I Don’t Know How He Did It, But Joss Whedon Saved “The Avengers: Age of Ultron”


After three years and four movies, Avengers: Age of Ultron has arrived. I’ll admit, going in, I was nervous for the film, forever worried that Marvel Studios’ bubble might pop. It certainly stretches the seams here, but rest assured, Marvel’s insane streak continues, thanks in large part to Joss Whedon.

Avengers 2 isn’t as good as Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Guardians of the Galaxy, and probably not the first Avengers, but I don’t know if that was possible, given the nearly impossible juggling act that Joss Whedon has to perform here. He has to tease Civil WarBlack Panther (Andy Serkis’ brief turn as Ulysses Klaw has me so stoked), Thor 3 and Guardians of the Galaxy 2, while introducing four hugely important new characters (Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Ultron and Vision), and maintaining the MacGuffin-laced narrative string of Thanos and Infinity Gems. Plus, you know, he has to segue into the next two Avengers movies. It’s exhausting just thinking about, but for a moment, let’s focus on the present, a rarity when it comes to the MCU, which is always about what’s next.

Age of Ultron thrusts us into the action immediately, because Whedon, Feige and company can’t afford to waste any time, and besides, we know these guys now. Thanks to a jumbled concoction of Loki’s scepter, Hydra intelligence and Tony Stark’s personal computer system Jarvis (Paul Bettany), Stark creates Ultron (James Spader), envisioned as an AI based world-peacekeeping computer, one that could function as an armor over the whole planet, an initiative that would render the Avengers moot. Of course, Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) envisioned a rosy retirement sipping Mai Tai’s in Tahiti (okay, maybe not Tahiti) with Pepper Potts: his creation sees the Avengers…and humanity, as obstacles preventing peace and progress.


From there, a lot of shit explodes in a dizzying action ensemble with a scale of astronomical proportions. The film is bloated, and likely at least slightly confusing to someone who doesn’t follow Marvel tidbits like James Woods and candy. But somehow, someway, it works. In fact, it more than works: Avengers is Summer Movie Action Tentpole on Steroids, yet thanks in large part to Joss Whedon’s heart and wit, the over-stuffed sequel retains intelligence and blessed self-awareness, while remaining a helluva lot of fun.

For an innumerable number of reasons, Joss Whedon was always perfect for the Avengers: there’s not a director more capable with ensembles, thanks to his experience with FireflyBuffy and Angel. And again, somehow Avengers 2 gives every member of the team and its ballooning supporting cast a chance to shine. The first Avengers was Iron Man’s movie: the emotional through-line traveled through the conflicted and difficult billionaire playboy philanthropist. But the Hulk was the scene stealer, the crowd favorite. In Avengers 2, I suspect, both honors come from an unlikely hero: Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, the oft-forgotten archer and every-man member of the team, the powerless one who probably gets picked last at Avengers dodgeball games. When you think about Whedon’s work, the focus makes perfect sense. In many ways, this is the colossal scale version of Buffy‘s “The Zeppo,” with Hawkeye playing the part of Xander, a normal family man who’s so clearly the glue that holds this team together, a thankless (and dangerous) role. Hawkeye’s journey and transition in this film mirrors that of Joss Whedon’s; he surely identifies with the un-invincible, un-enhanced man in a sea of power. Why Avengers 2 works so well is because it still feels like Whedon is a kid in his bedroom playing with his favorite toys.

Perhaps because of that, there’s a lot of fan-service in this film, much of it glorious (you can almost convince me that the Hulk and Iron Man fight was important to the narrative).


But what of the new arrivals? James Spader’s Ultron is wonderful, a sarcastic and devastatingly cruel robot, easily the third best villain in the MCU after Loki and Kingpin. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch will likely prove more divisive. It’s impossible not to compare Quicksilver’s, with Evan Peters’ Pietro surprisingly stealing the show in X-Men: Days of Future Past, and for the most part, this Quicksilver unfairly unable to match his scene-stealing exploits. I think Bryan Singer’s choice certainly blunted his impact here, which is a shame, and shaped Marvel’s treatment of the character. In the comics, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff’s identity and character, are inextricably linked with their villinous father Magneto. Stripping that away robs the character’s of some depth, and their new origins feel band-aided on. Plus, it took awhile for me to get used to their put-upon Eastern European accents. It makes sense, especially with where they come from in Age of Ultron, but it’s certainly not how I imagine them sounding in my head when I read the comics, which of course, is an impossible standard to set. That said, Elizabeth Olsen in particular show exceptional promise and has me excited for what’s to come.

