Avengers: Age of Ultron

Review by Sophie Monks Kaufman @sopharsogood

Directed by

Joss Whedon

Starring

Chris Evans Robert Downey Jr Scarlett Johansson

Anticipation.

Suspicious of money-driven movies, but Joss Whedon tends to wend his way with wit and wile.

Enjoyment.

An abundance of interesting ideas and enjoyable lines grease the wheels of this colossal movie machine.

In Retrospect.

Entertaining enough but there are no party bags to take home.

Joss Whedon has once again assembled a creamy cast to have a whole lot of fun with the blockbuster template.

Hear that? That was the summer blockbuster starter pistol going off. Speeding out of the blocks, quipping as it bounds, is Marvel’s mighty Avengers: Age of Ultron. Like all of these big-budget, big name movies it plays by established laws carved out of a need for action, explosions, A-listers looking buff and references to other assets within the studio’s ever-expanding Universe.

In the case of comic-book adaptations, there are also the pre-existing guidelines to characters and worlds and how all should look and behave. To review a Marvel movie as if the director had the creative freedom to end with a whimsical song-and-dance number would be like blaming a no-budget movie for not starring Scarlett Johansson.

Whether you go to the cinema for this type of formulaic spectacle is a different question. But if there was ever an ingredient to combine with the studio-approved list of additives to give a dish some zing, it is the inimitable writer/director Joss Whedon. From sharpening his teeth on Buffy the Vampire Slayer to playing merry hell with horror conventions in The Cabin in the Woods (as writer) to making the sparkiest dialogue in his previous Marvel outing, Avengers Assemble, Whedon’s wit is bracing and knowing enough to undercut all humbug.

Introducing a preview screening of Age of Ultron, he said: “Thank you so much for coming out and seeing this movie that I hate so much, that I’m so tired of but that was made with so much love. I just hope that you enjoy it.” In conceding the wearisome qualities of being part of a huge machine, he makes the machine seem somehow human and charming.

Machines and humans and how the two crossover and clash is the subject of Age of Ultron. The action begins literally with action as Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) descend upon Hydra in order to confiscate an item of enigmatic importance: Loki’s Sceptre. Hydra responds by unleashing ‘The Twins’, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff aka The Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, played respectively by a mad-eyed Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson channelling New Romantic surfer chic. Their powers — in short — are: “He’s fast. She’s weird.” The Scarlett Witch’s talent for mind control, in the form of plunging the superheroes back into the unresolved traumas of their past exposes vulnerability and puts the fascinating observation that strength is a matter of staying in the present.

Another narrative seed planted during the first big fight is the tender green shoots of romance between a larger but still tender green lifeform and the token opening-line-up female. The pleasure of watching the sultriest actress on the planet flirt with Mark Ruffalo doing his winningly bashful Mark Ruffalo thing also provides moments of quietude, of which there are otherwise next to none, as the plot rolls forward amid action, one-liners and CGI and action, one-liners and team talks and…

Whedon makes his style count in the quality of the one-liners. There are no meat-headed testosterone-fuelled swearfests. A running jokes comes after Cap primly calls out a team member for “language.” All characters are so wry, so witty, so referential. Also to Whedon’s credit, all characters get the chance (albeit in a mutter form as they charge towards disaster) to wear their individuality and, thanks to Scarlet Witch induced flashbacks, the painful events that forge their current goals.

There is something to be said for the sight of genuine Hollywood talent at their most athletic and battle-ready delivering character-appropriate witticisms out of the corner of their mouths as they shoot across the screen. So many art-house veterans now plough their niche right to the top of Mount Money. Most of the highest-billed stars have done indie work. Joining them are Samuel L Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Paul Bettany, James Spader, Hayley Atwell, Andy Serkis, Julie Delpy, Idris Elba and Stellan Skarsgård for varying lengths of time (Julie Delpy and Elba appear in blink-and-miss-em parts) and the film is richer because no one is suppressing the quirks that make them compelling stars.

While quirks are not suppressed they are not given the space or time to make more than a momentary impact. This is a pristine, glass and metal, futurist Apple Store world that is ready to blow at any second. Civilians are rolled out to scream and flee from collapsing rubble, smoking carnage and a stomping Hulk. Innovation points come during fight choreography when an elevator is swung around like a hammer throw and we get a boing-boing-boing comedy fast punch sequence between The Hulk and Ultron.

Ah yes, Ultron — he of whom the age it is “of”. Without wanting to spoil a twisty-turny plot that moves too fast to question and thus requires a degree of post-viewing unpicking, Ultron comes in a form that modern audiences will recognise as a threat: a computer virus. He blossoms into a robot of the exoskeletal, skinless Terminator variety, armed not just with downloaded artificial intelligence but also philosophical savvy. At times, it feels like the film is about to investigate the notion that deciding who is good and who is evil is just a matter of where you’re standing when a bomb explodes. The most exciting moments come when these ideas are fired into the audience on the back of Whedon’s piercing dialogue. “God, you righteous man, pretending that you can live without war,” sneers Ultron at Captain America. Could this be a superhero movie about the moral ambiguity of superheroes?

Not exactly. Although it is a credit to Whedon and the glimmering cast that the thought even occurs. Subversive ideas are there to entertain and distract as the wheels of a templated movie force of nature spins to the inevitable ending, which has bound up in its DNA the origins of the next force of movie nature and the next and the next. No wonder Whedon sounded tired. To quote Nick Fury: “These things multiply faster than a Catholic rabbit.”

The philosophical vignettes might not have the narrative weight to be anything other than beguiling curios tossed out and then forgotten about but there are enough of them, delivered sharply enough by delightful movie stars at the top of their game, to make Age of Ultron one of the most thoughtfully driven monster vehicles you are likely to see in a summer rammed with powerful, glossy, mechanised beasts.

Published 22 Apr 2015

Anticipation.

Suspicious of money-driven movies, but Joss Whedon tends to wend his way with wit and wile.

Enjoyment.

An abundance of interesting ideas and enjoyable lines grease the wheels of this colossal movie machine.

In Retrospect.

Entertaining enough but there are no party bags to take home.

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