MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Avengers: Age of Ultron

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (Three and a Half Stars)

U. S.: Joss Whedon, 2015

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

A man named Corleone walks into an Italian tailor’s shop one sunny day on Mulberry Street in Little Italy, and lays some badly torn wedding pants on the counter. The tailor, whose name is Rossellini, looks at the pants, frowns and says “Euripides?” Mr. Corleone answers “Eumenides!“

The little boy sitting in the corner while this happened, reading the latest copy of Superman, was named Martin Scorsese. He grew up to be a movie-loving priest whose favorite movie was Kiss of Death and whose favorite actor was Richard Widmark. Years later, that same beloved priest was killed in the crossfire when they rubbed out Crazy Joey Gallo at Umberto’s Clam House. Father Marty’s last words were “Euripides? Eumenides!”

Nobody could understand what the hell he meant.

What should I say about Avengers: Age of Ultron? Is it too much of a good thing? Maybe. But consider the possibilities that stretched before it, as well as all the doors that were already closed when all the deals were struck.

It’s a big studio blockbuster sequel, but it’s not half-bad. It’s pretty damned good in fact. Movies, we know, can make use of almost all the other arts—cramming in so much that they can potentially become a kind of super-art, an amalgam of literature, drama, the visual arts, music, comics, rock ’n roll, the other popular or lively arts, the kitchen sink, Greek tragedy and more. They can also be one of the most wasteful of all forms—a media slumgullion that sometimes runs amok and goes over the edge, yet whose very prodigality can carry its own crazy exhilaration, nutty humor, sleazy grandeur and spectacular beauty. That, as somebody said (I think it was Aeschylus), is entertainment.

Take Avengers: Age of Ultron, the monolithic blockbuster du jour, the latest super-duper-hero movie leviathan from the world-makers at Marvel. I’m of two minds about it, both of them divided. Though it’s making a mint, there are probably, certainly, better ways, artistically speaking, to spend 250 million dollars than to have shot the whole wad on this show alone. We’re not talking business here, you understand. But I’m reasonably sure that you could have taken the same budget and fashioned at least 25 possibly better pictures (perhaps even the equivalents of Citizen Kane and The Godfather and La Dolce Vita and Seven Samurai and Fanny and Alexander and Vertigo and The Searchers and The Rules of the Game), using all that loot, and all those actors, and all that technology, employed by writer-directors as good as (or better than) the Avengers’ helmsman Joss Whedon—or preferably, some peers of Orson Welles and his ilk.

But that doesn’t mean the gargantuan entertainment given birth by the Avengers’ moolah and machinery, isn’t a relatively smashing success, on its own crash-bang-thank-you-clang terms—or that the vast not-just-fan-boy world-wide audience waiting to see it from here to Bangkok and Paris and Timbuktu, won’t be mightily pleased at the result. They will. They’re the target. Deal with it, cinephiles. This is what the system is geared up to produce right now, and that it will produce, and keep on producing, until Hell freezes over in glorious IMAX and super-3D. Or, preferably, until the system expands its boundaries and widens its agendas and gets as intellectually ambitious as it is now ambitious technically and financially, as adept at creating something artistically rich and beautiful that explores the human condition (pardon my pretensions), as it is right now in creating fantasy worlds with comic book characters and then blowing them apart.

If you love cinema in this age of big studio tent pole behemoths, and if you write about them, you simply have to try to help create a climate and open up arenas for the other kinds of movies, and that other kind of audience as well: an audience somewhat older, and brighter and better-read and more intellectually adventurous and more emotionally open—an audience that, in fact, Avengers writer-director Joss Whedon seems to be trying to reach here, at least some of the time. Especially when this (pop and classic) cultural magpie of a moviemaker—whose last feature was a low budget black-and-white version of Shakespeare’s wordy, witty masterpiece “Much Ado About Nothing”—makes quick allusions to or quotes from a whole crazy quilt multiplicity of sources that include Eugene O‘Neill and Nietzsche and Neville Chamberlain (“Peace in our time”) and Walt Disney’s Pinocchio (“I’ve got no strings”) and Jesus Christ (“Upon this rock…”).

