GRITTY GRITTY BANG BANG
Joss Whedon uses slow-motion for emotional effect on several occasions in Avengers: Age of Ultron, hence sacrificing his integrity as a filmmaker. There’s simply no excuse for such nonsense. Sure, we’d let such a flourish pass for most contemporary blockbusters, but we all know Whedon should know better. A liberal activist, feminist and all-round smart guy, Whedon is the type of filmmaker who must really make a lot of effort to produce something as underwhelming, unmemorable and predictable as Age of Ultron. The first Avengers was, as we feared, a true once-off: a film levitated above the line of “greatness” by the shock of it being not only coherent, but tremendous fun. Ultron arrives with the burden of a $2 billion expectation on its head, and Whedon simply doesn’t have the energy to jump so high. His first big mistake: insisting on repeating absolutely none of the first film’s best story beats. There’s nothing wrong with a little repetition when it inspires nostalgia and, as a result, confidence. Age of Ultron is so astronomically different in tone and structure to the 2012 film that it’s almost like watching the start of a new franchise, but without any of the reassuring standard introductory clichés. On second thought, maybe this is a good thing! Perhaps Whedon has sneakily dropped into our waiting laps an experimentally innovative blockbuster sequel without any of the familiar tropes; if Age of Ultron isn’t welcoming, it least it may be original! Or maybe not. After all, however talented a director Whedon may be, he’s self-admittedly no Orson Welles or Abbas Kiarostami. He’s trying to make a damn fun movie, but the pressure may have been too great for Ultron to turn out as anything but sufficient.
Ultron‘s troubles begin within the opening 30 seconds. From frame #1 onwards, there’s an extended forest battle which is cheaply CGI’d, awfully acted and seriously headache-inducing. If the 2012 film was a live-action comic book, you think, this is merely a big-screen video game along the ugly lines of Tron Legacy. Whedon soon calms such fears as our cast of delightful, uber-charismatic heroes (namely Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth’s Handsome Thor, Chris Evans’ Captain America, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Jeremy Renner’s Bow & Arrow Man and Mark Ruffalo’s Mr. Hulk– did we get those all right?) begin to banter and goof. AND OH HOW THEY BANTER AND GOOF. Such bantering between such unbelievably good-looking folk has never been seen in cinema history. It’s delightful. Later on in the film, they even go to a farmhouse! Yes, the plot device first explored in 1968’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and most recently put to use in Transformers: Age of Extinction and Interstellar is availed of once again. Why are farm houses so damn popular with attractive film heroes, you ask? The farm house- isolated from the high-tech worlds in which films such as this are set- is the perfect photogenic location for fascinating relationships and bonds to develop. That segment of Ultron is, as the S.H.I.E.L.D helicarrier act of the 2012 film was, the best part of the picture by far.
That’s not to say that the rest is useless, loud fluff. Much of the action is staged spectacularly, though there’s nothing to rival the sharp brilliance of Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, unlikely to be beaten as the best action film of 2015 (Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation and Spectre are, of course, looming competition). The cast’s broad charm is occasionally disrupted by the typically appalling Aaron Taylor-Johnson (brutally miscast as a Quicksilver inferior to Evan Peters’ in every way imaginable) and the hard-working but under-utilised Elizabeth Olsen. James Spader’s voicing of villainous A.I. Ultron, who philosophises his way through every darkly lit expository sequence, is surprisingly fun, as is Paul Bettany’s colourful portrayal of new Avengers-bred hero The Vision, who pops up in the last act to overcrowd even further what may be the most overcrowded film of all time. The major characters undoubtedly don’t get unbiased coverage, with Captain America taking a major back seat for almost the entire film. Thor gets more to do than one would imagine, while Jeremy Renner is- we kid you not- terrific as Hawkeye. He gets a backstory, personal life and everything!
The action is, for the most part, so formulaic and abrasive that one’s educated mind wanders to the film’s political anglings. Downey’s Stark becomes, not for the first time in his 7 years of Marvel films, a mouthpiece for Whedon’s politics. There’s an odd theme raised in the last act in which Hawkeye and Olsen’s Scarlet Witch aim to highlight the social importance of “doing your job”. It verges on fascistic, perhaps unintentionally. Nick Fury, who has an INSANELY small role this time around (his big last-act entrance is unexpectedly joyful as a result of his absence) comments that Ultron “multiplies like a Catholic rabbit”. A joke like that in a film likely to gross $2bn is pretty OK with us!
The film flounders largely in its attempts at self-awareness and fan service, a curse which has plagued both Sherlock and Community in recent years. Hawkeye, the most “traditionally normal” hero of the bunch, often comments on the absurdity of it all, and an early joke on the contractually-dictated absence of Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman’s characters is distracting rather than refreshing. A healthy amount of meta, as we saw in James Gunn’s almost certainly superior (in terms of consistency, coherence and enjoyability) Guardians of the Galaxy, can go a long way. Too much can be narrative poison. Both Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman have contributed to the score, seemingly composing alternative tracks. Two very different artists (if Tyler can even be referred to as such) filling roles such as this creates a highly disjointed mood, something which both reflects and affects the film itself. Like Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, Avengers: Age of Ultron is big and gaudy, but warm of heart and wild of temper.