Friday, 15 May 2015

The Avengers: Age of Ultron Review

Prior to the late nineties superhero movies were like Antonio Salieri, bitterly watching the Mozart-esque film industry reap in success with their cavalier ways. Sure, the comic book industry found mainstream appeal with cinematic adaptations of Superman, Batman, and even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But it wasn’t until the last decade or so that they’ve become a genuinely entrenched part of our culture, enthusiastically forced upon us like an Orwellian re-education class on socially acceptable facial expressions.

Well, the superhero industry certainly has had the last laugh, given that, in terms of net return, each film probably financially rivals God’s dickhead creation budget. As the Hop-Frog once claimed: “this is my last jest,” presumably before being banned from performing at children’s parties. Self-indulgent Edgar Allan Poe references aside, the planets have once again aligned and accordingly I have crawled from my autochthonous pit to write a new review. An act which, I firmly acknowledge, is becoming an ever rarer event. In any case, let us look at the latest superhero circle-jerk, The Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Adapted from (rather confusingly) Avengers Vol 1, issues 54-58, and not the Age of Ultron series, the film marks the eleventh foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU being, of course, Marvel’s own apartheid to keep the nondescript Man-Thing, porn star Nick Fury, and Jarvis Cocker-style Peter Parker out of the clubhouse and away from the jam sandwiches. This sequel to the 2012 blockbuster - which focused on cosmic shenanigans from the deepest recesses of space - concerns the concept of superhero hubris and a villainous A.I. named Ultron. It’s actually something of a regression from the massive scale, anti-anthropocentric plot of the first film. Sure, Ultron wants to destroy humanity but he’s ultimately the fall-guy for the Avenger’s inner-turmoil and unresolved issues. Mostly, Age of Ultron resembles the awkward teenage years of self-loathing, self-discovery, and over importance of one’s own identity.

"But mooooom, all the cool heroes are going to Earth-1003."

I mentioned in a previous review that part of the appeal of the big ensemble film is seeing the years of intricately woven continuity (often spanning many franchises) paying off. In that piece, it was in reference to the Universal monster movie mash-ups, which featured horror icons – Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, etc. – with years of established characterisation coming together. The superhero genre is, of course, the ripest for the whole inter-continuity thing; there are, after all, more teams in the various comic series than there are EU quangos devoted to correcting banana lengths. So 2012’s The Avengers was an inevitability: a well thought out and technically masterful inevitability, mind. As an onscreen depiction of The Avengers was on the wish list of every Marvel fan, the first film was as well received as a copy of Y: The Last Man in the headquarters of the Feminist Initiative party.

The immediate problem with Age of Ultron comes from the nature of the comics on which it is based. These crossovers are expectedly dense and serve as a doss house for innumerable superheroes. Storylines in the comic industry can, after all, span hundreds of issues and feature as many characters as the artist's increasingly weak wrists are able to manage. In the first Avengers film, the large cast was fairly well managed, with a stellar variety of heroes and plenty of screen time to be apportioned (except for Hawkeye, obviously). However, in the sequel, we are introduced to three additional heroes, as well as fleshing out those who got the leg day treatment the first time around. Now I certainly understand the need to rotate and add new heroes, Marvel has an enviable cannon after all (at least until the Secret Wars storyline concludes). But in AOU this, unfortunately, leads to a ‘too many oxygen atoms at a water party’ scenario. To me, these films are already a bit vaudevillian; with various personalities on screen doing the thing they’re known for and attempting to meld together cohesively. Adding Scarlett Witch, Quicksilver, and Vision – as well as setting up future characters such as Thanos and Ulysses Klaw - is not going to remedy this.

Yes, as you may expect Age of Ultron is as padded as the underwear of the teenage boy with a date for the prom. Director Joss Whedon does, however, do a respectable job of alternating the focus between characters and creating engaging character moments. The best example of this is during the celebratory party after the Avengers’ initial arse kicking of HYDRA in the cold opening. Chief among the little quips and witticisms between the various pairings (Tony Stark and Thor, for example) is the macho posturing in which the group attempt, and fail, to wield the Mjolnir. It’s a nice little scene, one which explores the group dynamic rather efficaciously, as well as being a precognitive reference to future events to possibly be lifted from the comics. 

But this is simultaneously the problem I have with the format. These ‘humanising’ instances become the glue that holds the whole charade together, like the stitching on an Ed Gein human-face codpiece. Without them, the audience is essentially watching ego-maniacs in campy costumes defenestrate unsuspecting henchmen – not unlike the zoot suit riots. Each character gets at least one humbling scene, and it gets to the point where the entire Ultron storyline is more B-side material. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that a superhero movie is actually taking great pains to develop the characters and expose their psychological scars and weaknesses. And I’m sure that watching the entire Avengers franchise on home release some years from now will help in understanding the apparent arc that’s being forged. It’s just that these films are not a televised mini-series. Waiting years for the next instalment only to discover that the action side is somewhat flimsily treated in favour of more character-based drama, is rather underwhelming.  

