Frankenstein and his monster: Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark (Iron Man), begins to doubt he’s done the right thing in trying to bring about “Peace in our time” by creating the artificial intelligence software Ultron in Iron Man 4. Wait. I’m sorry. I meant Avengers: Age of Ultron.
There’s a very simple story at the center of Avengers: Age of Ultron. A very simple and very old and very true story. The story of an idealistic but vain scientist who, seeking to conquer death, creates a monster in his own likeness whose monstrosity lies in its---his---being at the same time more than human, less than human, and all too human. The monster escapes his creator’s control and runs wild, revealing himself to be not a conquering of death but a bringer of it. But the real horror is in his having a mind of his own and desires of his own that mirror his creator’s. The creator is forced to look in that mirror and see himself for what he is, a monster of vanity and ego, who has unleashed his own evil and set it loose upon the world. It’s a story, then, about how what we take pride in as being the best in ourselves can turn out to be the very worst.
This re-telling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with Tony Stark as Doctor Frankenstein and Ultron as his monster---Did you think I meant Bruce Banner and the Hulk?---might be easy to lose track of in the noise and confusion of the overlong and repetitive battle scenes amidst crumbling cities, the irrelevant inclusion an underwritten subplot that amounts to little more than a set of teaser-trailers for the Not-Coming-To-A-Theater-Near-You-Until-November 2017 Thor: Ragnarok, the clumsy attempt to work in the Hulk and Black Widow movies that will never be made, and the overly-insisted upon group angst about whether or not the Avengers will ever be a true team---a question I thought got asked and satisfactorily answered in the first Avengers. When Age of Utron hit the theaters back in May, the whole movie and not just the Frankenstein story got a little lost for many fans in online arguments over whether or not director Joss Whedon had betrayed Black Widow as a character by making her sad about not being able to have babies and whether or not that’s actually what was making Black Widow sad and then by fan outrage when Whedon closed down his Twitter account in what they took as his response to their complaints and criticisms, followed by a further debate over whether or not that was in fact the reason he’d done it and, if it was, did he have the right to shut fans out that way. [Editor’s note: I revised this paragraph a bit after input from longtime reader and blogging comrade Gary Farber. See his comment.]
But I think the problem---which is probably only a problem for me---is caused by Age of Ultron’s having been mistitled as an Avengers movie and not as what it is.
Iron Man 4.
But then I don’t think Marvel Studios really has an Avengers series unfolding. They have two parallel stories of individual heroes that are on their way to merging in a dual tragedy. Steve Rogers’ and Tony Stark’s---Captain America’s and Iron Man’s.
Before I get into that…
Marvel has been either lucky or brilliant in the casting of its leads and supporting players in most of its productions, which now include Agent Carter, Daredevil, and Ant-Man, all three of which feature excellent leads and supporting players. (The less said about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the better.) I’m particularly (and sentimentally) impressed by Chris Evans as Captain America. I think he’s done a wonderful job of putting the lessons of Christopher Reeve’s Superman to work in playing a hero too good to true and making his goodness believable, likeable, sympathetic, attractive, and---the truly super feat---fun. But Robert Downey Jr is still the best of the lot. Evans is good in Age of Ultron and James Spader is better, stealing most of the showwith his amazing voice work as Ultron, but Downey is never blown off the screen---except when Iron Man is literally blown off the screen, which happens a lot, maybe too much. Like I said, the battle scenes get repetitive, but never mind. Spader has great fun with his monologs, making well-written lines sound like brilliant ones and brilliant ones sound like Shakespeare. (I think I’d better explain that below.) But Downey matches him easily, filling his every sentence with an essential Tony Stark-ness. Which is to say, that just about whatever he says, no matter how witty, charming, and smart is tinged with competitiveness, ego, jealousy, selfishness, and…insecurity.
