The head honchos in Marvel really must be the luckiest bunch of people that ever sat in a room together – they have taken the domain of what, only about 20 years ago, belonged to the geeks and the not-so-mainstream, and turned it into one of the biggest and most lucrative series of films in the history of cinema. This strange alchemy (turning comic book gold into film gold) is genuinely impressive, especially considering that it is really only from the turn of the millennium that comic books found their way into the mainstream cinema cycle – think of X-Men, I still consider that to be one of the best comic book films ever made. That was back in 1999 and things have rumbled on quite nicely since then. If you think back on the comic book franchise before that it was pretty hit and miss, for every Batman you had a The Shadow and for every Blade you had a Spawn. In fact the bulk of comic book adaptations through the 1980’s and 1990’s were dire – just think about it, you had Judge Dredd, Batman and Robin, Captain America (the original version) The Phantom, Tank Girl, Barbed Wire, Dick Tracey and many more. Roll forward a few years and things have changed considerably. 2012’s Avengers Assemble is the third highest grossing film of all time, Iron Man 3 is the seventh and two more comic book adaptations land in the top 20, each of them made in the last ten years. It is almost a sure thing now for film producers, make a comic book film and you’ll make millions, money in the bank, guaranteed. One other thing is also guaranteed though – luck runs out. Has Marvel, with their latest offering Avengers: Age of Ultron, rolled a snake eyes?
It is three years since the events of the first film and the Avengers are ticking along quite nicely. S.H.I.E.L.D. has been shut down but Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Captain America, Hawkeye and Black Widow are operating like a little A-Team of superheroes, going where they are needed to thwart the nefarious plans of HYDRA and Co. They find themselves in the fictional Eastern European country of Sokovia where they stop HYDRA’s experiments to make super soldiers using the power within the scepter once wielded by Loki. This being of Asgard, Thor wishes to return the scepter to his home world but not before Tony Stark and Bruce Banner investigate where it gets its power from. On realising what truly drives the scepter Stark wishes to harness it to create his Ultron project, a protective army of robots that will create peace in our time and ultimately make the Avengers unnecessary. Of course not everything goes to plan and instead of creating a sentient defence mechanism, Ultron becomes a self aware artificial intelligence who wishes to wipe out humanity and let the world evolve into its next age, the age of machines. Needless to say The Avengers aren’t best pleased with either Ultron or Stark and must now rally together to try save the world.
I’m waiting for the day that Mike Leigh or Ken Loach make a Marvel movie as only then will we see something different. I think an alcoholic Thor and a sexually repressed Captain America drinking tea around a battered kitchen table in some council estate, or kicking Sunday morning football and comparing notes on the red headed Russian that works down the local chipper would make a great movie. Until that day we will just have to be content with how Marvel are doing it now and believe you me, it is getting very stale very quickly. When Guardians of the Galaxy came out I thought that it would be the film to drop the ball, that all those spinning plates would come crashing down. Quite the opposite happened in fact, GOTG is probably the best Marvel adaptation yet. Age of Ultron unfortunately takes the title of Marvel’s first great failure. It is not an awful film, it has all the key ingredients (great visuals, show stopping action set pieces, one liners and quips) but they just don’t work together. Age of Ultron is a very mechanical film (pardon the pun) – it seems like it is just going through the motions and that is its ultimate downfall. It feels as if the film makers stuck rigidly to the blue print they created with all Marvel movies and now seem afraid to deviate from it. In fact it appears that they were not too willing to deviate even from the first film as Age of Ultron reads, in certain places, like a carbon copy of Avengers Assemble. You see, all sequels have the same problem, they spend the first film building up the characters and so in the sequel you have to find something else for them to do other than get to know each other. Ultron stumbles at the first hurdle and moves off far too quickly; where there was great tension between them in the first film, there is now a jokey, buddy-buddy camaraderie that doesn’t sit too easily. As the film progresses the old tensions reemerge, thankfully, and it makes the group dynamic far more interesting. Yet replacing character building with action and bombast is not the answer and does not a great film make. Now don’t get me wrong, I know that this is a comic book film I’m reviewing, not Tolstoy – but mistakes are made in the first 30 minutes of the film that are hard to recover from and while the film does have great character moments, they just come a little too late.
