A Marvel /Disney Production
Action /Adventure / Science Fiction
Directed by: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth
Run Time: 2 Hours / 25 mins approx.
Rated 12A / PG-13
Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark wants to save the world from any threat. He modifies alien technology into ULTRON: advanced Artificial Intelligence. ULTRON acquires homicidal sentience, deciding to destroy humanity. Stark must team with his fellow heroes: the Avengers and overcome their mutual suspicions to somehow save Earth.
A weakness is simply an overdone strength in any corporate enterprise. So it is with Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. Marvel built a brilliant brand, founded on continuity, casting and creativity. The best talents fronted every feature. This is no exception. A great cast and crew take on big ambitions. Director Joss Whedon returns, having delivered a palpably charming hit with the first Avengers. Robert Downey Jr reprises his signature role as Tony Stark. It should work well. The result is sadly a major disappointment: overlong and distastefully dark. Marvel’s machine is destroying itself through needlessly complicated convolution.
Downey is ironically part of the problem, having rightly been the rock upon which the Marvel Church was built. He looks jaded and bored. One sympathises. He’s played these beats before and better. Stark /Iron Man’s character arc was complete in previous outings. Revisiting his ‘darker’ side is a retrograde repetition, devoid of the energetic and infectious joy that made us love him. And Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts is conspicuously absent. Has Gwynnie ‘consciously uncoupled’ from Marvel? I hope not. Downey without Paltrow is like Fred without Ginger. Or salt without Pepper.
Much is made of the fact that Director Joss Whedon ‘gets’ women and how to write them (itself a fairly patronising indictment on the progress of feminism). Is he simply passing the focus from Downey’s Stark to Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow? That’s possible. She’s given prominent position but isn’t up to the challenge. Scarlett excels in other films playing a louche and lazily sexy seductress; all blonde and beguiling beauty (Match Point). Able to personify feminine power at its most potent, Scarlett simply doesn’t need to apply the template Whedon is mistakenly modelling. Her romantic interludes with Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk /Bruce Banner are particularly forced. ‘Hey look! We’ve given Scarlett something to DO!’ It’s unnecessary content. The reference to ‘sterilisation’ is a particular low. Shame on you, Marvel Studios. Ghastly and gratuitous.
Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye /Agent Barton also suffers from Whedon’s ‘give everyone stuff to do for no reason’ syndrome. Renner is used to this (shadowing Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible movies; subbing for Matt Damon as Jason Bourne), but he feels particularly redundant here. It’s a wasteful shame: 2009’s Hurt Locker showed Renner’s performance power potential. But he’s miscast here and his delivery is flat. We discover Hawkeye has – shock horror – a WIFE! And..wait for it..KIDS! With ONE ON THE WAY! That’s designed to make us invest emotionally, thereby engendering textured tension. It woefully fails.
Tagging new baggage for frankly secondary characters is a luxury this film should not have. It drags out the running time; adding spare parts to spare parts. Perhaps that was the whole point: plot procrastination? The premise of technology gone mad IS interesting and relevant but impractical as basis for an entire comic book epic. The result: LOTS of filler (including a mind control macguffin already overplayed in the first Avengers film) and drawn out climax. It’s frequently difficult to understand or care what is at stake.
There are magic moments (Stark and Banner together). Chris Hemsworth plays Thor to perfection (comic timing and confident action delivery), despite being undermined by Gothic horror dream sequences. Technically brilliant (sound, lighting, locations and design all excellent). And it sets a promising scene for 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. But that’s all for nothing without fun and charm. It’s presented with pointless darkness, via unearned emotional demands on viewers. If the story felt genuinely crafted to maturing motifs, one might be willing to grow and go with the film-makers’ flow. That worked for Empire Strikes Back and Godfather 2 (cited by Whedon as inspiration). But ‘darker’ does not necessarily equal ‘better’. This is neither light fare for younger kids nor substantially sustained for adult audiences.
The film will be a record breaking success (marketed to the max in countlessly revealing trailers). But the age of Ultron might herald the beginning of the end for the heyday of the Comic Book Movie.
6/10 marks: Soulless sterility, presented in a muddled mess. What should be a feast of enjoyment becomes an exercise in endurance. Homework: re-watch 2008’s Iron Man and 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy to remember Marvel being truly marvellous.
Words: James Murphy