‘Age of Ultron’ Re-watch, and Movie Sandwiches…

Movie sandwiches? What the heck does that mean? What does it have to do with the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Also, why Avengers: Age of Ultron? Isn’t that movie two years old now?

Today, I had the urge to re-watch Avengers: Age of Ultron, the second Avengers movie and the eleventh installment in the movie series. For a long time, I always felt that this movie was good enough. Not to the point where it was a C-grade Marvel movie, because I liked a lot of its ideas, but it wasn’t anything above that either. It just made it past the “good” threshold, but was a chore to watch. It apparently didn’t win over a lot of others, either. Some folks even began to sour completely on Marvel because of this movie, lots of editorials came around suggesting that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the worst thing that has ever happened to cinema, Black Widow’s storyline in the film caused mass hysteria all over the interwebs, and so on and so forth.

In fact, I myself kind of felt blahhh about the MCU in general at that time, when the previous movie – the gonzo Guardians of the Galaxy – got me so hyped for future MCU movies. Maybe it was that teaser trailer, and how it seemed to promise this very dark and very chaotic sequel. I should’ve known better, marketing is supposed to trick folks like that. Iron Man Three‘s advertising campaign did it in spades, and I loved that movie on first viewing and all subsequent viewings. Iron Man Three was advertised as Tony Stark’s all-out war against the greatest nemesis in the comics, but the movie itself was a slick Shane Black detective story about who Tony is without all his tricks and toys with hints of A Christmas Carol.

Age of Ultron, to me, always felt very cluttered and also very lethargic. Lethargic is not something I want out of a Marvel movie, that’s for sure. I knew very well of the nightmarish behind-the-scenes drama, where director Joss Whedon and MCU curator Kevin Feige fought tooth-and-nail against a “creative committee” that Marvel Studios used to be bossed around by. It’s the classic, textbook example of those meddling executives! Even the MCU in all its glory couldn’t be free. Disappointing elements in MCU movies made prior to 2016 were often blamed on Kevin Feige or Disney, no… It was a committee from Marvel Entertainiment, the parent of Marvel Studios. The company CEO Ike Perlmutter and these heads bossed Marvel Studios around, until Feige threw down the gauntlet and broke the studio off of Marvel Ent. They now answer to Disney, and you can feel a greater sense of freedom when watching their latest two features, Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the latter being my favorite MCU movie to date.

I feel that this committee’s grubby paws can be felt on this one, for the film is kind of an editing mess. Not as bad as I remember, but there are problems here and there. The thing is, Joss Whedon and the crew crafted a story that was too big for even a 140-minute running time. While getting the HYDRA monkey off of their backs for good, the Avengers fall into a new world once more. Tony Stark sees a terrifying future that’s all on him when the gang run in with HYDRA baddie Baron von Strucker and his accomplices, the powerful Sokovian  twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff. This drives Tony to make the ultimate world peace-keeping program.

That’s the logical progression from the events of Iron Man Three. Instead of personal toys, Stark is more conscious about the world around him, he fears what’s up in the cosmos. While Iron Man Three ended the Iron Man trilogy, Iron Man Three actually started a Tony Stark trilogy, one that I firmly think climaxes in Captain America: Civil War, which also ended Captain America’s trilogy. Tony feels that creating something bigger than him and the Avengers is necessary for keeping the world safe, Captain America by contrast believes in individual liberty after what he saw go down in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In the process, Stark unleashes an artificial intelligence that’s naive like a child, and has a god complex. Enter Ultron.

Ultron originally was kind of a disappointment to me. I was expecting him to be this all-out frightening villain, one that would be the top of the line. His methods and his plan are quite cool, but I never got “terrifying” out of him, just intimidating and a little creepy more than anything. Even on this viewing, I didn’t see him as truly scary or anything, but he is a solid good villain and on the level of Loki. Just not a significantly better villain… and that’s okay. We’re going to get just that with Thanos next year.

Admittedly, Marvel Studios’ villains were never their strongest suit, but the only villain that I felt was truly weak was Thor: The Dark World‘s evil elf cipher Malekith. Doctor Strange‘s Kaecilius comes a close second. Other than that, I tend to enjoy their villains for the most part. No, they’re not the Joker or anything on that level, but they serve their purpose and sometimes they’re fun to watch. In this movie, Stark is as much of a villain of as Ultron is. His need to do things that he thinks will help out, his lack of consideration of the consequences, the movie is very much about that… and how sometimes, he can be right. Hence the creation of the Vision. A lot of seeds for Civil War are planted here.

So what’s really wrong? The set-up is great, how is the execution? I like that this movie attempts to dive into each of the Avengers, and develop them. Even Hawkeye gets a lot of spotlight, and we see his secret life and then some, and what it means to be the not-so-powerful member of the team. This is also where the movie kind of breaks. With so much to cover, its run time does not suit it. Perhaps the team should’ve been allowed to make a much longer cut of this movie, and even step foot closer to the three-hour mark. When you have so much but have to abide by a time limit, I feel this creates a sort-of over-packed movie sandwich.