At this point you’ve probably guessed that Age of Ultron is nowhere near as exciting or as funny as the first film. While the original had several standout moments, their equivalent in this film just don’t stand up to muster. The opening action sequence, which the producers were hoping would set the wham-bam tone of the film, falls a little flat as it falls between the two stools of both action and humour, never grasping the right balance. And yes, this opening sequence does indeed set a tone, as intended, it just doesnt set the right one. The jokes seem forced and if ever a Marvel formula was evident, it is here in Age of Ultron and it has begun to grow tiresome. Yet, it is not all doom and gloom, Joss Whedon is a very clever filmmaker and he has tinkered with things just enough to make the lesser characters more interesting. The first film was all about the superheroes and he quite cleverly built his film around them. Age of Ultron gives us a film where even the superheroes are running scared so that leaves him with more time to correct the glaring error he made with Assemble, which was to give little or no attention to the human characters. Both Black Widow and Hawkeye come to the fore in Age of Ultron and it is great to see their characters developed and rounded. For me, Hawkeye is the best character in this film and on the strength of Jeremy Renner’s performance he totally deserves his own stand alone film – it’s about time that a human hero as opposed to a superhero got a chance to shine (please note that I am not advocating another Marvel formula film, but a different type of film. It is badly needed). What is also interesting is Stark’s Oppenheimer-esque revelation that he, while trying to do something good, has inadvertently become the destroyer of worlds. Yet it is not something that bothers him too much and I think that they missed a trick with that one. The only element I really enjoyed about Iron Man 3 was Stark’s PTS after New York and I feel that if Whedon had mined this vein just little deeper he would have made Stark’s character far more interesting, as at the moment Robert Downey Jr’s Stark/Iron Man has just become boring to watch. Age of Ultron also seems to be a step back for Captain America too. He developed nicely in The Winter Soldier, but now he has reverted to his stubbornly sensibly, goody two shoes self. To quote Kian Egan from The Voice (it will only happen the once, I promise you), his character needs light and shade. The Hulk is a non-entity. We spent nearly half of Avengers Assemble waiting to see the big green guy – he is glimpsed here in the opening seconds and the big reveal is gone. What is nice though is seeing the change in reverse, to see The Hulk become Banner and Banner is nicely realised in this film. He is allowed enough room to flex his character muscles and so makes you more interested in seeing where Bruce Banner goes rather than the Hulk. We have new characters too, namely the Maximoff twins. Pietro and Wanda are HYDRA experiments who must chose which side they are on after the HYDRA circle is broken in the opening sequence. There are of course the usual array of familiar faces and cameos, but for the love of God people, we’ve had enough Marvel movies now to realise that you stay until the very end of the film to watch the little post credits sting.
But what about the big bad himself, the titular Ultron? As villains go he is certainly up there with the best of them; he comes with a bit of a pedigree though, being a character first created in the 1960’s. He’s been a badass for a long time in the comic book universe yet fanboys of the Ultron comic book character have grounds for complaint as his origins are completely re-written for the film, just like The Mandarin was completely re-written (and completely ruined in my opinion) for Iron Man 3. Physically, Ultron is a perfect CGI creation (yet for some reason I found his mouth quite off putting) but it is the voice that really makes the character stand out. James Spader’s dulcet yet menacing tones are a delight to hear and he invests in Ultron elements of the sociopath and the James Bond-esque bad guy (at one stage Ultron apes that archetype, which was both funny and refreshing – kudos to you Joss Whedon, credit where it is due). Ultron isn’t hellbent on global domination or the destruction of mankind, he knows what he is, a man made artificial intelligence and he perceives himself to be the next evolutionary step for mankind. So he sets about creating the conditions required for evolutionary change, which brings us to the biggest gamble and total failure of this film – the creation of The Vision. The Vision is another character whose roots in the Marvel comics date well back into the 1960’s, he is a part of the Marvel universe furniture and was bound to appear at some stage, but for me his addition to the film left me cold and, in a series which features a Norse god and scientist who turns giant and green and mean when he gets angry, The Vision left me scratching my head and saying to myself, “this is ridiculous.” I won’t say anything more about The Vision as anything further said would stray into spoiler territory.
Anyway, I think burnout has a lot to do with the very “meh” type of film that Age of Ultron is. We have seen Iron Man five times on the big screen in recent years, seen Captain America four times and the Hulk four times too. There are only so many glib remarks Tony Stark can make, so many ways that Hulk can smash things and so many conflicted, almost constipated looking faces that Captain America possesses. I’m not sure where Avengers: Infinity War (due out in 2018) can go but it really needs to be a lot better than this.
6/10 (generously given)
Graham Connors 55 posts 0 comments
Editor of Number Eleven magazine. @grahamconnors