Friday, 1 May 2015

Avengers: Age Of Ultron - Dir. Joss Whedon

Age of Ultron is a lot of movie (mostly in a good way), overstuffed with too much of everything. I’m not surprised that Joss Whedon is exhausted after making it, but it is to his credit that this latest Marvel behemoth doesn’t come crashing down like… well… like a giant flying thingymbob in the finale of a Marvel film.
After seemingly taking out the last remaining HYDRA hideout and retrieving Loki’s staff, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) attempt to use the power of the staff’s stone to unlock the secrets of artificial intelligence. Their experiments unwittingly lead to the creation of Ultron (voiced by James Spader) who believes that the fastest track to peace on Earth is to eliminate the Avengers.
The more simplistic story of Avengers Assemble was not a huge problem because the main thrill of that movie was in watching the characters join forces and fight as The Avengers. With this sequel, Whedon was faced with the challenge of creating a more engaging and complex story after that initial thrill of the first movie had passed. The film’s greatest strength is that Whedon has found a story for everybody without the film ever feeling episodic. It’s also a story that tries to be about something as well, with the characters arguing whether Tony was right to push ahead so single-mindedly with artificial intelligence. It’s by no means a deep debate about the subject, but it is there.

So whilst nobody is side-lined, some characters are left short changed. Thor is involved in a plot tangent that is necessary but makes little sense. Anthony Mackie’s Falcon is notably absent during the finale despite being reintroduced earlier on and popping up at the very end. Paul Bettany adds his physical presence to the cast this time around as Vision/The Vision (?). It’s a potentially fascinating character, a being born into the world with total omnipotence, but he’s introduced so late on that the film has to immediately launch into the finale. The biggest casualty though is Ultron himself. After a great introduction, he’s only appears to confront the Avengers at several points. All we see is his posturing and bragging; we don’t see enough of him being evil and menacing, just lots of preparation for the final fight.
It’s a particular shame that we don’t spend enough time with these characters when the film is rather indulgent elsewhere, particularly in the opening 45 minutes. The extended party sequence with cameos and explanations for non-cameos is fun but feels like glorified fan service (though not as shameless as it was in X-Men: Days Of Future Past). There is an important character point to be made with the fight between the Hulk and the ‘Veronica’ armour, but it goes on for far too long. Worse though is the fight in the tanker, which is dark and largely incomprehensible (Seamus McGarvey’s vibrant and colourful cinematography is sorely missed throughout). The best action sequence is the chase across Seoul where some of the Avengers track down Ultron and features new additions Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and their snazzy powers. Most of the established Avengers fight by hitting, so it’s welcoming to see these characters interact in the fights with their different skills (super speed and telekinesis respectively).

The Marvel films may not be hugely intellectually challenging but they are demanding of their audience; it’s becoming increasingly necessary to be up to speed with all of individual films in order to get the most out of these joint outings. This commitment to cross-film storytelling is admirable and exciting in theory, but the reality of it means that it each film has to tread a certain amount of water. The solo outings of each Avenger have to maintain a status quo for the joint outings, but then the joint outings have to lead into the next solo outings; each film appears to be just setting up the next one. There’s no sense of finality to them, particularly when the slate of upcoming films and casting deals are announced years in advance. That may change with the upcoming Civil War and Infinity War, which sound as if they’re bringing some characters to the end of their path. I wouldn’t be surprised if Civil War was the final appearance for Robert Downey Jr and if Steve Rogers as Captain America (Chris Evans) didn’t make it to the end of the Infinity War.
As a film Age of Ultron is too long, but it arguably needs to be longer for it to be wholly coherent. It lacks the simplicity of Avengers Assemble, but at least feels ambitious when it could’ve easily not been. The film is far too pleased with itself for delivering a final act ‘development’ that isn’t particularly noteworthy outside of the Marvel cinematic bubble. The fact that this standard facet of storytelling has managed to find its way in is, I guess, a sign of progress.

Avengers: Age Of Ultron was released in UK cinemas on 23rd April 2015.

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