Sunday, May 03, 2015

Film Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

When Joss Whedon's first Avengers film landed in 2012, it was the end result of several years of calculated, but very real, risks. Marvel had embarked on a seemingly foolhardy quest to create a cinematic version of their comic universe, one in which dozens of superheroes existed simultaneously, had their own solo adventures, then teamed up when needed. It paid off in a huge way, not merely because The Avengers became a massive hit, but because all the subsequent Marvel films that followed were given a boost as well, and formerly marginalised characters like Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and especially Captain America (Chris Evans) are now pretty much household names. Yet success has boxed the series into a corner.

While the films in Marvel's Phase One had stories that could have global consequences, they were also relatively character-focused in order to better introduce the members of the team. The Phase Two films have all been much bigger in scope. The Thor sequel revolved around a plot by evil space elves to conquer the Earth. The Captain America sequel revolved around a plot by S.H.I.E.L.D./HYDRA to conquer the Earth. Even Iron Man 3, which was mostly about Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) hauling his broken suit around, was about a megalomaniacal maniac who wanted to create a super-race, who would in turn probably conquer the Earth. These were all bigger, bolder films than their predecessors, and in two out of three cases they made for better films than their predecessors, but they also made the prospect of global annihilation seem pretty de rigueur. It's the Problem of Perspective, something I've written about regarding Doctor Who a lot in the past: saving the world on a weekly basis makes it hard to get excited for a finale, and Age of Ultron is very much the finale to Phase Two. If The Avengers can and do save the world individually, how can a team up feel special?

The biggest hurdle Age of Ultron faces is making a threat of that scale seem fresh again, and it's one that it never manages to overcome. It adds a new villain in the form of Ultron (James Spader), an artificial intelligence created by Stark and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) as a means of creating, in Tony's words, "a suit of armour around the world." Stark wanted to create something that would both augment and supplant The Avengers, and which could more ably protect the world from threats both extra- and regular-terrestrial. Instead, he created a being who views the Avengers as the true threat that needs to be eradicated. It's a fairly straightforward Frankenstein type of story, albeit one in which The Monster is wryly funny, self-deprecating, and prone to singing snatches of "I've Got No Strings" from Disney's Pinocchio.

Ultron's a fun villain, thanks solely to Spader's off-kilter delivery, which offsets his generic robot design, and his initial team-up with Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a pair of enhanced humans who have a vendetta against Tony (and who absolutely and legally aren't mutants), provides a genuine threat for a team who are, let's face it, a little bit daunting. Yet they're never as fun or interesting as Tom Hiddleston's Loki was in the first film, and Ultron's insanity makes it hard to grasp what his motivations are, other than that he's really, really bad. Ultimately, he feels less like a villain to be vanquished and more like a facilitator, someone whose purpose is to set things in motion that won't pay off until 2019, when Infinity War - Part II arrives.

That sense of obligation to the broader Marvel universe it what drags down Age of Ultron, and stops it short of achieving the giddy highs of some of the other Marvel films. Where the first film felt like a culmination of years of storytelling, coming together to mark the end of a particular version of the Marvel universe, Age of Ultron feels like a stepping stone. Even as Whedon is trying to tell this story, he also has to pay off things from previous films and set up things for subsequent ones. If The Avengers was a full stop, then Age of Ultron is a comma, or at best a semi-colon.

Despite that sense of kowtowing to The Suits, there are lots of great things in Age of Ultron that manage to break through the corporate strictures. The action is, for the most part, not as clean or composed as in The Avengers; the first battle against Ultron, which takes place at night in Avengers HQ, is borderline incoherent, and the final battle against thousands of nearly identical robots is pretty tiring. There are some great sequences buried in there, though. The opening shot of the film, which shows The Avengers attacking a HYDRA base in the fictional nation of Sokovia, mirroring a similar unbroken shot from the first film, reintroduces all the characters doing their thing individually before having them all come together in the soon-to-be-iconic image above. It's a clever, funny bit of visual storytelling that throws the audience back into the action without a moment's rest.

The cast, meanwhile, remain phenomenal, and many of the best moments come from the times when the film gets to slow down and focus on their chemistry with each other. An early scene, in which the team sit around drinking after a mission, then mock each other as they each try and fail to lift Thor's hammer, is probably the best individual scene from the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It's hilariously funny, the cast all spark off of each other with a speed and ease that calls to mind the comfortable rhythms of old friends, and every performer finds little grace notes in their performance. Of particular note: the brief look of uncertainty that passes over Chris Hemsworth's face when it looks like Captain America is going to do it, is a lovely and perfectly observed detail; the flirting between Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Banner is playful yet earnest; Rhodey's (Don Cheadle) discomfort at being one of the least spectacular people in the room is nicely played.

The entire middle section of the film, in which a bruised and battered team take refuge in a safe location and plan their next move, also benefits from allowing the cast to play off of each other without the need for special effects. It says volumes about the strength of Joss Whedon's personality as a filmmaker that this section, which is essentially The Big Chill if Kevin Kline was Robert Downey, Jr., is allowed to play out for as long as it does, rather than getting shoved to the side for more whizz-bang action. The first half an hour and the last forty minutes feel rushed and hurried by comparison, suggesting that an extra twenty minutes or so would probably have benefited the parts of the film which get short changed.

As with the first film, Whedon manages to balance the action and humour well, and ekes funnier, subtler performances out of every member of the cast than they've given in most of their previous incarnations. (Hell, he even gets a performance out of Aaron Taylor-Johnson that isn't completely bland: that's a miracle on par with parting the Red Sea.) His wit comes through in every line, but the sarcasm never obscures the humanism, which manifests itself in the many instances where The Avengers risk their lives in order to avoid civilian casualties. He also takes the time to make sure that even some of the seemingly throwaway moments in the first part of the film have payoffs, whether minor or significant, at the end. The film is often messy and disjointed, but it never stops being fun and there is never a sense that Whedon is losing control of its thousand moving parts, just that he is fighting to keep accountants from controlling them as well.

Most significantly, some of Whedon's long-standing philosophies bleed through, making it one of the most thematically weighty of the Marvel movies. There's his existentialism, best exemplified in the idea that things are beautiful because they end, not because they can be preserved, but also a deep-seated distrust of organisations that place security over everything else. The film is pretty easily read as a metaphor for America's attempts to police the world, and how it stems from past trauma (in this case the Battle of New York which ended the first film and functions as the MCU's 9/11) and how even well-intended actions will inevitably rebound in terrible and unexpected ways. That kind of heft has largely been lacking from Marvel's works - with the notable exception of Winter Soldier's S.H.I.E.L.D. as the N.S.A. plot line - and it's kind of bracing to see it emerge with a vengeance at what could prove to be the franchise's apotheosis, both culturally and commercially.

Grade: B