Avengers Age of Ultron, a Triptych’s Second Frame

Avengers: Age of Ultron is an amazing spectacle and there's very little you don't see. But if there is something unnoticed, it might be how seamlessly Whedon crafts the movie into the history of Hollywood.

You’ve joined us, Dear Reader, at the turning of the tide, so to speak. Catch up on the first piece in this series.

Comes right down to it, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a showdown between Robert Downey Jr. and James Spader. Not their characters, but the actors themselves. Although to be fair, director Joss Whedon is skilled enough to allow that tension to be mirrored in the actors’ fictive selves and the enormous battles of ego between man and machine.

Both Downey Jr. and Spader are nothing short of magnificent and you’ll find yourself wishing you could see more of each of them. More of them individually in their separate scenes, and more of them antagonistically when they both appear in the same scene and vie for domination.

They’re proud and aggressive monsters of Hollywood, Spader and Downey Jr, and their very presence in the Avengers: Age of Ultron harks back to the glamour of Old Hollywood. Imagine spending a morning at the Fountain Coffee Room (inside the Beverly Hills Hotel) then after, a press junket in the late afternoon, and after that having dinner at Musso & Frank’s, the iconic Hollywood restaurant since 1919.

Whedon’s savvy eye for casting (or for approving casting) draws the whole of Age of Ultron into a lingering prelapsarian moment. It’s the idea that the Hollywood of today, the fast-talking dealmaking we’ve come to associate with Hollywood particularly since the ‘90s (think, Robert Altman’s The Player, George Huang’s Swimming with Sharks) is somehow still deeply connected to the elegant glamour of that bygone era.

Think of James Spader as Jim Cagney or Robert Downey Jr. as Cary Grant. It’s a bold move, using a movie adaptation of a superhero story to tell a Hollywood story. But very much, this seems to be Whedon’s project with the Avengers series of movies (more so than with the week-by-week forays into the Marvel Cineverse that comprise Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.)—to fold one kind of story into another. So when Whedon folds a story about the Romance of Old Hollywood into a story about superhero violence, aggression and counter-aggression, it begins to feel like the Marvel Cineverse itself is on firmer footing.

When it began, back in 2008 with Jon Favreau at the helm of Iron Man, the Marvel Cineverse seemed something new and magnificent. You could don Favreau’s movie the same way Tony Stark would don the Iron Man armor later on, and live inside the life of an international playboy. Fast cars weren’t just an abstract notion, specifically the fast car was the bleeding-edge Audi R8. Gorgeous women weren’t an abstract concept, specifically the gorgeous woman of the picture was a reinvigorated and ultra-glam Gwyneth Paltrow. And Favreau used the his Special FX budget in an entirely unexpected way. Sure there were the obligatory fly-to-Central-Asia-and-drop-kick-terrorist-tanks or duck-the-USAF-by-hanging-on-the-wing-of-an-F-22-Raptor scenes, but the real show was those 3D holographic blueprints. Watching Iron Man made you feel like you’d secretly found your way into the MacBook Pro of superheroes.

But what Favreau effectively did with Iron Man was instigate two very different, sometimes openly conflicting Silver Screen narrative traditions. And these traditions would come to a head in 2014, which was arguably the most fraught year for the Marvel Cineverse, even though it would prove the most commercially successful.

These two strands could be traced back to the original Iron Man. On the one hand you had “The Spectacle”. Some movies like the Iron Man series treats audiences to The Spectacle of glamour. Others, like brothers Joe and Anthony Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, treat audiences to the spectacle of visual effects in the service of an engaging, panoramic story. You ride with Chris Evans on that Harley-Davidson Street 750 and you’re immersed in the moment of that beautiful helo-shot that shows how expansive Washington DC is around that long, lonely highway. But at the same time you can feel with walls of the conspiracy closing in, even if Cap himself doesn’t fully understand the threat he’s up against.

But the second kind of narrative that Favreau installed in the Marvel Cineverse, was bringing a filmmaker’s eye and a filmmaker’s sense of history to the project. This is what makes him an auteur, even on a movie like Iron Man where the dominance of Special FX would traditionally have classified this a “B-Movie”. Favreau inverts the classification by obliterating it. In those intimate moments where Robert Downey Jr. hands Gwyneth Paltrow his version one point oh heart, in those moments where a villainously bald Jeff Bridges finds himself inundated by lab techs bemoaning the fact that they’re not Tony Stark, in those moments where Downey Jr. attempts to court Paltrow, but does so publicly and only to her embarrassment. Downey Jr. is every bit as broken as John Wayne in 1957’s The Wings of Eagles, and in many important ways, perhaps even more so. Gwyneth Paltrow stands her own against Faye Dunaway in Chinatown.

