Friday, 1 May 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron - Bigger and Badder?

      It’s a fact. The Avengers was massive.

       Let’s not wax on about how just how much this sequel, Age of Ultron, had to live up to. The huge weight of expectation behind it - not just as a sequel to a box office hit – but also as the benchmark for Superhero ‘event’ movies has been raised pretty damn high in the interim, with the likes of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy being particular standouts.

       So does it live up to the hype?

       Well not really.

       That’s not to say it isn’t any good. It is good. Even great at times. But (in my humble opinion at least) it falls short of greatness.

       One reason is the consistent feeling of familiarity throughout. It seems Whedon and co., (talented writers and filmmakers though they undoubtedly are) have opted to play it safe, the mantra seemingly being: ‘lets do all the things in we did in the first movie – people loved all of that – just try and make everything bigger and badder’. There’s a bigger cast, more story threads, more globe-trotting, a longer running time and so on.

       But that's kind of the problem – it’s just more of the same, and as a result it’s a little harder to enjoy. There seems to be more of that witty banter and humorous back and forth between characters, enjoyable enough but amped up to such a degree here it can occasionally feel forced. Whereas in the first movie the humour was used to great effect in breaking the tension (hulk punching Thor for example), here it is so prevalent it negates much of the sense of threat you ought to be feeling.

        On a related note: I get why Ultron (the arch villain of the piece) appeared to have a sense of humour (he was, after all ‘birthed’ by Tony Stark) but that, coupled with his narcissistic tendencies, frequent expressions of anger or fear, and tendency to philosophise out aloud - just made him too human. Some may argue that was the point (a robot aspiring to be human-like) – but to me that just made him a lot less scarier than he ought to have been. What we should have got was an Iron-Man crossed with the Terminator. Instead we get a villain who likes to throw out some jibes and then fly away when he started losing. Not so scary.

       Back to the feeling of familiarity. Let’s tick the boxes. Previously villainous players learn the error of their ways and become allies come the final act? Yup. The film climaxing on the imminent annihilation of a city? Check. Hordes of cannon-fodder invaders for the heroes to cleave into? Of course. Big set-piece shot in an Asian city so that the film performs even better in those increasingly lucrative overseas markets? A tad cynical perhaps… but you betcha! Yet another awkward and immersion-breaking Stan Lee cameo? Really? They are still doing this?

       They even have the ‘group hero-shot’ again. In the first Avengers movie it comes at the end, mid-way through the battle in New York City against the Chitauri. For the first time the group is truly united and working effectively as a team, and the moment when the camera circles around the entire group comes off as one of triumph and elation. In Age of Ultron however, the ‘group hero-shot’ comes near the beginning of the film, when they jump over a barricade in unison. Sure, it looks pretty and the underlying motif is warranted (ie: this time they are already working well as a team as the story opens) but you've barely been watching the thing for five minutes. The moment seems to occur apopros of nothing, and as a result comes across as oddly choreographed, unnatural and even a tad too cheesy.

       Speaking of cheese, some have turned their noses up at the subplots included this time around. Namely: Haweye’s secret life and the Romanoff/Banner romance. Now I actually kind of liked these and can see why they were included (Hawkeye and Black Widow are considered the somewhat ‘less super’ members of the team and needed a bit more of a story boost this time around), but in the context of this film it feels a little like they were overcompensating too much in this regard, even to the point where it feels like Thor and Captain America begin to feel somewhat sidelined. With the already bloated running time (this is the longest MCU movie to date) it’s hard to see how everyone could have got a decent look in without the film going on for far too long.

       But really that’s one of the most impressive aspects of Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies: the ridiculously difficult balancing-act he manages to pulls off with all these characters, interactions and storylines coming together at once. Simply managing to make that all work coherantly in and of itself is an incredible achievement. To me however, it just seems that Avengers: Age of Ultron is too constrained by what has come before (all the previous Marvel movies) and what it needs to set up for the future (the announced Marvel releases already set in place for the best part of the next decade). Couple that with some extreme fan service (seeing the Hulk-Buster armour was definitely cool – but at the same time seemed to be very contrived in the context of the story – they could have at least set it up a bit more beforehand), and the result is something that tries its best to please everyone and ends up coming across as actually being fairly predictable and ‘safe’. And that's really the crux of the problem here. The film isn't really given the opportunity to strike out and do it's own thing. It feels like it only exists to expand, connect and set up events of the past and future, whilst replicating a similar experience to the previous Avengers movie.

       Somewhat ironic then that whilst the vilain Ultron goads our heroes with snatches of Pinocchio’s There are no strings on me!, the same cannot really be said for the film Avengers: Age of Ultron itself - seemingly very much shackled by its current ‘role’ in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

       Probably still going to go watch it again though…

30th April 2015

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