It’s rare to enjoy a movie, actively, for almost the duration of its running time, and yet walk out of the theater feeling a little cold.
But that’s how I felt about Avengers: Age of Ultron, the most recent movie in a long series of movies with a colon in its name — a series which will continue with Terminator Genysysys, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War, and presumably its companion film Gone With the Wind: Civil War.
(This isn’t even counting the already-plotted pair of sequels to Age of Ultron — Avengers: Infinity War Part I and Part II.)
Though I have enjoyed most Marvel movies individually, collectively they have one flaw that particularly irritates me: they have terrible scores. The score for Age of Ultron, primarily credited to Brian Tyler, felt like little more than placeholder music. Tyler’s film credits “have grossed over $7 billion,” according to Wikipedia, but I doubt anyone went to the last four Fast and Furiouses or the Expendables “trilogy” to hear Tyler’s music. Danny Elfman also gets a credit for his work polishing Alan Silvestri’s theme from the first movie, the sole decent piece of music in Ultron.
Great scores are something that can truly elevate a movie, and its something that stands in stark relief when you compare Age of Ultron to two movies which share certain strands of its DNA: The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight.
Joss Whedon said while making this movie that he wanted Age of Ultron to capture the darker, grander feel of Empire. You know what Empire had going for it? One of John Williams’s greatest scores, including two iconic themes heard for the first time — the Imperial March and Yoda’s Theme. These two pieces completely transform the film, giving Darth Vader and the Empire a fresh bite of malice while deepening the mysticism surrounding Luke’s training with Yoda on Dagobah.
The Dark Knight is the second film of the most critically-acclaimed superhero movie trilogy of all time, and it is often (in my mind correctly) considered the greatest superhero movie ever made. It is often contrasted as a “darker” and “grittier” movie than any of Marvel’s offerings. It, too, benefits from an epic Hans Zimmer / James Newton Howard score, an innovative series of compositions which includes some truly memorable themes. It’s tough to imagine Heath Ledger’s Joker without the building, whining scream of guitar noise that announces his presence. Zimmer is unafraid of using bold, almost tuneless pieces that ramp up the tension and lend the film its distinct ambience.
After watching Age of Ultron, I can’t tell you whether or not there’s a specific theme or motif for Ultron, or the Vision, or any other character. Even if they theoretically exist within the score, they’re not particularly memorable or distinctive. This lessens the power of individual scenes (i.e. the face-to-face encounter between Ultron and Iron Man, or the moment when the Hulk chooses not to return to Black Widow), and contributes to the paint-by-numbers nature of some of the action sequences.
Combined with an extremely weak ending — seriously, the scenes at “New Avengers Facility, Upstate New York” are varying levels of both boring and annoying — and a dull mid-credits scene, and Age of Ultron didn’t leave much to chew on as I walked out of the theater. As much as I enjoyed most of the movie, I didn’t find it particularly memorable, and Marvel’s unwillingness to commit to the details that shape great films is a big part of why.
Some other thoughts:
- I cannot believe the line “You know I support your Avenging” wasn’t played for laughs. It’s so self-evidently ridiculous, and this movie is on-the-nose about every other ridiculous thing that happens…
- Ultron himself, played by James Spader, was the best part of this movie. The concept of “an evil robot trying to take over the world who has the voice and tics of James Spader” works perfectly, and I enjoyed almost all of his screen appearances.
- This movie had too much track-laying. And I know that’s how Marvel movies work these days, but I never felt like (to pick an example) Captain America: The Winter Soldier was just moving pieces around the board. But the whole sequence where Andy Serkis popped up is clearly supposed to be a thing but I didn’t really get it, and whatever Thor was doing for most of this movie is clearly supposed to be a thing but I didn’t see Thor: The Dark World so I didn’t really get it, and Thanos’s cameo in the mid-credits scene is just a reminder that this movie is merely a pit stop on the way to juicier offerings. I recognize the goal is to set-up future movies, but it’s a disservice to the film and its viewers to do that at the expense of the current movie. This is especially ironic given that Whedon explicitly criticized Empire for “committ[ing] the cardinal sin of not actually ending.” Pot, kettle, etc.
- I quite liked Man of Steel, which if you believe certain corners of the Internet is a belief that I am alone in holding. It’s cool, I don’t take it personally. Zack Snyder takes a lot of crap for that movie, but I give him credit for making something that has clear directorial choices and style. There’s an argument over at The Dissolve that the final battle of this movie was a direct response to Man of Steel. If so, is that something we really want to celebrate? It’s extremely convenient for the Avengers that the city in the final battle is located in an otherwise deserted valley, that just enough SHIELD ships arrive to save almost every single person, and that the team’s obligatory casualty is easily the least-developed character. We get plenty of shots of Captain America looking heroically stoic and refusing to not save every single civilian, but this was almost a catastrophic tactical decision on his part, because if he miscalculated every single person on Earth would have died! To get to the point, at least Man of Steel makes you feel like there are actual, serious stakes, which it looks like will be fleshed out even further in Batman V Superman. Not something you can say for any of the climactic battle in Age of Ultron.