There is an expectation when you watch a film that the narrative within that piece of cinema will adhere to certain expectations of story-structure and the logic of narrative flow. When dealing with sequels to established properties, the expectations and rules grow stricter in some regards and more lax in others. We expect an increase in stakes and an evolution of established character while also, perhaps unconsciously, giving the film as a whole and the creators responsible a critical safety net. The safety net I refer to is one woven of lowered expectations and residual appreciation for what came before. We loved the original film that spawned the sequel and therefore we are willing to look at the new entry through a lens tempered with appreciation held over from the previous installment, giving us a more favorable view of a film that we otherwise might view with disdain. We also have to take into consideration the fact that it is a long held belief that sequels are inherently inferior to their predecessor. There are notable exceptions, of course, but for every Godfather: Part II there are twelve Jaws IIIs.
I consider the sequel to be the epitome of “yeah, but…” cinema. As in, “Yeah it wasn’t as good as [insert original film here], but it wasn’t actual human garbage so I’ll give it a B+.” We attach these sort of “Yeah, but…” qualifiers to a myriad of films. Moviegoers wishing to deflect criticism away from themselves for enjoying something outside of their typical wheelhouse may use the “Yeah, but…” argument in order to put an asterisk next to their own opinion. With Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, I have seen enough “Yeah, but…” arguments regarding the film’s merit to make my head spin. The truth of the matter is that if audiences wish to see sequels that uphold the same quality standards as the original films that spawn them, the “Yeah, but…” argument needs to die a slow, painful death.
Avengers: Age of Ultron does not deserve the benefit of the “Yeah, but…” defense. It tosses most of the established rules of coherent storytelling and replaces it with every trope and cliché in the Joss Whedon playbook, hoping that our love for the characters presented on screen will blind us from the shortfalls of the script. The whiz-bang dialog peppered with quips and witty banter is meant to distract us like jangling keys dangled in front of an infant while the actual craft of the story unfolding on screen possesses all of the master craftsmanship of a bad Tumblr Fan Fiction piece. While Avengers fans worldwide pump money into Marvel’s pockets and continue to dismiss criticisms of the film’s construction with stuttered pleas of “yeah, but…” I feel that you could end the conversation after the “Yeah.”
I am a storyteller. I don’t fancy myself a very good one, and Joss Whedon is one of the people who I previously would have counted among my influences. Whedon’s work in serialized storytelling with Buffy and Angel is still worthy of praise. He did things with long-form narrative work that other people molded and made their own and is indirectly one of the forefathers of the modern television renaissance. Lost can trace many of its tropes and schemes all the way back to the Buffy writer’s room, and you would be hard pressed to find someone working in television who won’t sing Whedon’s praises. So what went so wrong that both the story and characterization in Age of Ultron is so incredibly off? The film feels like a direct sequel to The Avengers and in any other universe that might be enough. However, in the universe we live in and in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there have been four other films in between The Avengers and Age of Ultron; Iron Man III, Thor : The Dark World, Captain America : The Winter Soldier, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Now, Joss Whedon really only needed to pick up on plot threads from three of those, as Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t really touch the events on Earth all too directly, but it is inexcusable to ignore the events of Iron Man III and Winter Soldier the way that Age of Ultron does. At the end of Iron Man III, Tony Stark has effectively given up the superhero business. So why do they begin this film with him on the team as if nothing has happened, with no mention of Extremis or any of the events in that film? At the climax of Winter Soldier, Natasha says she is going underground to rebuild her cover for a little while. So why is she front and center in the public eye here in Age of Ultron? The short answer is lazy storytelling.
Age of Ultron acts as a sequel to a film that never existed. We are seeing payoff to events that we were never privy to. The culmination of Natasha and Bruce Banner’s relationship has no emotional resonance because while, in the context of the film, it had been building for some time, as the audience we witnessed absolutely zero percent of its development. I do not oppose the pairing as some do. In fact, I find it logical when applied to the story Marvel has presented us and the dynamic of those characters. The film feels like a finale to a Joss Whedon TV show that audiences never got to see the first twenty-one episodes of. If we accept that the creative purpose of sequels is to further the story of certain characters (as opposed to a shameless cash grab) then it would follow that the characterization from previous installments would be followed through. Age of Ultron seems to eschew this idea, as if Joss Whedon decided to go mad with creative power and rewrite the rules as he went along. If Whedon weren’t playing in a sandbox with other creators, this wouldn’t be as egregious an offense, because it is well within his rights to course correct on a story he has total control of. He made several such decisions during the course of Buffy and Angel. However, the choices Whedon made in Age of Ultron were unfair to the people who had been crafting the individual stories of these characters in their respective films and to the audience as well. As previously stated, audiences have certain expectations for sequels and while subverting expectations can make for a powerful film, doing so at the expense of organic storytelling is a huge creative mistake.
Whedon himself seems to be well aware of the type of film he has made. The generally accepted Hollywood narrative is that this film was the hardest film anyone would ever have to make and it seems to have taken a toll on the man. In an interview earlier this year, Whedon said he “went to some strange places in this one, and making that work and making it flow and making it all feel like it’s part of the same movie was difficult.” And while the end product does seem coherent within the bounds of its own construction, when viewed as a thread in the larger tapestry of the Marvel Universe, it seems decidedly off kilter. That is where the movie falters.
I cannot begrudge the overwhelming action of the film. Compared to Avengers, Age of Ultron steps up its game in almost every conceivable way. Where the first thirty minutes of Avengers looked like it shared the production budget of Agents of Shield, Age of Ultron is fully polished and wears it’s pedigree like a badge of honor. This is not just a blockbuster but a big-budget blockbuster and everyone had better strap themselves in for a hell of a ride. Age of Ultron does get several parts of the sequel formula right and the action is number one on that list. I would personally argue that the villain is weaker, although that might just be a byproduct of having watched Daredevil in a frantic binge and preferring an antagonist who feels legitimately frightening like Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk as opposed to a generic quip robot engineered by Joss Whedon to feel theatrical but never threatening.
It is important to note that none of this really matters now. The film has been released and it made enough money to justify its existence and quality to the bean counters at Disney. Joss Whedon has walked away and will have a considerable amount of clout to generate new projects outside of the House of Ideas. The Russo brothers will get to rebuild the toys Whedon broke and try to make sense of the carnage. In the modern age of cinema, blockbuster sequels like this are practically critic proof. Everybody is leaping over themselves trying to say “Yeah, but…” in some way that makes Age of Ultron look better than it really is. I doubt time will be kind to the film, however. This sequel will age badly when placed alongside stronger entries yet to come. It already suffers when paired up against Marvel’s most recent efforts; Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. One of those is the best sequel Marvel has produced by a wide margin and the other a promising start to yet another franchise. Age of Ultron was going to be a hit no matter how bad it was, but it could have also been a better film and that is the true tragedy of the story. That and the way Whedon utterly wasted Quicksilver. Let’s not forget that either.