Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Glancing at a “news” article recently, I read that Avengers: Age of Ultron is the highest-grossing U.S. film release of the year. In other news: water is wet. For God’s sake, this is a non-story considering the drivel it was competing with during Q1. According to Wikipedia, Age of Ultron is the eighth highest-grossing film of all time but, as we know, just because something is successful doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good.

After the heart-stopping success of the first Avengers film, Joss Whedon reprises his position as both writer and director. If you’ve seen The Avengers, you’re essentially in for more of the same; that is, a heavy emphasis on frenetic, computer generated action sequences. Indeed, they deserve an in-depth focus because that’s basically all that’s on offer. Like The Avengers, we’re treated to a slew of highly choreographed, fast-paced, but ultimately superficial fight scenes, all of which fail to disguise the fact that the plot is an insipid, go-nowhere sightseeing tour of exotic locations.

The problem with a lot of the fight scenes in Age of Ultron is that there’s no weight or impact to what we’re seeing. The heroes dispatch the enemies with such expediency that it hardly makes a difference whether the bad guys are there or not, meaning that any dramatic tension dissolves right before our eyes.

Before the advent of CG, there was a school of thought that dictated that superhero movies were an unwise proposition because even with the most intricate practical sets, it was still a tall order to capture the larger-than-life spectacle of comic books. Now, however, I can’t help be feel that we’ve gone too far in the opposite direction as we find ourselves living in a time when the average superhero movie can be made of ninety-five percent green screen.

Chunks of rubble and smashed scenery fly around like they’re made out of cotton, and the over-reliance on computer generation means that everything has a weirdly clean, unreal-looking quality to it in a way that reminds me unsettlingly of the Star Wars prequels. I noticed a significant visual downgrade as soon as the action sequences started up, although I did have the misfortune of seeing the film in gimmicky RealD 3D bullshit vision—which inevitably makes everything look atrocious—so I’m willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt there.

So, the action is more of the same, but what about the characters? Well, that’s where Whedon really decided to knuckle-down and ruin everything. A critic I like once made the observation that Whedon has no conception of character voice, meaning that the dialogue of each character is virtually interchangeable with the others. And more to the point, enough with the fucking quips, Whedon! Not every character has to make some pedantic retort or vapid observation every time they open their mouths!

I felt like I was watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where every line of dialogue is some smarmy insipidity that makes you want to kick the offending character’s teeth in. It’s almost like Age of Ultron was written by the same amateurish, ham-fisted—oh, wait. Come on, Whedon. Give us a little substance, for God’s sake—not the adventures of the Bland Brigade.

A big problem with the film is the introduction of the new character, Vision. He’s some kind of android, I guess, infused with the power of one of the infinity stones, but despite establishing that the Avenger’s couldn’t possibly defeat Ultron without Vision’s help, he contributes nothing during the final showdown. Excuse me, that’s not entirely true. He punches him. Once. Ultimately his presence would have meant precisely as much whether he was there or not, apart from Disney having a new toy to sell, obviously.

There’s also been an attempt to characterize Black Widow and Hawkeye, and while I can appreciate the intention, Natasha Romanov’s character seems to have done a complete 180 in between films. From uttering the line, “love is for children,” in The Avengers to “I adore you,” in Age of Ultron, she didn’t seem to undergo an arc so much as Whedon decided to arbitrarily fuck around with his own canon for the sake of poignancy.

I mentioned the plot a moment ago, so let’s refocus our sights. Weirdly, the events of Age of Ultron are decidedly scaled-down compared to those of the first, mainly due to a reliance on telling rather than showing. The alien invasion of New York is swapped for a rouge AI trying to do…what, exactly? Kill everyone, presumably—but his motivation for doing so seem incredibly poorly justified, despite multiple villainous monologues filled-to-bursting with meaningless pseudo-philosophical bullshit.

We’re told on multiple occasions that if the villain succeeds, billions of people will die. The most we see in the film, however, is one little town being terrorized via some kind of anti-gravity device. My point is that it would have helped if we had seen or heard a demonstration of the destructive capability of this plan (like the destruction of Alderan in A New Hope, for example) instead of just having to take Captain America’s word for it. There’s also an early setup about a growing anti-Avengers sentiment among the populace, complete with anti-iron man graffiti on some walls, but that aspect of the plot is quietly dropped and never referenced again.

The larger story, furthermore, is rife with plot holes, mostly concerning Ultron’s evil plan. For example, consider the impossibility of destroying a true, adaptive AI that’s been established to already be inside the Internet, replicating itself. Tony Stark brings it up at one point, but seems to forget about it just as quickly. And again, was Ultron not forward-thinking enough to station one, or five, or ten robots outside of the town that his consciousness could inhabit as a contingency? The devil is in the details, Whedon. Perhaps with a little more polish, the script wouldn’t seem like it was rushed out in a week in an attempt to capitalize on a pre-existing franchise.

I think the reason that the first Avengers film worked was because we were all collectively taken in by the massive lead up, and were mostly happy to see the characters that we had come to love play around in a big, explosive blowout of a film. As cathartic as The Avengers was, it was totally inept when it came to actually telling a story—a problem which is compounded to a rather worrying degree in Age of Ultron.

Some might respond to the points I’ve raised by saying “it’s a superhero blockbuster. What did you expect?” But to them I would respond by saying that excuse doesn’t brook with me when Avengers: Age of Ultron exists in the same world as The Dark Knight.

