Age of Banter – A favourable review of Avengers: Age of Ultron

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There is that moment in the first Avengers movie, in which all the superheroes come together in New York City to fight off legions of disposable alien baddies in one long glorious shot. It isn’t actually one long shot, more a number of shots chained together through clever use of computer generated effects, but it is still exhilarating to watch none the less. This is the moment in which the whole movie has effectively been building towards, the moment in which we bear witness to the superhero smackdown the likes of which had never been seen before. It was the moment when Marvel’s gamble paid off, the moment in which five prior movies had been building towards, ever since the then newly formed studio affirmed it’s plan of an avenger team in the post credit tease of the first Iron Man film. The shot is was extremely indulgent but kickass at the same time. Comic book fans cried tears of joy, a substantial amount of money was made and director/writer Joss Whedon finally stood magnificent and gigantic in the sun, after years of being sidelined by clueless execs, the likes of which cancelled Firefly.

Three years and four films later, the Avengers: Age of Ultron begins with another long supercut through a snowy forest, in which our heroes battle off a generic army of high tech soldiers. It is the first of many long rolling shots, all of which are still exhilarating to behold. In many ways Age of Ultron is that one long shot extended to two hours, still supremely indulgent and absurd with a couple of new characters thrown in, but hugely enjoyable to experience. It is perhaps understandable, the Avengers did make a billion dollars, as did Iron Man 3, even Marvel’s supposedly ‘risky’ big screen adaptation of Guardians of the Galaxy managed to become a resounding success. At present Marvel is untouchable when it comes to mass market blockbusters, whilst they could be criticised as being heavily formulaic, they are heavily laced with wit, charm and creativity. Marvel knows this and as a result, Age of Ultron is nothing more than one big victory lap.

Nice work. You got all of them on screen at once. All of them.
Nice work. You got all of them on screen at once. All of them.

The plot, or what I could make of it, involves the Avengers teaming up to retake a base located in an Eastern Block country to retrieve Loki’s sceptre, the macguffin of great power that made Galaga happen over New York in the first movie. Upon getting it back to the laboratory of Avengers HQ, Tony Stark realises that it contains the key to creating artificial intelligence and so goes and creates Ultron, who is expected to make the exercise of global peacekeeping a whole lot easier. Unfortunately, once Ultron (James Spader) comes online, he goes the route of bad Skynet AI and goes about restoring global peace by exterminating mankind in one massively ludricous extinction plot. The Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye must once again put aside their differences and team up in a series of globe trotting set pieces to ensure that planetary annihilation doesn’t happen.

WILL THEY SUCCEED?

Of course they will, the next Avengers movie has already been greenlit and divided into the obligatory two parts! As have six other movies and another bloody Spiderman movie!

Erm… Okay… BUT AT WHAT COST WILL THEY SUCCEED!?

Well that is getting into spoiler territory isn’t it?  As is tradition in the last crop of Marvel movies, Age of Ultron ends with yet another battle in the sky with yet another large mass threatening to crash into the earth causing unprecedented levels of destruction. The only difference is the magnitude, because this is the kind of mass that will level all life on earth, Alvarez style. Suffice it to say, planet earth does keep spinning by the end and many an Avenger will live to fight another day. Probably.

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YES!

To be honest, you may be surprised by the end how little actually happens. It’s supposed to be the ‘Age’ of Ultron, which seems a little of a stretch by the time you get to the end. It’s more like a ‘Week of Ultron’, a particularly bad week perhaps, but a week none the less. In contrast to the previous ‘phase 2’ movies, Age of Ultron doesn’t especially move it’s characters or the world forward. Iron Man 3 involved Tony Stark dealing with post traumatic stress as a result of almost dying in the previous Avengers, it showed Stark as a heavily flawed individual. Thor: The Dark World, had Loki take the throne of Asgard under the guise of Odin, and Captain America: Winter Soldier dismantled SHIELD in a twist ending, thereby destroying the safety net surrounding the Avengers. Not that the Avengers need much help, Captain America can throw motorcycles at people. By comparison, Age of Ultron is very much business as usual. Another day at the office in saving the world against certain doom.

It isn’t really about the destination though, it’s about the jouney and Age of Ultron is ultimately a rollercoaster ride, a globe trotting superhero romp full of likable charismatic characters who all riff off one another via Joss Whedon’s winning style of snappy dialogue. This really is the star appeal of Age of Ultron, next to the spectacle and dizzying action scenes.

There is a little time before Ultron runs amok, in which the Avengers host a party in their headquarters. It gives the characters a chance to breathe and be human around one another. Tony Stark and Thor one up each other on who has the better girl friend. Captain America gives Bruce Banner some heartfelt relationship advice and Rhodes aka War Machine desperately tries to wow members of the avengers with his own stories of super human heroism. This all leads to an end of party scene, in which each of the Avengers attempt to lift Thor’s hammer. None of them manage, except Captain America who manages to make it budge by a fraction and the look on Thor’s face is priceless when he does. The fact that you could be at ease watching these characters on an off day is testament to the main appeal of the picture.

But things need to explode. And explode they do.

