Director: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downy Jr, Scarlett Johanson, James Spader, Chris Hemsworth
Marvel’s expanded film canon, with its various offshoots and appendages, walks a tightrope: keep the black-comic popcorn-chewing action of its comic book heritage, or risk falling endlessly into silliness and absurdity.
With the second Avengers instalment Age of Ultron, that tightrope has never looked thinner. But somehow mega-nerd director Joss Whedon and a generally impeccable cast hold the set-piece together.
The gang are back, saving the world again with unabashed heroism. Much-loved characters make their return (Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Captain America et al) to combat the forces of alien evil. This time the trouble is self-made. Tony Stark’s attempt to create an artificial intelligence peacekeeping force goes horribly wrong, resulting in the robotic demon Ultron unleashing his plans for global annihilation.
I’ve always maintained that Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! has the best ensemble cast of all time. But Age of Ultron somewhat challenges that. It features, in no particular order: Robert Downey Jr, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Elizabeth Olsen, Jeremy Renner, Chris Hemsworth, Andy Serkis, Paul Bettany, and Stellan Skarsgard among various other well-known names slotted into smaller roles.
As one would expect, these names give gravitas (in varying degrees) to a film which might otherwise fall apart entirely without decent credentials. But there is no standout, no character to which the actor can add anything more than basic believability. Mind you, in a superhero film this isn’t exactly easy.
Director Joss Whedon attempts to flesh out as many of the characters as he possibly can. With a full roster, this feat teeters on the brink of impossibility. Whedon claimed juggling so many perspectives and arcs was “as tough as anything I’ve ever done.” Somehow, he succeeds.
Both Banner and Romanov (Hulk and Black Widow) are given somewhat comprehensive histories, and their lingering romance proves to be one of a few flickers of emotion in the film. Surprisingly, Hawkeye has been given an added dimension and a number of self-referential quips about his bow and arrow. This is perhaps Whedon’s most worthy attribute – to turn sardonic comic book movies away from the drudging seriousness of rival houses (Man of Steel, anyone?).
As always in Marvel’s latest reincarnation as purveyor of wide-eyed popcorn entertainment, there is a more complex and cerebral undertone to the regular crash-bang proceedings. In the initial Iron Man offering, the subtext tackled Tony Stark’s job as an arms dealer and the karma which came around to bite him. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier the catchphrases of recent debates on state spying and surveillance appeared.
In Age of Ultron, there is an unmistakeable nod towards British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s now-ironic “peace for our time” quip after making a deal with Hitler. The film repeats the regular misquote of “peace in our time”, but there are some undeniable references to the Second World War. The villain is obsessed with human purity (despite not being human), and a sense of some injustice done against him in the past. There are allusions to the creation of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch (literally, ‘Superman’) and a motive which involved the evolution of select few at the expense of a great many: Nazism’s ideas of social Darwinism at work.
Not only that, there are snatched discussions of the danger of both pre-emptive wars and the appeasement of a hostile enemy. These quick nods to a wider political and historical context certainly gives a bit of muscle to what would otherwise be a very flabby treat indeed.
As always, the use of 3D is entirely pointless. It adds nothing except perhaps a symmetry between sore eyes and a numb posterior. The CGI, on the other hand, is more than impressive and could do without the backhanded insult that 3D provides. Age of Ultron occasionally falls into Michael Bay-style dazzles of digital confusion. What made the original Iron Man instalment so enjoyable was its simplicity and jet-fighter aerodynamics. Here, the tendency for a visual titillation is replaced with sudden almighty clobbers of carnage.
Everywhere else, it’s technicolour whizz-pop-bang-splat fun. Cartoonish fun occasionally mired by confusion and heavy padding, but fun all the same.