We see Favreau simply take charge. We see him come up against those limitations he’d always endured in Hollywood, his weight issues in a body conscious social milieu, his having to settle for character actor roles, and we see the genius we always saw in Dinner For Five simply unleashed, and writ large across the Marvel Cineverse. Right from the very beginning turning the camera away from action, at just the right moments, and turning towards glamour, Favreau was able to instill different expectations. Those of Old Hollywood.

And this is exactly what makes 2014 such a difficult year for the Marvel Cineverse, despite it’s unprecedented commercial success. Because Captain America: The Winter Soldier taps exactly into that great narrative of hypnotic, panoramic spectacle-driven cinema, while James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, with it references to ’80s music, and its high school/sports comedy dynamic tapped into the History of Cinema, and more broadly the history of popculture.

Minor Spoilers Ahead

There’s an image on the Avengers Age of Ultron Wikipedia page, Jeremy Renner in a limo, alone, the window cracked just the right number of inches to afford stargazers a view inside. He’s arriving the the April 14th premier of Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s bright outside, LA bright, but the moment is perfect.

That one picture says it all. It speaks to the stakes, and to the promise of The Avengers.

Earlier, in the wake of the rampant success of the original Avengers movie, the strike against Whedon and DoP Seamus McGarvey was that camera movements were illogical and that it made for “apalling” cinema. But if there was more than mere sour grapes to these comments, could there also be more at play for aesthetic of The Avengers?

There’ve been superhero films before 2008, of course. But what most of those films have in common is that they almost exclusively target geek audiences. Nobody expected a Batman movie say, to be able to stand its own against Out of Africa or Kramer vs. Kramer. But really, that’s the game Whedon’s been playing all along. And he’s played it better than most others, except maybe for Favreau, or Gunn or Steven S. DeKnight on the Netflix-released TV show Daredevil.

The game Whedon’s playing is balancing out populism and mainstream access with fan-based initimate knowledge. It’s a game Whedon’s been playing since his days of writing the X-Men comicbook Astonishing X-Men. But Whedon’s crucial insight, even back then in 2004, has been not to familiarize himself with every single detail from X-lore or Avengers-lore, but instead to construct the illusion of fan-lore.

What we see in Avengers: Age of Ultron is Whedon up the stakes to an even higher level, playing that same game not only with Avengers-lore, but Hollywood-lore. Whedon doesn’t reference film history directly, but you get a sense that future film geeks (the like of Quentin Tarantino today) will lovingly reference and steward scenes from Avengers: Age of Ultron and connect them to the brio of Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen or Orson Welles in A Touch of Evil.

In Avengers: Age of Ultron you get a film as globetrotting as the best James Bonds, but what you also get is that intimateness that comes with the team cowering aboard their quinjet after the defeat in Salvage City or hiding out on Clint Barton’s farm after having the Hulk rampage through the streets of Africa. Age of Ultron is a movie that leads to a generational shift. Essentially it occupies the same cultural niche as Green Day’s American Idiot; the last damning critique of the Old Republic before its swept away by the collective Hope of the 2008 general election. When Don Cheadle as War Machine and Anthony Mackie as The Falcon and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch and Paul Bettany assemble for roll call, you realize a cultural moment’s passed.

It’s at that moment that you look back over Robert Downey Jr. and James Spader slugging it out, and you begin to reconsider the paths that have led them here, to this point. An Oscar nomination for Downey Jr. back in 1992, for Chaplin, but before that, all those cooky roles like Wolf Dangler in Rented Lips and Lou Jefferies/Alex Finch in Chances Are…. And it’s no different for Spader. You can trace a line in time that moves from 1992’s Storyville through 1994’s Wolf through The Practice and then Boston Legal until finally The Black List. Whether comedic or dramatic, you look back on these careers and experience them as a lifetime dedicated to the art of actor. You think about Samuel L. Jackson, about Scarlett Johansson. Then you think about about the next generation. About Elizabeth Olsen talking this last Monday on The Daily Show about playing Hank Williams much put-upon wife. And about Jeremy Renner’s near-miss Oscar nod for The Hurt Locker. And The Avengers fighting against an extinction-level event thematically begins to makes sense to more than just he movie, but to the movie’s place in the history of Hollywood.

But it goes even deeper. And so do we, this Friday when we look at Whedon and success fatigue.

All images, stills from Avengers: Age of Ultron (Marvel Studios, 2015).