James Spader’s Ultron begins as quite a compelling bad guy. We are witness to his birth, in a scene in which he says his first word and understands the nature of humanity gleamed from human history (hint: it’s mostly bad), all within 30 seconds. In the first half of the movie, he comes across a hyper active child who says things as soon as he learns them, albeit in the malevolently soothing voice of James Spader. By the end Ultron begins to unravel and increasingly voice disappointment in how easily his masterplan get’s thwarted by the super friend tag team. Again, it’s funny, it works to excel the carefree spirit of the movie. Like Loki, in the first Avengers movie, Ultron is a pantomime villain mostly. His ego has to offset the egos of each of the Avengers. There isn’t any particular depth or big existential questions that come up whenever artificial intelligence is a subject. There is no big moment that defines his evil, like how Loki demanded everybody to kneel before him in the first movie, or the devilish look of satisfaction he gives when removing an unfortunate victim’s eyeball.

Who could forget this cheeky chappie?
Who could forget this cheeky chappie?

Like I said, the actual ‘age’ Ultron brings about feels very insubstantial. But hey! It’s a problem over semantics, if you want a proper age of ultron, I guess we’re supposed to read the comic book of the same name.

It really is all about the Avengers and the movie is too in love with its characters to sacrifice any of them. Like the first movie, Age of Ultron finds more ways of actually pitting it’s heroes against one another, to complete the nerd fantasy of ‘who would win in a fight between A and B’, as evidenced by the movie’s standout Hulk versus Hulkbuster fight. But even in this dark and dramatic moment where Tony Stark is mercilessly beating his best friend into the ground, the dialogue still manages to entertain and generate huge laughter.

I have read a couple of reviews which have described the film as being a lot darker in tone. Which I would strongly disagree with. You’d think there would be something interesting in how Tony Stark creates the villain and how the villain is in essence a reflection of his narcissistic and paranoid maker. You’d think there would be more severe repercussions in almost bringing about an end to the world, but Tony Stark gets away scott free, perhaps his actions will be dealt with more swiftly in the Civil War movie they have coming out next year. For the most part Age of Ultron is a funny movie. It’s chief ambition is to entertain and it forgoes the kind of angst you would expect from an Empire Strikes Back kind of sequel.

But then, we are talking about the tenth film in the massively successful series. It is a victory lap.

Does it come in Lego? Yes it does come in Lego...
Does it come in Lego? Yes it does come in Lego…

Elsewhere there is a beauty and the beast romance between Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, which goes some ways to address Banner’s own self loathing and sidesteps Black Widow’s conventional role as female ass kicker in a body hugging suit. Chris Evans’s Captain America remains his usual likable self as the selfless old fashioned leader of the group. A recurring joke has him swear out loud to the mock horror of the rest of the group. Thor meanwhile appears mostly pig headed, believing himself to be better than everyone else purely because he is ‘mighty’. Ultimately, however, it is Jeremy Remmer’s Hawkeye who steals the show. After his muted presence in the first movie, he gets an expanded role and one of the best lines in the entire movie – “We’re fighting an army of robots… And I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes any sense!”

New characters are introduced in addition to the established cast, rent-a-Xmen duo Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor Johnson) and Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), both offer new elements to the Avengers (“He’s fast, she’s weird”). Quicksilver accents all those long shots of superhero mayhem and Scarlett Witch is a legitimately terrific new heroine, who must overcome her insecurities to save the day with her phenomenal cosmic powers.

It was also nice to see Andy Serkis in the flesh for once, in a role, which I imagine will reappear somewhere in Marvel’s future films.

There are a couple of niggling flaws. A plot point involves Thor going off to have a hallucinatory freakout in some magical pool which is presumably alluding to the ‘infinity war’ that will be the focus of the next crop of movies and the concluding Avengers installment. Though it was great to see Paul Bettany go beyond his role of Jarvis, I couldn’t really tell you what his new found character actually is…

Hammer time. Has anyone used this expression in these movies yet?
Hammer time. Has anyone used this expression in these movies yet?

For the longest time, these comic book movies often suffered under the sheer weight of the characters. Outside of it’s core characters, Xmen routinely struggles to properly define it’s peripheral characters. Batman and Robin and Spiderman 3 were all glaring examples of too many characters spoiling the brew. Yet in this dimension Age of Ultron triumphs with aplomb, each of it’s characters has a personality and a moment to shine. In many ways Age of Ultron is that famous long shot from the first movie extended over two and a half hours. Some may ask for more nuance, but few will be left disappointed.

For me personally, there is nothing in Age of Ultron that rivals the sheer imagination of Guardians of the Galaxy or the heartfelt simplicity of the ‘take my hand’ ending. There is no scene as subversively genius as Iron Man 3’s Mandarin twist and Ultron is in the end, no substitute for Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. At the same time it doesn’t try to be something it’s not, Age of Ultron is a balls out superhero free for all and it isn’t going to break Marvel’s street cred anytime soon.

In the end, it’s all about the banter between it’s superstar cast. Audiences may look back at the Age of Ultron and question whether ‘Ultron’s age’ lasted long enough to be defined as an actual ‘age’. The two and a half hour running time may be at a little long for some, but it doesn’t stop the second Avengers movie from being a highly entertaining comic book romp.   

 

Additional viewing

Batman Forever

Still the greatest comic book movie ever made. What? Fight me.

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