Having recently jumped on the bandwagon along with 50 million other people in signing up for Disney+, and with free time at home being in abundance, I decided that the moment had finally come to re-watch the entire MCU from Iron Man (2008) all the way to present day phase 3.
Having now made it through 20 or more films over the past 6 weeks, there were very few surprises. Captain America: Winter Soldier remains a thrilling Bourne-esque spy story that marked a shift in tone for the Avenger’s solo projects, and Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World both remain tedious, inconsequential bores.
One revelation that really caught me off guard though, was the varying quality of the Avengers movies. At the time of release in 2012, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (stylised as Avengers Assemble here in the UK) was met with rapturous applause. Fans and critics alike were blown away at the overall chemistry of the cast and how artfully the characters and stories were drawn together.
Conversely, upon its release in 2015, Avengers: Age of Ultron went down like a lead balloon. The critical response was tepid, and it failed to please the loyal fan base. With vivid memories of both these receptions in mind, I sat down to watch The Avengers (2012) thoroughly excited, and then subsequently sat down to watch Age of Ultron (2015) fairly unenthused.
Then something unexpected happened, after a re-watch of both films, my view of each switched dramatically.
On second viewing, The Avengers (2012) wasn’t the epic blockbuster packed with great character development and quippy one-liners I had remembered, it is in actual fact a fairly disposable popcorn flick, light on story and character depth and heavy on stale dialogue and fan service.
At the time of release of The Avengers, the whole concept of a shared cinematic universe was pretty much unheard of, and I think this is were the problem lays. Back in 2012, Marvel fans and the movie-going public at large had already seen and enjoyed solo outings for Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor. The idea of bringing these characters together into one equally balanced adventure was something unheard of, a feat many had anticipated wouldn’t be achievable.
Because of this, I imagine that the metric by which the film’s success was measured was simply, ‘is it entertaining?’ and ‘does it work?’. Director Joss Whedon was lauded for his herculean effort at bringing so many big-name actors playing iconic characters on to the screen together at the same time, but unfortunately, this is all it really manages to achieve. Our heroes are successfully brought together in what turns out to be a very middle of the road, by the numbers action film.
I could talk in depth about the failings of the film, but the main issue is the handling of the characters themselves. The character development is weak and the motivation of both heroes and villains is very much one dimensional.
And this brings us nicely on to the Age of Ultron, the antithesis of The Avengers (2012). Where The Avengers gave us cardboard cut out heroes coasting off the audience’s emotional investment in them from their solo projects, Age of Ultron showcases characters going through real change, with each having their own personal stakes, plot arc and growth.
Thor is no longer simply there to stop Loki, Captain America no longer serves as just the moral compass, Iron Man is no longer simply the cocky rich guy, Hawkeye gets more to do than become a hypnotised grunt and Black Widow and Bruce Banner actually have meaningful and emotive character moments together.
Essentially, what we have in Age of Ultron is properly fleshed out characters with their own personal battles. This is also the case with the supporting characters, the sequel arguably has a much superior villain. Yes, Loki is a great character, but I can’t help but feel he was only used so heavily in The Avengers (2012) as he was already established within the shared universe.
The benefit of this is obvious, they utilised Loki as the main villain as there was little need to establish any character history and villain motivation, thus freeing up more time for quippy back and forths as the Avengers are gradually introduced to each other. This works in principle, but in reality it is nothing more than a short cut to success. Essentially, in the context of a movie watched in isolation from its supporting films, The Avengers doesn’t really work.
You can argue all day about the importance of this within the confines of a shared universe, but if the film doesn’t stand a success on its own two feet, then it has failed at its prime objective; to entertain coherently and satisfyingly.
Age of Ultron doesn’t have this issue. The villain is born as a direct consequence of our heroes’ actions. Where in The Avengers (2012) the team battle Thor’s brother, in Age of Ultron, the team battle a joint nemesis who poses a threat to them all as individuals as well as group (James Spader is also fantastic in the role which goes a long way in terms of boosting the overall quality of the film).
Watching the films back now, you can almost see Joss Whedon attempting to circumvent this issue in the making of The Avengers. The whole ‘Loki is trying to tear the Avengers apart’ plot line that takes place on the Helicarrier is an obvious attempt to manufacture personal conflict between Loki and each individual Avenger, but the end effect of this is that it all just feels a little tied together with strings. This is demonstrated by the fact the Loki is effectively side-lined for the final battle as he was never really of much consequence in the first place.
Comparatively, there are no strings on Ultron, he is a fully realised 3-dimensional villain whose drives and motivations are born and die on screen.
The superiority of Age of Ultron doesn’t just stop at character development either. From a technical perspective, it is way more polished whether that be the set lighting or the action sequences. Yes, The Avengers (2012) has some great action scenes, but that is all it really has going for it.
Although many still regard The Avengers (2012) as the superior film, I can’t help but wonder how people would view it if watched as a standalone film without the weight of a shared universe behind it. Unfortunately, that ship has sailed, but as a challenge, if you have the free time (which I’m almost certain you do), re-watch both The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron back to back with an open mind and you may be surprised at the conclusion you come to when the credits role.
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