17 June 2015

Review: AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

I'm assuming you've all seen it by now, but this is still a spoiler-free review. However, it may contain plot details from other Marvel Studios movies up to this one.

With some assembly required, Joss Whedon marshalled Marvel Studios' fledgling franchises together for a full-blooded and hugely entertaining Avengers movie back in 2012. The studio had the geek god on contract as a creative consultant for a spell after that, ending with the massive sequel, Avengers: Age Of Ultron. No matter what you think of it, nobody could accuse him of leaving anything on the table on his way out.

Giving absolutely no quarter to viewers who aren't up to date with who Hydra are, what Loki's sceptre does and why both sides are after it, the film jumps right in with a re-assembled team of Avengers- Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Black Widow, Hawkeye and the Hulk- taking a terrorist base. Winding down after a job well done, Tony Stark is anxious about where the next threat is coming from, and works to create Ultron, an artificially intelligent program that can protect the world in their stead. Alas, Ultron has unconventional ideas about what peace in our time really means.

Like this week's Jurassic World, it's a movie in which the act of creation gone awry, but crucially, it's not about that. In a way that would be more fitting in the dino-franchise, it's about the messy and often-violent nature of evolution, even if that task is sometimes overtaken by the act of evolving Marvel's own cinematic masterplan in a similar fashion. While the first film got to excel as a culmination of all of the films up to that point, someone has clearly mandated that this one should be open at both ends, taking in the ten Marvel movies that went before it while also setting up the next ten.

Unsurprisingly, the result isn't perfect, but in lesser hands than Whedon's, it might have utterly failed. An early party scene, which sets up the new status quo of the team as an almost multi-national ass-kicking agency with Tony as CEO, is about as laidback as the film ever gets and, handily, it also serves as the litmus test for the complex chemistry that Whedon gets so well. He even makes it look easy, setting up Robert Downey Jr and Chris Evans as bickering war buddies, Chris Hemsworth as the sturdy, scene-stealing comic relief, Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo as an unlikely but adorable couple, all while various supporting characters from solo outings orbit around the principals to make quippy cameos.

The scene climaxes with the arrival of Ultron, a self-aware, Pinocchio-quoting snark machine, voiced by a tremendous James Spader. Whedon characterises him almost as an ideologically confused teenager, lashing out with a limited understanding of borrowed quotes and a sixth-former's grasp of anarchy and nihilism. Aside from literally serving the film's central theme with his self-built progression through more durable bodies and his masterplan of global extinction, he's a direct affront to Tony's attitude of trying to end the fight. Short of calling quits for humanity, we realise there is no way to completely end it.

In the comics, Ultron is a creation of Hank Pym, aka Ant-Man, and the Frankenstein subtext behind the villain is haltingly transferred over to Tony too. He isn't particularly active in that creator-creation dichotomy, but the film with other thematic fish to fry and that's sometimes for the worst. The great villain feels somewhat sidelined in the ever busier machinations, with a reprise of what the MacGuf-finity stones are, (because the Earth-bound heroes missed the one in Guardians Of The Galaxy) the introduction of two new sidekicks with a traumatic past, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, and most surprisingly, Hawkeye's home life.

Although Jeremy Renner is tethered to a bunch of different franchises, he's hardly become the mega-star that he was teed up as in those films. Both the Bourne and Mission: Impossible series are laying plans with their original stars very much in the forefront and in terms of screen time, he was the main casualty of The Avengers. Whedon gives Hawkeye his dues on the second run by exposing the real reason why a guy with a bow and arrow is so essential to a team of superheroes (lampshaded in a line that rivals Bruce Banner's "I'm always angry" reveal from last time) and also has some devillish third-act fun subverting our expectations of what happens to a guy after we meet his wife and kids.

There's little hope that this could match the deliriously wonderful finale of the first film, but coming after a blocky second act lull that is comprised mostly of all of the sequel's obligations to continuity, it's a worthy follow-up. The late introduction of yet another character looks set to end in disaster, especially given the "new element from Iron Man 2"-style scuttlebutt that precedes it, but actually gives the film a shot in the arm, even if it may be too little to turn around some viewers. The film takes a lot of long walks for very short drinks of exposition and counter to the inclusive mania of part one, it could leave you feeling a little parched by the end.

With so much going on, the major disappointment here is that there's less room for the kind of big moments that we got last time around. As with Hawkeye, Whedon foregrounds characters like Hulk and Black Widow, who don't have name-above-the-title solo ventures to round them out between hanging out with the Avengers. The closest the film gets is the much-anticipated face-off between Hulk and the Hulkbuster version of Iron Man, which looks like a comic book splash page brought to life over one brilliant action sequence, peppered with terrific one-liners and sight gags. It's the most purely enjoyable scene of the movie and it's almost a shame to return to the plot when it's over.

Yeaaaahh!
Avengers: Age Of Ultron sometimes feels like binge-watching a whole season of a show all at once, but it largely weathers impossible expectations well. For all of its moving parts and plot machinations, Joss Whedon feels like the most valuable player, always making sure it's a story about people, rather than robots hitting each other. To turn out anything better than an incoherent morass from a plot treatment so intertextually dense is an achievement in itself, but it's always lively, often funny, and Whedon's reliable affinity for large groups of characters carries us through a messy and violent evolution of the ongoing cinematic universe. It's a good thing they've got those Arrested Development guys wrangling the sprawling cast of the next one.

Avengers: Age Of Ultron is still showing, in 2D and 3D, at selected cinemas nationwide. Follow me on Letterboxd for more reviews.

I'm Mark the mad prophet and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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