‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ Report Card: How the Comics’ Heroes Have Fared on the Screen
The Avengers are very famous indeed. After the success of their second movie as a team — and the tenth movie to feature any of the members — the Marvel heroes have a presence and profile in our culture like never before. It's a strange new reality to adjust to for those of us who remembers when co-workers, cousins and schoolmates had no knowledge of Iron Man or Black Widow, and perhaps only the vaguest idea about Captain America, and they thought of the Hulk as a sad man named David with flared trousers and a haunting piano theme.
Now millions know these characters and could probably pick them out of a line-up. But the non-comics audience knows slightly different versions of the characters than the ones we might be used to. Sometimes the changes made from page to screen are for the better, sometimes for the worse, and sometimes they're... just different. In the best cases, the movies offer brilliant new takes on the characters that inform and refresh their comic book counterparts. So with that in mind, where does Avengers: Age of Ultron leave the best-known versions of these heroes?
This article contains extensive spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron. It's been out for almost two weeks; you should have seen it by now.
Chris Evans as Cap has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the Marvel movies. Given his swaggering, near-definitive turn as another Marvel hero, The Human Torch, in the Fantastic Four movies, there was a reasonable fear that his Cap would be a jingoistic jock — the interpretation of the character favored by people too cynical to understand him.
In fact, Evans found the wholesomeness, humility, selflessness, and lack of judgement that defines Cap as the aspiration of the American dream of opportunity and equity, rather than the ugly cartoon of its stereotypes. The Cap created by Evans and the Marvel writers is utterly sincere in his belief in team work, self-sacrifice, and standing up to bullies.
Age of Ultron shows this with particular clarity when Cap notes that his enemies, the Maximoff twins, did exactly what he did in subjecting themselves to weird experiments to better fight for their country. He won't condemn them. The movie also takes pains to show Cap's determination to save every life in the climactic confrontation with Ultron, no matter how overwhelming the task appears. The film does not contort to fabricate a compromise for his idealism; it wants his idealism to be aspirational. Heroic. That's what makes the movie version of Cap a perfect interpretation.
Robert Downey Jr. has played his Marvel role in six movies now, beating out everyone but Samuel L. Jackson, who claims the crown with seven appearances (not counting TV). In other words, Downey knows his Tony Stark pretty well, and we know it too, and it's become indelible. Stark has always been an arrogant playboy with a compulsive personality and a yen for self-sufficiency. Downey has brought those traits into focus and added a dash of recklessness that, honestly, makes a lot of sense for a former arms dealer struggling with remorse. I think those traits have become clearer in the comics version of the character as well.
At this point, Downey is so comfortable with Iron Man that he can even make us briefly forget a swivel like giving up his armor at the end of one movie and wordlessly putting it back on at the start of the next.
The comics contrived to turn Iron Man and Captain America into ideological rivals, both for Civil War and in stories thereafter, in a way that hasn't always been convincing or satisfying. I think the movies are doing a better job, chiefly by resisting a turn to cynicism and accepting that both of these men are idealists. It's their faith in humanity that's at odds, not their faith in heroism. As the father of the antagonist in Age of Ultron, Downey gave us a taste of the unflinching certainty he'll bring to the more challenging role of the antagonist in Captain America: Civil War. I have no doubt he can deliver.
Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Played by Chris Hemsworth.
Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon made an enormous contribution to the onscreen Thor when he suggested that Marvel hire actor Chris Hemsworth for the role — Whedon had worked with him previously on Cabin In The Woods. Hemsworth probably had the highest hill to climb of any Avengers actor, because Thor is so powerful that he's not easy to humanize, yet Hemsworth makes him feel real without losing a sense of godliness and presence. (Perhaps those qualities just comes with being Chris Hemsworth.)
In all other regards, Whedon hasn't done well by Thor. The character is well rounded in Kenneth Branagh's Thor and Alan Taylor's Dark World; a hubristic braggart who not only comes to realize his responsibilities, but decides to see just how much of the weight of the universe he can carry on his shoulders. Yet in the first Avengers movie he's used primarily as a punchline, his relationship with the movie's villain lending him no particular importance in the story. In the second Avengers movie he's actively sent away on a tedious exposition expedition.
Everyone else in the movie gets to articulate a point of view. Thor gets to tell us what an Infinity Stone is. Everyone else in the movie gets a showcase fight scene. Thor's biggest fight is largely off-screen and used to occupy the villain while we see what the other characters are doing. The 'bit' with Vision and the hammer makes no sense; either Vision is worthy and should now possess the power of Thor, or he's unworthy and should be no better be able to pick it up than one of Iron Man's thruster gloves. But the bit serves to advance the story, and the only casualty is Thor, so it doesn't matter. Thor is the punchline, and the punching bag.
