Starring Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo
Well, here we go: in a year which is seeing a new Star Wars film, the odds-on favourite for biggest movie of the year is not the continuing adventures of our friends from a galaxy far, far away, but this. Avengers: Age Of Ultron is a sequel, yes, and a superhero flick, and both those things mark it as a very safe box office bet in the current clime. But it’s also the latest iteration of an incredibly bold cinematic storytelling experiment. Looking back at 2008, when Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury told Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark about the Avenger Initiative, it’s hard to believe how far we’ve come.
And we have come a hell of a long way – if The Avenger’s proved that Marvel’s particular type of shared world storytelling could translate to the big screen, Age Of Ultron demonstrates that it has longevity and adaptability; that the fictional world that has been built over the past seven years can change and grow and still remain eminently appealing.
While there’s not really anything in Age Of Ultron to match the giddy thrill of seeing these characters meet up on the big screen for the first time, what it does really well is replicate the feeling of reading a really good, earth-shaking crossover comic event. One of the most fun (and yeah, sometimes most annoying) elements of the Marvel Comics Universe is its long and convoluted continuity; everything that happened, no matter how small or in which issue of what comic, mattered, or could be made to matter depending on the whims of any writer with the stones to sift through the back issues for material. As a reader, you were expected to keep up, or at least be able to parse enough of what was going on to plug into the current story. The Marvel Universe is a kind of massive living document, and so too is its cinematic counterpart.
Thus we’re dropped right into the middle of the action, with The Avengers taking down a Hydra stronghold in some Mittel-European alpine nation, going toe to toe with hordes of mooks and very quickly reminding us why these characters are so cool. The economy of storytelling is really impressive (the film is close to two and a half hours, but it never drags) and we’re quickly brought up to speed vis a vis the current status quo: Captain America (Chris Evans) is firmly in command, leading from the front, while Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is more inclined to let his technology do the heavy lifting, even going so far as to use his Iron Legion robot drones as peacekeepers and rescue operatives. That’s one of the central conflicts of the film: Cap the hero wants to keep on hero-ing, while Tony “Iron Man “ Stark, the mechanic, wants to build a solution to the threats they face which will let him stop being an Avenger. To put it another way, Cap wants to meet the threats as they come, while Tony wants to create a world where threats can’t exist – it’s easy to see how these philosophical differences will feed into the upcoming Captain America: Civil War.
However, that’s the Ghost Of Action Scenes Yet To Come – The Ghost Of Action Scenes Present is Ultron, Stark’s latest attempt to invent a better world, a peacekeeping AI, not too dissimilar to Skynet in intent if not in form, that promptly goes insane and decides the world would be much more peaceful if there were no people in it. Ultron, as voiced with velvety menace by James Spader, is a great villain – a self-aware artificial construct that quickly moves from “Who am I?” to “All mankind must perish” at an exponential clip. He’s obsessed with evolution and self-improvement, self-development – he’s constantly building himself new and better robot bodies – and it’s creepily fascinating to see his persona go through the same rapid mutations from moment to moment.
The actual plot machinations of the film are fairly straight-forward – no Dark Knight-style convoluted master plans here – and really serve only as a framework to hang a series of set pieces on. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – the action beats are just fantastic. I imagine one of the great joys of writing superhero team ups is figuring out cool ways for their powers and signature moves to interact, and we get that kind of thing in spades here, such as when Thor slams his hammer onto Cap’s shield to bowl over a troop of Hydra footsoldiers, or pretty much the entire Iron Man/Hulk fight. We live in an age of hyperbolic action cinema – Furious 7 was only a few weeks ago – but the sequences here are just amazing.
Still, it’s the character moments that stand out and, indeed, always have in Marvel’s movie output. As noted above, the conflicts here are largely ideological, and the action scenes flow from those differences. For all that the schism between Iron Man and Captain America’s worldviews drives the plot, they’re not really the heart of the ensemble this time around, with Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) Black widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) doing the bulk of the emotional heavy lifting. There’s a great bit of business between Widow and Hulk that will please and surprise fans (so I won’t go into it here) but it’s Renner’s Hawkeye who’s really the heart of the film. The poor guy got horribly short-changed in the last Avengers, but here he’s in the thick of it, narratively and thematically.
As a general rule of thumb, unpowered POV characters suck, but having Hawkeye as our stand-in in a world of gods and monsters works wonderfully. He’s a capable, heroic guy in a world of super-capable, super-heroic figures, able to take part in the action but also able to be wounded, and that vulnerability makes him interesting. We also get to see Hawkeye’s home life in a sequence that puts all the high-flying action into perspective, a kind of miniature Why We Fight bit of Norman Rockwell Americana amid all the sturm und drang. It’s a smart play: we can get Captain America stories in Captain America movies, Thor stories in Thor movies, and so on: only in an ensemble piece like this can we get a Hawkeye story.
It is a real ensemble piece too, complete with appearances from War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie), along with a host of other players from the House Of Ideas Stock Company. Plus there’s a few new additions to the ranks, among them Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), twin superhumans (Marvel still doesn’t have the film rights to mutants) with a grudge against Iron Man. The really interesting addition to the world, however, is the Vision, the android hero played by Paul Bettany. Given that Bettany has previously voiced Jarvis, Iron Man’s AI computer assistant, it’s not too hard to figure out at least the vagaries of the Vision’s origin, but he’s so much more than that. The Vision is as pure a serving of high-level comic strangeness as we’ve been offered on screen so far; a big, weird, looking, maroon, yellow and green hero who is explicitly, specifically non-human. He’s the most comic-book element in a very comic-book feeling movie, and it speaks volumes that he works so well as a character. There’s a neat bit of business where the rest of the team instantly get a measure of the Vision’s character that is absolutely applause-worthy.
The whole thing is, really. Age Of Ultron is a fantastic popcorn blockbuster, but it’s also the strongest indicator we’ve had so far that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has legs. Comic geeks (and I am one, believe me) don’t have to worry about explaining the appeal of this thing of ours to civilians any more: it’s all up there on the screen in all its big, bold, brash, slightly daggy, open-hearted brilliance. We’re all Marvel Zombies now, and the future belongs to us.