Then there’s Paul Bettany’s Vision, and without ruining anything, I will just say this: he’s perfect. He’s beautifully rendered, like some holy blend of CGI and practical effects from the future that comes to make everybody else look bad. In effect, that’s also what he does in Avengers, and it’s wonderful.


So are many things in this film: the various methods of teamwork in action sequences that are just clever and unabashedly cool. The relationship between Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). Everything Thor (Chris Hemsworth) says. The gentle ribbing of Captain America (Chris Evans). The hilarious and so so necessary downtime that Whedon interweaves among all the wackadoodle fighting. In fact, the best parts of these movies will always be when we see these larger than life heroes as just normal people, a lesson WB and DC could learn from. The stakes are serious but the whole movie doesn’t have to be. As long as Marvel retains the heart and wit that Joss Whedon has caked inside Iron Man’s armor, Bruce Banner’s purple shorts and Thor’s flowing cloak, these movies will continue to work, even if it sometimes feels like an exhausting, never-ending trek to nowhere, an infinite Easter Egg hunt across the increasingly populated cosmos. Well, okay, that does sound sorta awesome.

But it’s fair to be worried about the future.

Despite creating a Big Bad that kills thousands of people, Tony Stark never truly gets the comeuppance he deserves for creating Ultron in this movie, and that’s a fault of the proceedings, even if we’re saving it for Civil War (talk about a movie I’m nervous for).

If Avengers: Age of Ultron is busy, how in the hell will Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 & 2 not be a disastrous clusterfuck? The Russo Brothers are the best replacement Feige could possibly find for Whedon, thanks to their exceptional work on Captain America: The Winter Soldier and their ensemble work with Arrested Development and Community (though this is a whole new ballgame). But one gets the sense that Whedon was the only one with the power, chutzpah, support and creative Vision to counterbalance Kevin Feige, who deserves enormous credit for what he’s done in creating this interconnected universe, but like Ultron himself, still seems hell-bent on world domination with what feels like a Reaganomics-like approach.

But for once when it comes to Marvel movies, let’s not focus on that next piece of candy (which is the seemingly out-of-place and pointless Ant-Man), but revel in the present. Avengers: Age of Ultron is a movie that shouldn’t work, and one that comic fans never would’ve thought possible, but thanks to an unparalleled cast and creative team (seriously, just bathe in those ending credits; they’ll never be this good again), it makes us all feel like kids playing with their favorite toys.

Dibs on Vision!

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  2. A wonderful review, and I agree with almost everything you said. I loved the movie, despite various reservations, and I think all the credit in the world goes to Whedon for making this thing come out so well when it easily could have ended in a clusterfuck.

    As every review has rightfully pointed out, this was a CROWDED film, with a helluva lot stuffed in to the point that it was often bursting at the seams. Whedon’s first cut was reportedly 3 and a half hours long, with the theatrical version trimmed to a box-office-friendly 2 hours and 20 minutes. I’m already looking forward to the Director’s Cut I hope we someday get of AoU (though Marvel hasn’t allowed anything like that yet), because I’m curious if the extra hour of run time (long movies, as a general rule, don’t bother me) helps the flow. There are moments in the movie that feel rushed, certainly. The various visions that the team members experience after being hit by Scarlet Witch’s mind bombs almost all feel forced — Thor’s in particular was all over the place, as was his subsequent magic water diversion, and none of that seemed too worthwhile despite the pleasantness of briefly seeing Idris Elba’s Heimdall and Stellan Skarsgard’s Erik Selvig. Cap’s didn’t feel like it made the most of reuniting him with Peggy (though just seeing her at all was a bit of a tug on my heartstring after the excellent Agent Carter). Only Black Widow’s possession really landed for me, thanks to how much I crave more of Natasha’s backstory, and Whedon using that as fuel for the BW/Hulk romance. Likewise, as charming as I found Claudia Kim, her Dr. Helen Cho felt like a very rushed and forced character, as did the entire origins of the Vision (or the origins of Ultron himself, for that matter). The whole movie was super heavy on destruction porn, with the Hulkbuster fight feeling particularly shoehorned in, Action! for the Action!’s sake.