A good example is in an apparent throw-away moment, Cobie Smulders as former S.H.I.E.L.D agent Maria Hill---who, unfortunately, is turning out to be the Avengers’ Girl Friday instead of Agent Coulson’s replacement as Nick Fury’s Right Hand and heir apparent---addresses Stark as “boss” and he immediately corrects her.
“He’s the boss,” he says, meaning Captain America, “I just pay for everything, design everything, make everyone look cooler.”
It’s beautifully delivered but a great deal of its beauty is that it contains all those qualities I mentioned: wit, charm, smarts, competitiveness, ego, jealousy, selfishness, and self-doubt.
Downey makes it plain that Stark accepts Cap as the team’s leader and knows that that’s how it ought be but also that he also help feeling that he could be the leader and can’t help letting Hill know that too and know why and know why she should be impressed with him, as if she wouldn’t be already and would be more if she didn’t also know what an overgrown brat he can be, a fact he knows and has come to dislike about himself but which he can’t seem to correct.
These qualities, with the emphasis on the wit, charm, and ego, have defined Downey's characterization of Tony Stark since the first Iron Man. And that characterization is thematic. Running through all three Iron Man movies and now both Avengers movies is the question Who is Tony Stark and what does he want? and all those qualities mixing up together make that a hard question to answer.
The first Iron Man ends with Tony announcing “I am Iron Man.” But that turns out to be a problematic statement because while it's true in the most obvious way, it's also a declaration that he’s a superhero and Iron Man 2 calls that into question. In fact, in Iron Man 2, Nick Fury decides Tony's not a superhero, or at least not up to being one of Earth's mightiest heroes, and although he doesn't kick him off the Avengers project, he demotes him, from hero to technical support. Tony earns a second chance, but in the first Avengers he has to prove he deserved it, that he is a hero and not, as Cap accuses him of being, just a big ego operating a suit of armor that does all the real work. Tony proves it---to the team, but apparently not to himself. That's what Iron Man 3 is about. Tony becoming a hero in his own eyes.
Now we find out that there's a problem with that.
Tony developed a real hero's heart. He did not lose any of his vanity. He did not learn, like Cap did long ago, humility.
It's not enough for him to be a hero. He has to be the hero.
Which brings me to the other part of the answer to who is Tony Stark and what does he want?
He's Howard Stark's son and he wants what he cannot have. His dead father's approval.
Specifically, he's the son of a brilliant and successful father who was, Tony feels, aloof, overly demanding, overly critical, and whom he has in significant ways surpassed. All his life he has been in a competition he can't win for a reward he can't have. Howard Stark wouldn't acknowledge his son's genius while he was alive and now he's not around to applaud his success and achievements---and admit he’s been bested. Add to this that Tony has given himself the mission of making up for his own and Howard's mistakes and sins, something that comes back to haunt him and the other Avengers in Age of Ultron, in the persons of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.
If all that sounds neurotic and even juvenile, it's mitigated by Tony's having nobler ambitions. He sincerely wants to fix everything and save everybody.
Like I said, he wants to be a hero.
Unfortunately, like I also said, vanity is still a problem.
Tony wants to be the one who saves everybody and fixes everything.
He wants to be the hero.
He says he built Ultron so that the Avengers won't be needed anymore. But he does it in the belief that he doesn't need the other Avengers to help him. (He enlists Bruce Banner but pretty much relegates him to the role of Igor.) Basically, he believes that the world already doesn't need the Avengers. It just needs him.
In an argument with Cap, Tony defends what he was attempting to do in creating Ultron, prevent war forever or, as he says, thinking he’s being cute and ironic, bringing about “peace in our time.” Cap won’t buy it. “Every time someone tries to stop a war before it starts,” he snaps. “Innocent people die. Every time.” A line that might inspire anti-war liberals with Iraq in mind to cheer, but which is really kind of a strange thing for a veteran of World War II to say. Wouldn't it have been a good thing if Hitler could have been stopped before? (Leaving aside the question of whether he actually could have been stopped.) But there's an answer, which Stark doesn't give, because this is an action-adventure movie not a novel by Tolstoy and there isn't time or space for philosophic and historical debates. Innocent people die in wars, many innocent people, so isn't trying worth it anyway, if only on the chance that maybe only fewer innocent people will die?
