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Geeks bearing gifts
Joss Whedon has written and directed a sequel. Heaven forefend. The poster boy for quality in an ocean of Hollywood mediocrity has brought us a second beautifully wrapped present that is AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON. But can he still surprise? Camus suits up.
 
  "They are enormously strong and they are a team, so you have to dig the knife in where you can and sort of dismantle them a little bit. It is a more personal film than the first. We have more opportunity - now that they have met and the audience has met them and understands their world - to dig into their psyches. And not everything in there is pretty."
 
Writer/Director, Joss Whedon

 

Before Ultron...

There was a letter printed in a film magazine a month or so ago that played the role of a nagging psychoanalyst in my own head. I was feeling a little off, skewed from being denied my mainstream viewing habits for months. I'd been away working in a foreign land (there is an English speaking cinema here but when working abroad my time tends to be filled with silly but hugely enjoyable hours including weekends so I had precious little access to what's been cinematically new for the past sixteen weeks). Am a bit pissed off that I missed Kingsman but I'll get around to it. I thoroughly enjoyed (together with most of the planet) the first Avengers movie (see review here). But expecting to cure one's gnawing hunger with chocolate delivers a physical high leading to sickness if you over consume – and you're left still craving something substantial. You cannot glean 'substantial' from the Marvel universe because a certain human-based reality has to creep in to get under our emotional defences. That's not to say you can't move people in the fantasy milieu (I mean Groot's death in Guardians of the Galaxy was tremendously and shockingly touching and his resurrection the biggest hoot of the movie. Of course you could say that about Agent Coulson's fate in the first Avengers... His resurrection, not so hooty). But in these films, there are precious few direct connections to the actual human experience. There's a damning dearth of insights into the human condition. The director simply doesn't have time for soul searching profundity while orchestrating a giant Hulkbuster suit donned by Iron Man, slugging it out with a mind-compromised and less than jolly green giant.

Yes, I know movies aren't real but as Winston the pig sort of says in Animal Farm, some movies are more real than others. It's to Whedon's immense credit that he makes a film featuring a man in futuristic armour, an extraterrestrial hammer wielding Norse whisperer, a green rage monster, an expert archer, a black leather-clad super-spy and an anachronistic mega-soldier, all feel like they really belong to one movie. But even Whedon (I suspect) yearns to speak to the human being inside us, and not always to the geek whether they seem to be inheriting or avenging the Earth or not. I suspect this is why he enthusiastically chomped down onto Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing straight after shooting the mostly meringue sweet stuff of the original Avengers' principal photography. This afore mentioned letter mooted the idea that as an audience, we may be soon be experiencing superhero fatigue, just one sugar rush too many... Tomorrow, I'm off to see Whedon's sequel. Both Ant-Man and The Fantastic Four debut a little later this year (there is a Thomas The Tank Engine scene in the climax of the Ant Man trailer that is just so lovely – particularly if you are a father who had to worship at the altar of Britt Allcroft in the noughties – look her up and tremble at her single but execrable contribution to cinema). Batman and Superman are still doing the rounds and mainstream cinema these days is starting to look like one giant animated comic. Don't get me wrong. There's always a place for fine Swiss chocolate but I'd like it as a treat, a dessert after the main course. There has to be meat and veg on the plate at some point. That said... Here... I... go...

After Ultron...

Do you trust me? Not sure I've earned it but hey, honesty's pretty key in reviewing movies, isn't it? I wrote my first few pre-viewing paragraphs last night subjected to a barrage of emails from my son in the southern hemisphere who had already seen the movie. So you could say I was primed. But Joss, you son of a gun... That would have been 'bitch' but (a) I have no wish to insult the mother of a man I revere so highly and (b) I'm playing along with Captain America's sensitive side – see the movie. It's like Buffy's creator is in my head in a good way. Yes, there's an awful lot of chocolate in Age of Ultron but halfway through the film Whedon puts the brakes on and presents us with a literal safe house and a normal, extra normal, family within. That's the emotional nourishment, the sudden realization that these extraordinary individuals all want 'the normal life'. It's why they fight – to not have to. The fact that Whedon gave the heart of the movie to the poor Avenger who was turned by Loki in the original movie was a lovely gesture. I bet actor Jeremy Renner was touched. Just seeing a pregnant woman with her children in a domestic environment and a husband promising he will do the necessary refurbishments to a bedroom 'when he gets back...' grounds the movie in a way nothing else could. It was moving to see a lonely lighted beacon in the dark ocean of commerciality.

