Sunday, April 26, 2015

"Avengers: Age of Ultron"

Joss Whedon's accommodation, provided by Disney.
I once attempted to give the first "Avengers" film the OCBW treatment but I gave up because I got bored writing it. Put simply, I think "The Avengers" is... eh... an okay ish film, with lots of emphasis on the "ish," which I described in my 'Why You Shouldn't Be Excited About the Casting of Doctor Strange' article as
a bland and badly-paced film where Iron Man and Captain America spend about ten hours sitting around frowning at each other in a flying conference room and then they have a giant Transformers battle at the end which is resolved in the same manner as the invasion of Naboo in Star Wars Episode I.
"Age of Ultron" is arguably better paced and has a severely reduced amount of conference room frowning, and in some respects it's superior to "The Avengers." In other respects it is not superior to "The Avengers." I'll sum up my grievances here, spoilers beware:
  1. Ultron is introduced too quickly and his characterisation is rushed.
  2. Black Widow in general is used badly.
  3. Elements of the plot are too similar to "Iron Man 3".
  4. Other elements of the plot rely too heavily on the plot of "The Avengers."
  5. It feels like a middling instalment killing time before the third Avengers film.
  6. Quicksilver's death is meaningless because he's only just been introduced.
  7. The film is visually uninteresting because of the overdesigned costumes.
"Iss my ahksent conveenssing enough, do you zink, Ultron?"
So the team has reassembled offscreen, and they're in some fictional Eastern European country which definitely isn't Latveria hunting down a HYDRA base belonging to Baron Strucker, who was also seen in the post-credits sequence of the second Captain America film. They're trying to recover Loki's sceptre which apparently slipped through their fingers after the last film. How did that happen? Anyway, Strucker's used it to create Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, who can't be mutants in this film because Marvel Studios don't have the rights to the characters as mutants, just to the characters in general. So in this they're "enhanced," given powers by Strucker because they want revenge on Tony Stark because his weapons killed their parents. Just for your information, in the comics their parents are actually none other than Magneto himself and his wife Magda, but obviously they can't reference that either. In any event I believe their parentage was a retcon made in the Eighties so it doesn't really matter: while they were originally created as mutant allies of Magneto in X-Men in their original comic appearances, they later joined the Avengers before it was ever established that Magneto was their father. In any event they serve to muck up the Avengers' plan: Hawkeye gets injured and Iron Man has a traumatic vision of failing to save the world.
It's the mayor I feel sorry for.
I thought this sequence was okay, although I took some objection to the sequence where Black Widow calms down the Hulk and gets him to transform, because I thought it was pretty crap that they took the route of making Black Widow, who so far has been a mostly practical-minded character, take on what felt like a weirdly maternal role: "she's a woman so she can calm down the big raging man." Seemed kind of cliché to me and a bit sexist: why does the only female member get put into that spot? I also didn't really like the fact that they were hunting down the sceptre and HYDRA were using it, because I feel like that plot line has been done to death - it wasn't even that good in "Captain America: The First Avenger" in my opinion, using alien artefacts to fuel "super science." In any event back at Avengers Tower everyone gears up for a massive party and Tony Stark and Bruce Banner discover that the core of the sceptre contains an extremely advanced, alien artificial intelligence. Then Iron Man springs on us that this could be used to run "Ultron."
"...did you just fart?"
Well that was quick. The film goes down the route of having Iron Man conceptualise Ultron already. He doesn't come up with the idea now, he already had it. He wants "a suit of armour around the world" or equivalent in case aliens and their ilk return. I found this quite similar to "Iron Man 3": wasn't the whole point of that meant to be Tony Stark learning that he couldn't do everything through technology? Obviously in this film it's motivated by the vision Wanda put in his head, but it still seemed repetitious to me, especially because after making a big show of destroying all his suits in "Iron Man 3" he now has a small army of suits working for him. In any event they put JARVIS to work on the AI and go off to have a party.
"Uh... it was you."
