I felt sorry for Joss Whedon, the successful, talented, smart, funny, creatively satisfied man. A little bit. Not only did he have to follow up his own success by writing and directing the sequel to the third largest grossing film so far, but he also had to contend with the myriad of other factors involved in making a blockbuster film with a huge cast with huge stars that is also a lynchpin for the Marvel cinematic universe, the entertainment behemoth that has completely changed the way franchise films operate. And he also has to make a really good film in its own right. That’s a lot of pressure.
I needn’t have worried – Whedon is incredibly gifted, driven, capable man and he has proved it again with Avengers: Age Of Ultron. This is a film that gives everyone in its vast cast some quality moments, provides spectacle and action, finds time for character moments, introduces major new characters to the Avengers roster, and a new villain who is a serious threat (and highly entertaining as well), sets up bits for future Marvel films (a mention for Wakanda, setting up business for the next Thor film, not to mention the Infinity War stuff), and still finds time to be funny and quippy and jokey in that special Whedon fashion. In the words of Scott Kurtz’s PVP strip: Joss Whedon is our master now.
The film starts with a bang, as the Avengers chase down Baron Strucker in Sokovia (a non-specific European nation) to locate the sceptre used by Loki, in a great tracking scene to show the team in action and their abilities in sync, with a lovely slow-mo shot that’s the equivalent of a splash page of the team that made me smile like a loon. This opening section also introduces the superpowered twins, Pietro and Wanda, natives of Sokovia who want to make a difference and who hate Tony Stark and the Avengers – Wanda uses her ability to manipulate minds to affect Tony in the castle, showing him a vision that preys on his fears as a protector of the world. This is what causes him to use the artificial intelligence in the scepter’s gem to complete his Ultron global defense program without telling the rest of the Avengers (apart from Bruce Banner, who has reservations). After a celebration party in the Avengers’ headquarters (which is a great scene, with lots of people and lots of great dialogue and a brilliant scene of the other Avengers trying to lift Mjolnir [the look on Thor’s face when Captain America starts trying to lift it is priceless]), Ultron reveals himself and his desire to bring ‘peace in our time’ by eliminating humanity; he steals the sceptre, he recruits the twins, and steals some vibranium from Ulysses Klaue (a lovely performance from Andy Serkis – one word: ‘cuttlefish’) to upgrade his body before things get worse …
I really loved this film. It had everything I want from a superhero comic-book action movie. It has the interconnectivity of the Marvel universe, with appearances from the Falcon, War Machine, Dr Selvig, Maria Hill, Nick Fury, plus some nice cameos from other characters. It has great action scenes (such as the Hulkbuster versus the Hulk scene) that work within the context of the movie, but it also finds time to dwell on the characters – there’s nice depth for Hawkeye, back story for Black Widow and the development of her relationship with Bruce Banner, and the fleshing out of Pietro and Wanda. There is a good villain with a specific purpose in Ultron, wonderfully voiced by James Spader, who is the demented version of Tony Stark. (Ultron wasn’t what I expected – a different voice style, a different mentality – but it was all the better for it.) And the film is really funny – Whedon fills it with great quips, in the great tradition of comic books, but which work in the context of a film.
Whedon has a done a marvellous (pardon the pun) job – he handles the huge cast with a deftness and lightness of touch that belies how tough it is. He uses misdirection to surprise us, he uses emotion to power the story and the characters (when Hawkeye tells someone, ‘If you go outside, you’re an Avenger’, it brought a lump to my throat), he understands and communicates his understanding of the essence of what it means to be an Avenger, and the use of Mjolnir to prove worthiness is a brilliant moment. If I have to mention something to partially negate all this praise, I found the visualisation of the Vision a little strange – the comic-book version I’m used to has very smooth facial features, more synthetic and less human, whereas this is obviously the wonderful Paul Bethany with some things on his face. I guess I’ll get used to it the more I watch it (and I will be rewatching it plenty), but it seemed less genuine than the rest of the other Avengers.
There’s been a lot of bemoaning the overload of superhero comic book movies and the large slate of films with dates announced well in advance. But, seriously, if action-blockbuster comic-book movies are going to be of this quality, this entertaining, this fun, this enjoyable – where’s the problem?