May 10, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a behemoth of a film: its shadow over the cultural landscape is vast, and for the past two weeks there's been seemingly little else on the pop culture radar. As it's taken me about a fortnight to actually see the film, once again I've coming to it after a lot of the heat has gone. The film has been watched, the fans who love it have praised it, the people who hated it have said their piece, and a noisy minority of people with nothing better to do have all tweeted abuse at writer/director Joss Whedon. To be honest I don't care all that much about the hype, the various online controversies, and the like. I just care about whether or not the film was worth the cost of a movie ticket.

To be honest the answer is yes, but for me it's a qualified yes. Age of Ultron is a bit of a curious mixture, in that to a large extent it gives the audience exactly what it wants, but that it also sacrifices a lot of its own content in order to set up other Marvel Studios productions that are coming down the line. With this kind of over-hyped, bloated studio picture there's always a degree to which one can praise the film purely for telling a coherent story at all, but at the same time I don't think it's unfair to argue that Joss Whedon has not written the best possible screenplay with the ingredients made available to him. The short review, for those who don't want to be spoiled by any kind of in-depth analysis and fussy complaint, is that if you liked The Avengers then you will almost certainly like Age of Ultron. Just don't expect it to be the best film you've ever seen, or indeed the best Marvel Studios film.

Age of Ultron picks up the Avengers as they storm a castle in the fictional Eastern European country of Sovokia. Inside one of the last surviving Hydra outposts conducts scientific experimentation with Loki's magical staff and salvaged Chitauri technology. When Wanda Maximoff, aka the Scarlet Witch, manipulates Tony Stark's mind into seeing a future in which the entire Avengers team has died, he takes the staff and uses its secrets to generate a new artificial intelligence named Ultron that can control his automated Stark robots and protect the world in the Avengers' place. That plan goes horribly wrong when the Asgardian-enhanced AI wakes up, decides the best way to save the human race is to destroy the bulk of it, and takes off on a mission to destroy the Avengers and then the world.

So it's got a really messy first act. The opening action sequence juggles six returning protagonists, adds another two, and tosses in a villain from the comics (Baron von Strucker) who's given just enough detail to make the audience pay attention to him as if he's going to be relevant to the plot going forward (he isn't). To be honest by the time the Avengers had won the battle, had a party, and Stark and Banner had used Loki's sceptre to accidentally create a dangerous new AI villain (I do like Banner's term "murderbot"), I was honestly a little exhausted.

The party scene is a minefield of neat little character moments and irritating missteps. For every nice moment - Black Widow and Banner kicking off a romance, for example, which I think was perfectly played and very well-chosen - there's an odd moment like Tony Stark making a rape joke or Stark and Thor having a dick-measuring contest over whose girlfriend is the coolest. It's easy to dismiss these off-colour moments, but even if they're momentary they still have an effect. It's also easy to dismiss people who find these sorts of moments problematic, because the moments are over within ten seconds and the rest of the movie has superheroes punching robots.

I remember there were some very upset people back when The Avengers was released in 2012, because in a fit of rage Loki called Black Widow a "mewling quim", which is a rather archaic way to call someone something very rude and offensively gendered. I never minded the moment personally, because it was staged inside a scene where Natasha had all of the power and agency, and Loki wasn't supposed to be a nice person. Tony Stark and Thor are supposed to be great people, and certainly during the party scene they both have plenty of authority and control - and both get to be fairly creepy and arguably out-of-character with impunity. It's as if the character development undertaken in both of their solo franchises never happened at all.

Am I saying the whole film is derailed because of these moments? Of course not, but I am saying that a film without these moments would have been a better film, and their inclusion points to the generally unfocused and "quippy" way in which Joss Whedon writes his dialogue. Generally speaking he rarely writes actual conversation between people. He writes clear 'lines'. It's remarkably self-aware. It's also not necessarily bad: there are more funny moments and lines in this film than you're likely to see in most other Hollywood productions, but the scatter-shot technique means there's also a greater number of stinkers. With a few clear exceptions, there's a tendency for all of the characters to sound self-similar. Ultron himself is a clear example: visually the character is great, and James Spader's voice is perfectly suited to him. The problem is that he doesn't stop talking. Ever. Every time he's on screen he's a constant stream of casual snark that deeply undercuts the threat he's supposed to be posing to the human race. He's also remarkably inconsistent: early into the film he mocks villains who share their plans with the heroes for no apparent reason, and later in the film he kidnaps a hero to specifically share his plans with her. To be honest he's my least favourite kind of villain: the one who know he is the villain.

If you're already a keen fan of Joss Whedon's writing then this will all wash over in a pleasant fashion: you like what he does, and here he continues to do what you like. If, like me, you've started hoping for an evolution or change in his writing style, you're going to be disappointed. Pretty much all of Whedon's writing tics, including killing a member of the ensemble cast to raise the stakes, returns here.

That said, there is plenty of good in Age of Ultron. Its global setting, for one thing, which jumps from Sovokia to Wakanda and even to real-life locations like New York and Seoul. It's nice to see that the film doesn't climax in New York again, and that the Marvel heroes do indeed have an international reach and presence.

While Thor and Tony Stark seem to suffer from some sloppy characterisation - in fact, Thor could easily be excised from the film entirely without a problem - other characters are more fortunate. The film is a real showcase for Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye. He got sidelined somewhat in the previous film, but here he gets some proper character development, an entire back story and life outside of his superhero duties, and many of the film's better moments and lines. His deliberately absurd pep-talk to the Scarlet Witch during the film's climax is wonderful and close to my favourite moment in the whole film.

My absolute favourite moment involves the Vision and Thor's hammer. I don't know the Vision: I've never been a keen reader of the Avengers in comic book form, and simply knew the character as "that red and green robot guy". Here, played by Paul Bettany, he is intriguing, entertaining and very effective. I'm interested to see how the franchise balances his seemingly significant powers going forward.

Other new characters like Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch don't get quite as much of a chance to develop, but that's largely down to the over-ambitious nature of the film's line-up. Quite simply there are too many characters and too little time for each to get proper exposure and development. Black Widow is one of the few who does, and I really liked the new wrinkle to her character. (Some have had issues with some of her and Banner's scenes together - I'm not one of them, personally, although better clarity in at least one scene could have fixed most people's problems I suspect.)

To be honest the film's biggest issue, and one that it fails to overcome, is that it's the first Marvel film to put its eye exclusively on the continuing franchise and not on simply telling a good story. Thor's entire storyline in the film exists to set up Thor: Ragnarok in 2017. Friction between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark appears to have been inserted to set up Captain America: Civil War in 2016. Sequences in Wakanda pave the way for Black Panther in 2017. The creation of the Vision and the secrets of Loki's spectre point toward The Avengers: Infinity War in 2018 and 2019. While all of this set-up is impressive on one level, it's maddening to sit through on another. I'm already there. The quality of Marvel's earlier films already sold me on paying to see Age of Ultron, and I expect I will continue to pay money to see the dozen-odd films they've announced for the next few years. I don't want them to set up future movies. I want them to tell me an entertaining story now, and to a large extent Age of Ultron fails to deliver that.

It has some funny lines. It has some great action sequences. It features the Hulk versus Iron Man punch-up you've always wanted to see. I definitely got my money's worth, and if you liked The Avengers I strongly suspect you will also like this. That said, we deserved something much better. The people who made it were capable of much better. Marvel needs to focus on telling good stories if they want to sustain this franchise in the long-term: canny casting and serialisation is only going to take them so far.

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