The party is essentially the "let's remind everyone of who's in our Marvel Cinematic Universe" scene. In addition to Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye we see appearances from Maria Hill, War Machine and Falcon. The last of these gives us also a small reminder of the ongoing search for the Winter Soldier, which I fear will dominate the rest of Cap's narrative. There's also a Doctor Cho introduced in a confusingly prominent role early in the film. Then there's all this flirting between Bruce Banner and Black Widow which is our weird romantic subplot. Hulk and Black Widow? No thanks. The other thing which bothers me about it is that the first Avengers film didn't have this element, and no other character in this film really has one. "Black Widow's a woman, better pair her up with one of the male cast members." Or maybe don't? I didn't like this element. Besides, what happened to Bruce Banner's love interest from the Hulk film which no one really counts as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Another issue with this of which I was just reminded was that in this bit Cap saunters over to make some ambiguous remarks towards Banner about Black Widow. I also didn't like this element because it made Cap seem like a dick, and the whole point of Cap is that he's not a dick.
"It wasn't me."
Once things are winding down we get our humorous moment as everyone tries to lift Thor's hammer. I liked that it moved a little bit when Cap grabbed it, because in the comics as we know Captain America can lift Mjölnir and has done so on at least one occasion. Meanwhile something's gone screwy in the lab because a deformed Iron Man robot arrives speaking with James Spader's voice. A bunch of psychotic robots fight them and fly off with Loki's sceptre. So this plot is still going. Ultron "escapes through the internet," whatever that means, and builds himself a fancy giant body back at Baron Strucker's castle. He then recruits Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver - although I wasn't sure how he did this - because he knows they want revenge on Iron Man. Iron Man really drives the plots of these films, doesn't he? I'd even go so far as to say that they're over reliant on him. One thing I will give this film credit for is that they established firmly that the real "boss," aka the proper leader of the Avengers, was Captain America, because he's actually a tactician.
"Well you can't have heard me all the way over here in this field."
The Avengers go through a bunch of old files they have lying around and somehow figure out that Ultron is after vibranium, the miraculous metal from which Cap's shield is made. As such they both head off to track down Claw, in this "Ulysses Klaue," played by Andy Serkis as a typical "never met a nice" South African who's stolen tonnes of it from Wakanda. So they're foreshadowing the introduction of Black Panther here. Klaue even gets his arm cut off in a nod towards his claw arm in the comics. So then they have a big fight with Ultron in a ship for the vibranium, but the Avengers get taken out when Wanda gives them all visions. I thought this part was okay, although I most liked Cap's vision, probably just because Cap's my favourite. Hayley Atwell has a brief cameo as Peggy Carter, and Idris Elba gets one as Heimdall in Thor's vision, which also looks towards the Infinity Stones and later Marvel films. We also get a nod towards Black Widow's origin, which has otherwise gone largely unrecorded in the films save for her informing Loki "I'm Russian" in an American accent in the previous Avengers outing. Then in a largely offscreen moment Wanda also traumatises Hulk, who goes berserk.
Avengers Diving Board: $99.99 from Hasbro.
What follows was probably one of my least favourite moments of the film: a now-stock CGI urban brawl where Iron Man in the Hulkbuster Armour, which he deploys from orbit, fights against Hulk. They leap all over the place wrecking everyone's property and knocking buildings down. Man of Steel already took this kind of urban mayhem as far as it could possibly go, and there's nothing to see here which we haven't already seen. I always just end up feeling sorry for the people who would have to organise all the cleaning up and repair work, and the probably scarred-for-life civilians. Ultimately Iron Man pummels the Hulk into submission and they all piss off to lick their wounds. It kind of feels like a waste of time, especially with the back-to-back "vs Ultron" and "vs Hulk" action sequences, both of which are frantic CGI extravaganzas.
The bank's about to break.
