There’s a well worn analogy that likens a man spinning plates on stage to the efforts of a filmmaker trying to keep afloat a movie with either an unwieldy number of characters, a multitude of unrelated plot threads or continual shifts in tone.
Hackneyed or not, it’s a metaphor that instantly comes to mind when considering writer-director Joss Whedon’s mostly triumphant attempt to sculpt a coherent story out of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the latest entry in the unstoppable Marvel Cinematic Universe machine.
Age of Ultron reintroduces us to a team who have gone from reluctant allies to firm comrades. Everyone now has a set role: Captain America (Chris Evans) is the unquestioned team leader, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) is the brains, money and fire power, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the super-charged muscle, Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is the person of mass destruction, and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are equal parts stealthy reconnaissance troops and precision strike units (with the Widow also taking on Hulk wrangling duties).
But even as this well-oiled outfit seems poised to finally enjoy a break from punching evil in the face, trouble looms in the form of Ultron (James Spader), an artificial intelligence program gone rogue (don’t they all?) created by Iron Man and Hulk (in his sedate, Dr Bruce Banner persona) to replace the Avengers and provide the world with the perfect protection from the likes of the alien horse people and space whales that plagued New York City in the first Avengers film.
Yes, mere moments after going online, Ultron decides that the best way to save humankind is to kill us (makes sense), planting his flag firmly in the “destroy all humans” camp, and the race is soon on to uncover and stop his dastardly plan before humanity collectively takes a long dirt nap.
Along the way, Ultron is aided and abetted by super powered twin siblings Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen). The traumatised products of neo-nazi mad science, he is able to move at super speed, whereas her ill-defined skillset includes inducing visions and hallucinations, as well moving stuff with her mind.
It’s the former of Wanda’s powers that her chrome-plated compadre puts to most devastating use – after all, what better way to bring a superteam down than by playing on its members’ greatest fears?
With tensions rising within the team (as you’ll have already seen thanks to the trailers, at least two of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes end up facing off against each other) and their popularity levels around the globe starting to plummet, can the Avengers possibly hope to overcome their seemingly unstoppable foe?
And are they prepared to deal with yet another potential threat, in the form of the mysterious Vision (Paul Bettany)?
Before we get into the nitty gritty, I’d like to make it clear that I enjoyed this movie. Whedon’s witty script is a lot of fun, and the inventive action sequences and top notch special effects by Industrial Light & Magic help make Age of Ultron one of the most entertaining and unabashedly comic booky movies you’ll ever see.
All of the lead actors are on point as well, with Downey Jr (showing no signs of growing bored with the role he has played six times by this point), and Evans (continuing to do a fantastic job of bringing depth to Cap’s unwavering decency) particularly strong, not to mention Spader, who is never anything less than fascinating as the film’s chatty big bad.
It’s to Whedon’s credit that all the cast get a chance to shine, and it’s nice to see Renner given a real part to play this time around, as well as for Johansson to add more layers to her portrayal of Black Widow.
Also worthy of praise is Ruffalo, who continues to work his quirky charm as loveable yet conflicted geek Banner, and Hemsworth who, despite drawing the short straw in terms of plotlines this time around, is responsible for many of the film’s biggest laugh out loud moments.
In terms of the newcomers, aside from Spader who I’ve mentioned earlier, they mostly acquit themselves well. As Pietro and Wanda, Taylor-Johnson and Olsen both turn in decent if unremarkable performances, despite adopting the broadest Eastern European accents heard this side of Star Trek‘s Chekov, while Bettany, always such a joy as the voice of Stark’s A.I. assistant J.A.RV..I.S., is at times a bit flat in his first on screen role in the series (although to be fair, not is he only playing a character designed to be somewhat of a blank slate, he’s also lumped with some of the film’s clunkiest dialogue to boot).
LOOK OUT! SPOILERS!
All this surface level stuff is important, of course, but it’s mostly just the entree of any cinematic discussion; the main course we sink our teeth into as an audience is made up of the thematic underpinnings of the piece (and no, I’m not sure where dessert fits into this metaphor…).