Again, no time or space in the movie or in a movie review even on this blog. But quickly. Stark's mistake is that he has already had this debate with himself and made decisions by himself, leaving everybody else out of it. He has assumed knowledge, wisdom, responsibilities, and power that Cap, a conventionally religious man of his bygone time, would probably say belong to God.
Like I said. Frankenstein.
This is where the stories of Iron Man and Captain America begin to converge in a way that, for me, turns the Avengers saga into a side story. The real story, now, is leading into the next Captain America movie, Civil War.
Of course I don't know what's coming. But this is what I see being set up. Tony Stark is going to bring about what he says he created Ultron to do, put an end to the Avengers.
To put it in mythological terms, he's going to bring about the breaking of the Round Table.
In my review of the first Avengers, The Romance of Tony Stark, I said that if you see the Avengers as having parallels to the stories of King Arthur and his knights, Tony is Lancelot. Not in personality but in the potential role of tragic traitor. He and Lancelot share the same tragic flaw, a willingness to put their own desires above what they know to be right. In Lancelot's case, it's his love for Guinevere that undoes him. In Tony's, it's his need to be the hero.
In my review, I said that I didn't see Captain America as King Arthur. But Winter Soldier changed my mind about that.
S.H.I.E.L.D. turned out to have been based on the premise that “Might Makes Right.” Cap doesn’t just believe like King Arthur in “Might for Right.” He believes that Right Makes Might. His ambition isn’t just to make the world safe. It’s to make it right.
He dreams of Camelot.
With this in mind, you can guess which scene in Age of Ultron I got the most kick out of: the scene at the party celebrating the Avengers' defeat of the last remnants of Hydra. The guys---Clint (Hawkeye) Tony, Rhodie ( who, thankfully, has given up calling himself the Iron Patriot and gone back to being War Machine), and Steve Rogers---take turns trying to lift Thor's hammer. Of course, they can't try as they might. As we know, only he---or she. I've been following what's going on in the comic books.---who is worthy can wield the hammer. The guys know this and they don't really expect to succeed. But they've had a few and they are guys, after all. They're showing off. But once they get going, Tony's competitive juices start flowing. He becomes determined to lift the hammer.
It's not to prove he's worthy. He doesn't take that part seriously. (Downey tosses off a couple of great one-liners on the subject of how he will treat his subjects when he takes Thor's place as ruler of Asgard, and, again, the lines are witty and charming but tinged with vanity. He's in effect telling Thor he's not impressed with his being a god and hero-king.) What he wants to show is that lifting the hammer doesn't prove anything except that you've mastered the trick of lifting it. And he's convinced there's a trick and equally convinced that if there is he's the one who can figure it out. That's his main job as an Avenger.
But when it's Cap's turn, we see Steve approach the task with a bit of reluctance. He's doing it mainly to be a good sport. But he gives it his all and...
The hammer moves.
To Thor's shock and consternation---Chris Hemsworth does a terrific double-take here.---and to Steve's own, well, fright.
He gives it one more mighty tug but his heart isn't in it and, as we know from The First Avenger, it's his heart that gives him his strength. The super soldier serum only worked on him because he had a good heart. Then he gives up and the implication is that he does because he doesn't want to know.
Not that he isn't worthy. He already knows he's worthy. That's what makes him Captain America. He doesn't want to know he's worthier. He doesn't like being as worthy as he is. He’s weighed down by the responsibilities and filled with self-doubt. He doesn't like what being worthy has made him. Sad and alone, out of time and out of place. A misfit. A freak. A monster, in fact. In yet anther Frankenstein story, one he explicitly tells about himself in this movie, the kindly Dr Erskine who invented the super-soldier serum is Frankenstein and he, Captain America, is the Creature.