Whedon understands (like Russell T. Davies understood in reviving Doctor Who) that it's the human connection that gives weight and dare I say significance to these fantastic narratives. Yes, you can be an extraterrestrial god from Asgard but that god better hold - in the highest esteem – the morality and ethics that we mere mortals do. Even the green rage monster recognises human emotion (eventually). The whole purple skinned über-CG Thanos subplot (the big alien humanoid sitting on a throne in space – how unutterably dull his life must be?) seems so redundant. How does he fit into Marvel's grand plan? He's space glue so at the end of this mighty franchise, Marvel can point to all their over-hyped, superbly produced wedding cakes and say "See! It's a Mormon wedding, ta da!" Remember Russell T. Davies' dilemma after the Daleks had threatened everything else in the universe scores of times. He was desperate to give the pissed off pepper pots as much mileage as possible. So he had their leader Davros plan to destroy (deep breath) reality itself – there was nowhere else to go. Marvel is putting its faith on the 'six infinity stones' MacGuffin* which I admit I care less and less for as time goes on.

That said, Ultron is a hoot.

So let's divide up the meal... The hors d'oeuvre was an eye popping CG festival of all six Avengers blowing the shit out of all and sundry (in what amounts to one shot as far as I could tell) while taking out a dubious Hydra establishment that's using Loki's blue-glowing sceptre from the first movie. The results? Two 'enhanced' human beings whose parents were killed by Tony Stark's technology. They're twins, one of whom is superhumanly fast, the other 'weird'. Fast I can understand but the weird part gave the character of Wanda too broad a base of abilities. She can manipulate minds and produce energy bolts – this is like saying Serena Williams can really hit a tennis ball and play Cluedo™ astonishingly well. This smacks a little too much of "What do we need her to be able to do?" and gift the enhanced with just that. She's 007's briefcase in From Russia With Love. She's equipped with just what's needed. It's easy to forgive especially if she's already a pre-created Marvel character but it's just the perverse range of abilities that grated – mind control and energy bolts. Hmmm. Professor Plum in the library with the lead pipe, in case you were wondering.

OK. So... Tony Stark, with his ego in an even higher orbit this time, thinks the bad guy's sceptre can lead to the success of his artificially intelligent police software, encasing the world in an impregnable security blanket. Christened Ultron, the nascent software gains sentience in the dark and crushes fellow software character, Jarvis, Stark's own digital butler. I loved the fact that the first thing Ultron did was, in a femtosecond, download Sex, Lies and Videotape and incorporate a digital interpretation of James Spader's voice as his own. No, he didn't but the whole Pinocchio strings element to his extraordinary motion-captured performance is a Whedon nuance that simply works gangbusters. So, it's time to try and outwit an all-powerful fifteen-foot high titanium A.I. with the logic of a stopped watch. A safe Earth is one free of human beings. Tony, what have you done?

As expected the set pieces are wonders to behold and the work that's gone in to making them 'Marvel' believable is simply jaw dropping. And these action scenes are sixty-five per cent of what I suspect the studio demands thinking that they are the pure unalloyed teen bait. If not fatigued by superheroes per se, I am so bored with lots of CG metal men (the first Transformers made that dull after a single hour). So I'm much more interested in the remaining thirty-five per cent. This is where Whedon can focus on character, wit, nuance and nourishment. And whenever that's possible, it's a soothing balm in a movie that has to be by definition the antithesis of calm. I'm at the end of a rather extraordinary post-production on a stunning film. We had a two-hour rough cut. We needed a fifty-minute film. Once cut down to an hour, we found that shortening the sequences meant that the pay off shots were coming (no pun intended) one after the other in too rapid a succession. In order to have big and bold, we needed small and measured in between. We have answered the big questions of the film but Whedon was put in the same position on his huge confection of a movie. Marvel assumes (probably correctly) that it's the action that sells and more importantly sells overseas. Whedon had to deliver this in spades, something that Ultron surely does. But it's the small moments that resonate so strongly...

Captain America's Steve Rogers' quaint aversion to cussing...

Cap manages to move Thor's hammer a quarter of a millimeter, and Thor's face...

Hawkeye promising his wife he will finish his domestic duties...

Natasha (Black Widow) admitting she adores Bruce Banner, kisses him and then what she does straight after...

Disney/Marvel will always be box ticking but as long as they have talent like Whedon, James Gunn and Shane Black on the team, we're in good hands. Just remember that there are more substantial meals out there and don't be afraid to give them a taste...

 


* MacGuffin – Hitchcock's name for the motivating element in a movie that by itself was less important than how the characters dealt with it.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

USA 2015
141 mins
directed by
Joss Whedon
produced by
Kevin Feige
written by
Joss Whedon
from the comic book by
Stan Lee
Jack Kirby
cinematography
Ben Davis
editing
Jeffrey Ford
Lisa Lassek
music
Danny Elfman
Brian Tyler
production design
Charles Wood
starring
Robert Downey Jr.
Chris Hemsworth
Mark Ruffalo
Chris Evans
Scarlett Johansson
Jeremy Renner
James Spader
Samuel L. Jackson
Don Cheadle
distributor
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
UK release date
23 April 2015
review posted
26 April 2015

See all of Camus's reviews