her troncycle
  • Drunk Avengers having a sleepover at headquarters
  • Samuel L Jackson’s multimillion dollar cameo at the farmhouse just to tell them how much they suck at being Avengers
  • The “lullaby”
  • No one wearing body armor and then getting shot, like of course you got shot, you’re wearing a muscle tee!
  • Trontasha literally riding a cryotube through midair into the back of a plane
  • Hawkeye immediately carving a rocking chair and pulling up plywood when he gets home, like calm down a sec, your friends are over and you just lost a big fight. Take a nap maybe.
  • The balls of saying this scene takes place “off the African coast” like that doesn’t make up the entire circumference of the world in square mileage.
  • Vision. Just…. Vision. (eep!)

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With all the internet hubbub and the unavoidable spoiler clickbaits, I knew many didn’t enjoy it, and their reasons had me worried. Black Widow reduced to the background? Too concerned about babies? Too engaged in romance? Aw hell naw, there was no way I’d like this movie! As it turned out, though, I loved it and think it’s one of the best Marvel ensembles to date. Over all, the film was very pro-women for a superhero flick (I SAID “FOR A SUPERHERO FLICK”!) I’ll get to the scene later, but up front I want to applaud Maria Hill on her usual majesty as an ex(?)-agent and right hand of Nick Fury, without whom SHIELD would never get anything done. I wanted to see more of her shooting shit up, but I enjoyed watching her at least release a barrel or two on Ultron’s embryonic form. Dr. Cho was also a welcome addition, a geneticist at the top of her field whose expertise is so cutting edge that Ultron wants in on it. It was also not lost on me that the internet gurus in Oslo were mostly women (as a woman in Big Data myself, can I get a yassss). In addition to Black Widow, the super spy and action hero of all trades, we see the introduction of a new female superhero, Scarlet Witch. As the brains of her and her brother’s little operation in some made up Slavic nation, she has a breakdown towards the end of the film as she reels with the guilt of driving the metaphorical Ultron train. “I did this”, she breathes mid-panic attack. But when the Avengers are in trouble, she throws open the door and marches out to pummel all the electronic dickheads of Ultron’s army WITH STRIKING BRAVADO. Third Olsen, you are grand.

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Even when it comes to superhero girlfriends, we have Tony and Thor fighting over whose girlfriend is more impressive, the Nobel-considered astrophysicist or the tech CEO–a refreshing take on the exhausting “whose girlfriend is hotter” trope. There were even topless shots of Thor (dat cave) and Banner (dat shower)! If it were any other director, it would have been ScarJo coming out of the bathroom with wet hair and a towel, but instead we got freshly washed dadbod Banner while ScarJo gazes hungrily in an oversized robe. We notice these things, and we are grateful. Even Hawkeye’s wife, who many have remarked to be something akin to “barefoot and pregnant” in their home, appears to run the farm in addition to handling their children (as an author at TheMarySue points out). After all, he’s either out on Avengers fieldwork or (as his wife points out) engrossed in household remodeling projects. There’s a tractor, you guys, and someone is using it!

The focus of the film was on the Avengers’ vulnerabilities. Thanks to both good writing and Scarlet Witch’s abilities, we got to follow all the Avengers through their baggage, and none moreso than my new favorite Avenger, Bruce Banner. We saw Hulk smashing, but we also saw him squirming on the ground in cold sweats as he returned to normal. We saw him lost in grief over the people he hurt, maybe even killed. We saw him listening to opera to find his zen and reaching emotional balance through human connection (the lullabye). We saw him struggling between his desire to help people and his concern that he does more harm than good. In the end, he departs on a journey of self-discovery in an untraceable stealth plane (presumably so that he doesn’t interfere with the plot of Civil War, in which Ruffalo was not cast). He’s rejected Natasha’s offer of companionship for now and chosen the lonely path. This may have been an Avengers movie, but I consider it Hulk 2.

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Through the Scarlet Witch dreams, we also saw Tony’s debilitating fears of failure, Thor’s fears around protecting Asgard, Cap’s fear of fitting into modern civilian life once there are no wars to fight (a subject briefly touched on in Winter Soldier too), and Natasha’s childhood trauma being raised as an assassin. Over all, making the characters’ weaknesses the cornerstone of the film made it a strong middle-of-the-trilogy movie and set it apart.

But I have some qualms….. I get where the anger was coming from. Natasha does a load of asskicking while being an integral member of the team, such as rescuing Clint, stealing the cryotube, fighting off robots, and clearing the city/meteor. However, if you were keeping track, most of Natasha’s lines are either flirting with Banner or talking to other people about Banner. It’s possible that this was due to the massive cutting floor sessions this film underwent. If so, priority was definitely not placed where it should have been. I could have done without the “hide the zucchini”, “share a bed”, “share a shower”, and “did you know that we’d fall in love, Fury?!!??!1” conversations, but somehow they survived the cuts.

