WITH the recent unveiling of Marvel Studios’ five-year plan for world domination, it must be difficult for individual filmmakers to make their mark with such a fixed schedule. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, much like the comics from which they were born, is subject to rigorous creative control from the higher-ups. Jon Favreau’s difficulties with Iron Man 2 and Edgar Wright’s unceremonious exit from Ant-Man both point to conflicts with upper management; Joss Whedon’s ragged exhaustion on the press tours for Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn’t suggest otherwise.
Thankfully, Whedon’s apparent lack of enthusiasm isn’t reflected in Age of Ultron’s end result. A darker, defter, more ambitious film than its predecessor, it combines Whedon’s trademark humour with extended moments of character development that remained largely absent beforehand. While Avengers largely – lumberingly – occupied itself with the task of bringing these disparate characters together, Age of Ultron revels in utilising each member of the team, exploiting their strengths and delving into their weaknesses.
The stakes are also higher this time. Though buoyed by Tom Hiddleston’s delightful sneer, the Chitauri race existed to be punched, repeatedly. It was a force as uniform and faceless as Michael Bay’s Decepticons; not so here. Not only is Ultron a credible threat, he is also one of the Avengers’ making. Birthed from Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Bruce Banner’s (Mark Ruffalo) desire to build a peace-keeping, globe-spanning AI, Ultron (James Spader) usurps control of Stark’s robotic Iron Legion and pledges world peace the only way he knows how: By wiping out humanity.
Having already dispensed with the set-up to the Avengers assembling, Whedon exercises a greater deal of control over the subtleties of character moments. While tensions boil between Stark and Captain America (Chris Evans), a half-romance simmers between Banner and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), largely anonymous in all his prior appearances, comes to the fore, with Renner exuding his natural charisma.
He provides the beating heart of the team, and his moments prove to be the warmest in a relatively sombre pic. James Spader’s silken, seductive rasp provides electronically-supplemented menace to Ultron, lending him an off-putting playfulness to the AI’s threat. His jokiness is a dark reflection on his “father” Stark’s disarming wit, a mocking tribute act that threatens to topple the original. Downey, Jr. plays Stark as a jittery, even paranoid man who has gazed into the infinite and seen only danger, but chooses to mask it with his humour.
Humour, as might be expected in a Whedon film, plays as integral a role as the explosions. Nary a scene goes by where the heroes (and villains) aren’t making some sort of sardonic quip, even in the midst of battle. While this can prove occasionally distracting – in a couple of instances, even tonally jarring – it’s welcome levity and, crucially, funny. Marvel’s films have proven consistently funnier than many full-blown comedies of recent years, and this is no exception.
The plot is unburdened by explaining away the intricacies of the MCU at large. Age of Ultron, perhaps even more than Guardians of the Galaxy, acts as a standalone film that feeds off the events of prior entries and only briefly hints at what’s to come. As the gatekeeper to “Phase Three”, fans might expect more tie-ins to, say, Ant-Man, but Age of Ultron wastes no time on recapping what’s come before or establishing what’s coming next.
Understandably, this might make the film seem like a stopgap, a stepping stone toward the (presumably) world-shaking events of Captain America: Civil War. However, it possesses a vitality that precludes such a notion. It also has the cavalier air of a real comic book, borne out by Whedon’s own run with the X-Men in the mid-00s. In the climactic action sequence, for instance, the Avengers make a concerted point to evacuate civilians from the city-levelling destruction to follow.
It’s a charming rationale that flies in the face of Man of Steel’s laissez-faire carnage, curtly reminding us all that these are heroes who save people. The film also labours on the point of just how hard it is to be a hero. Chris Evans continues to be the best Superman that never was (thanks, Mr. Raczka), while Ruffalo’s subtle grappling with his angry side makes for compelling viewing. The conflicts between self-appointed protector Stark and libertarian Cap, while a little undercooked, are a welcome injection of tension.
Whedon’s control of his action sequences –occasionally perfunctory as they are – is total and exciting, and there are a lot of individual moments to pick out among the mêlée (none to rival Hulk’s pummelling of Loki, but still). As distracting as the CG can be, it’s often annulled by how extravagant the set-pieces can get. The much-publicised Hulk vs. Stark in Hulkbuster armour is an obvious highlight, but the opening is just as spectacular, a lengthy tracking shot that sees the Avengers showcasing their individual strengths while working as a team.
There are plenty of money shots, particularly at the start and the end, catering both to fanboys and the strictures of 3D. We’ve seen these sorts of action sequences a hundred times, but Whedon keeps them fresh enough, largely because we care about these characters. It’s harder to care about the Maximoff Twins (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), introduced into the narrative to serve as sort-of-not-really villains when Ultron is away (or lazy).
Quickly provided with a backstory that incorporates the moral swamp of Stark’s old weapon-dealer days, the Twins are under-developed and burdened with cod-Russian accents that only prove distracting. The humour can also be off-putting, especially when otherwise sombre moments are followed immediately by lines that send the audience into fits of laughter. Ultron himself walks a fine line between being intimidating and being a punchbag (yet arguably, of course, his danger lies in his ubiquity). Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, always aloof, is essentially a walking punchline with little to contribute to the narrative at large.
Overall, however, Age of Ultron isn’t concerned with establishing connective threads in the MCU. As a surprisingly standalone film, it’s a fitting capstone to the risk-taking and joie de vivre of “Phase Two”. Its lumbering inevitability might have prepared us for the worst, but Whedon (in what is said to be his last directorial effort for the studio) knows what he’s doing. He reins in these damaged, all-too-human people and throws them together with novel, comic style.