Avengers : Age of Ultron

It’s what NASA uses.

Avengers : Age of Ultron (2015)

All of Marvel’s movies are treated as big event movies, but Age of Ultron is a special case. Perhaps it’s the wrong way of thinking, but people automatically want to know if Age of Ultron is better than the first Avengers. My answer is an annoying “kind of”.

Born out of Stark A.I. meddling, the Avengers have to face a new threat to global safety, a rogue program calling itself “Ultron” (voiced by James Spader) that has concluded that humanity’s extinction is the only logical outcome. He recruits two superhuman experiments in the form of the Maximoff twins, Pietro and Wanda (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), better known as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, to aid him in stopping Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. As is often the case with sequels, Age of Ultron is darker than the first. It explores the personal fears of each Avenger and leaves them broken and scarred. That’s not to say it tips the balance into all-out ludicrous grimmery. At its core, the film is still a fun, comic-book adventure with plenty of gags and moments of levity.

Age of Ultron certainly starts better than the original Avengers did. We open in medias res, with the team waging an assault on a Hydra castle deathbase to retrieve Loki’s series-important mind-control sceptre. It was so comic-booky and fun, it immediately brought a smile to my face. Loathe as I am to use the word, the banter between the team was like putting on a comfy pair of slippers. I genuinely love these characters and it’s great to hear them bounce off each other. As someone who has sunk many hours of the Marvel: Ultimate Alliance games, the little team-up attacks will always delight me on a level I can’t quite explain. In comparison, Avengers 1 took a while to get up to speed. The first 20 minutes or so feel weirdly low-rent and out of place when held up against the rest of the film. Lessons have been learned with Age of Ultron and it shows.

After being shoved to the sidelines in the first film, Age of Ultron finally spares some focus for Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. Joss Whedon delves into the character’s personal life and he becomes the heart of the film. What I love about this is that he’s used as the necessary humanity in a team full of overpowered supermen. You can have your big personalities doing loud and awesome things, but you still need something to ground it. There’s a surprising budding relationship between Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner. It’s a strange pairing but it makes total sense. I found it all to be rather sweet. There’s one scene at the Avengers HQ bar where Romanoff flirts shamelessly with the awkward Banner that completely sold their relationship to me. It’s like a film noir exchange and the Whedonness of the writing came through strongly. He loves damaged characters and putting unlikely couples together and having you root for them is kinda his thing. I have to say, I’m liking Tony Stark less. It’s completely intentional too. Stark sees the Avengers as a stopgap solution to Earth’s problems and is working on an endgame. He’s trying to cut the barbed wire again. His shortsightedness leads to Ultron. Although it isn’t directly his fault, he definitely has to shoulder some of the blame. His talk with Cap whilst chopping wood definitely shows the fissures appearing in their ideologies that will lead to Civil War. I can’t wait.

Ultron is a fascinating villain. He has Stark’s wit hardcoded into his programming and so he ends up with just as many one-liners and witticisms as our heroes. His monologues are perfect for James Spader’s amazing voice and as a result Ultron is utterly compelling. The film has a running theme of evolution and Ultron embodies that. There’s one scene where Ultron destroys his body mid-speech with a newer, more powerful form without pause that is just a fantastic moment. This is an odd sentence, but despite Ultron’s desire to wipe out humanity, he didn’t seem that evil to me. Part of it is his cold, robot logic. He’s not evil because he enjoys it, but because it makes sense to him. Part of it is the fact that he’s so damn entertaining. It all adds up to him being insanely misguided rather than straight-up evil. I can appreciate that it’s a more interesting take on villainy, but it didn’t have the immediate, visceral appeal of someone who is an out-and-out bastard. However, I expect this to become less of a problem on repeat viewings.

