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Premise: When Tony Stark accidentally unleashes a villainous robot upon the world, it’s up the Avengers to send him back where he came from.
About: Avengers: Age of Ultron was supposed to break all box office records this weekend. However, Disney never could’ve predicted when they snagged the date two years ago that Floyd Mayweather would finally stop ducking Manny Pacquiao. And hence, the Saturday ticket sales for Avengers were way lower than expected. This meant that Avengers finished below one of the 37 Harry Potter movies for the single-weekend box office record, although analysts are still trying to figure out which Harry Potter movie it actually was (because of, you know, how many there were). Still, the film made 8 quatillion dollars so Disney’s not fretting too much. This completes Joss Whedon’s contribution to the series. The next two Avengers movies will be passed off to Captain America 2 directors Joe and Anthony Russo. After that, things become interesting. The Marvel Universe will likely choose to reboot everything (from the actors to the films themselves) which is a phase they haven’t had to deal with yet. Until then, though, viva la superheroes!
Writer: Joss Whedon (based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby)
Details: 141 minutes
In a recent Scriptshadow Newsletter I commented how we were moving away from the dark serious world of superheroes that Christopher Nolan initiated into more fun-filled fair. If Avengers: Age of Ultron is any indication of the kind of fun we’ll be getting, please bring back Nolan.
I purposefully avoided all details about this movie going in as I wanted to see it fresh. And I noticed something curious almost immediately. “Man,” I thought, “Joss Whedon sure did an aggressive director’s pass on this screenplay.” How did I know this? Well, because literally every fourth line of dialogue was a quip. So Iron Man would say something like, “Everybody needs to loosen up.” And Captain America would reply with something like, “Says the man encased in metal.”
This would’ve been fine had it happened, oh, I don’t know, three? Maybe four times? But when it happens SEVENTY-FIVE F***ING TIMES, it’s a little overboard, don’t you think? Screenwriters all have their go-to moves. For Tarantino, it’s his long dialogue scenes where the characters appear to be talking about nothing. For Woody Allen it’s a character who drones on about the meaninglessness of life. And with Joss Whedon, it’s quips.
Part of being a good screenwriter is restraining yourself so you don’t keep going back to the well. Cause if you start doing the same thing enough, the audience begins to notice it, and then you’ve done the worst thing a writer can do, which is break the suspension of disbelief.
After the film, I checked online to see that Whedon didn’t just do a director’s pass, he’s got sole screenwriting credit! Which explained this and so much more. And by “so much more,” I mean that Avengers was basically an extended episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Heck, he even found a way to sneak a witch into the plot!
“Ultron” centers on Tony Stark’s continued obsession with pushing the boundaries of technology. He’s created an artificially intelligent being inside his computer, which quickly finds itself an exterior robot body to jump into. This robot’s name is Ultron and he really hates Tony Stark and the Avengers because… okay, let’s just be real here, because they wouldn’t have a movie otherwise.
Ultron decides that he’s really into meteors for no reason and rigs the underside of a small Eastern European city to break away from the earth, fly up into the stratosphere, then shoot back down to earth like a meteor and – I guess – destroy half of earth in the process. Although it’s never made clear how this would actually destroy half of the earth.
Despite the Avengers having the strongest God in the universe, the strongest robot in the world, and the strongest monster in the world, they determine they can’t defeat Ultron alone, and so they create… something I can only describe as a dull-colored caped crusader. Despite a lot of the superheroes trying to explain what this man is (“He’s a biological extension of an A.I. program with Tony Stark’s virtual assistant’s voice?”), nobody knows for sure. What we do know is that he’s the strongest man ever. Which gives them a fighting chance to defeat Ultron.
Putting my quipping issues on hold for the time being, I noticed a few things about Avengers 2 that I hadn’t thought of going in. First, it LITERALLY has something for everybody. It has a great actor in Robert Downey Jr. to bring in the older crowd. It has Chris Hemsworth to bring in the swooning female Fifty Shades crowd. It has Scarlett Johannson to bring in the internet-distracted teenage boy crowd. It has superheroes to bring in the kid crowd.
There’s a reason this movie will make more money than any other movie this year (yes, probably more than even my beloved Star Wars). It’s the PERFECT STUDIO MOVIE. It gets every single demo into the theater. And it does so ORGANICALLY.
By that I mean it’s not adding these things to the film specifically to bring in certain demographics. Audiences can smell when studios do that from a mile away. The premise of a team of superheroes trying to save the world naturally hits every demo out there. Which is really rare.
And yet, as a standalone story, Avengers: Age of Ultron, fails. It wasn’t as bad as the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, but it makes that classic mistake all superhero sequels make – that MORE must be better. More superheroes. More villains. More battles. More storylines. And that NEVER works. And I know that Joss Whedon knows this. I’ve heard him talk about it before.
Look at a movie like Captain America 2, which many consider to be the best Marvel film so far. It’s no coincidence that that film was one of the smallest in scope of all the Marvel movies. This forced them to be more creative and come up with better ideas (instead of bigger ones). Two of the most memorable sequences in that film took place in a) an elevator. And b) a stopped car! And both were FAR more compelling than Ultron’s giant city floating up into the clouds.
Or take Ultron’s best set-piece: Hulk vs. Iron Man. That was a cool fucking set piece! I loved this “Iron Man Emergency Pack” that shot down from a satellite and kept equipping Iron Man’s suit whenever the Hulk would bust it up. Genius idea there.
And yet I FELT NOTHING during the fight. Why? Because it had nothing to do with anything. There were no stakes attached (story or emotions-wise) at all. Let’s say Iron Man loses the fight. The Hulk then what? Kills 700 people instead of 500 before turning back into Bruce Banner? I didn’t even know what city they were in so why would I care about who died? It’s clear the sequence was put there for one reason and one reason only – because it was cool. And that’s the worst reason to put a set piece into your screenplay. You add something to your story first BECAUSE IT MATTERS. Then you figure out how to make it cool.
I’ve said this before – it’s very difficult to steer a screenplay for a movie this big into any sort of creative vision. You’re dealing with too much money and too many powerful forces wielding their influence over the final product. Still, I was hoping for something a little better than what I got. Here’s where I’d rank Ultron along with the rest of the Marvel films.
1) Iron Man
2) Guardians of the Galaxy
3) Captain America 2
5) The Incredible Hulk
6) Captain America 1
7) Avengers 2
9) Iron Man 3
10) Iron Man 2
11) Thor 2
[ ] what the hell did I just watch?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Avoid using premonitions at all costs. They’re the sloppiest most hackneyed storytelling device there is, and are almost always used as a cheat. In screenwriting, you must constantly come up with REASONS for why your characters do things. And the clearest most powerful reasons are always the best. Indiana Jones needs to find the Ark because if he doesn’t, Hitler will. A premonition is the opposite of that. It’s a vague vision that holds no weight in reality. Maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t. So it doesn’t carry nearly the punch that REAL motivation does. Look at a couple of really bad movies that have used this device in the past. Matrix: Revolutions (Neo has a premonition that Trinity will die). Star Wars: Episode 3 (Annakin has a vision that Padme will die). And here in Ultron, we have Thor going off on some tangent adventure because he had a premonition. It’s no coincidence that that ended up being the most pointless thread of the entire movie. — The one genre premonitions can work in is horror films. But they must be intricately woven into the story. They can’t just be slapped in there to get your character to do something you’re too lazy to come up with a reason for otherwise.