Because we’re geeks, we frequently find it’s easier to understand an artist’s work when comparing them to another artist, finding out the common or antithetical traits that bind them. Hence Dueling Auteurs, a column where we take two auteurs from any medium and compare and contrast them. This month, Mason Walker pits this summer’s two biggest action films and their respective directors up against one another. In one corner is George Miller and the muscle car punch of Mad Max: Fury Road. In the other corner is the bloated heavyweight champion Avengers franchise, helmed by verbal maestro Joss Whedon and represented this year by the critically disappointing Age of Ultron.
With parting glasses raised to the great Roger Ebert, it falls to the rest of us to maintain his Glossary of Movie Rules, and to add to that invaluable list that gave us the Law of Funny Names and the Fallacy of the Talking Killer. In that spirit, I’ll start this Dueling Auteurs piece with a new Movie Rule: the World-Engine Theory. Inspired by the decidedly uninspired finale of Man of Steel, the rule goes as follows: After a superhero movie introduces a giant, hovering, city-smashing gadget, the rest of the picture will invariably suck. Of course, the presence of said smashy-smashy mechanism isn’t a buzzkill in and of itself. But the presence of a World Engine is almost always a sign, because it is symptomatic of a film that tries hard for size and crowds out everything else.
It depresses me to report that The Avengers: Age of Ultron is a World-Engine picture. At the start of the film’s second half, the titular villain begins stealing pieces for his city-smasher, and, like clockwork, a just-decent sequel descends into sloppy, deafening excess. Thoroughly tame, frequently clever, and sporadically intelligent, the Marvel folks have yet to give us a masterpiece, but with Age of Ultron they give us give us their first true flop. And director Joss Whedon’s first as well.
With this letdown in mind, where should we turn for our hydrating conflagrations, for our summer-movie demolition-derby oasis? To the deserts of post-apocalyptic Australia, as it turns out. I feel like I’m the last person to hop on the Mad Max: Fury Road praise-train, but in case anyone has yet to purchase passage, take it from me: this is the best Big Studio movie you’ll see all summer. It’s also the best sci-fi film since last year’s Snowpiercer, and in its own pulpy way it’s just about as good. Custom-made to jazz both adrenaline junkies and critical thinkers, Fury Road comes at you both ravaged and ravaging, nodding to DeMille and DeBeauvoir and Beowulf and Alien whilst smashing past them towards graphic, jaggedly poetic reality all its own. What a wild, wild thing. And what a success for director George Miller.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Age of Ultron was supposed to be the Movie of the Summer, with Fury Road as a cult-phenom afterthought. What happened?
This state of affairs is due partially to matters of plot. After the first two phases of Marvel’s world-domination cycle, Ultron‘s narrative, with its fixation on the man-vs.-superman-vs.-machine trifecta, is very samey-samey. Meanwhile, Miller’s car-chase-as-feminist-allegory piece is quite different from the first three Mad Max pictures, and feels fresh. Both movie are also impacted by the quality of their new characters. Immortan Joe and Imperator Furiosa are, in a word, badass; Ultron, with his robo-stoner rhetoric and snoozy power of endless regeneration, is a fourteen year-old Yu-Gi-Oh player’s idea of badass. (Seriously. I’ll buy you a drink if you can convince me that “You rise, only to fall” is a good bad-guy line.)
But perhaps the most significant factor is how both pictures handle their action scenes. Both of these big summer movies stake an awful lot on staging of their melees, but only Fury Road succeeds.
Understanding the difference is important for two reasons. First, it reminds us, in this explosive age, of how we ought to define a good action scene. And, more importantly, it lends insight into the deep-seated tendencies of both directors—into the strengths and weaknesses of two men who are described, not infrequently, as screen visionaries.
Whether consciously or otherwise, everyone has their own ideas about the ideal action sequence. Unlike many popular conceptions, mine has nothing to do with the make of the weapon, the duration of its use, or even the identity of the user. Instead, I think that good action scenes are defined by their singularity—that is, by the extent to which they link the fighting to a highly specific set of circumstances. To put it less academically: Good action scenes are uniquely thrilling because they’re thrillingly unique. I find it useful, as I usually do, to bring up musicals. Great dance numbers like “Singin’ In Rain” are easily defined via an object (Gene Kelly + umbrella) or a concept (see title), and the same is true of a great action scene from, say, Mission: Impossible (Tom Cruise plus faulty suspension cord; breaking into a room without ever really entering). Of course, some action scenes hold our interest for other reasons—because of the characters, or perhaps because of the overall mood. But in order to hold our interest as an action sequence, it seems to me that what a scene needs, above all else, is object and concept—manically inventive specificity.
