Saturday, May 2, 2015

Whedon's Cantata in B: Age of Ultron

With the national release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the summer blockbuster season has begun. Much is riding on Ultron for Disney, which owns Marvel and hence, the characters featured in those carefully-planned-for-release-lo-unto-the-next-generation films. Also, Joss Whedon, who directed the first Avengers film, is at the helm again for Ultron, which promised moreMoreMORE! and he's got a lot riding on this one as well. Known for being both a "Marvel boy" who grew up loving these titles and characters and also known for his deft handling of true ensemble casts (Firefly leaps immediately to mind), Whedon brought over $1.5 billion into the Mouse's coffers and there is a great deal of pressure for him to catch that lightning in a bottle again.

He almost does.

Early in Ultron, we see Bruce Banner sitting off to himself after a battle in which his alter-ego, the Hulk, played a pivotal (and highly destructive) part. He's wearing headphones, concentrating not on the banter of his teammates, but rather on the "Casta Diva" aria from Bellini's opera Norma. It's no secret that Whedon likes music - he's a noted Sondheim fan and he crafted both the Buffy episode "Once More with Feeling" and Dr. Horrible. Norma is the story of a powerful Druid priestess who is betrayed first by her love for the enemy and ultimately by her own tribe. The "Casta Diva" aria is a prayer for peace - Norma is trying to protect her lover by cooling the flames of war.

Interesting choice for Banner/Hulk, yes?

I mention this because I think Whedon was trying to write his own version of an opera - or at least a cantata, which is a musical form that has evolved over the years to encompass many different configurations. But I think he forgot that most operas - including Norma - don't really have plots that are all that complicated (ridiculous, maybe, but not complicated). Whedon is notably for his smooth incorporation of large ensemble casts and multiple storylines, so who better to hand Ultron over to? After all, Ultron is setting up Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so elements from the past films need to be present here, this story needs to advance and hints need to be dropped for events yet to come. He's got plenty to work with, including a huge cast - not only the core group of Avengers (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye), he's also folding in Ultron, Vision, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver, with small parts for everyone from Fury and Maria Hill to Falcon and War Machine.

Whew! I'm tired just from typing the list!

The fact is, Ultron's a good flick. Buy your popcorn and enjoy yourself. There are cool fight scenes, the Hulkbuster suit, a bit of character development, and Vision and Scarlet Witch are just fantastic. (I'm also in favor of about anything that lets Andy Serkis act without motion capture.) But it's not without flaws. He's working with some interesting ideas - security v. freedom, creator v. created, family v. team, and the nature of monstrosity, all with a healthy dose of man's hubris thrown in for good measure. That's a lot of horse to ride.

I keep hearing, "well, Whedon had to do what the studio said, so this isn't really him" and "at least 30 minutes was edited out." All well and good, but Whedon's name is on this, so he owns it - he doesn't just get to claim the quips and the 360-degree heroes' circle. As readers of this blog know, I admire the bejeezus out of Whedon's work, but that in no way means that I think he's above criticism. (I'm looking at you in particular, Dollhouse!) And Ultron is not a perfect movie.

For instance, it's downright clumsy to have everyone in the imaginary town/country (the movie is a bit muddy on that point) of Sokovia speak English with a heavy, vaguely Russian, accent. One element of Marvel's comics that I always enjoyed is the snippets of foreign languages that are then translated at the bottom of the panel - it shows the international focus of the teams and missions - and it feels like Whedon doesn't trust the audience to glance at a few subtitles. Also, while Black Widow still kicks tail and takes names, she's also relegated to "taming the beast" status with a subplot involving the Hulk that just clunks. (Plus, I've seen the "safe word" thing before with Simon and River, so this felt recycled to me.) And really - Tony Stark has gone from being a smartass to just an ass. (By the way, the events of Iron Man 3 apparently didn't happen, based on Tony's "wheee! Lookit me, flying around, perfectly comfortable in my iron skin!" attitude. Then again, I loathed that movie, so . . . )

I get that Ultron is a large-scale set-up for future movies. I just wish I'd been so excited when I saw this one that I squeed! in Marvel-girl delight more.

Whedon's cantata is also his swan song for this franchise - the Russo brothers (of Captain America: Winter Soldier and the upcoming Civil War) take over from here.

Well, at least Hawkeye got some good lines this time.

1 comment:

David Kociemba said...

Actually, you've also seen it more thoroughly with Dollhouse, with the call and response programming. "Did I fall asleep? For a little while."