A week ago, I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). It was alright, pretty average, and sometimes even annoying. The more I think about it, the more it feels like Age of Ultron failed to engage me. I can’t see myself watching it again (although I probably will just to see if my reaction is different on a repeat viewing). What was the most wearying about Ultron were the action sequences. As I watched, I wondered why I just didn’t care what was happening. The action fell flat.
After seeing Ultron, I made the comment that maybe I’m just getting older and nonstop action just doesn’t do it for me. (My favorite scene in Ultron was the heroes hanging out at a party, talking).
Compare that to my experience seeing Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) this week. It’s nonstop action and yet, I couldn’t have been more engaged, more on the edge of my seat, more involved in the plights of the characters. What made the difference? It’s not like Mad Max is more grounded than Age of Ultron (in fact, in contrast, Mad Max is infinitely more nuts in terms of its world building and characters than Age of Ultron). So what makes action sequences really matter?
A threatening villain
Immortal Joe in Mad Max is one of the more imposing villains we’ve seen on the big screen in a long time. He’s driven by desires, goals, and rules that make sense and while you don’t like him or want him to win, you understand him.
Ultron on the other hand is villain adrift in cliche and comical motivations. He’s hardly a threat to the Avengers. He wise cracks through nearly every one of his lines (I did love James Spader’s voice work though) and his motivations are basically kill everyone and take over the world. Not very original or interesting.
Stakes with meaning
Age of Ultron does indeed have the highest of stakes. I mean, the entire world hangs in the balance, but that’s exactly the problem. First of all, we’ve seen that so many times before (nearly every big budget movie these days deals with the end of the world). Second, when the stakes get that big, they become meaningless (especially in a film that has established the safety that none of the main characters or favorite heroes have any chance of actually dying).
Mad Max on the other hand is about something much smaller and more believable (getting a group of special women to safety). It’s a believable goal with personalized conflict that the viewer can relate to.
Characters with weaknesses
Even if only Thor claims to be, the Avengers are all basically gods (except Hawkeye). They are invincible. No matter how many robots or aliens beat on them, the worst they suffer is some bruises or they get knocked down for a time. So even when the world is ending, there’s never a moment in Age of Ultron where we ever think that a single Avenger is in danger of dying or being maimed permanently.
Contrast that with Mad Max who is established early on to be vulnerable to capture, torture, and near death. Furiosa is also in constant threat of death. She’s missing a hand from the very beginning which is such a great way to show her vulnerability from the outset. People die and many are hurt seriously. It’s all so much more engaging because the characters have weaknesses.