Needing somewhere to "lie low" as they say, Hawkeye leads them off to a farmhouse in the country which turns out to be where his wife and kids live. So Hawkeye has a family. It's a vaguely clever twist but in all honesty despite spending a bit more time with him I didn't really find Hawkeye any more interesting in this film than the one before. Thor immediately leaves again so that Stellan Skarsgård can get his cameo, somehow being able to immediately lead Thor to some underground pond where he takes a dunk to recover his dream. Captain America and Iron Man argue with each other like the last film while chopping wood, and then Nick Fury comes back. Ugh. He gives them a pointless pep talk, Black Widow and Bruce Banner continue to experience awkward sexual tension, and they head off to track down Ultron. Obviously this is meant to show them being proactive, as opposed to what Ultron accuses them of being: reactive and static. Then again, Captain America argues that people start wars by trying to prevent them. So what is it, let the bad guy go first, but then hammer him as much as possible? I guess so.
Release the Kraken.
In any event Ultron and his "enhanced" chums have tracked down Doctor Cho and mind control her with Loki's sceptre: more reptition of the previous film. They get her to use her super duper advanced cellular technology with vibranium to create some kind of 'ultimate body' for Ultron. I wasn't really sure why this happened, but in any event they do it, using the stone from inside the sceptre. What does he want this body for? I wasn't really sure, but in any event he does. Nonetheless the organic brain of the new body is getting Ultron's mind transferred into it, and thus Wanda is able to read the mind, discovering that Ultron intends to destroy all life on earth. She's naturally concerned, so Ultron and a couple of his Iron Man cronies chuck the new body in a lorry and they head off, but not before Cap shows up and has a fight with Ultron where he's repeatedly zapped off the roof of the truck and onto the windshields of the cars behind, apparently consistently forgetting that his main gimmick is that he has a shield he can raise to defend himself.
"My wig doesn't match my eyebrows."
Nonetheless Black Widow recovers the body but is captured by Ultron: damsel in distress much? Logically in my opinion it should have been (somehow) Tony Stark who gets captured. Back at the tower Iron Man and Bruce Banner decide to put JARVIS' AI into the body instead, and while Cap turns up with Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, now enemies of Ultron, to stop Iron Man from constantly building killer robots that go mental and try to destroy the world, Thor arrives and uses his hammer to put in enough juice to complete the process, thus forming classic Avengers character, the android known as the Vision, here played by Paul Bettany. He was a welcome character to have introduced and I would have actually liked him earlier. Thor also reveals that the stone from the sceptre, now in Vision's head, is the Mind Stone, one of the six Infinity Stones. Well there you go then. Vision says he wishes to protect life and encourages them to go fight Ultron, so off they go, after a mild gag where he is shown to easily lift Thor's hammer.
"They didn't get theirs finished in time."
Now we're back in Eastern Europe again as Ultron enacts his diabolical plan to lift a huge chunk of the countryside off the face of the earth. He wants to slam it back down like a meteor, believing it will encourage "evolution" on the planet, which has become stagnant because of humanity. Later he says that afterwards only metal will survive. So what does he want, evolved humans or a world of robots? I have no idea. In any event he has some bollocks device to achieve all of this, so when the Avengers show up they have to get to that, which is very, very similar to how they had to get to that thing which Loki was using to open the wormhole in the first film. What's more, the landscape Ultron's rendered airborne is partially city, so they have to evacuate as many people as they can and protect civilians from an army of Ultron's killer robots, which is also extraordinarily similar to what happened with the alien Chitauri in the first film. In fact this whole plan reminded me a great deal of an issue of Fantastic Four from the Eighties which I read recently which featured Galactus' rogue herald Terrax lifting the whole of Manhattan from the surface of the earth, and I almost wonder if, had they not used Manhattan for the climax in the previous film, they would have used it here.
