To Marvel fans and those impatiently awaiting its release, Avengers: Age of Ultron seemed like it just might be an exception to the rule: a long-awaited blockbuster whose bombastic anticipation actually wouldn’t anchor it down to disappointment. Unlike in the case of certain other superhero franchises, the Marvel Cinematic Universe flicks have seemed to ride highest on genuine excitement rather than tepid preciousness. Trust in the creative vision allowing for good times at — and, more impressively, after — the theater. As the hottest entry on the horizon since the Avengers series proved itself an empire in 2012, Age of Ultron’s couriering of such “good vibes” straight up until its release last week seemed like the sort of phenomenon we haven’t known since well before The Phantom Menace.
But maybe all of us who believed such a hungrily awaited property could resist backlash were just humoring our nostalgia for an era not yet contaminated by Midi-chlorians; Age of Ultron’s opening weekend had barely come to a close before its viewers and critics had begun voicing issue with any one of a gaggle of problems therein.
The popular complaints were hardly out of line. Age of Ultron is bogged down with confusing tangents, like Thor’s dip in a cave-lake to incur a spirit-vision serving only as franchise-building-fan-service.
[NOTE: Spoilers for The Avengers: Age of Ultron lie ahead.]
So defensible is the distaste for this scene, in fact, that the poster-boy for its maligning is none other than the film’s director himself, Joss Whedon. The filmmaker behind Ultron, 2012’s Avengers, and no small sum of rewrites on the Marvel movies released in between has validated the public’s anger with Thor’s non sequitur vision quest by revealing that it was an insistence of the studio, for the benefit of franchise growth — and that it was forced into the story under the condition that absence thereof would result in a deletion of the unmistakable Whedonesque scenes at Clint Barton’s family home
A likely unsurprising disclosure to anyone familiar with Whedon’s authorial tone, the MCU hegemony, or the filmmaking industry in general, this explicit assignment of the studio’s iron fist to the responsibility of the shoddiest of Ultron’s several slapdash sequences should act as a reminder of something — something we clearly and desperately need to remember right now.
There is a separate wave of denigration hitting Age of Ultron that hasn’t earned the same degree of emulation from Whedon, nor has it aspired thereto. If you’ve braved the battlefields of Twitter over the past few days, you may have noticed the writer/director taking heat for his handling of the character Black Widow, whose principal arc in the film has her pursuing romantic camaraderie with fellow superhero Bruce Banner. Whedon has taken so much heat, in fact, that he jumped ship from Twitter altogether. He hasn’t come out and declared this vocal Natasha purism as the reason behind his leave, but anyone who has caught glimpse of some of these extreme hate tweets and death threats would seem justified in assuming they were a big part of the decision.
Without even breaching the subject of whether or not such violent vitriol is ever truly an acceptable means by which to conduct oneself, we jump to the question of Whedon’s potential transgression with the storyline.
Some of us vehement defenders of the arc argue that it is not included through lack of imagination about how to handle a female superhero but instead as a sharp and empowering means at exploring the psychological maladies of one of the MCU’s most interesting characters. Beyond this, however, do we encourage an approach to the material with an appreciation of context.
First, context for the Marvel canon. In every feature film so far, we’ve seen a hero struggle with some semblance of a romantic arc: Tony Stark has been undone by his devotion to Pepper Potts, Thor reversed by his blossoming interest in Jane Foster. Without a standalone feature to her name — a problem that is not in any way Whedon's fault — this reliable source of pathos finds a necessary home in the series’ roundup flick. You might even say that without a romantic arc Black Widow would be treated like a “lesser” member of the Avengers.
This gives way to the context of Whedon, a writer, director, and producer who has been nothing if not the hopeful purveyor of modern feminism in his work. Though not without his history of detractors, Whedon has for the most part been celebrated for a drive of pop culture progressivism dating back before such politics even had vociferous social media activity pushing it forward. With a mind like his behind a plotline as visibly multifaceted as Natasha Romanoff’s in Ultron — she’s not just fawning over a fellow brooder, but falling victim to flashbacks of childhood trauma, struggling with her alienation among the civil world, and, yes, riding freakin’ motorcycles out of high speed super-jets — a good old fashioned benefit of the doubt seems warranted for a second look at what might have initially come off as reductive work.
And finally, as beckoned by Whedon’s own comments about the level of studio interference that landed us with a cacophony of skinny-dipping demigods, the context of the film industry. Not everything in such a grand franchise blockbuster can ever be authored by the director alone, and few things can be assumed to be his or her crystal vision. If Black Widow’s journey in Age of Ultron feels slight or incomplete, there’s a good chance that it was chopped up by the whim of the men behind the curtain…just as Clint Barton’s character development was almost done away with entirely (a shift of character development likewise rooted in a romantic relationship).
What we should take away from Whedon’s years as an artist with progressive intentions is that there’s likely more to his Black Widow story than we’ve been thus far inclined to give credit to; what we should take away from his recent comments about the injection of Thor: Ragnarok setups against his will is that there was definitely an environment at play that would have fostered such a muddling of ideas between script and screen.
With all this in mind, we’d have to submit to the idea that we may have no one in particular to blame when such a hotly anticipated property like Avengers: Age of Ultron inevitably falls shy of expectation. That might be the thing we have the hardest time dealing with.
Images: Disney (4)