The two Avengers are not the kind of shows I usually yearn to see. Instead, I’d like to see budgets and resources like that (or half that, or a twentieth that) put in the hands of moviemakers like Welles and Bergman and Coppola and Kurosawa. Because, as Lord Acton once said, big budgets tend to corrupt and absolutely big budgets corrupt absolutely.

That goes for the Marvel mythos too, of which the Avenger movies—2012’s The Avengers (also by Whedon) and the current Avengers: Age of Ultron—are currently the capstones. Money or love of money is not always the root of all evil, but it is the root of a lot of banality, and Ultron, good as a lot of it is, doesn’t entirely escape that banality, or that evil.

In the last installment of this jam-packed series, a culminating Marvelwork, the nefariously tricky Loki (Tom Hiddleston) battled his old nemesis, hammer-flinging, blonde-tressed Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in another of those endless attempts by various movie super-villains to destroy the world. And Thor foiled him, with the help of an all-star superhero lineup that included such costumed crime-busters as Iron Man/whose not so secret identity is Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey, Jr.), the volatile mean green Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), that straightest arrow Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the sultry super-lady Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), the impeccable War Machine/Iron Man crony James Rhodes (a whiff of Don Cheadle), speed demon Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), and the bunch’s mostly off-screen recruiter and coach, surly Nick Fury, agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Samuel L. Jackson with some of his most formidable scowls).

Marvel brought them altogether in 2012 (after a series of teasers in their other movies) with the fervor and showmanship of rock promoters assembling a new Woodstock. And now everyone returns, except bad guy Loki. In his place, as the show’s head heavy, The Marvelites have hired a dandy new villain: an insolent black-metallic super-robot named, you guessed it, Ultron, and played with really villainous and malevolent relish and a demonic sense of fun by James Spader.

The movie alternates between those old formula elaborate action scenes, and a more than usual allotment of counter-balancing humor and drama. (For my money, they could use even more.) So we get, after the usual James Bondish opening action salvo—which has Captain America and his pals duking it out in some place called Sokovia with Nazi madman Baron Von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann, the good German of Polanski’s great The Pianist)—quieter scenes with Tony and Bruce trading quips, while Tony unwisely invents a peace-keeping device, which morphs into the even madder and more tyrannical and more super-villainous Ultron, who unfortunately works under the teasingly plausible assumption that if you eliminate humankind, you will also eliminate war. True, but…

There are various battles in the usual cities in chaos and aflame, and the usual street chase, and a rest stop for the crew at Hawkeye’s country retreat where everybody chops wood and has home-cooked meals, and Hawkeye’s stalwart spouse (Linda Cardellini) utters that deathless line (I’m sure you’ve already heard or read it), “You know I totally support your Avenging,“ (Couldn’t she also say “Darling, on your way back from this days’ Avenging, could you pick up an Apocalypse for the kids?”) And eventually, a chunk of Earth gets ripped from its Earthly moorings and flung into space, where there are more battles, and more sneering from Ultron, and the usual fight to save Earth from mass destruction (and, in this case, acid Ultronic zingers)—a fight-to-the-death whose outcome the Spoiler Alert Patrol dictates I must keep as secret as all the secret identities of the Avengers. Shhhhh. Let me offer one reveal though, as they say: You won’t be unpleasantly surprised. (Or necessarily pleasantly surprised either.)

So much for the plot. If it seems familiar, that’s definitely the intention. This is a familiar show, with some innovations. What’s good about the movie, or at least somewhat refreshingly different, is the higher ratio of halfway clever dramatic and comic scenes (like Thor’s barroom hammer game with his colleagues) to the fights and chases and potential destructions of man (and woman) kind. Whedon obviously knows what we all know, or think we know: that the constant pummeling into submission of audiences at the usual super-action movie, though it will satisfy the gazillions of people who love movies like this, can get repetitive and predictable and turn off some of the less comics-crazy moviegoers as well. Besides, why hire a cast as good as this, and not give them more interesting things to say and do? How can you be credibly human in the rest stops, if the story is too incredibly super-human when the rest is over and the world is being annihilated?