Disney has the luxury of having no real competitors in the superhero genre at present, but if they keep pumping out more toothless work like this, then I wouldn’t be surprised if the public eventually recognizes it for the schlock that it is.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: The World Forgetting by the World Forgot

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Every experience that you’ve ever had, from the desolation of bottomless despair to the zenith of limitless euphoria, constitute the wholeness of your being. They make you who you are, whether you like it or not. Do you deny it? Your experiences shape how you see and interact with the world around you. To loose one’s memories is to loose one’s grasp of self.

Today, I’d like to talk about an extraordinary film called Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In it, we can explore an array of interesting principles including the value of memory as well as the concepts of fate and chance. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman presents us with one of his finest accomplishments through peerless storytelling and deep and meaningful characters. Likewise, director Michael Gondry outdoes himself in Eternal Sunshine by devising some of the most ingenious uses of line, shape, space, and color in nearly every shot than I have seen in any film. The result is aesthetically beautiful, and I do not use the term lightly. I have never seen a film which has kept me so engaged on visual level while only utilizing such simple elements of design. I do not hesitate to call this film a true work of art, and as such I have developed a deep and profound respect for it.

The film explores several different yet equally important topics, the best way to proceed is to analyze them one at a time.

Memory

“Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders.” 

Many philosophers, including Immanuel Kant, support the idea that tampering with one’s memory or any other form of ‘self deception’ as he put it, is morally wrong. That’s all well and good, but what about the nature of memory itself? Is it not true that a man is shaped by his experiences, whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Everything that he has been exposed to will effect the choices that he makes as well as his outlook on the world. Essentially, this view presupposes the premise of subjective reality based upon the perception of the individual. For instance, if one were to be exposed to violence at a young age, that individual may grow up thinking that violence is a normal and valid response to conflict. On the other hand, that same individual may become disgusted with the violence that he was exposed to as a child and later in life adopt a non-violent worldview. Either way, and regardless of which choice he makes, that individual has been affected by the events that have occurred in the past. He is who he is now because of who he was then. Such a principal may seem like common sense, but it is vitally important nevertheless. Every choice you make, from the kind of coffee you drink in the morning to your stance on the upcoming election, is a result of the things that have happened to you in the past and your memory thereof.

Now consider Joel, who voluntarily forfeit his memory to escape the pain of the past. Considering what we now know about the nature of memory, is it possible to suggest that Joel is not quite complete? In other words, is he somehow less of a man? Physically, he is healthy. He has a brian, a heart, a liver, four functioning limbs and all the rest, but what about mentally or philosophically? For a real-life example, we need only look to an amnesia patient. If his memory is muddled, unclear, or even cuts off at a certain point, can we conclude that some part of him is missing, even if he does not know it himself? If he has no concept of how much time has passed between his last memory and the present, can he try his best to pick up where he left off and be no worse for it, or is his case hopeless because he cannot remember the events which shaped and guided his life up until that point. It is for you to decide. Both schools of thought are valid, and no great philosopher has succeeded in reaching an objective conclusion.

Determinism

While not an outright theme, Determinism is subtly woven into the context of the film. In short, determinism states that all events in life are based on the law of cause and effect, meaning that for every action there is one and only one unalterable and unavoidable reaction. According to its supporters, mostly pre-enlightenment philosophers, the process began at the very instant of the universe began and continues uninterrupted to this day. This being the case, and all actions being a result of cause-and effect, it would follow then, that free will as we know it would be rendered an arbitrary illusion as all of our ‘choices’ are indeed the only actions that could have occurred under the circumstances.

In the context of the film, determinism may be viewed as the inevitable fate of the two lovers, Joel and Clementine. The two had their memories erased and by reasonable conclusion should not fall for each other again. The simple phrase “Meet me in Montauk” whispered by a fleeting memory of Clementine travels through space and time and memory to find Joel in the present against, or perhaps because of, all odds. Ultimately, Joel and Clementine find each other again, almost as though it was meant to happen no matter what.

Indeterminism

Let me qualify this apparent contradiction. Indeterminism, as one would assume, is the opposite of determinism, and suggests that chance, rather than fate, is the determining factor in the process of events in the universe. Indeterminism began to gain widespread popularity with the advent of the study of quantum physics. Until that point, all observable information that humans possessed was based on the law of cause and effect, lending a huge amount of support to determinist thought and creating a grim outlook for free will as a concept. However, in 1927 Werner Heisenberg formulated his uncertainty principal, which states that that position and momentum of a particle cannot be known simultaneously. Essentially, what Heisenberg was suggesting was that the movement of the particles was without cause and therefore based on chance. Once it was accepted that the smallest units of matter were floating around more or less randomly, the concept was soon applied on a grander scale and free will returned as a valid concept of decision-making.

In the case of Joel and Clementine, it seems as though it was by mere chance that they fell in love the first time, and it seems as though it was by mere chance that they were able to find each other again. Isn’t it miraculous that a simple shard of a vast and beautiful memory was spared, when all other vestiges of Clementine were erased from Joel’s brain? Such a simple phrase…”Meet me in Montauk.” There was nearly an infinite number of variables, and still they fell in love again. I know what you’re thinking. How can we know if the events that transpired were machinations of fate or the defiance of free will? The answer is, admittedly, unsatisfying. We cannot know. Perhaps the more important question is “what do you believe?”

For now. and perhaps always, the truth will be a matter of perspective.

*Special thanks to Professor of Philosophy Christopher Grau of Clemson University.