Not surprisingly, perhaps, I have never really had an issue with the common conflation that occurs between story and plot, they are very similar and can stand easily as synonyms without meaning being obscured. Moreover I do find that when pushed writers find it oddly difficult to define and – shock! – agree on a definition.
We could simply say a story is a film, but not all films have a story. Or Story.
Generally used to mean the relation of an event or events which begat a result – a result of particular interest to speaker and/or listener, this has never quite captured the essence of it to me. Plot or structure on the other hand is just that, a series of events related in some suitable form. Have you ever heard someone talk about the story in a photograph? Or a painting? Even used the phrase yourself? Bet you have never heard anyone speak of the plot of a picture.
Story is an essence, not the marks on the ground but the shape they make, the form that rises up out of them. Often what we are really speaking to is that moment as the dust swirls when we ask, what will emerge once it settles?
The Age of Ultron stands as a brilliant example of how intertwined yet distinct each of these elements is.
Whedon often feels like the Last Storyteller still Standing; an engineer and master plotter. In Age of Ultron we see his gift for engineering at its best. Tight frenetic structure, each part rubbing on the next, like agitated atoms, inciting them and keeping our eyes moving. This is the essence of good plot, building that sense of curiosity in the viewer, giving them enough to want to see what comes next, enough to half guess and want to see if their guess is correct. Enough to make some believe there is story here. But there is none.
Story is much harder to pin down. Why doesn’t Age of Ultron have a story? It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has a central conflict, a good guy, a bad guy, some obstacles and it is resolved. Is this not technically speaking story? Yeah, technically speaking it’s as good a definition as any, but that doesn’t quite cover it, does it? Our feeling is still a sense of incompletion, of fragmentation, even marking time.
You can’t end a movie with Han frozen in carbonite. That’s not a movie, that’s an episode ~Joss Whedon
He didn’t leave us frozen and yet I would say Empire Strikes Back is a story, while Age of Ultron was an episode. Why? Because it didn’t change us. It didn’t put us in a chrysalis and we never emerged.
One of the reasons X files started to leave me cold was that after five years I just started to yell at Scully, you’re an idiot! It’s a monster…. I need people to grow.. I need them to change.. ~ Joss Whedon
It was a superficial adventure. Another entry in the superhero battle file. Not a monumental moment that forever altered them. And that’s story. Story isn’t just another day, it’s the day that changes all others.
Empire Strikes Back might have left you with an ending you didn’t like, but it was an ending. Luke abandons his training to finally face the man who killed his father, while taking a seemingly inevitable step (more even in retrospect) along the same path; Leia and Han’s relationship struggles through hate to friction to lust, then love, and he sacrifices himself for her- the ultimate see-to-yourself rogue finds something he loves more than his own skin. The Empire reasserts itself and it’s power in the galaxy. If they had ended there it was assuredly a win for the bad guys, but can we say it was not resolved? Why do we assume Han had to be rescued? That he and Leia had to be reunited? Because we want it? That Luke must become the Jedi hero? It was a down beat but it could have stood as the final beat.
It also wasn’t simply a series of connected events – sometimes given as a simple explanation of a story. Story is more. Story is cohesive; Story is what unites all those events, the plot, structure the manner in which they are connected.
Age of Ultron is fragmented, peppered throughout with storylines that come out of nowhere and go nowhere. Ragnarok, the Doom of the Gods, is predicted in two visions by Thor, but it is never resolved or developed and while the effects may reverberate it is mostly something which concerns a bunch of other aliens on another planet. Likewise the Infinity Stones are suddenly a visible and worrying threat, one again that relies heavily on elements from previous films and with no resolution or development, beyond their acknowledgement, in this.
Then there are characters – never apart from your plot, but rather the driving force, its engine. This one suffered from too many. Previously the focus was on the core of already established characters, leaving Whedon free to put his attention on weaving those into natural relationships, emnities and alliances. And this is key, because relationships are where change happens, where plot and character meet and where story begins. And nothing keeps people as interested. All stories are a question of, what if? – and the what if is never really, what if the world ends? You’re not going to be around to worry about that. It’s the, what if it ends and I never told him how I really felt?
So what was the story of Age of Ultron? There was some of the most seamlessly choreographed fight scenes in modern filmmaking – so despite apparently all going off and fighting their own film franchise battles in the downtime they have overcome any remaining divisions on that level. One pulls a family of three out of his back pocket – a family he gave absolutely no thought to after being brainwashed into evil henchmen duties. We have Vision who turns up at the end and a switcheroo Witch who after spending many years(?) in a dungeon being experimented on, develops mad powers, unleashes a monster on a city, then decides maybe an asteroid is meaner, loses her brother (another one who can’t quite make up his mind who he is) and becomes a good guy..