Think about it. A sandwich shouldn’t be too crammed, nor should it be lacking. Like movies, you want them just right. Pacing, structure, character development, timing, run-time, everything. Avengers: Age of Ultron is case of a movie needing to be two sandwiches, but they had to cram it all into one. You lose some things in the process, and some other things fall out of the sandwich when you take a bite, one part of it may be a little too much, etc. I feel this tends to impact some of the action sequences, as there is some questionable editing and staging in them. Except the set-piece where a spooked Hulk rampages through an African city. Sometimes they’re cut a little too fast and they just zip by, sometimes it’s all over the place. I feel the cuts also really muddied the whole relationship between Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff, kind of obscuring what it was really all about. I think that’s what lead a lot of people to believe that it was just a shallow fanfic-level love story, the way it was presented was very… Awkward? Half-assed? In the Blu-ray’s deleted scenes menu, there’s more to the conversation Banner and Romanoff have in the farmhouse that I think should’ve been kept. What I saw was two people with dark pasts trying to console one another, not just a tacked-on romance, per se. A lot happens in the movie, and I must praise the editors who had to cram it all into a watchable 2 1/2 hours. My hat is off to them!

That so-called lethargic tone didn’t feel that way this time. Instead, I saw a kind-of relaxed movie. Not the booming, anthemic tone of The Avengers, but rather an “it’s another day at work” sort of feel. Almost the sleep-aid quietness that Doctor Strange was. This mission takes a little more time to figure out, now that the characters have been established, the action scenes come and go with considerable build-up and fine payoffs, and then we get a sometimes-muddy but very satisfying climax where the Avengers work together once more. What really takes off are the more personal scenes. Scarlet Witch causes the Avengers at one point to have nightmares that tie to their pasts and possible futures, creating some truly horrific and eerie scenes. All the development stuff shines like mad, and the farmhouse chapter of the movie is excellent. Shows how a $250 million mega-blockbuster bonanza crossover can be small, intimate, and meaningful.

The scenes set inside Clint Barton’s rural abode and the nightmare moments almost got completely excised by that same committee. One well-known story… They gave Whedon and Feige an ultimatum: Keep the full scene where Thor goes to the magical cave pool and gets possessed by a goddess, but cut out all the farmhouse scenes and all of the nightmare scenes. The other option was this: Keep the farmhouse/nightmare scenes, shorten the pool scene. They went with the latter, and most people complained about how random and out-of-left-field the dip in the water was… So much of it was cut down, it made little sense. A longer version of that scene is thankfully on the Blu-ray’s bonus selection.

Thankfully, Feige broke the studio off from the committee during the production of Captain America: Civil War, though that movie miraculously came out relatively unscathed, and that too was jam-packed with a lot of things. Captain America: Civil War had maybe one or two minor little “sandwich” things (Scarlett Witch and Vision’s somewhat weird relationship), but all-in-all was a super consistent movie with a lot of verve to it, definitely brought in by directors Anthony and Joe Russo. I’m truly excited to see their sheer handling of all this complex material, a team-up with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and a cosmic battle with Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War. Whedon is not returning to Marvel Studios any time soon because of his experiences on this movie, though he is currently circling the DC Extended Universe’s iteration of Batgirl. I’m okay with this, because I think the Russos are the right folks to take on the next two Avengers installments.

Now while Avengers: Age of Ultron isn’t as lethargic as I had previously thought, it really isn’t that attractive-looking as a movie. Really just a gloss more than anything, I feel it’s visually one of the weakest of the Marvels. At times, it has a very desaturated color palette that I’m just no fan of. I don’t think it works in superhero movies, let alone most action movies. I don’t think it makes them feel more realistic or gritty or whatever, nor does it enhance the darker aspects that they have on hand. It feels more like Instagram filters applied by moody people who are trying to make “deep” quote photos or something. Someone staring out the window with an existential stare or someone on a lonely set of train tracks, you get the idea? The Avengers popped, it was very colorful, most of Marvel’s movies are pretty balanced when it comes to the colors, but this one? No. There are some interesting hints of reds here and there, and some truly nice shots, but other than that it’s visually kind of murky and boring-looking. I didn’t get the problem with most other Marvel movies, though some video essay or two out there posit that all the movies look ugly. I disagree with that, only this one and parts of a few others truly don’t get me, visually.

Perhaps that too is a byproduct of the whole Ike problem, because I feel the two newest entries in the series – again, Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – and the upcoming likes of Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok are absolutely pretty-looking movies. The colors are just right in those, as are the shots and angles and such. Doctor Strange goes full-on psychedelic in many parts, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 frame-by-frame – even in its metallic and grungier moments – is stunning, the new Spidey adventure is as vibrant as his bright red suit, and Thor: Ragnarok looks like the weirdo-cosmic Thor movie we’ve been waiting for, and so on. Without all that penny-pinching and such, I think we’re in for some very visually-striking MCU movies.

Despite all these little issues, Avengers: Age of Ultron really does come together as an exciting action movie with some potent elements of sci-fi, lots of fantastic character moments and pay offs, and great helpings of development. I also really admired the emphasis on saving the people while fighting the robots, some really good stuff there that was lightly touched upon in the first Avengers movie. It succeeds greatly as a sequel to what was already a huge risk of a movie, and while the big package has some little popped seems, it overcomes the setbacks for the most part. The sandwich is something I must keep in mind as a writer, as someone who recently gutted a lot of blubber from a story I’ve been working on for over a decade.