Whedon is a master of the ensemble piece. He manages to accommodate a whole bunch of new faces whilst keeping things balanced with more familiar ones. Nearly all the characters are well served by the script and they all get moments to shine. Reviews have already levelled their few criticisms of the film at there being too many characters, but I think it’s a lazy criticism. It’s like the similar “too many villains” problem that is often brought up. For me it doesn’t get to the root of the issue. Game of Thrones manages to balance a crazy amount of characters and plotlines each week. The execution is the problem, not the idea.  Age of Ultron does incredibly well with sharing focus. The only real casualty (and there’s bound to be one in a film like this) is that the film has to set up more universe building things with teases for Black Panther and future Avengers films. Thor gets a largely pointless subplot to find out about the Infinity Gems and to me it took away from the main narrative. It fucks with the pacing sightly and makes the film baggier. Having said that, I liked Andy Serkis turning up as Ulysses Klaw, an arms dealer with a deep fear of cuttlefish.

I’m going to spend a paragraph talking about The Vision because I can. The stakes feel higher when Paul Bettany steps up. He’s such a great character. He’s the opposite side of the coin to Ultron. He’s got the robot logic, but he also sees the value of humanity. Bettany plays him as a gentle, ethereal being and it completely works. As I watched the caped Vision float in mid-air, delivering beautiful monologues, I came to a bit of a realisation. Vision is a better Superman than the current version of Superman. That’s not a tough feat, but Vision embodies everything I like about a God-like figure trying to teach humanity rather than destroy it. His final dialogue with Ultron is also incredibly well-written and it shows you can have your huge, destructive setpieces as well as have time for simple conversation about differing ideologies.

Those destructive setpieces I mentioned? Age of Ultron has bucketloads of them too. My favourite was the scrap between an enraged Hulk and Iron Man in his purpose-built Hulkbuster suit. The finale is the single most comic-booky thing I’ve seen on screen to date and I loved it.

Age of Ultron falls just shy of The Avengers’ greatness for me. It’s a better made and certainly a better realised film than the first, but I didn’t experience as many air-punchingly great moments as I did with the original. However, that’s not to say the film fails because it doesn’t. It’s another excellent Marvel film. The cast are great, the film is visually spectacular and it’s very well-written. It’s funny, but when I’ve discussed Age of Ultron with people, it’s the little character beats that I talk about rather than the impressive action sequences. More films should be made like that. Character resonates for so much longer than explosions do. I’ll give it four stars, but will qualify it’s a very high four. As I feel that half the country has already seen it, it seems moot, but the film gets a huge recommendation from me.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

 

Signed, Shield, Delivered.
 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Vaguely controversial opinion time. Captain America is my favourite Avenger. The first Captain America film is also my personal favourite of Marvel’s Phase One. It spent more time and energy building its characters than any of the others in the Marvel stable. It’s proper structured storytelling with an understanding of motivation, theming and all of that other nerdy jazz than I can’t seem to stop banging on about. It’s hardly perfect though. Unfortunately, it proceeds to shite itself inside out in the last third of the film, not quite knowing what to do after skinny Steve becomes Cap in action as well as physique. However, I’d rather have two thirds of solid experience than an entirety of generic one (cough)IronMan2(cough). That being said, I had my reservations about The Winter Soldier. It’s based on a great story, but written by the people responsible for the underwhelming Thor: The Dark World and directed by some TV directors who happen to have directed the chore of the film that was You, Me and Dupree. Thankfully, I needn’t have worried.

“Most of the intelligence community doesn’t believe he exists. The ones that do call him the Winter Soldier. He’s a ghost, you’ll never find him.