Perhaps Whedon doesn't know how to handle a character as powerful as Thor, yet doesn't have Hulk's problem with self-control. Whedon can't find the vulnerability in a thunder god, and that makes him incapable of writing the character. Hopefully the character will get better treatment from the Russo brothers on Avengers: Infinity War.
Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Played by Mark Ruffalo.
First, let's congratulate Mark Ruffalo, our two-time movie Banner, beating out those puny pretenders Ed Norton and Eric Bana.
Like Thor, Hulk is over-powered, but unlike Thor, his limitations are readily identifiable. If Hulk is the one you're counting on to save your day, your day must be very bad indeed, because no-one should want that force of destruction unleashed in their vicinity. Ruffalo plays the vulnerability and fear of his situation with beautiful pathos, and expresses his pain with such clarity through the filter of CGI motion capture that it's not hard to see why Andy Serkis was so angry. (I guess he had also lost an arm.)
The green rage-machine version of Hulk is a problem character, at least for solo stories, precisely because he is the most dangerous thing in any situation he enters. That's why Hulk stories are often either about trying to capture or contain the beast, or about versions of the Hulk that are under some level of straining control. He works great in the ensemble of the Avengers, though, as an embodiment of the superheroic capacity for accidental carnage — thoughtfully considered in Age of Ultron, and thoughtlessly exploited in many other movies.
Hulk may not get another shot at his own movie any time soon, but he's been very well handled in the two Avengers movies to date, and in giving him and fellow movie-less hero Black Widow a tragic romantic arc, Hulk and Widow get some real character development. In Hulk's case that resolved to his self-ejecting from the movie and the team, which is as appropriate an exit as the Hulk could have. You could almost hear the sad piano music as he flew away.
Created by Stan Lee, Don Rico and Don Heck. Played by Scarlett Johansson.
More has been written about Widow than any of the other characters in this movie, and for good reason; as the only woman on the team in the first film and in most of this one, she has a lot to carry. She's a love interest, a caretaker to a male character, and a character grieving over her infertility. These would be derivative directions even if the original team had five women in it (that's not a stretch; that's how many men it had); they're especially frustrating for a character forced to fill the role of 'woman' as if that were a singular character type. (She even gets damseled, for really no reason at all. How that development ever made it to the shooting script, I cannot imagine.)
The present-day Black Widow of the comics is not a character whose stories are shaped by the men she encounters, even if those men matter to her. Yet because Widow is the only woman, she's had her chemistry tested through four successive movies against Iron Man, Hawkeye, Captain America, and now Hulk, which led to a lot of fan speculation and a sneering, sex-shaming dismissal from Jeremy Renner, and that placed the role of 'woman' in primacy over Black Widow's actual character. That is not who she is. Captain America isn't a character who worries about his fertility and gets sent to babysit the Hulk, so why did Widow — his absolute peer — get those storylines?
There's no question that Disney sees its biggest female hero as a second-class citizen, given the lack of a Black Widow movie and the lack of equal time in the merchandise. Yet she's played by one of the biggest stars Marvel has on its books. She's only second class because they insist on making her that way.
Created by Stan Lee and Don Heck. Played by Jeremy Rennner.
Hawkeye is the clown of the Avengers; the Aquaman, if you will. (Sure, he should be the Green Arrow, but Green Arrow benefits from being on a team with Aquaman.)
Yet, handled well, Hawkeye serves an important role on the team. He's the guy who prickles Captain America. He's the fast-talking carnie huckster, the showman. He provides a contrast to Cap both in keeping the mood light and in providing options that Cap's moral rigidity won't allow him to consider. If Cap is always right, Hawkeye is always left, and the whole team is ambidextrous.
That's not the version of the character that we see on the screen. Partly that's because Iron Man takes the opposition role; he's a different kind of opponent, but he fills the smart-mouthed wiseacre vacancy. Mostly it's because Jeremy Renner isn't very good. In a cast rich with charisma, Renner might most generously be described as a palette cleanser. He doesn't provide wit or charm, he doesn't provide useful contrast to Cap; all he provides is arrows. And when all Hawkeye has is his arrows, he's not a useful character.