Age of Ultron might not be the deepest superhero flick ever made (that accolade still belongs to The Dark Knight), but that doesn’t mean it has nothing worthwhile to say, and it actually manages to articulate what themes it does have rather well. I’ve already mentioned that Pietro and Wanda are twins, so it’s not exactly going to be a revelation that family plays a pretty big part in this movie, but it goes further than that.
For starters, there’s Hawkeye’s secret family (that sounds ridiculously sordid, but it’s quite the opposite), as well the faux father-son relationship between Iron Man and Ultron, not to mention the best of all, Ultron’s perversely caring, paternal attitude towards the twins.
For all that he’s a killer robot bent on human extinction, Ultron seems genuinely disappointed when Wanda and Pietro have a change of heart and turn on him, and his final scene with Wanda, after he has gunned down her brother, sees him showcase a level of creepy tenderness towards her that you would expect to see from a wounded parent, rather than a former partner in crime.
But fittingly, the best example of family on display here is shown in the bonds between the Avengers themselves. Whedon really gets that what makes this team work is their familial connection, and it’s easy to spot this in the way he has the team members share banter and show loyalty toward each other just as frequently as they bicker fiercely amongst themselves.
More importantly, at the heart of this concept lies the upsetting truth that, like all families, the Avengers have secrets from each other, and more often than not, these secrets cause great hurt when they come to light. However, Whedon is quick to remind us that, like all good families, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes stick together despite whatever hurt they cause each other, and face whatever the future holds as one.
This idea is made clear in what (for me anyway) is one of the most effective and subtly moving exchanges of the film, between Iron Man and Captain America:
Iron Man: How do we cope with something like that?
Captain America: Together.
Iron Man: We’ll lose.
Captain America: We do that together too.
At the darker end of the thematic spectrum to family is yet another major motif, that of monsters. Again, this doesn’t seem such a big shock when you have a giant green rage creature rampaging throughout various scenes in the film, but this theme likewise has more to it than initially seems apparent.
It’s not just Bruce Banner who has to worry about his inner demons, but also Black Widow (who sees herself as a monster, thanks to her violent super spy history) and Iron Man himself, who might well be on the way to becoming the destroyer of worlds by virtue of his efforts to protect the Earth.
This ends up extending to the rest of the team and even humanity itself, as the Avengers ultimately find themselves fighting to prove that Ultron is wrong, and that they and the rest of humankind are more than just the self-destructive, base beings he has pronounced judgement on.
From this idea stems the last major theme in Age of Ultron, and it’s another obvious one – heroism. I’m glad that altruism is a key concern in this film; while I love a good tale of moral ambiguity (and certainly, there’s still some of that on display in this film), it’s always nice to see some clean cut heroics from our big screen heroes.
Off the back of this motif, we’re treated to numerous instances of the Avengers actively going out of their way to prevent human collateral and save lives as a priority over simply punching out the bad guy, and self-sacrificing behaviour is constantly shown to be what elevates us from monsters to the side of the angels.
This is exemplified by Wanda and Pietro, who become Avengers themselves during the film’s climax by putting aside their own personal considerations in order to defend innocent civilians who need them.
Funnily enough though, it’s probably synthetic lifeform Vision, having proven his own virtue by casually lifting Thor’s enchanted hammer (in what is incidentally an excellent payoff to a running joke as well as brilliantly economical screenwriting), who best sums up the dichotomy between the two sides of human nature as presented in the film:
“Human beings are fearful and in need of protection. But then, that fear can inspire them to do great things.”
In other words, us humans can be pretty cowardly and vulnerable, and often it’s the frailty of those we care about that make us the most afraid. This fear can make us into the monsters that Ultron believes us to be, BUT if we follow the example of heroes like the Avengers, we can channel this same fear in some pretty awesome directions, and protect those who need our help the most.
THE SPOILERS! THEY’RE…THEY’RE GONE!
So that’s everything I loved about Age of Ultron; now comes the unpleasant part of running through what it was about the movie that didn’t do it for me.
As with all movies set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Age of Ultron spends the vast majority of its 141 minute runtime on a bit of a storytelling tightrope, as it has to balance the need to tell a satisfying stand alone narrative in addition tosetting up plot and character elements for forthcoming films in the ongoing series.
