A friend whose opinion I respect recently made the argument that Avengers: Age of Ultron is merely a roller coaster of a movie with no meaningful character development. Since I really enjoyed the movie, this troubled me. Is Joss Whedon’s latest really just sound and fury, signifying nothing?
Like a good little manic movie editorialist, I worked out my thoughts below. If Age of Ultron‘s has a chief fault, it’s that there’s SO MUCH going on that the character development flies in under the radar. However, I’d like to make the argument that it’s definitely there…
TONY: DESPERATION TO GUILT
Tony has the most central arc in Age of Ultron. When we last saw him in Iron Man 3, he dealt with a part of his post-“NY incident” PTSD. He learned that he had more to offer the world than more Iron Manz™ . But his desperation pops up in another form when Wanda starts messing with his head. He’s thinking even bigger than himself now, (which is a pretty big deal, since selfishness has defined him since Iron Man). His new aim is what he views as pragmatism and a responsible use of his considerable brainpower, and this leads to him building Ultron and subsequently Vision.(You win some, you lose some.)
At the end of the movie, Tony’s guilt leads him to leave the team. In the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, this guilt, combined with a continuing desperation to save the world, will lead him to do the unthinkable. Tony Stark will go from the most anti-authoritarian member of the Marvel Universe (see Iron Man 2), to an active supporter of the registration of superheroes as a means to assert accountability to a world order.
Age of Ultron primes Marvel’s most bankable heroto be the villain in his next movie appearance. If that’s not meaningful character development, I don’t know what is.
STEVE: NOTHING TO LOSE
Steve has the most purposefully hidden character arc, mostly because the payoff would have distracted tremendously from Age of Ultron and will mean much more later. Wanda reveals the darkest parts of each Avenger’s mind, but Steve didn’t seem particularly messed up by what he saw. Tony points this out when he and Steve are chopping wood. “I don’t trust a man without a dark side.” Steve responds “Well maybe you just haven’t seen it yet.” So what’s Steve’s dark side? (And hey… why isn’t Captain freaking America worthy of wielding Meow Meow?)
The reason Steve wasn’t taken aback by what he saw is that he already deals with his darkest fear on a daily basis. He’s lost his place in the world and everyone he ever loved, and Wanda reminds him of this in vivid detail. In Captain America: The First Avenger, Cap drops himself into the ice, unquestioningly, because it’s the right thing to do. It’s his life vs. millions. To him, the choice is obvious, because Steve always ALWAYS does the right thing. In The Winter Soldier, Cap is also prepared to die once he has again saved the world from Hydra. But this time it isn’t to save lives. He forfeits to Bucky, putting his life in the hands of his murderous brainwashed friend. It’s a loving gesture, but it’s also uncharacteristically selfish of Steve.
Steve knows that he has already saved millions as Captain America. Continuing to live would likely result in him saving millions more. (It’s what Captain America was made for.) Bucky’s life and love is not worth that. Up until now Steve would have known this, and behaved accordingly. But he has given up on finding a place for himself in the 21st century. If he can’t get through to the bastardized last remnant of the world he used to love, he doesn’t want to live anymore. Steve is suicidal.
Steve did get through to Bucky, but he doesn’t know it by the end of Winter Soldier, and in Age of Ultron he’s still trying to find his friend. Per Sam Wilson’s report, it doesn’t sound hopeful. When Steve meets discovers Clint Barton is a family man, he is uncomfortable. He realizes, in that moment, that he’s too lost to ever have the family and normal life that he always wanted. Steve has completely given up on anything but being an Avenger. When Tony suggests that an alien invasion will come, and that if they fight it alone they will lose, Cap responds “Then we’ll lose together.” He feels that he was robbed the noble death of a warrior. Secretly, he just wants to stop, but the only way he can do so is to find a noble cause to die for. He’s still a good man, but he’s lost hope. Maybe when he gets it back, he’ll be able to finally be able to wield Mjolnir in a moment of need.
THOR: SOMETHING SOMETHING MAGIC POOL INFINITY GEMS
Okay. You got me here. Thor is perfectly loveable in Age of Ultron. (I love watching him gush about his Nobel winning gf), but the less said about his edited-to-pieces and confusing-as-hell subplot, the better.
Hopefully Thor: Ragnarok will be hella cool and make up for it.
NATASHA: DESIRE AND RESPONSIBILITY
In Iron Man 2 Natasha is just a spy taking orders. In The Avengers, she shows some depth to her backstory of guilt, but is ultimately still just following the good guys’ directives to help “erase the red in her ledger”. Winter Soldier is the first time she has to take ownership of her own journey to redemption. She follows Steve’s lead, but in doing so she makes a tough decision to go the hard way and fight an establishment that previously both gave her purpose and dictated her goals. It’s the first time we see her irrefutably act of it of her own volition based on her values. She finally stops being a spy and becomes a hero.
This is where we find her in Age of Ultron, and for the first time in her movie career it makes sense for her to develop a crush and start thinking about settling down. But this leaves her in a really vulnerable place for Wanda to exploit. She is reminded that she gave up a “normal” life a long time ago in order to become a murderer. She feels like she’s a monster who is just “playing hero.”