    But while there are several things you can criticize about the movie, none of it really changed the final equation to me. Wanda’s powers are ill-defined (Maria Hill’s summary of her — “She’s weird” — made me lol), but Elizabeth Olsen’s performance was a major highlight to me. She put so much anguish into that character that I loved her all the more for her unleashed fury. Speedster heroes are always problematic (you have to make them fast enough to be cool, but their speed should be able to solve most of your problems), but Whedon as a storyteller really shone through in subtle ways there, I thought. The AoU Quicksilver might not have been as show-stealing as the Days of Future Past version, but Whedon’s version actually gets winded and has to pant to keep his breath. For some reason, I loved that small insertion; it made a hero seem more human, and imposed an implied limitation on a power that could otherwise seem limitless.

    Likewise, the use of Hawkeye’s secret family and the Natasha/Bruce romance helped remind us of the humanity behind these people, even as the rest of the movie seemed to be building them up to be larger than life. Tony gets some short shrift in this movie (my god does he come across as dumb), but it’s more than made up for by seeing Clint and Natasha’s understandings of how some things can be even more important than trying to save the world; Clint is just lucky enough to have a romantic partner who sees it too.

    The script didn’t have very rock-solid introductions ideas for Ultron and Vision imo, but the resulting performances rendered the issue moot. James Spader plays Ultron far more playfully than I expected (see: his severing of Klawe’s arm and “apology” for it), and made it work so much better that way. Paul Bettany’s Vision, which was visually wonderful, came in late and partially stole the show (though too much was going on for anyone to steal it very long). He played his Vision as a strong growth from his Jarvis, but was given the reign to go further than just that. His scene in the forest with the final Ultron drone was the best example, as he so wonderfully combined robotic calmness with an emotional response of heroic moral righteousness.

    Was Age of Ultron as good as it could have been? Almost definitely not. They tried to cram in too much, went too heavy on the destruction porn to give it enough “summer blockbuster” feel, and lost some of the interplay between the Big Three (I’m a little bummed at how little we’ve gotten to see of them actually getting along over two movies, and with Civil War up next, that’s unlikely to change). But it also did so much right that it made up for most of its flaws with great success. Its supporting characters, especially Black Widow and Scarlet Witch to me but also Hawkeye and Vision, were fully rendered and full of some of the film’s best moments. It gave us a great villain, from a studio that has struggled to deliver those for many of its movies. It gave us a great feel for what a superteam should be: full of kickass teamwork and smaller character moments that tie it all together. It wasn’t Marvel’s best offering, and would probably even fall just outside its top three for me. But it was still a really fucking good movie that I had a lot of fun watching.

  3. Spoilers ahoy!

    Excellent review, Spiff. Avengers 2 was highly entertaining. Vision was probably my favorite character in the film– like you said, he was portrayed perfectly. I liked Spader’s take on Ultron, too, and I thought it made a lot of sense; Ultron’s megalomaniacal way of speaking in the comics, although enjoyable, does seem a bit odd to me. I think basing his speech patterns on Tony’s (his creator) with a little bit of “classic” Ultron thrown in was a very clever compromise. Ultron himself is an interesting character, who simultaneously equates himself to Disney’s take on Pinocchio (“There are no strings on me”– now that’s how you make the most of Disney acquiring Marvel, Whedon!)– to God himself. There’s a reason why he meets with Wanda and Pietro in the church. He’s also wearing a crimson cloak in that scene, I think, which is a possible nod to his original appearance as “The Crimson Cowl”:

    You know, Tony not being held accountable for Ultron’s actions (other than by the Avengers) is a very interesting point, and I think what makes the idea worth exploring is that the answer ISN’T so clear-cut. Tony never programmed Ultron to be evil– he merely programmed him to be artificially intelligent. Ultron “chose” what to do with it. You could argue that Tony may have given the OPPORTUNITY to be evil by making him a fairly free-minded A.I. consciousness, but I’d argue against that, too… pretty sure Tony did put an “evil” function in him (and you can make all of these same arguments in favor of Ultron’s creator in the comics, Hank Pym as well). Still, there are cases you can make against Tony, too, and I think his master goal with Ultron, which was “peace in our time,” is also going to be the driving factor behind whatever his actions may be in “Captain America: Civil War.”