The first Avengers movie addressed this by burying it; Hawkeye spent most of the movie being mind-controlled and showed up at the end to fling sticks. The second movie goes in another direction, making Hawkeye a totally different character; a stoic family man with everything to lose. It served the movie well, and gave Rennner something to do for the first time in the franchise, but it didn't serve the character. There's a great ABC TV show to be made about Clint Barton and Kate Bishop, based on the Matt Fraction/David Aja version of the character and his standard characterization as a roguishly lovable dork. That Hawkeye can't exist with this Hawkeye taking up space in the cinematic universe. Jeremy Renner is Marvel's best argument for allowing the occasional reboot.
Recreating Vision, Ultron's synthetic android offspring with a soul, was a big ask for this movie, and yet the movie version fits that description just as well as the comics version. The movie even cleverly and economically accounted for the gem on his forehead, the atypical presence of a cape in his costume (a note of admiration for Thor, his midwife into the world), and Scarlet Witch's fascination for/attraction to a fellow weirdo. Vision is one of the toughest characters to believably translate to the screen, yet the movie took pains to do it, and do it well. (All the stranger, then, that the filmmakers bungled Hawkeye, who is probably the easiest character to translate.)
Even with all that set-up — and understand that I speak now as someone whose greatest purpose in life in the mid-80s was tracking down every issue of the Vision And The Scarlet Witch maxi-series — Vision still felt like a... machinum ex machina? Part of the problem was that Ultron himself lacked the crisp clarity of the comic book version's contempt for all life. I thought Spader was very entertaining as the petulant mood-swinging robot, but his grand plan was as ludicrous and flawed as that of any Marvel villain, and Vision's arrival as both a product of and solution to that plan seemed equally incomprehensible. He's an unsatisfying answer to an unsatisfying riddle.
Vision's origin story was deft in the details and baffling in the big picture, but it doesn't really matter; origins are often the worst part. Now we have Paul Bettany incarnate at last as the Avengers' weirdest member, bringing all the appropriate ponderousness that the role requires, and I'm excited to see this character at large in this world, no matter how much hand-waving it requires.
And speaking of hand-waving...
Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Played by Elizabeth Olsen.
Throw them shapes, Lizzie! Our second woman on the team gets to officially join at the very end of the movie — but don't worry, three dudes join on the same day, so she won't disrupt the delicate cali-bro-tion.
The comic book version of Wanda was a trembling naif who evolved into an unstable powderkeg. In the scant time afforded to her, the movie pays lip service to both ideas — she hides from a fight, but emerges as one of the most dangerous people in that fight. Thankfully the movie adds more dimension by giving her a political ideology, and though that gets swallowed up in the movie's second half, the idea of Wanda the agitator is an appealing one. (Movie Wanda would probably find herself at odds with her assimilation-minded comic book counterpart.)
The movie has streamlined Wanda's powers in a way that makes a lot more sense — she's your everyday telekinetic telepath now, rather than someone who flings probability-altering hex bolts. It's an economically smart change, and one that still gives Wanda extraordinary power. Power corrupts, of course, and we've seen Wanda go crazy with grief once already. We may be headed for the sort of hysteria-riven Dark Wanda storyline that the comics love, but isn't that a little played out?
Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
Live fast, die young, leave a bullet-riddled Under Armour shirt. Quicksilver had to die, of course. It's not just that a sacrifical lamb was required, and the obviousness of killing Hawkeye made for an irresistible feint; it's that Marvel doesn't want to share Quicksilver with another studio, but it does want to get its fingerprints all over him before giving him up. Killing him says, "We own him; we just don't want him." Is that petty? Sure. Did you see what they're doing with these characters in the comics?
Quicksilver was always going to die, so the movie doesn't do much with him, and in casting an actor whose wattage won't challenge the rest of the cast, Marvel kept him a relative cipher. That also means that his death didn't count for much. Few people cared about Quicksilver coming in to the movie; few cared going out.
I care about Quicksilver. He's actually a personal favorite, and I wish either movie version was a fair approximation of the bitchy and temperamental d-bag that I love. But he's hard to love, and I know that. He's expandable, and his only real role was to escort Wanda into a crowded ensemble and fade away. So Quicksilver had to die. Goodbye, Pietro; we barely... we never knew you.
By the way; at the moment that Vision was activated by Thor's hammer, there was an opportunity for Cap, Hawkeye, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch to all stand together, at which point Iron Man could have called them a "kooky quartet," and I would have been the happiest boy in the land. And it didn't happen because Hawkeye picked the wrong side.
Hawkeye, you had one job!