Here’s where things get interesting, because Natasha’s feeling of inadequacy don’t change her now firmly set values. She wants to be with Bruce. It’s the first thing we’ve ever seen her desire that is external to herself. But when he frees her before the final battle she makes the decision not to run away with him. Bruce even makes a good argument for running. Black Widow isn’t nearly the heavy hitter that most of the Avengers are. How much good is a spy really going to be against an army of robots? And having the Hulk around, there’s always the risk that he’s going to do more harm than help. She and Bruce are the “monsters” of the team. But Nat refuses to cut and run on her friends.
Just one movie appearance prior, Natasha’s loyalties and honor were still in question. It seemed very possible that she could have been a Hydra agent, or that she may have sided with them once they appeared. By the end of Age of Ultron, she still has her demons to fight, but she is irrefutably a woman of valor, ready to co-lead the New Avengers with Steve.
BRUCE: A PLACE TO BELONG
Bruce’s arc is pretty simple and pretty sad. At the beginning of Age of Ultron, he has uneasily accepted the role of a hero. It’s obvious that he’s uncomfortable with it, but also that he’s the most comfortable that he’s been with himself since the first time he hulked out. He saved the world as an Avenger and continues to use his curse to help (only when necessary). He has friends, including Tony, his scientific peer. He has a home in Avenger’s tower, and finally feels like he belongs somewhere.
Wanda takes this away from him. She removes what little hope he had that he belongs anywhere, leading him to go pure monster, and forcing his best friend to “contain” him. While Ultron’s plan of human extinction fails, Wanda absolutely succeeds in her plan of dismantling the Avengers before she joins them. Tony, Thor, and Bruce, all walk away from the team, distracted and uncertain about their futures.
CLINT: FAMILY MAN?!?
Who saw this one coming? Clint Barton is a well-adjusted family man whose job as an Avenger is just a supercool day job he uses to pay the bills and do some good in the world. He’s not the toughest Avenger, and he gets a lot of shit for it, but he seems well balanced enough not to mind.
Clint doesn’t have a dynamic personal arc, but we certainly learn a lot about who he really is, and his positive attitude sure rubs off on the twins.
WANDA AND PIETRO: TERRORISTS TO HEROES
Other than Tony, the twins’ arc is most central to the film’s plot. I like the twins, because their hatred of the Avengers is both valid and misguided. They’re always heroes, but they start out as heroes for the wrong cause. They’re a very good example of how people in 3rd world countries view the United States, and the desperation that comes from not being able to make a difference. They’re passionate, but not stupid. They quick to admit their fault once they see it, and quickly course correct the thrust of their worldviews.
I like that Pietro dies a hero, while irrevocably winning his and Clint’s dude-bro-“you-didn’t-see-that-coming”-battle.
I like that Wanda is allowed to actually suffer a real loss in Pietro’s death, and that it will likely affect her sanity and the stability of the Avengers moving forward. She will inevitably be keen to make amends for their rocky start, and for singlehandedly losing them over half of the team. (I also loved the “I want to have your robot babies” face she gives Vision when he flies her off of the exploding island.)
ULTRON AND VISION: PEOPLE WITH NO PEER
So Ultron’s plan is both thoughtful and obvious. Take over the world. Master race of robots. Yada yada yada. It makes sense, to a degree. Ultron is stronger and more intelligent than any man. He is also a new race unto himself. It makes sense that he would look at the world, feel as if he is without peer or ally, and try to course correct by making it his own. There’s something inherently fascinating about a robot overlord who knows everything there is to know, but behaves like a confused child with a hangover. More time should have been spent evaluating this motivation, but Ultron does have a point. The mere concept of superheroes has always battled between establishment vs anti-establishment. Ultron asks a very real ideological question about what a hero really is. The only real drawback to Ultron as a villain is that it’s hard to see him as a misguided hero. He’s clearly delusional, and as such the audience can categorize him this way without a second thought. Wiping out all life on earth to propagate oneself as the next step in evolution will, at least from a human standpoint, always come across as self-aggrandizing lunacy.
Vision helps close the gap a bit in understanding where Ultron is coming from. He is similarly a creature without peer, having access to all knowledge. Vision is introduced as the only other Avenger worthy of wielding Mjolnir. He has no people, so he is truly neutral to sides. He has no baggage. His motives are pure. Yet he agrees with Ultron that the time of humans is fleeting.
Vision is, without doubt, the purest example of heroism the Marvel Cinematic Universe has yet seen, and Ultron may be the purest form of villainy. The other Marvel villains have killed for greed, for their people, or because they had a bone to pick, but Ultron kills because, despite seeing it clearly, he simply doesn’t value life. Vision sees the beauty of life, and therefore sees it as his place to protect it for as long as it can last. And that’s the key difference between heroism and villainy.
There’s an argument to be made that every movie should stand on its own. Joss Whedon himself made this point, calling The Empire Strikes Back “incomplete” because it ends on a cliffhanger. Age of Ultron admittedly doesn’t have much substance when viewed as a standalone film. The argument could be made that it’s unnecessarily overstuffed, and should have geared more towards serving itself, rather than spending time on the next thing down the line. But as a chapter in a number of long form stories, the narrative keeps its many balls in the air masterfully (Thor’s arc being the exception). Its epic storyline never stops moving, and it pushes the characters towards where they need to be for their next films.
Taken on those terms, I call it a win.