So Whedon has salted in more snappy lines and more love scenes (Hulk and Black Widow and Hawkeye and Mrs. Hawkeye) and added lots of badinage (and hopefully, goodinage too) (sorry), and given Downey and Ruffalo some snappy stuff to say. (They know what to do with it.) And he has arranged for Spader to walk off with a lot of the movie by having him play (via voice-over and action-capture) one of the snazziest bad guys in many a dark moon, Ultron the Ultra-Cad.

Spader was once one of the best nasty movie rich kids ever—he set the mold for youthful suburban arrogance in teen-shows like Pretty in Pink or L. A. expose’s like Less Than Zero. Now, in his 50s, he’s taken out a patent on older brands of villainy, and here on a different, more drastic and dangerous (and funnier) kind of villain. Instead of misadvising suburban schmos like Andrew McCarthy, he’s out to razz and scoff at our entire planet and misadvise and destroy us all. Spader, who deserves an encore of some kind for his work here, does all this heavy lifting with an effortless sneering panache worthy of a cross between James Earl Jones’s haughty voicing of Darth Vader, Brit badmouth Simon Cowell’s venting of his fancy dan smart-assery on the old “American Idol,” and the rambles and rumbles of Lucifer, Jr., the Voice of Doom on a Honeymoon from Hell. Bravo. It almost makes me wish I’d shown more prescience and given Spader and Downey more enthusiastic notices back in 1985, when I first reviewed them, I believe (for the L. A. Times) in Tuff Turf, and was nicer (I believe) to Jack Mack and The Heart Attack. Who knew?

All of the Avengers get their little moments here, and there are some fairly nifty movie newcomers like Marvelites Vision, a.k.a. Jarvis (the estimable Paul Bettany), and the Maximoff Twins, Pietro and Wanda, a.k.a. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen). They’ll be familiar, of course, to people with big comics collections, or with the right movie press books. There’s even a cameo by Marvel’s great begetter, and one of this movie’s executive producers, the magnificent speech balloon bard Stan Lee, from whence all this (or a lot of it) came, and his cameo is longer (and wordier) than any of Hitchcock’s.

Joss Whedon, the being behind (to borrow a super-noun) this movie behemoth, the inventive artist who gave us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and the black-and-white Much Ado About Nothing (whose title is not necessarily his comment on his current occupation), acquits himself admirably, along with his thousands of collaborators, and he leaves the series honorably, if in slightly better shape himself than his Ultron. As they say, you can only end the world so many times, before the real-life non-supermen take over and maybe really end it.

This is a movie whose main assets are its smarts and the genius of the system and lotsa, lotsa dough and talented people, and those are the main assets of a lot of Hollywood classics. As for the action scenes and special effects, all the raison d’etre and razzle-dazzle that obviously consumed a lot of time, money, blood, sweat and tears here, as well as inspiring a huge hulking hunk of the list on the movies typically endless end-titles, I‘m, uh, speechless. But, hell, you see one of these (the action scenes or the end-titles), you’ve seen them all. At least it seems that way.

Hey, as someone said (I think it was Ingmar Bergman), it’s only a movie. Meanwhile, congrats to Spader and Downey and all the tuff turfs they endured on the way to the top. Or, as Lord Action (no sic), I think it was, said: “Blockbusters corrupt, and absolute blockbusters corrupt absolutely.” Who needs another Citizen Kane anyway? Or another Dolce Vita? Or a filmmaking Euripides? (Eumenides!) As for another Godfather, well, they can do it on TV. And don’t think I’m being sarcastic.

You know guys, I totally support your Avenging.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon