Age of Excess
What in the world is more likely to get a sequel than a movie with a $1.5 billion box office? A movie with a $1.5 billion box office that's a keystone of a sequence of over a dozen movies which has already made $7 billion. Yes, it's time for the unstoppable colossus that is Joss Whedon's Avengers: Age of Ultron. I tell you, folks, there's something almost unsettling about the sheer aura of implacable self-confidence that this extraordinary film gives off: it's almost as if it doesn't care whether you like and enjoy it (or even understand it) or not, it's still going to make more money than the GNP of most African countries. Resistance feels useless.
As things get underway, the Avengers are in the process of sorting out a HYDRA base in the obscure Balkan nation of Fictionalakia, which they do with a reasonable degree of alacrity: this is more an excuse for the director to get all flashy with the camerawork than a source of genuine conflict, though HYDRA's pet superhuman pawns the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) give it a good shot.
This looks like the final victory in the team's current campaign, and it seems to offer the opportunity for a significant step forward in the cause of global security: for Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) thinks he can use captured alien technology to create a sentient robotic security system encompassing the entire planet. He decides not to mention this side-project, codenamed Ultron, to the rest of the team, because what could possibly go wrong? To the surprise of nobody but Stark himself, Ultron (voiced by James Spader) turns out to be an indestructible genocidal maniac with a snarky line in repartee, and after delivering an admonitory spanking to the team flies off to set about his plan for global destruction, recruiting Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver along the way. But will they ultimately prove to be heroes or villains? One thing Marvel Studios' lawyers are very clear on: they're definitely not mutants...
While waiting for the film to start, I did find myself observing to a friend that it would be interesting to see how Joss Whedon coped with making a film with nine actual Avengers in it, and that's before we even get to the villain or supporting cast. The answer, clearly, is to make a film which is almost ridiculously massive in every respect. It opens with a hugely lavish special effects action sequence and just gets bigger and bigger and (in true comic book style) sillier and sillier as it goes on. The crash-bang-wallop-zap-kapow is relentless, reaching an early peak in the long-awaited Iron Man-vs-Hulk fight, which brings new meaning to the word blockbuster, and proceeding all the way to a notably untrammelled climax. (One character even shouts 'This is crazy!' in the middle of the concluding chaos, which probably counts as an example of Whedon's noted self-awareness.)
It does go on for a remarkably long time, but this is because in addition to the actual plot and his nine Avengers (in addition to the original cast and the two non-mutants, the ever-watchable Paul Bettany finally gets some proper screen-time as the Vision), Whedon also opts to include a coachload of other characters, either ones from previous movies, or ones destined for more signifcant roles in future projects: Don Cheadle has a surprisingly beefy role, and also present are the likes of Anthony Mackie, Stellan Skarsgard, and Andy Serkis. We even get to see what an Avengers works do looks like - needless to say, the world's most famous nonagerian comic book writer puts in an appearance.
Also in true comic-book style, the lavish property damage is leavened by some slightly histrionic soap-opera style interactions between the principal cast, but I would honestly argue that finding a space in a film like this one for actors to genuinely find their characters and act is as impressive an achievement on Whedon's part as any of the technical wizardry or plot-wrangling on display elsewhere. Whedon's stated intention was to favour the characters who don't appear in movies of their own, especially the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and he pretty much pulls this off - although his attempts to wrong-foot the audience are somewhat undermined by Marvel's fondness for announcing the cast lists of future movies several years in advance. Personally I could have seen a bit more of the Vision, but there is a huge amount to squeeze in and on the whole the film does the best in can in the circumstances. Elsewhere, I found that Whedon’s brand of self-aware knowingness was getting a bit predictable – I was able to more-or-less guess what some of the jokes would be, so perhaps it’s just as well that this film marks the end of his association with the Avengers films, at least: I suspect the writer-director would agree, because to be honest the film sometimes feels like a monumental contractual obligation – it’s never less than competent, but (not inappropriately for a film largely about androids) it often has a curiously mechanical, joyless feeling to it.
At least the sense one sometimes gets watching Marvel movies, of characters being laboriously shunted around in order to facilitate the launching of the next instalment, is less pronounced this time. But I do wonder how this film will play with some sections of the audience: if you know who Baron von Strucker and Ulysses Klaw are, get all the other references, and have been meticulously keeping track of the meta-plot about the Infinity Stones, you'll be in some variety of heaven, while if you're a non-discriminating partaker of overblown CGI action you will find nothing here that disappoints you either. But if you're a normal, mature person who expects a film with a bit of focus and a recognisable beginning, middle and end, this may not be your best choice of night out.
However, I get a strong sense that Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn't really care about that as it cruises merrily toward the various box-office records it will reduce to smithereens. This doesn't feel quite like it's raising the bar on the comic-book movie in the same way that the first film did, nor does it really seem to be intent on allowing the franchise as a whole to regroup: it just looks like another attempt by Marvel to see how crazy they can get before they lose the audience. I suspect they still haven't reached that point. Depending on your point of view, it's either a bloated carnival of absurd empty spectacle held together by ridiculous soap-opera plotting, or a grandiose monument to Marvel's ambition and skill in growing their world-conquering franchise-of-franchises, but either way it's going to be more or less unavoidable for some time to come.