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Dat scene tho. Yes, the “kids” scene. The scene where Natasha and Bruce flirt and then get sad because “no kids!” and it hurts their fee-fees. I know what Joss was trying to do here. Bruce is a genuinely kind lover, and at his and Natasha’s age, it was noble of him to take family development plans into account before initiating a relationship. And she’s all Han Solo about it, like “I know”. I get it. But Joss, oh Joss…. Maybe if there were already female superheroes, their conversation would have been a well-received reality check that says what you meant it to say, which is “Hey! Superheroes have real life concerns too, like families!” But there aren’t. Agent Carter’s as close as it gets, and most of her stuff is TV-only. In films, Carter serves only as a reminder that Steve missed out on love. Wonder Woman might not even get made (as it is, we have no idea what her role will be in B v. S), and Captain Marvel is still just a rumor. Sure, Hawkeye has a family, but he’s not the one at home taking care of the kids and the farm. He’s in NYC or doing fieldwork for weeks at a time, being a superhero badass. He gets to come home sometimes, make a rocking chair, eat dinner, and then leave, and for that he receives an “aww, what an adorable dad” from the audience. Do you think Black Widow could be a mom in the movies and still do what she does? Hell, there are politicians saying that Hillary Clinton should not run for president because she now has freshly minted grandma duties. GRANDMA DUTIES.

The reality of 2015’s still shitty climate is that a family for a female superhero would mean retirement from superheroing, just like Natasha carrot’d here. “Run away with me,” she says. Leave SHIELD behind. It was a very, very obnoxious contrast to have Natasha and Bruce hold that conversation at Clint’s farmhouse, where he is allowed to be both dad and superhero to everyone’s applaud, and perhaps that was unintentional. But bruh, it was harsh. On top of that, one of her vulnerabilities did not have to be that she can’t have kids. If anything needed to be on the cutting room floor, it was this conversation. You should have let the flashbacks of “assassin academy” be the only reflection of her emotional vulnerability. That would have been extremely effective on its own. While defending Joss on his recent Reddit AMA, Ruffalo summed it up perfectly:

I think part of the problem is that people are frustrated that they want to see more women, doing more things, in superhero movies, and because we don’t have as many women as we should yet, they’re very, very sensitive to every single storyline that comes up right now. [….] I think that what people might really be upset about is the fact that we need more superhuman women. The guys can do anything, they can have love affairs, they can be weak or strong and nobody raises an eyebrow. But when we do that with a woman, because there are so few storylines for women, we become hyper-critical of every single move that we make because there’s not much else to compare it to.

Exactly. Perhaps without meaning to, Ruffalo makes our point for us. You should have known better, J-dawg. When she is all we have, you needed to be more thoughtful. NPR’s Linda Holmes opined similarly and more pointedly than I could in her recent piece:

The problem is that with so few women in superhero movies, each of these portrayals stands not only for the choices Whedon made, but for all the choices he and many others didn’t and don’t make. The portrayals of Natasha and Laura rankle at some level, for me, not because they are stories about a woman traumatized by not having children and a woman waiting for her husband to come home, but because it’s another story about those two women rather than any of the other bazillion women who could exist in this universe and don’t.

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Another common point of contention on the web is that Black Widow spent time in captivity when no one else did, and I’m torn over whether to care about it or not. On the one hand, ScarJo was pregnant during filming, and she was probably written into a cell for a while to cut down on stunts. On the other hand, during that time there were no stunts performed by anyone. It was downtime spent planning the Hydra base invasion and then traveling to said base. Therefore, her imprisonment was nothing but a damsel trope. BUT ON THE ONE HAND, this movie was originally much, much longer, and so who can say what was intended to be in that space where Natasha was in a cell? Ample interviews with Joss have alluded to cutting room fights and that the film’s final product was a hodgepodge of deals made over drinks and phone calls. BUT ON THE OTHER HAND, it’s fucking Black Widow. Like a cell has ever been an obstacle? She can pick that lock in no time, or sizzle through it with electronic gadgets that burn through metal (Winter Soldier, anyone?) stashed in her quizzically invisible, skin-tight pockets. I have questions that go unanswered, and therefore I’m just not sure how to feel about Black Widow’s capture. Ultron likely had some semblance of a motive for capturing her which must also be somewhere on the cutting room floor.

In summary, I personally feel there are better battles to be had. Yes, at 50% of the world’s population, women should at least make up half a film’s cast. We know that is nowhere near the reality right now, and that we’re lucky to get even one independent female character to represent. It’s as frustrating as it ever was. But two badass female superheroes, one badass female agent/leader, and one badass lead bio researcher? Ultron does better than most (albeit with room for improvement), and I’m not about to point my gun at it. Who knows what Joss’s whole vision was before clown cars full of decision makers interfered? He’s leaving Marvel and returning to his own smaller projects, presumably due to all the interference that comes with making large scale art intended to rake in billions. Maybe this was his last straw. Anywho, I’ve pre-ordered my Black Widow merch (all three of it), and I’m ready for the extended DVD release.

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About Marpoo

Purveyor of sass and unsubstantiated rhetoric. View all posts by Marpoo

2 responses to “Age of Ultron, Its Wins and Its Flaws

  • Corey G

    Great post Mary! Another interesting artifact on the progression of MCU’s diversity is the new Avengers lineup change. It went from 5 white guys and a girl in the last film to 1 white guy, 2 white girls, 2 black guys, and 1 caped purple computer. Of course we don’t know yet if this is will merely be a vanity Avengers throughout a phase 3 which will be focused on now mostly non-avengers, if the new team will actually play some meaningful role on their own.

    • Marpoo

      Yes! I loved the new line-up tease at the end. I can see Vision being extremely important in Civil War, as it seems he can practically do anything. I was starting to get Cap Fatigue (TM), and so the new line up, particularly in their welcome diversity, will hopefully be refreshing moving forward to phase 3.

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