More excellent thrills from Joss Whedon – the Marvel Universe is on a roll!
I don’t know how Joss Whedon does it. He juggles and juggles all these different characters, set-pieces and plots and it should just fall out of control, those balls of plot rolling on the floor, poor Joss desperately trying to recover them, but the ones that he still had under control….well he drops those too. He slips on one of the stray plotballs. He lands on his face. We should laugh, but in the end it’s just sad. Just so very sad.
Luckily none of that happens in Avengers: Age of Ultron – second time round the magic is still there, and then some. The film is huge, impossibly, mind-boggingly huge. We are thrown directly into an action sequence that some films would be quite content to end on, and to be honest, I was so thrown by the barrage of quick-fire spectacle that it took me quite a while for me to acclimatize to Whedon’s direction. I was happy to roll with it though, for deep down I knew it would turn out all right. At some point I find myself well and truly back in the game, and from then on it was good times all the way. Now I’ve always liked the Marvel films but have struggled to truly love them – Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, Captain America….they’re all good films, peppered with the occasional outstanding moment, but a lot of the time they felt like building blocks for another instalment. I was entertained, but also undernourished – I know a great show should always leave you wanting more, but too often I wanted much, much more. That was until the first Avengers film, which admittedly was also a building block film in that it’s part of an even bigger universe, but a totally exhilarating experience, the first out-and-out classic film of the Marvel world. It should have been a total overload, combining all those existing characters for one big adventure, but Whedon wrung out something truly special with all those fantastic, and I mean really fantastic action set-pieces that made me actually lean forward in my seat in gripped awe, a thing I used to do back when I watched stuff like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as an innocent eight year old but rarely do now in my jaded, cynical days. So yeah, it was a total spectacle, but Whedon’s second killer move was in his handling of the dynamic between the characters – all of a sudden Iron Man’s cocky confidence was being taken down a notch by the no-bullshit heroism of Captain America, who in turn struggled to find his way in present-day drama. Thor’s theatrics were parodied, and everyone had to deal with the green elephant in the room, the Hulk. It could have been a mess, but a dream team was truly born.
For Age of Ultron, the team has moved on, their relationships deepened somewhat (there’s definitely something special between Scarlett Johansson’s former assassin Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow and Mark Ruffalo’s tormented Bruce Banner/Hulk) and their M.O spectacularly efficient. We first catch them on a high-tension mission to retrieve Loki (Thor’s half-brother, total dick, absent for this movie)’s sceptre of Doom or whatever, but once Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) gets home and realises the potentially incredible energy potential inside the sceptre he forges a plan to create the ultimate artifical intelligence, the ultimate defence for the planet…. the only catch being that while he and all his fellow Avengers are partying downstairs, this energy turns out to be so advanced it pretty much assumes self-authority immediately, becomes the terrifyingly advanced Ultron and wages war on PLANET EARTH. Oh shit.
Thrown into the mix are twin siblings Pietro and Wanda (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), who were working with the bad guys who had Loki’s sceptre in the opening sequence and are now in league with Ultron – they have a personal vendetta against Tony Stark but are essentially good people. Pietro/Quicksilver can move at lightning speed. Wanda/Scarlet Witch has a unnerving talent to seriously mess with people’s minds, inducing freaky hallucinations, which doesn’t do the Hulk any favours. Oh yeah, I haven’t mentioned Captain America, Thor, Hawkeye…they’re all here too. There’s so much going on, but the result is not exhausting, it’s kind of a rush. At two hours and twenty or so minutes, this is the longest Marvel film to date, and in other hands this could have been too much, but Whedon’s got it. He’s really got it. Okay, these characters aren’t textbook models of three-dimensionality, but they are vivid and lovable enough for us to get swept along in their action, be it physical or psychological. Tony Stark remains the most interesting – he even openly admits he’s a ‘mad scientist’ at one point, such is his often reckless tendency to push the envelope of scientific discovery, even if what he uncovers is potentially apocalyptic. Ruffalo’s Banner remains the best incarnation of this character, and his motion-captured turn as Hulk means we’re watching more than a mere special effect lay waste to everything. Jeremy Renner gets plenty more screen time as Clint Barton/Hawkeye, and this is very much appreciated. Chris Evans is utterly likeable as Steve Rogers/Captain America, his total lack of irony a neat counterpoint to Stark’s uber self-aware character. Chris Hemsworth as Thor is just a delight – his confidence that he cannot be affected by Scarlet Witch’s mind-contol because he is ‘mighty’ is particularly amusing. He could have been an intolerably alpha hero, but Hemsworth’s subtle deflating of muscle-bound machoism remains a delight. Johansson’s Black Widow is the film’s lean kick-arse element and the thrill of watching her ride a motorcycle out of a god-DAMNED plane is totally thrilling. Her moments with Banner are really quite sweet and revelatory, especially the bit in the first few minutes that her skills with a lullaby are the one thing that can calm that crazy Hulk down.
Then there’s Ultron. Oh yes. As brilliant as Tom Hiddleston’s turn as Loki was, and despite all the insane destruction he caused in the last film, he was almost too gleefully evil to work as a truly threatening villain – after all, even his most brutal act (think of poor Coulson) ended up being retro-actively altered and compromised. Ultron however, is a genuine menace. His intentions are deeply warped, but his conviction makes him frighteningly unshakable. Yet he’s also surprisingly funny. James Spader’s vocal performance is absolutely spot-on, getting the humour and the horror balance perfectly. He’ll crack a joke, but he’ll also crack bones if you’re not careful. Oh yeah, there’s other characters too, but you can find out who they are yourself.
The action is reassuringly terrific. The camera has a ball luxuriating in long-takes which take in the sight of the whole doing their individual thing over a huge expanse of territory, blowing up buildings with reckless abandon (and serious spectacle) and upping the WTF madness with glee. Yes, the only way to handle the Hulk (apart from lullabies) is for Iron Man to adopt the form of FAT IRON MAN and pummel his crazy best friend with about three dozen punches to the face. The chosen method of impending destruction to planet Earth in the final act is remarkably nuts. I won’t dare spoil it here. There’s so much else that I’m sure I’ve forgotten at least two dozen inspired moments. Can’t wait to see it again to be reminded.
By the end, you’re still left teased with future adventures, but Age of Ultron in itself is a totally satisfying, complete experience. It has set the bar insanely high for other blockbusters to reach this year. I totally support this film’s avenging.
PS: There is an extra scene in the MIDDLE of the film’s end credits. There’s is nothing at the very end, at least not in the version I saw in my cinema here in the UK last night.