Saturday night we took the kids to see "Avengers: Age of Ultron". It was neither as bad as I'd been led to believe nor as good as I would've hoped for. All the rest is spoilers...
Joss Whedon is, among other things, known for writing ensemble scripts. He made his name with ever-larger and often shifting casts of characters on Angel, Buffy, Dollhouse, and Firefly - not to mention Agents of Shield. So when the question comes up "How are they going to handle adding three new characters to the Avengers?" the answer is "It's Joss - it's what he does." In this movie he manages seven major characters and as many important minors with adept hand. Everyone gets good screen time and the ensemble clicks.
Overall I felt the critics had something of a point. The film nearly buckles under the weight of all the fights and the need for the action to be bigger and more explosive. Paradoxically, the fights lack impact. There's no sense that anything hangs on the big action bits and the outcomes are all foreordained. What saves the film is when the camera moves in close. Even when it's a close bit of conflict, the tight one- and two-shot sequences make this film. I remember saying something similar about the first Captain America and it's very true for this film. For example, I felt less emotional impact from the threat of a giant rock smashing into Earth than I did from watching Hulk put aside his anger to take a place with the team protecting the bomb trigger.
(Aside: kudos to the SFX team that manages to make Hulk clearly show Mark Ruffalo's face, however altered.)
The other things that saves this movie for me is its embedding in the richness of the characters. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) gets an extraordinary amount of screen time and provides a human connection for the audience to empathize with. There's also the Black Widow/Hulk budding romance story, which is both brilliant in its execution and serves as a great foil for other characters to comment upon. The other characters are who they are, and that's not just a copy-paste from other stories, but a way for Ultron to understand them and use Scarlet Witch to attempt to destroy them. That they are who they are is integral to the story.
With all the good interpersonal interactions you'd think this film could manage to pass the Bechdel test.
Instead Joss sets up the women as "the people who know things" and "the people who tell the others what's going on." In stereotype presentations, women are often confined to maiden/mother/crone roles. But there's also a "wise woman" archetype and it's interesting to see how many of the women in this movie fit that.
As she did in Captain America, Natasha shows she understands people and what they want, what they fear, and how to get close to them. She drives the relationships with Banner and with Hulk. Her line about "...picking up after you boys" that you see in the previews makes a different kind of sense when you see what she does within the team. I hear she's slated to appear in the next Captain America movie and I'm looking forward to that.
Clint Barton's wife clearly is his advisor. She guides not just the family but also schools him in how to relate to his Avenger teammates. When Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch have their little tete-a-tete it makes WAY more sense because we've seen how Laura Barton set it up. Between Wanda and Pietro it's clear she's the cooler-headed and directive member of the pair. She discovers Ultron's plan and guides her brother.
Even the women who never appear on-screen are spoken about as leaders. Pepper Pots "has a company to run" - she's directing Stark Industries, and Jane Foster is apparently in high demand as a scientific consultant around the world. All good things, but I can't help hoping we'll get to see more direct interactions. Talking (well) about women is no substitute for talking (well) to them.
The other thing I wanted to call out from this movie was Thor. We started out the Marvel universe movie sequence seeing him as an arrogant god who needed to find his humanity. We've seen him lose his mother and that has to be hanging over him. In this movie he shows, without necessarily calling a lot of attention to it, how comfortable he's become with his place. Watch him tag-team with Captain America in the fight scenes, for example. Watch his reactions when the other team members can't lift Mjolnir and then when Vision does. He's also the only one with a broader view - he realizes that someone or something is behind what's going on and he realizes he may be the only one who can figure it out. The next Thor movie has been announced but I don't know how it's going to tie in. I would be surprised if it didn't, though the title (Ragnarok) makes it seem like it's going to be more epic battles and less of the story and character stuff I like.