Chris Evans, working with some beautifully understated dialog, makes Cap almost as witty and charming as Downey's Tony Stark, but he gives Cap a kind of reverse vanity. While just about everything Downey as Stark says is a form of boasting, just about everything Evans' Cap says is self-deprecation.
I don’t recall any specific moments when we see him reacting to Cap’s modesty, but it probably drives Tony nuts.
Here's where it gets messy.
Like it hasn't already, Lance?
If a big part of who Tony Stark is is Howard Stark’s son, then in his eyes Steve Rogers would naturally be something of a stand-in for his father.
That’s how Tony first came to know of him, as his father’s good friend and war buddy. He grew up listening to his father talk admiringly about Cap and from that he learned to resent him. Doesn't matter what Howard said or how often he said it, what Tony heard was an incessant criticism: Why can't you be more like him?
In other words, Tony would have grown up thinking of Captain America as the son his father wished he had instead of him.
It's no wonder that when he meets him in the flesh, Tony's filled with jealousy and an intense spirit of rivalry that would be hard to overcome even as the two became good friends.
Which they have. With not a whole lot of interaction, Downey and Evans make it clear Tony and Steve like each other, have fun together, and rely on each other. The spirit of rivalry never goes away, though, and it's felt on both sides, because more than they are friends, they are, spiritually, brothers.
We all know how things tend to go between brothers in literature. (And in movies. If you want to push it---and I'm always ready to push these things---there are parallels between Steve and Tony and Thor and Loki.) Steve, even though he's younger---discounting the seventy odd years he was frozen in the ice---is in temperament and in effect the older brother, as well as the favorite son.
All right, maybe all that's too mythological. But superheroes are often said to be our new myths---mostly it's said by fans of the comic books and the artists who make their livings creating them. If it's true, however, it's only when they've escaped the comics and other mass media where they have their origins and enter the collective unconscious to the point that they resonate with the very many people who don't read comic books, play video games, or watch the TV shows and go to the movies. That's happened with Superman and Batman. You can geek out for days debating which others have achieved Superman and Batman's mythological status.
Obviously, for me, Captain America is part of my personal mythologies.
But if these stories were truly myths, they would have endings. And the endings would all be the same. The heroes die.
That actually happens to the mythological Thor.
It can't happen to the comic book heroes.
Well, it does all the time. But I mean they die and stay dead. They don't, as Cap advises in Age of Ultron, walk it off.
Their stories have an end which no stories told about them can go past. As far as I know that's only happened to Barry Allen's Flash.
Don’t tell me…
At any rate, there’s too much money riding on the popular heroes’ immunity to mortality.
Now, the heroes of the movies can die and stay dead. And that could happen in the Avengers saga. If the twinned stories of Iron Man and Captain America are truly myths, Civil War will be a tragedy that ends with the breaking of the Round Table, Lancelot's self-imposed banishment, and the death of Arthur.
It could happen. It doesn't appear to be in the offing. Avengers 3 and 4: Infinity War I and II are in the works. The intriguing thing is that as things stand Downey won't be in them. I haven't heard for sure about Evans. He may not be.
That doesn't mean Iron Man and Captain America won't be.
There's precedent for recasting.
Look out! Here comes the pesky Spider-Man!
But to get down to it at last, this is why I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron as Iron Man 4 and why, as far as I was concerned, after the scene with Thor’s hammers all the Avengers except Iron Man and Cap could have disappeared from the movie until the inevitable climactic battle. Thor, for all intents and purposes, does.
Like I said, mostly what he does between the hammer scene and the final battle is show up in interpolated teasers for Thor: Ragnarok.
As for that final battle, and all the big battles, I could have done without them too. For one thing, the cgi work is too detailed. Watching all those buildings crumble into dust, all I was thinking was “Who’s going to clean up that mess?” (Note to stickler fans: I know who’s going to clean up that mess. The point is I was focused on the mess.) But mainly, what I wanted and what I think the story needed was a final confrontation between Iron Man and Ultron, and, even better than a good fight, a good scene between them like the one between Tony and Loki in the first Avengers.
