(Here there be spoilers!)
The Marvel movies keep getting it right. They’re not perfect–there are things I would love to see done in a different way, and movies I want to see that aren’t being made (Black Widow), but what they are doing, they’re doing better than anyone else.
Marvel is doing a marvelous (har har) job of creating multifaceted characters who are dealing with the consequences of their actions, both internally and externally, and they’re doing it without Snyder-level ANGST. Whedon is master of creating challenges for his characters, but giving them enough internal fortitude that they don’t give themselves over to brooding for long.
We see a lot of growth in how the Avengers work together as a team. In the first fight scene, they’re a well-oiled machine, and we see that again at the end of the movie in the fight against Ultron’s robot army. They’re beautiful together (and the fight choreographer deserves an award), but the price of their work is high. Stark has created a relief fund to help ameliorate the financial impact of the collateral damage the Avengers inflict on the cities they visit. Their first priority in the fight against Ultron is how to save the thousands of civilians whose lives are at stake. They’re clearly learning from their past and trying their best to be heroes in every sense of the word. The only person who questions saving the populace is Scarlet Witch, pointing out that it may be worth the death of thousands to save billions, and she herself is a victim of Stark’s work.
Every character has seen some emotional development in the Marvel arc (with the possible exception of Hawkeye), but I’m most enjoying seeing it in Tony Stark. I think the subtitle of the entirety of Phase Two could be “The (Attempted) Humbling of Tony Stark.” It’s clear that the writers have put careful thought into how Stark reacts to events, and Iron Man 3 has one of the best portrayal of PTSD that I’ve ever seen in mainstream media. It’s also my favorite of the Avengers movies for exactly that reason. Of course, Stark could never be cured of his hubris (our little Icarus is all grown up and building robots). In Avengers: Age of Ultron, the major conflict is driven by Stark’s fear of failure and hubris. He knows he’s messed up in creating Ultron, and his team knows it too. Of course, he’s also arrogant enough to try and fix it with only Banner’s help, and from that comes Vision. Does he learn his lesson? No, not really, but he does do absolutely everything he can to alleviate the collateral damage, and is willing to sacrifice himself to do it. Andrew is right that the consequences, both interpersonal and internal, weren’t steep enough in this movie, but I still enjoyed watching Stark work.
The emotional highlight of Avengers: Age of Ultron is Bruce Banner. Mark Ruffalo is a gem and I’m developing a massive crush because not only is he talented, he also seems to be a good guy. Banner/Hulk is the epitome of the vulnerability/strength dichotomy. Banner is brilliant, sensitive, and driven by the guilt of what happens when he becomes ‘the big guy.’ He joins the Avengersto protect life. He’s driven by that need because his other nature is a destruction machine. When Scarlet Witch sends him on a rampage, the consequences leave him defeated. He is compelled by fear to leave the Avengers, not by any outside force, but instead because of what he might do, only to be held back temporarily by the need to destroy Ultron and the mutual desire he shares with Romanov.
Much has been written about that. Why does there need to be a romantic subplot? Yadda, yadda, yadda. Stark has a romantic subplot. So does Thor. Why is it a BFD when Romanov does the same? Hint: because she’s a woman. I’m okay with the romantic subplot. I think those characters make sense together. My feminism isn’t threatened by a strong, smart, awesome woman initiating a romantic relationship with someone she’s interested in. She still drives a lot of the action in the movie. She gets captured and spends about thirty seconds playing damsel, but while she does she manages to build a Morse-code device and communicate her location to the rest of the Avengers, thus giving them Ultron’s location and setting off the final battle. She also is willing to sacrifice her love for the team, knowing that her actions will cost her that chance at happiness we get to glimpse far too briefly.
There aren’t enough women in the Marvel Universe, but Joss Whedon does well by them. Scarlet Witch and Black Widow are fantastic, competent characters played by incredible actresses. Black Widow is an Avenger and no one questions her right to be on the team despite the fact that she’s a normal person, not a god, not genetically enhanced, and not wearing a fighting machine. She’s an incredibly well-trained assassin, and she more than holds her own without even a bow and arrow. No one ever questions her position on the team because they respect her and know her skills. When Captain America has a special mission, he picks Romanov to accompany him. At one point in the movie, the other Avengers are trying to lift Thor’s hammer. Romanov passes on the opportunity because she’s got nothing to prove.
We haven’t seen enough of Scarlet Witch yet, but we’ve learned her backstory, seen her scared, hurting, brave, and powerful, and we watched her single-handedly take out most of the Avengers. I’m rooting for her.
One of my favorite moments of this movie is when we receive the explanation about why we don’t see Pepper Potts or Dr. Jane Foster at a party (or in the movie at all for that matter). While reveling in their success after beating the level 1 boss fight, Tony and Thor explain the absence of their partners by having a small pissing contest about who has the better significant other. Potts is off running a major corporation. Dr. Jane Foster is in the running for the Nobel Prize. They’re too busy and important to be there. Bam.
Marvel women are well thought out, well rounded characters with incredible strength and vulnerability. Because that strength exists, I have no problem with the vulnerability. Not a single one of Marvel’s leading ladies is just a damsel in distress.
Now, Marvel isn’t perfect regarding their women. Their marketing department drives me batty. The movie posters for Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 3 are horrible, and there aren’t enough action figures (and sometimes they’re bizarrely omitted entirely). Still, their depiction on screen is stellar given the playing field.