Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015)
Dir. Joss Whedon
LOOK UPON MY WORKS, YE MIGHTY, AND MARVEL…
Holy Cinematic Showdown Batman, DC must be quaking in their boots right about now. Not content with arriving half a decade late for a race that Marvel started with 2008’s Iron Man, they now have to desperately play catch up with a ten year slate of future releases determined to show Marvel whose laughably-named ‘shared cinematic universe’ is better. A bold gamble given that 2013’s Man Of Steel was a homogenous mess of angst and neck breaking, and that DC films on average have a moment of whimsy and fun once every new millennium. It’d be a bit like The Tortoise And The Hare if the hare had stopped to wait for the tortoise to catch-up, at which point the tortoise had succumbed to exhaustion and died right there in the middle of the road with a pathetic ta-da.
With the recent release of Avengers: Age Of Ultron, Marvel ties up another knot in its ever-expanding story arc that now includes four different movie franchises and a sub-par TV series, and inevitable questions start to arise, like whether you prefer DC or Marvel, usually accompanied by the suffix ‘faggot’. Being neither a ‘faggot’ nor a ‘fanboy’ particularly, I find it necessary to quote this simple equation whenever someone asks me which is my favourite of these two comicbook titans:
Marvel > DC
Batman > Everyone
This will inevitably get whoever’s asking you to shut up and allow you to get back to not giving a shit. Marvel have however really upped their game with this latest installment, introducing more characters to the universe while still keeping the tight focus that made the first film so enjoyable, so much so that I don’t think even the inclusion of Batman can save DC now. Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of Batman V Superman, it’ll still be the film that got people to root for Ben Affleck…
So, Avengers: Age Of Ultron sees our super-team joining forces once again, this time against an enemy of their own creation. In his quest to render himself obsolete, Tony Stark has designed a global peacekeeping initiative named Ultron that protects the world using a network of artificially intelligent anthropomorphic battle droids. Unexpectedly, it all goes tits-up, with the newly-awakened Ultron being both sentient and a little stir-crazy from being imprisoned in an alien stick for too long. Ultron escapes via the Internet, presumably encountering acres and acres of porn on his way, and begins consolidating his robot army with a view to extinguishing all human life on Earth. He also wipes out Jarvis, Tony Stark’s virtual butler, who is then reborn as new Avenger Vision in a process that isn’t so much glossed over as it is vigourously lubed and pulled from the arse. I mention this first because it’s one of the few gripes I have with this film. While not an exact retread of the first Avengers’ plot, it does seem to have used the same basic cliff notes: Avengers unite, Cap spars with Iron Man, there’s some in-fighting, a few tantrums, one or more elect to go their separate ways, eventually they unite for a final showdown against a massive invading army. It feels more like a stopping point on the way to Civil War, competent in of itself but a means to an end rather than any sort of game-changer. An opportunity to get to know these characters a little better before they all inevitably get their shit ruined in Cap 3. The plot just doesn’t seem as cohesive as it did in the first film; the stakes are the same, there’s little escalation and things seem to happen just because Joss Whedon wills it. Yes, it’s a chance to see all these characters on screen at the same time again, but at the point where Paul Bettany appears in the flesh as Jarvis/Vision, the film turns from The Avengers into Vision And Friends, a new dynamic reminiscent of that which Superman must have with the rest of the Justice League: the others are only there because they kind of have to be.
These are only minor grievances though; where Age Of Ultron really excels is in its script. Despite the abundance of characters, the film is very well balanced, with every member of the team getting their fair share of screen time. Effort is even made to flesh out Hawkeye, who in the last film resembled little more than a crayon drawing of a stick figure Robin Hood, here giving him a backstory and a few one-liners. Damn it Whedon, I liked not caring about Hawkeye, but you just had to tug at my rusty little heartstrings didn’t you? It’s all rather effective and gives the film a colour and an energy that reflects its comic counterparts, in stark contrast to the gloomy, crushing melodrama of DC that’s like witnessing acts of urban terrorism through the eyes of a suicidal depressive. In fact, it’s only when Age Of Ultron attempts to do serious that cracks start to appear, like the rather heavy-handed romance between Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk. Yes, maybe she only wants the big green ‘D’, but it’s still a whole new dynamic that comes out of nowhere and adds little to the stakes or character arcs.
What Whedon does best in Avengers is the larger-than-life action sequences, and these truly are spectacular to behold. Buildings are leveled, enough vehicles explode to make Transformers look like a safe alternative to public transport and an entire city is raised into the sky to come crashing back down to Earth in what could be seen as a metaphor for post-recession Capitalism if it wasn’t for the presence of a giant purple alien who shoots lasers out of his forehead. All of these moments are punctuated with some actually very well-written quips and one-liners that add a notion of self-parody to the film. Even main villain Ultron (James Spader) channels some of Whedon’s stand-up set in his exchanges with the team. While this undercuts the danger and makes a lot of the more destructive scenes feel quite safe (whether you prefer this or not will depend on your particular variety of bloodlust), the overwhelming impression is one of great fun. And this is what’s particularly pleasing about Age Of Ultron. There’s a liveliness and a geniality to proceedings that more than makes up for whatever problems the story may have. Often, being a good ride is enough, and Age Of Ultron is certainly a good ride. There’s no gravitas, no despair, no dramatic third-act catharsis and open ending. What there is instead is two hours’ worth of colourful fights, snappy dialogue and great chemistry between leads, and if you can fault that, maybe you should stick to your grim, realistic and utterly misguided DC movie corner, where you can stay until you’re ready to lighten the fuck up. And by the way, no I don’t care about Quicksilver’s death (Spoilers). He was shit and he should’ve run faster.
At the end of the day, my opinion of Avengers: Age Of Ultron is a positive one. It’s not without its faults, but as a whole the film is a safe but entertaining addition to the Marvel movie canon. I can’t help feeling however that having made lightning strike twice, a shake-up of the series is needed. Characters need to be killed off before they start drowning under the weight of an increasing onscreen population, and with Whedon possibly stepping down as showrunner, Marvel puppetmaster Kevin Feige needs to think of the next logical step to take the series above and beyond where it’s currently at. I’ve not read the comics myself, but it’s a safe bet that a lot of people die and are subsequently resurrected through some ancient magic/ritual/plot contrivance. I’ll be disappointed if I’m right, and I don’t say that often. Feige might have got his threads in hand though; The Avengers’ next challenge should either be a personal one (Civil War) or a universal one (Infinity War), but it’s almost at a point where the single hero films are redundant, as interaction between franchises is now the main reason we watch Marvel. One thing’s for sure though, and that’s that there’s no end in sight for this franchise. I’ll be dead and in my grave long before they look to retiring these heroes, provided of course they don’t do any more fucking reboots because Spiderman has hung himself by his own web again.