Way too much, especially as the focus – such as it is – is actually only really on two relationships: the romance – out of nowhere – of Hulk and Romanoff, and the disagreement between Captain America and Iron Man. Neither of these unfortunately are what ifs? They lack the grip and focus that a relationship that is key to the story can give. Romanoff and Hulk may have been quite sweet, a nice diversion, but neither will ultimately be changed. Certainly by the end they are, as they were throughout, conflicted, tormented, alone. And their relationship never threatens anything except their own happiness levels.
As for Captain America and Iron Man, we know this is not resolved, although after the bickering they are buddies again. It was a set up for Captain America: Civil War, which in actual fact is drawing on the events of Winter Soldier and renders much of what happens between them in this film utterly superfluous. This is magnified by the strangely out of character motivations of Iron Man. The reckless bad boy who pushes boundaries, who has already seen his world reduced to rubble three or four times, who provokes a monster just to see how he reacts, suddenly worries about caging the world in to keep it safe? Reckless experimentation I can believe, but I believe it would be for the sake of, can we?
In Empire Strikes Back we see change, but it is developed and believable, not sudden shifts or abrupt about faces. Luke’s devotion to his friends and his slightly headstrong nature is established, the twist of Darth Vader’s true identity, is seamlessly done, especially with the symbolism of losing his arm, and rather than contradict anything that came in the first film, adds necessary pathos to his desire to avenge his father. The shift from romance between Leia and Luke to Leia and Han never even feels like a shift to most of us as there was always chemistry between the latter two while Luke seemed like a little boy with a crush on his big brother’s girlfriend. And these two distinct storylines feel organic and central to the story, leaving the status quo altered and the characters forever changed.
And then there is the baddie. How important is the baddie to a film? In honesty, I’ve never had much of a yen for them, though some seem to invest in the bad guys more than the heroes. Which might explain why Lector has his own series while Clarice is still waiting. What is important is the antagonist, which is not necessarily the same thing. It’s the main force that stands between the hero and their goal. In Empire Strikes Back this is embodied in Vader, and it is here that the twist over his identity is revealed as true genius. By becoming both the obstacle and the answer, the object of revenge and the subject, he adds a twisted sense of fatality to not only Luke’s quest, but to his personal journey, a representation of the darkness within himself and his inner battles. Giving the boy, lets be honest, far more depth than we would have ever suspected.
Ultron could have done the same thing, but he didn’t. If Stark were reckless and experimental, if his disregard for his fellow heroes, his ego, his manipulation and his utter unwillingness to be a part of a team, abide by a democratic consensus, had birthed the monster – if the explanation for his existence and his twisted thinking lay somewhere at the true heart of his father or his fellow heroes – something that again was made into a great mystery yet never resolved – if he had sought to pull them apart to play on those tenuous relationships with the help of his witch, rather than acting as mere distractions and excuses to plug upcoming movies – then we might have been given some Story. As for the Witch, her about face was not only poorly done, a cheap trick, but it was actually only one of many. Her ruthless willingness to bring down anyone sharing a continent with Iron Man suddenly becomes empathetic horror, her vengeful glee at murder and mayhem becomes quivering fear and her brother’s death turns her from rebellious free thinking villain into an obedient soldier.
Ultimately you are left thinking what is the point of it all? In the Empire Strikes Back, heroes fall, friendship is destroyed and hopes lost, all metaphor for a galaxy that tasted freedom only to have it snatched away. In Avengers Assemble the world discovers aliens exist and we are vulnerable to them, but also that within us, amongst us, were heroes, and that maybe we were ready for the next step. In Ultron? We kicked some alien ass. For some that is enough, but it’s not Story.
Whedon has since stepped down from helming the Avengers, leaving the last two parts in the hands of Winter Soldier directors, the Russo brothers, citing that it’s a young man’s game. I kinda feel like we did this…
And it’s not only the reason I chose not to review the film, but the reason I struggle to do any negative reviews anymore. However, I don’t believe this was the movie he wanted to make, I think the beast with too many backs broke his. And it does, oddly enough, because I was hooked, still stand as a testament to what skill can achieve even when passion is frustrated. Basically, he’s good enough to make shit look good.