1080 Waterboarding.
So Bruce Banner rescues Black Widow, she rather oddly forces or tricks him into becoming the Hulk, they have a big fight with lots of Ultron robots, the flying conference room from the first film shows up with Nick Fury, Robin Scherbatsky and War Machine on board to rescue the civilians, and Iron Man comes up with some bullshit method I didn't catch to negate the whole "Ultron dropping a huge piece of rock back onto the earth" issue. In horrific Joss Whedon post-modern fashion we have it extremely heavily, unsubtly foreshadowed that Hawkeye is going to die now that we've met his long-suffering family, so of course he doesn't - instead Quicksilver does to save his life and that of a small boy. It's basically the postmodernity singularity: it's a Joss Whedon "thing" that a main character dies in his films, but he plays upon that so that we expect it's someone else. The problem is, we've only just met Quicksilver, and because of this film's enormous ensemble cast, we haven't had that much time with him, so his death has very little impact. They wreck Ultron and his robots, Iron Man does... something which causes the "meteor" to explode into apparently harmless fragments, and they all go home for tea.
"So at 'Opinions Can Be Wrong' they say that 'Captain America:
The First Avenger' was the best Marvel film. What have you got to say to that?"

Our final sequence is basically just a set up for what's going to happen next: Captain America and Black Widow are going to run a new "Avengers facility" to seemingly train and coordinate their new set of Avengers: War Machine, Falcon, Scarlet Witch and Vision. Iron Man pisses off to probably go build even more killer robots or something and Thor heads off to the nether regions or what have you in order to figure out what's going on with all the "Infinity Stones" that keep showing up: one in Vision's head (formerly Loki's sceptre), one inside the Tesseract, one in that corruptive black and red stuff Christopher Eccleston was using in "Thor: The Dark World" and one I haven't seen that's apparently in "Guardians of the Galaxy." Meanwhile Hulk has deliberately sent himself off to the Pacific, Banner believing that he and Black Widow shouldn't be together or whatever. Yawn. So ends "Avengers: Two Hours and Twenty Minutes of Ultron."
In my article on the "Age of Ultron" teaser last year, I mused that
The thing is, apart from Ultron I can't help but feel like this is just the same old song and dance. Our heroes are shown in a comfortable place, something goes wrong, they have a big punch up with the bad guy and it ends. So the real challenge, then, is for 'Age of Ultron' to not live up to its teaser, to do something different, to surprise me.
Studio execs confuse the villain and the female lead.
I'm afraid to say that "Age of Ultron" didn't surprise me, at least any further than superficial elements like Hawkeye's family and Quicksilver getting killed. I argued that "Age of Ultron" needed "to not live up to the teaser where it seems to be a generic angsty action film" but I think it lived up to the teaser very well. We've got the Avengers doubting their purpose and fighting amongst themselves, plus some navel-gazing introspection on behalf of Hulk and Black Widow. Even Ultron didn't serve too great a purpose as a reflection of the heroes, really just being a nutcase who wants to destroy the world. The problem with adapting Ultron to a film is that Ultron, as the character was originally invented, is part of a very personal story: the story of his creator in the comics, Doctor Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man, who isn't even going to be in the Marvel Cinematic Universe until the film after this one, and even then not in the role of Ant-Man. Otherwise this just seems to be fairly run-of-the-mill. Despite the fact that there are several geniuses on the team, no one ever intellectualises what's wrong with Ultron's argument, either philosophically or scientifically: that "evolution" has no mutual relationship with peace - if anything it has an antagonistic one - and that "evolution" is not about a species becoming better per se, simply more competently equipped to survive in its environment. This is of course confused by the fact that it's not actually very clear what Ultron does want, and I think in its efforts to make Ultron amusing and foibled, the film makes him seem ineffectual and non-threatening. Ultron ultimately seems too facetious and confused to pose a serious challenge, and as a result I didn't find him very interesting.
"How dare you claim 'Thor: The Dark World' was
'even more forgettable than 'Iron Man 2'!'"