The Winter Soldier focuses on Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans). He’s joined by Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the pair, under the direction of the cycloptic Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), are protecting S.H.I.E.L.D.’s interests home and abroad. Rogers, however, finds little fulfilment in being used as Fury’s personal attack dog and is still trying to figure out the modern world and his place within it. He meets up with war veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) who has undergone a similar state of mind, not quite knowing how to adapt when the orders stop coming. We’re also introduced to Fury’s boss, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) who is right behind S.H.I.E.L.D.’s controversial plans to monitor the global population and take out potential threats. Concerned that something may be rotten at S.H.I.E.L.D. after an attempt on Fury’s life, Cap investigates with Fury’s warning not to trust anyone ringing in his ears. On top of all this, there’s a mysterious metal-armed super badass roaming about known only as The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) causing all kinds of death and destruction. Phew. Longest plot recap ever. The story’s solid, giving us a spy thriller mixed with the standard superheroics we’re all used to seeing by now. I think the Captain America series is probably Marvel’s most experimental franchise as the first one was unapologetically a sepia-toned period piece whereas this one feels like a gritty ’70s spy epic, with the casting of Robert Redford a major clue as to what they’re shooting for. Whereas The Dark World may have left people questioning whether the superhero bubble had burst and feeling comic book fatigue, The Winter Soldier proves that if you’re smart about it, you can take on any genre and run it through the superhero filter and it’ll work. There are nice character moments and the clash of Cap’s yesteryear idealism with Fury’s post Edward Snowden/Wikileaks attitude is interesting.

The whole cast are good. Evans has refined his Steve Rogers schtick. He’s not as wide-eyed and innocent as he once was, but at the core, he’s still the same old idealistic Steve. Scarlett Johansson gets to go deeper into exactly who Romanoff is and relishes the opportunity. I have to say that I felt she was a little flat not really selling the character’s quippy nature, but that could just be her decision to make Natasha a disconnected, jaded type. Anthony Mackie is all sorts of fun as Falcon, giving Cap a proper verbal sparring partner as well as a brother in arms. Robert Redford also allows the film a sense of gravitas that it would have missed otherwise. Samuel L. Jackson. That’s all I need to say about him. Sebastian Stan gives us a good brooding Winter Soldier, but I could have done with a little more time with the character.

OK, the good stuff. There’s a lot of it. It whips along at a decent pace and has just as much time for the smaller interactions as it does for the expensive set pieces. Instead of vague “save the world” stakes (although there is some of that in there), it feels like a personal Cap story. I still love these characters and the new additions are perfectly fine in my book. I certainly hope we get to see more of Falcon and Steve’s flirty relationship with his neighbour. The action scenes are a lot of fun too. There’s an elevator fight and a very Heat inspired daylight shootout that are definitely big highlights. The writing’s more on point that it was in The Dark World and there are some really fantastic concepts being played with coupled with quotable quips and gags. Steve has lost his faith in government and authority and is questioning his orders for the first time. You know something’s up when the walking posterboy for following the rules and eating your greens starts becoming disaffected. It actually has something to say about the modern world and takes more of a stance on the military secrets/ constant surveillance issue than the wishy-washy wank that was The Fifth Estate, a film purportedly solely about all of that stuff. Add all of this up and it’s exactly the sort of thing I want from a Captain America film. Plus, at no point do the wheels fall off and they forget to tell a story, like in the first one. Big bonus points there.

My only criticism is that I wanted to see more of The Winter Soldier. Although it’s not exactly the best-kept secret out there, I will invisotext this next bit as it concerns the Winter Soldier’s identity an’ shit. (Highlight to read) So, Ol’ Winty is Cap’s thought-dead best pal Bucky Barnes (the one that fell off a speeding train in the first one?), brainwashed, mechanised and working for the Russians. I felt that there was so much going on, it didn’t really give the whole Steve/Bucky drama enough room to breathe. It felt a bit rushed to me and despite the long running time, I would have welcomed a few more scenes dealing with the whole thing.

“S.H.I.E.L.D. takes the world as it is, not as we’d like to be!”

So, The Winter Soldier is a damn good film and I’m so pleased to be able to say that. It’s a solid film that I think will only improve on repeated viewings. Bear in mind that there are not one, but two, post-credits scenes to look out for, so bring a catheter and a pissbag if you’re planning on downing your usual vat of soda like I usually do.