Most incongruous is the segregation between the human drama and nature of Marvel comics. Take the Hulk for example. Mark Ruffalo plays the role of Bruce Banner, tortured by his Jekyll and Hyde duality, rather admirably. He’s even given a saccharine romance subplot with everyone’s favourite conversation starter, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). But like the target audience of the Zune, I’m just not buying it. Anyone who is so overpowered that the flapping of his arse cheeks resulting from an explosive bout of flatulence could separate the supercontinent Pangaea, cannot ever come across as milquetoast. Maybe in a David Cronenberg body horror film, à la The Fly, in which the protagonist’s humanity is slowly stripped by their encroaching animal regression. It also works in a Frank Miller or Alan Moore graphic novel, but not in the mainstream superhero genre; where the only thing that’s required of a character is that they’re able to punch villains across the multiverse. Possibly to a place called ‘Maybe Betty Ross is in Another Castle’.

This isn’t to say that AOU lacks action set pieces. As the plot revolves around the insane artificial intelligence Ultron (expertly played by James Spader), there is plenty of fun to be had with the battle of attrition it wages against the Avengers. Ultron is fundamentally able to jump in and out of a multitude of machine men, like a scary version of Quantum Leap. The climactic battle, on top of a town-turned-meteor, is gruelling and perfectly showcases the heroes’ powers – especially newbie telekinetic Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). Likewise, the Hulkbuster fight scene is an immeasurably satisfying piece of fan service and one that’s well executed to boot. The level of collateral damage is ludicrous: skyscrapers are levelled, buildings razed, entire communities destroyed – the Avengers definitely take a ‘scorched Earth’ approach to superheroing. There’s more stupendous destruction and mayhem featured here than during Tamerlane’s average afternoon trudge through Central Asia. 

"We'll have no literary references here!"

Even with the numerous action sequences, there's still a sense of cliché surrounding the entire affair. It's as though a minister for the government of action tropes served as overseer of the project, ticking off the obligations: "There better be a car case. Oh, there is? Fantastic, now I can get back to posturing up to my psychotic Colombian neighbour." What's worse is that Ultron's master plan is foiled before the final act, so the resulting fight scenes lack a sense of urgency. Imagine a group of drunken tramps clumsily brawling over a half-eaten sandwich, and you'll appreciate how lacking the action feels towards the end. Because once the end game devolves into simply an attempt to kill the characters whose actors are contracted for at least three more films, the audience might as well go watch The Age of Adaline for all the difference it would make. And I can't help but appreciate the sense of irony that a film which carries an anti-war message - i.e. the Sokovia civil war/Maximoff twins subplot - is from a genre only really able stand on its various levels of conflict.   

The Maximoff twins are actually a criminally underused element of the story. Fastest man in combat and the bedroom, Pietro "Quicksilver" (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and his sister Wanda/Scarlett Witch, both have a burning hatred for Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) due to sideline in arming the world. His weapons were used in the civil war which tore their country, and family, apart. It's an interesting angle, one that melds perfectly with Ultron's determination to destroy humanity - beyond surfing the internet for five minutes. In Iron Man 1 - 3, the concept of the defender being part of the problem was one which lurked in the background like Pluto at a party for planets of the Solar System. But Whedon merely teases at the plot line, completely forgetting about it by the end.

In-between mawkish humbling moments and stylised brawls, AOU is jammed with reminders to watch the various other Marvel properties. “What happens to Andy Serkis’ freshly delimbed Ulysses Klaw? Find out if the Black Panther motion picture ever fucking comes out.” Frankly it’s reminiscent of the dystopian genre, where the state-churned out movies are packed with propaganda and product placement resulting in a shambles of a film with little but a meandering direction. The constant references – i.e. the Agent Carter nudge/flashback, the illusory vision of the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok – eat into time that would be better spent establishing Ultron as a legitimate threat. Be honest, would you rather have the meaningless bit of dialogue about Bucky Barnes' continued lack of presence, or expanded focus on Ultron's role as the Crimson Cowl?

Close your eyes and pretend it's The Blacklist

Throughout the metal menace meekly turns up, glowers about the extinction of mankind like baby’s first metal band, and then fights the Avengers in clumsy battles of attrition. As a concept, instead of a tangible presence, we are unable to reveal in his physical victories or defeats. It’d be like entering your toaster into a gladiatorial arena and expecting emotional resonance. He’s an enjoyable character – especially his cynical rhetoric with Vision (Paul Bettany), including dismantling Vision’s obligatory humanity is flawed so therefore it is beautiful argument with a single line. Unfortunately, the audience never actually feels the weight of Ultron’s ambitions because they are about as well established and clear as the sparse narration in a Cormac McCarthy novel. About the only thing Ultron makes firmly known is that there are no strings on him, which honestly sounds like something the dominant says to the submissive. 

All in all, Age of Ultron is good. Not brilliant. Just good. It is simply underwhelming compared to its predecessor. Commonplace next to the coltish Guardians of the Galaxy. And seemingly rather simplistic and straightforward opposite the clandestine and duplicitous plots of Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Solider. Everyone plays their roles effectively, the set pieces are well structured (if clichéd), and Marvel’s attempts at condensing their impressive history into references and cameos allow for one of the most lore rich superhero movies to date. The fairest thing one could say about AOU is that it is a respectable but forgettable pit stop along the way to Thanos city. This is further evidenced by his obligatory appearance during the mid-credits sequence, an appearance which promptly abuses to further his sabre-rattling. With The Avengers: Infinity War Part I three years away, six years and several cameos after our initial introduction to Thanos, I simply can’t imagine The Mad Titan living up to the hype. I mean, what the hell has he been doing for half a decade? Given his affinity for death and suffering, probably working under Iain Duncan Smith at the Department for Work and Pensions.
At least Thanos didn't write The Devil's Tune.

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