Friday, 1 May 2015
On 1.5.15 by KieronMoore in Age of Ultron, Avengers, Black Widow, Captain America, Hawkeye, Hulk, Iron Man, Joss Whedon, Marvel 1 comment
[MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD - DON’T READ THIS IF YOU’VE NOT SEEN THE FILM!]
Going into Age of Ultron, I was intrigued by the mixed reaction I'd seen - some five star reviews, some considerably less generous. And I can understand why. In some respects Joss Whedon's sequel is very much the same again, in some respects it's very different. My initial reaction was – blimey! It’s a film where a lot happens, fast, that'll take multiple viewings to take everything in, and that will need the test of time before its standing in the pantheon of Marvel movies can firmly be decided.
So, rather than a coherent prose review (there are enough of them going around anyway), here are my messy initial thoughts on my first viewing (of hopefully many) of Age of Ultron...
- While the first Avengers was about bringing the team together, Whedon doesn’t play it safe by keeping them together – this is the film where they drift apart, where some of them retire and where inter-Avengers conflicts spark (setting up a bigger conflict in Civil War, no doubt). It’s about evolution – of replacing the Avengers with technology, and when that fails, replacing the Avengers with new Avengers.
- What the first film did really well was balancing all its characters, so each Avenger – plus Nick Fury and even Maria Hill – had their own arc of development through the film. It turns out there’s a tipping point where, once so many characters are thrown into a film, not even Joss Whedon can sustain them all so well. This film crosses that point.
- On the good side, Hawkeye is undeniably the surprise MVP. The reveal of his family and farm is both funny and charming, and him gradually deciding that he needs to retire works well, particularly when he comes so close to death in the climactic battle. Setting up tropes hinting that he could be about to die and then twisting them (at Quicksilver's expense) is very clever, very Whedon.
- Bruce Banner also has a pretty good story, having to deal with the consequences of being a monster and what this means for his ability to lead a normal life. Mark Ruffalo plays sullen really well. Someone give him a hug.
- Though I’m undecided on where I stand on that story from Black Widow’s perspective. I like that she’s coming to realise she can possibly have more than a life of conflict. But putting her together with Hulk seems out of nowhere and more suitable for Hulk’s story than her own. We’ve all seen that video where Jeremy Renner jokes that she’s a slut and the subsequent awkward apology – but I think the point reflected there is that, with her being the only decent female recurring character (up until Scarlet Witch joins), it was kind of inevitable that she’d be paired off with several of the guys when their storylines needed it.
- Captain America and Thor are both shortchanged, only really being here to do macho things when shit goes down. Sure, giving Hawkeye, Banner, and Widow the most screen time makes sense given that they’ve not got their own films going, but when two of the bigger stars get so little to do, it’s evident that the ensemble isn’t quite working. The storyline Thor does get is basically a teaser trailer for his next solo film. And what the hell is the underground lake all about?
- The two new Avengers – twins Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver – are in a middle ground between Hawkeye/Banner and Cap/Thor in terms of having an interesting story. The backstory of their orphanhood in Sokovia works as strong motivation (and sufficiently differentiates Quicksilver from the Days of Future Past version) and I liked them holding a grudge against Tony Stark for it being his bomb that killed their parents. But this grudge seemed to disappear once they’d split up with Ultron – it could have been returned to when they had to work together with Stark during the final battle. At least it’s there simmering in the background should Scarlet Witch show up on Team Cap in Civil War.
- As horrible as this sounds, I’m glad Quicksilver got killed. I’ve been saying for a while that the Marvel universe has a habit of being too safe, with no-one of import ever dying despite all the alien invasions and evil robots. You need a good death once in a while so that we take it seriously when the heroes are in danger. Let’s just hope they don’t Coulson him. Also, it might make Scarlet Witch hate Stark even more, given that the whole thing was sort of his fault.
- Oh yeah, Tony Stark. His story seems to be the main one, the crux of the film. He builds Ultron after all. It’s the Frankenstein narrative, man accidentally creating monster. It flows on nicely from the end of Iron Man III - Tony wanting to do less hero-ing himself and let his tech do the work for him. But the final act is very iffy – surely the arc should be that he makes a horrific awful mistake and so learns from it, yet he does exactly the same thing again (despite warnings from Dr. Banner that “you’re making the same horrific awful mistake again”) – except this time it’s not a mistake and it saves the day. The Frankenstein narrative should be about the arrogance of the mad scientist, not about how he was right all along but a bit unlucky first time around.
- The Vision. I’m sure lots of fans will disagree with me, but he felt a bit too silly, even by this universe’s standard. How does the whole flying thing work, was that even explained? Maybe he needed more of Whedon's subversive humour – acknowledging the silliness can reduce it!
- Ultron’s a damn good villain, though. He’s physically imposing, he has James Spader’s voice, he fits right into the zeitgeist of fears surrounding cloud data and advanced military technologies. The parallels between him and Stark work well, too – I loved him getting pissy at Andy Serkis for making the comparison.
- Lots of cameos from other characters. Some good – Nick Fury, Rhodey, Maria Hill. Some crowbarred – Dr. Selvig, Peggy Carter. And why, given that Winter Soldier set him up as a sort of sidekick for Cap, wasn't Falcon in it more? He could easily have come along with Fury and co. to the final battle.
- There were some really funny moments – the hammer scene in particular, and its pay-off – but altogether this film felt less witty than the first. The attempt to relive the first film’s funniest moment – Hulk comically twatting the villain – felt like too much of a rehash.
- It certainly delivers in terms of action. One of the best shots of the first film was the lengthy tracking shot throughout the Battle of New York, and Whedon acknowledges this with a similarly awesome money shot guiding us around the opening tussle. Then there’s the Seoul kerfuffle, which mixes things up by being more of an urban thriller-type chase in the vein of Winter Soldier. And finally, there’s a really brilliantly batshit insane climax.
- Big cities being destroyed in the crossfire may be becoming a cliché in modern blockbusters, and indeed it happens twice here, but what I liked about these sequences, which a lot of other films miss, is that they acknowledge that destroying cities has consequences. It seems obvious, but our heroes having to balance their time between fighting Ultron’s armies and saving people trapped in collapsing buildings really ramped up the tension, while the story about the Avengers’ public image being damaged by Hulk’s fuckery in the African city felt like it could easily have been raising an eyebrow at Man of Steel’s infamous failure to acknowledge that Superman basically destroyed Metropolis.
- I’ve heard lots of comparisons to The Empire Strikes Back, which seem fair. Like Empire, it’s a darker, more serious film than its predecessor, but doesn’t lose the sense of adventure or the excitement of the action. And, like Empire, it's clearly a middle act, setting things up for the next instalment. Or the next three, if you count set-ups for Civil War and Ragnarok.
- I do like the ending’s promise of a whole new team of Avengers. Got to keep mixing things up! The new Avengers are more diverse than the old, which is great - two black guys, one red and green guy, two women, and Steve Rogers, who is bisexual (I buy into that fan theory primarily because of how angry it makes some idiots on Twitter).
Overall opinion, then? It’s a darker and more thematically rich film than the first, in its exploration of evolution and rebirth, yet keeps the same sense of adventure, action and fun - though isn’t quite as funny. It also suffers in that, with such an abundance of characters, some are inevitably shortchanged. But it’s a film that I can and will return to – and probably discover something new every time. Or something old I’d forgotten.
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