Saturday, April 25, 2015

Avengers – Age of Ultron: The expected epic

This contains mild spoilers for the Avengers - Age of Ultron movie

The new Avengers film is a fast-paced, melodramatic super-hero power fantasy, full of awe-inspiring action sequences, sharp dialogue and sharper characterisation. It's a master-class in structure for an ensemble action movie, with plenty of thrills, laughs and mega-destruction.

So, no surprises there, then.

The first Iron Man movie came out in 2008, so it hasn't even been a decade since the Marvel cinematic universe was really built on the solid bedrock of Robert Downey Jnr's infinite charms. But there is already a malaise setting in, with jaded viewers who feel they've seen it all before.

It's not helped by these silly things insisting on their own self importance, without even a wink of acknowledgement of how absurd they're getting – it's hard to take deep and important themes seriously in a movie with the Incredible Hulk in it. 

And on a purely plot level, the second Avengers film is achingly mechanical, hitting all the required beats and sets up the required uber-story arcs. The creators – especially writer/director Joss Whedon – can't really be blamed for this. There is so much to get through, and so many expectations, following a strict template is the only way to please everybody. That just doesn't make it any less predictable.

There is a pre-credits action scene that most other blockbusters would love to have as a central climax, and there is a mid-point beat-down that leaves every good character hanging their head in defeat, before they all rally together to save the world, with new allies and valiant sacrifices needed to save the day. It even ends with yet another iteration of the giant-shit-falls-from-the-sky climax, which is starting to really feel like a parody of itself, after Marvel's use of it in their past half-dozen films.

The script does do a wonderful job of giving all the main characters something to do, and has a terrific shorthand device it can use with cameo appearances from other Marvel films, but the plot is purely functional.

Even the look of the film, with one notable exception, is one of predictable grit – lots of brown and grey dust flying around as the heroes deal with property damage on a biblical scale. Like all the Marvel films, it looks good, but it rarely looks great, with only the Guardians of the Galaxy having any real sense of style. The new Avengers looks exactly like you think it will.

It's still the sort of film I'd love to take back in time and show my 10-year-old self in 1985 and say “This! This is what we expect from our superhero films now!” and watch his brain explode, but on the big picture scale, there's not really anything new any more.

To look for the unexpected in this new blockbuster, you have to go beyond the plot, and there are riches to be found in the details, including some deft characterisation and terrific lines for good actors to chew on.

And nobody chews it up like the bad guys, and this is the Avenger's first great strength.

Ultron himself is a lot better than you'd expect – visually he's never totally convincing as a special effect, too slippery and sleek to have any actual weight – but he's not a dull meglomaniac, he's too loony for that.

Because James Spader is fantastic in the role. He gives him a sleek malevolence, but he's also weirdly goofy and awkward. He might be accidentally ripping off arms and planning to slaughter billions, but he's also clumsy and illogical and moody. Villains are usually so busy making insane speeches to realise how silly they're being, but Ultron is fully aware of how weird he is. He just doesn't care.

And at the other end of the moral spectrum, there is the Vision – the strange child with four dads: Ultron, Tony Stark, Bruce Banner and Thor – and he is an absolute delight. A lot of that is due to the powerful charisma of Paul Bettany, who is always great in everything he does, but also because he brings humanity and a savage slice of colour to this grey and murky world.

He's a striking design, standing out with his primary-colour skin and cape and suitably unreal, bringing a touch of high fantasy to the gritty world of Marvel movies. One shot, of the Vision, Thor and Iron Man absolutely unloading on Ultron, is the closest we've had yet to something straight out of the comics, and is a rare visual highlight.

Most importantly, the Vision is also the most human, for all his synthetic origins. He's privileged to stand with the other heroes and proudly stands up on the side of life over death. He's worthy to stand among the Avengers – and even proves it with one small gesture soon after his creation that leaves everyone stunned, and might be the best little bit in the movie.

Beyond the androids and robots, and there isn't that much room for quiet moments among the bombastic, but they're there. There are strange and doomed romances, small moment of contemplation and a quiet moment of domesticity that comes halfway through and is almost refreshing after all the fighting.

That sequence also has the unexpected benefit of making Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye the moral centre of the film. In the end he's the only person who has something real to fight for – the others battle for honour or destiny or because it's just the right thing to do, but he's doing it for the family.

The movie is also surprisingly on target with its themes and messages, and follows that through to the big climax, where the most important thing – the only important thing – is saving the innocent civilians who are caught up in the carnage. The collateral damage of a massive fight has never been more in focus in a superhero movie, and that acknowledgement is something new.

So all the good guys do what they're supposed to do, and the actors carry a lot of the weight – Mark Ruffalo is still the best Bruce Banner by far, Chris Evans has the right conviction and guts for Captain America, Scarlett Johansson brings more bite to the Black Widow and Chris Helmsworth has fully grown into the role of Thor.

It's nothing really knew, and it's easy to predict where things are going. But it does end on a lighter note than expected. With all the pre-publicity, and knowing what's still to come for the whole superhero universe, you could expect this to end with the heroes all falling out and walking away from each other, heads bowed.

But they're still a triumphant team, and still comrades and friends, for now at least. After all, if they need to have the wit and will to save the world, they can't spend all their time bitching at each other.

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