When we apply the object/concept test to Ultron and Fury Road wide-divide becomes clear. Comprised almost entirely of vehicular warfare between escapees and captors, Miller’s film barrels at you with a barrage of extraordinarily specific, often visionary action conceits. Cars with spiked hides slam into an oil rig, and their drivers shoot at Furiosa while they slash her tires. A blinded assassin fires a round, his killer aim now killer aimlessness. And in a staggering denouement inspired by Cirque De Soleil, all involved hitch big swinging stilts to their rides and catapult on and off of enemy cars. In a shot that works as both striking political symbolism and nail-shredding suspense, two combatants toss a captive woman from stilt to stilt, and she claws madly at the desert air.
Meanwhile, in Ultron, the Avengers kill robots in the snow. They kill robots in the city. They kill robots in what Ebert’s glossary calls a Steam-and-Flame Factory. And just for some variety, Scarlett Johansson rides a big metal box from one CGI spaceship to another. These scenes are standard-issue World Engine sludge, and they’re as dully broad as Miller’s are dazzlingly specific.
Miller’s scenes are also, on a more basic level, easier to understand. A good action director has a strong command of establishing shots. Usually comprised of high-to-low angle shifts, pans across the screen, or still-frames from a distance, these shots show us the layout of the battleground. Whedon uses a few of the above techniques, but not competently, and not enough. Quick: tell me where the church is located in relation to the rest of the final battle. Tell me where the cave is located in relation to anything. Miller, on the other hand, uses all the above techniques and more; the best establisher of all is a smooth tracking shot that speeds toward the war party before losing it in a blur of motion. Never mind that the geography of Fury Road’s flat-plain world is twice as hard to master as Whedon’s big, easily differentiated cityscapes; Miller gives us our bearings, and his brutal ballets pop off the screen with electrifying clarity.
I could easily stop this column right here, but, in doing so, I’d feel as though I were being unduly cruel toward the man who gave us the Scooby Gang. This may be a Dueling Auteurs piece, but I don’t want to leave Whedon bleeding in the parking lot. The problem isn’t that Ultron has an incompetent auteur; it’s that the movie runs completely counter to its director’s skills, which tend toward the verbal. Whedon has always peppered his stories with perfunctory action, but from the Buffy movie onward, he’s been most interested in writing and directing his great brand of hyper-literate, heart-felt sci-fi dialogue—in enabling his outlandish characters to court, spark, and wound one another with words. His best works, like Buffy and his Much Ado adaptation, have a structure that allows them luxuriate in those words, and to enact Evelyn Waugh’s dictum that good conversation is like juggling.
But it’s hard to juggle while holding up a World Engine. In just over two hours, Ultron has to work in some pre-existing comic-book mythology, resolve all the plot threads from the Phase Two Marvel pictures, set up the plot threads for the Phase Three Marvel pictures, and tell something resembling a self-contained story. On top of all this, Whedon must satisfy suits and fanboys by dropping a movie so big that obliterates the bigness of the last Avengers movie, and of every other movie ever made. With all that to take care of, what room is there for talk? In the early exposition scenes, Whedon does make space for a smart phrase (“I don’t want to hear the ‘man-isn’t-meant-to-meddle-medley!”) and a good gag (Don Cheadle’s war story gone wrong). But once the story’s gotten rolling, he can’t find room for his trademark conversational looseness–unless it’s with a farm interlude that stops the story cold. Here is a picture that tapes shut the mouth of a gifted writer-director, and sends him to far out of his comfort zone to lens action scenes. George Miller, meanwhile, speeds across his home turf, carrying us to a violent paradise of silver and chrome.
What exactly are we to make of Ballad of Joss and George? For one thing, we are reminded that, while good action scenes may be easily enjoyed, they are not easily or even frequently made. And we are required to ask whether movies like Age of Ultron, with their directive toward obsessive “universe-building,” can make sufficient room for the human element. But perhaps above all, we are prompted to recall that “visionary” is not synonymous with “omniscient.” Talent like Whedon’s and Miller’s does not exist in a vacuum, and only comes alive when attached to the right project. This summer, Miller got a project that whestoned his edgy brain; Whedon got one that drowned out his jazzy wit and exposed his weak spots. One flew; the other sputtered. One may make the history books; the other makes Ebert’s Rule Book. Vonnegut: “So it goes.” And so I go, diving headfirst into a cinema summer where no other Big Studio release will sting like Ultron—or stun like Fury Road.
Mason Walker is a kazoo-bearing Jew who writes at his blog So Beautiful or So What when he isn’t visiting Loser City.