    There’s only one thing in this review that I take issue with: I don’t get this whole “destruction porn” term that’s caught on ever since Man of Steel came out. It’s a superhero action movie with a Norse god, a monster who can throw tanks and a man in a highly-durable suit of armor that shoots laser beams… and they resolve nearly all of their superhero problems through violence. Of course stuff’s going to blow up! I am pretty sure the both of you have seen this level of destruction dozens of times in the comic books and at times on an even greater scale, e.g. when Kang the Conquerer blew up Washington D.C. in Busiek’s Kang storyline in Avengers. Furthermore, we DO see the negative consequences of the mass violence in the film on a number of occasions, especially when the Hulk overcomes Wanda’s mind manipulation and sees all of the people he’s injured. There’s even talk of Banner’s possible arrest in the next scene. Obviously, real violence and destruction are terrible things, but this is fiction, and I feel like I’m seeing an unintentional double standard here, especially when you take into account that the three of us have seen quite a lot of fictionalized destruction in our pop entertainment.

  4. Woops! Meant to say, “pretty sure Tony did NOT put an ‘evil’ function in him”

  5. Hey Goki! I’d like to respond to the question about the destruction porn, because you raise fair points.

    My problem isn’t at all that I don’t want anything to blow up or get destroyed. I’m fine with the violence aspect of it, and would have been shocked if a fair amount of it wasn’t in there. What I more take issue with is the presentation of long and unnecessary destruction that seems to be less about the plot of superheroes vs supervillains, and feels more like a studio person checking off a box. Last year, Transformers: Age of Extinction became the highest-grossing film in China history, despite being an absolute shit film. (To be clear, AoU deserves no comparisons to Michael Bay other than the role of Transformers in illustrating my broader point.) That performance in China represents something of the culmination of a lesson that studios have learned increasingly well: that in order to increase your lucrative overseas box office, you up the violence factor to decrease the language barrier; explosions, obviously, don’t need translations. With that backdrop in mind, I think we’re seeing a near-uniformity that big blockbusters need to have lots of wanton destruction — not because it’s important to the plot, but because it’s expected of the film just by virtue of being a big blockbuster.

    That’s the reason I use the term destruction porn. It’s not about the obvious and unavoidable destruction that comes from battles between gods and near-gods. That level of destruction is more what the first Avengers had, and what’s more representative of most of the better superhero battles I like in comics. AoU went beyond that more at times; the Hulk vs. Hulkbuster fight, while undeniably cool at times, felt like it solely existed (or had to happen in a populous city) because of a studio mandate for a) more destruction; b) creating a hot-selling merchandise option in the Hulkbuster suit; and c) MCU’s apparent love of seeing the heroes fight each other. Similarly, it could have made just as much sense for Ultron to simply uproot a giant hill or mountain for his asteroid plan at the end, but it became a crowded city instead because of the blockbuster need to show us civilians in danger during big fights.

    Now, Whedon absolutely made all of this work about as well as it possibly could have, which is why in my comment I agreed with Spiff’s assertion that he helped save this movie. He tied the Hulkbuster fight to some real character emotions from Hulk. He showed Iron Man trying to avoid casualties in the Hulkbuster battle (I think one of the main reasons many of us were bothered by the final Man of Steel fight was Superman’s seeming lack of attention to the possible destruction and hurt innocents, which is not what we associate with the character). And much of the final Ultron showdown involved the Avengers going out of their way to keep civilians safe. Whedon helped our heroes keep their souls in the midst of so much destruction, and I applaud his efforts.

    It’s just that I would have preferred his efforts not be necessary, or at least less necessary. I half-remember a conversation with you, from years ago, after Roy Harper’s young daughter was killed by Prometheus in a big comic book event. (It’s been a while, so I may not remember it exactly right.) You didn’t like the story, and when I praised its impact on Roy, you responded that even if it could work in some ways, was that really what we wanted from our comic books and our superheroes — to see them fail and a kid die because of it? For the record, you were right, and I’ve since come to loathe the laziness of character development via the death of a loved one. To me, the destruction porn phenomenon is just a milder version of that same question. Sure, the good guys succeeded a lot more here, but countless hundreds, maybe thousands, still must have died in that carnage, even if we weren’t shown it in the MCU’s bloodless vision. While that can work and work well, is that really what we want from our superheroes and our superhero movies?

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