In general I felt like the plot was rushed and didn't make itself abundantly clear a lot of the time. I didn't like the way Black Widow, as the only female Avenger, was given a very trite "emotional" and "romantic" role. I thought the battle between Hulk and Iron Man was a waste of time. I felt that the plot, rather than being a logical continuation of what's come before, seemed simply like a re-hash of it. The death of Quicksilver had no impact. Hawkeye's character is developed awkwardly. Like the first film, Thor's role felt very perfunctory. There was also some dreadful technobabble, with absurd concepts mentioned like some place in Oslo which is supposedly "the hub of the internet" or something equally ridiculous.
That being said, I liked the Vision and I thought the film kept up a reasonable pace. I didn't think they did too badly of including Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver up until the end. There were some decent lines and action sequences and stuff to appeal to a Marvel comics enthusiast. One thing I will take issue with, as I did in my list at the beginning, is the design. I think it was this film which really forced me to acknowledge something I find very objectionable about modern superhero films in general: I don't like the way they look. Captain America's costume in particularly is horrible, with an ugly Avengers logo on the shoulder and in a weird shade of deep blue which looks almost purple. Incidentally, whose sneakers did Quicksilver nick from Avengers tower before the final battle? The stupid glowing lights on Black Widow's suit were fairly risible as well, almost evoking the DC Comics New 52 style "let's stick big contrasting lines all over everyone's costumes" aesthetic.
The last thing seen by whoever mandated all this egregious
exploitation shots of Black Widow in this film.
Y'know what one of Marvel Comics' main strengths was back in the Sixties when the majority of these characters were either invented or, in Cap's case, revived? They had artists, particularly Jack Kirby, working on them, who had a talent for distinctive appearances. Give me Cap in swashbuckler boots with little wings on his head, Black Widow with a bright yellow belt, Quicksilver with light blue spandex and pointy hair, whatever. Superheroes don't need to look "realistic" because they're not. As I get older and more cynical, I come to believe more and more than superhero comics always work better when they're "fun" and embrace the absurdity of the premise: not because I'm happy for them to be meaningless, but because I think it makes them more meaningful, a more effective contrast to reality which helps to highlight the issues they raise and the eras they represent. Drab HYDRA goons, gunmetal-grey Ultron robots, the Vision covered in blocky lines, hairy, sallow-green Hulk: they're boring to look at, and make their narratives correspondingly boring. Sadly I think Superman Returns was the last we'll ever see of that kind of film for a long time (and even that one was a little overdesigned, what was with that weird dimple pattern on his costume).
"I really don't want to go back to the gym."
"Age of Ultron" is just a workmanlike piece of product, as I so often describe these things, "well-presented mediocrity" as I called them in the Doctor Strange article. Other than that it's just part of the Disney/Marvel money printing machine, treading water before Phase 3 and "Infinity War" where maybe something interesting will happen. It's not a film I can see myself rushing to see again, not particularly memorable nor especially effective. I wonder if Joss Whedon is sick of this rigmarole, because he's said he's not coming back, and to me at least I felt like in this film he must have already been mentally exhausted. If you want Avengers, read the original comic books - it was pretty groundbreaking, at the time, to run a comic featuring multiple heroes with their own books in a team setting. If you want to watch Avengers, I heartily recommend The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, the 2010 cartoon series, and particularly its first season. For what is notionally a children's cartoon it's got a pretty complex ongoing narrative and rich characterisation, along with more characters (especially Ant-Man and Wasp, who I feel are badly missed in these films) and its own take on Ultron. Maybe it's because I'm such a devotee of that cartoon that I felt like "Age of Ultron" was showing me something I'd seen before and therefore it didn't especially grasp me, but it's worrying to think that that show achieved in two twenty-minute episodes of a cartoon what this big budget Hollywood film struggles to do in nearly two and a half hours. In less time than this film takes the cartoon series even established Ultron over several episodes as an initially benevolent force, which this film doesn't have time to do. This leads me to wonder how constrained Joss Whedon's vision was, if you'll pardon the pun, a fear I raised in my article on the teaser. No strings? Only the purse-strings, Ultron.
"I phase through your bedroom walls at night."

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.