As for watching a good fight, it’s interesting that the one good one between Ultron and an Avenger is between him and Captain America. I took that as symbolic.
The battles themselves are well staged. I’m sure Whedon had other things on his mind but they play like he was saying to Man of Steel’s director Zack Snyder, “This is how you do it.” Whedon keeps the focus on his characters as characters---that is, they are always being themselves as they run, jump, dodge, duck, fly, and fight. He doesn’t just use them as avatars in a video game. And he makes sure that we see that most of their efforts go into saving people. We see and feel that there are actual human lives in jeopardy and that it matters if even one person in the crowd dies.
And as for the characters…
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch aren't given much to do. He's cocky and she's angsty. As the movie goes along, he gets cockier, she gets angstier. But pretty much they're here to save on time spent on exposition in the next Avengers movies.
I'm glad Whedon let Paul Bettany, who's been doing charming work as the voice of Jarvis, Stark's computer sidekick since the first Iron Man, appear as another new Avenger, the Vision. He's a little too much of a vision for my taste, but he's a needed calming, civilizing, and distancing presence. It's a relief to have a character who has some perspective and who can think clearly about what is happening and what the Avengers ought to be up to. I don't expect that sanity to last. This is, after all, the Marvel cinematic universe.
Even though I didn't need to see them in this movie---as opposed to in those movies of their own that will never get made---it was good to see Jeremy Renner do more than take aim convincingly while cracking wise, Mark Ruffalo do something other than wrestle with his rage, although he still does a fair share of that, and Scarlett Johansson show yet another side of Black Widow, even if that side is that of the good-hearted bad girl who, to paraphrase Valerie Perrine as a variation of the type in Superman, doesn't get to get it on with the good guys.
Chris Hemsworth’s underused, again. Whedon gives a supporting female character a line that lets us know that he knows which of the Avengers most female fans---and gay male ones, I presume---want to see the most of and then doesn’t give it to them. Instead, proud and unabashed dork that he is, he lingers on Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, and makes him the focus of the longing female gaze. Ruffalo’s good, of course, but he’s nowhere near as pretty as Hemsworth and Banner is, after all, a dork. Hemsworth, though, makes do with what’s given and it’s important to notice that most of his best work is silent. He’s a natural comic actor and all he needs is his eyes.
Spader, as everyone acknowledges, is the stand-out star. When I said he turns his dialog into Shakespeare, I didn’t mean flowery or poetic. I meant that he makes the words alive to the character saying them. Ultron’s listening to himself. Choosing the words carefully. Writing his own script. Writing himself into being. Hamlet does this. Falstaff does this. Iago and Rosalind do it. Ultron knows himself to be performing. He’s literally making himself up as he goes. And not only is he creating himself in his own eyes, he’s forcing others to think of him as he thinks of himself.
I probably need to come back and rewrite that.
That’s it. Time to wrap this up. But one more scene before the credits roll.
Whedon has been given a lot of credit for shaping the Avengers saga and giving the movies their tone and spirit. But I think what he deserves the real credit for is recognizing what was already going on, accepting it, liking it, and running with it. The first and most credit, I think, should go to Jon Favreau, and I was happy to his name show up in the credits of Avengers: Age of Ultron as an executive producer.
It was Favreau, as the director of the first Iron Man, who set the tone and gave the series its spirit and sensibility. And the best thing he did to do that was fight to get Robert Downey Jr cast as Tony Stark.
Because the running time of this review isn’t long enough: My reviews of the first Avengers, The Romance of Tony Stark; Iron Man 3, Big Man in a Suit of Armor; and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Cap being Cap, the goodest of good guys.
Avengers: Age of Ultron, written and directed by Joss Whedon. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Don Cheadle, James Spader, and Samuel L. Jackson. Rated PG-13. Still in some theaters.