Whedon mostly pulls this off in Age of Ultron; the groundwork laid for the upcoming Black Panther film is pretty seamless within the wider story (I imagine only geeks like me even noticed that this was going on), and Ultron’s villainous plan is much clearer than Loki’s vague revenge scheme in the first film, which hinged too much on shadowy figures included mostly for the benefit of other movies.
However, things get a bit murky around the halfway mark, as both Ultron’s scheme and Thor’s frankly underwhelming vision quest (itself included as an unnecessary plug for the Thor: Ragnarok sequel) begin to bring in series macguffin the Infinity Stones. It’s not too hard to follow, but I do wonder how much of the casual audience got a bit lost as to how these glowing space rocks fit in with plot of the movie they were currently watching.
It’s not just an issue of too many plot threads being woven into the Age of Ultron tapestry either, as Whedon’s script also neglects to address other key bits of continuity from the films that came before, the most egregious of these being how Iron Man’s “retirement” in Iron Man 3 is completely glossed over (feel free to let me know in the comments if this is addressed in dialogue that I missed, although I’d argue it deserves a little bit more than a throwaway line or two).
While we’re discussing the plot, I also didn’t love the number of exposition-heavy scenes that seem to litter the film’s mid-section.
I appreciate that action-adventure movies generally need at least one or two of these plot dump sequences to get us from A to B, and Whedon does his best to squeeze some character moments in to sweeten the pill, but the fact remains that as these speeches and planning room sessions begin to pile up, the momentum towards the third act of Age of Ultron begins to falter.
Which reminds me: the climactic showdown between Ultron and the Avengers is proof positive that relying too heavily on humour to relieve tension can actually start to backfire from a dramatic standpoint.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that the sense of humour that pervades Age of Ultron (and all Marvel Studios films) is a bad thing overall. I’d take the optimistic, fun vibe of this film over the po-faced seriousness of something like Man of Steel any day.
But the issue with having so many light hearted moments during the final battle is that it undercuts the sense of peril the audience feels for the characters – the tension is never allowed to fully build before it’s released, and the mood is never allowed to fully meet the gravity of the situation.
To his credit, Whedon manages to pack the dying moments of the Avengers last stand with a decent amount of emotional punch, but not without crunching a few storytelling gears along the way.
The comedy to drama ratio dilemma stretches beyond the Age of Ultron climax and lies at the heart of my biggest issue with the film as whole, that being that Ultron as a villain doesn’t quite work.
I’ve said previously that this murder-bot makes for a compelling character, and I’ll never say anything bad about how Spader brought him to life (either vocally or via performance capture), but the problem is that Ultron just isn’t scary enough.
The closest we get to a truly unsettling villain is during the scenes set during Ultron’s early, robo-zombie phase, but all in all, his constant glib remarks mean that he doesn’t come across as terrifyingly as he really should have.
I think I get why Whedon has gone with this characterisation – Ultron is meant to mirror aspects of Iron Man’s persona, including his sardonic wit, and I imagine the idea was that Ultron flitting between casual charm and violent rage was meant to be disturbing, but it never really comes off. With these (hopefully constructive) key criticisms out of the way, my only other gripes are fairly minor.
The cinematography and visuals by Ben Davis are good without being great; there’s a nice colour palette on display here, but I wouldn’t exactly call the imagery lush.
Similarly, the score by Brian Tyler (with assistance from the legendary Danny Elfman) is perfectly fine, but it’s a bit forgettable outside of the original main theme composed by Alan Silvestri for The Avengers.
Lastly, although the CGI is mostly very good (the way the Hulk has been realised is a spectacular achievement all on its own, apart from all the other stunning work), as you’d expect from a film with this many effects shots, the magic isn’t always totally invisible. Of course all of these individual nitpicks don’t really matter.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is, much like its titular team of superheroes, more than the sum of its parts. There may be aspects of the film that could work better, but Joss Whedon and his talented cast and crew have ultimately crafted a worthy sequel to The Avengers which succeeds thanks to the combination of its fun, action-packed atmosphere and inspiring message of heroism.
(Oh, and I just worked out what the dessert part of my earlier metaphor is, at least for this movie: that mid-credits sting!)