As the credits rolled at my screening of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” an odd mood set in. It's wasn't one of disdain, or even disappointment, but rather the sort of ceremonial resignation usually reserved for Christmas mass. Avenging wrought, we awaited an after credits titbit, our own slice of Gold, Myrrh and Frankincense. People hung by the door, shuffling - wanting to depart - but unable, lest they missed the sight of an evil dude fiddling with a regal looking glove for 12 seconds. It came. It went. We left.
Is this event cinema in 2015?
In fairness there's very little obviously wrong with “Age of Ultron”, but that doesn't necessarily make it right. The film, cut rigorously from the Marvel formula, boasts a tirelessly committed cast, but strangely never gears up to the giddy 11 which allowed its predecessor to bank a billion back in 2012. Perhaps it's simply fading novelty that disservices the picture, but that might be to undersell a more symptomatic problem. In contemporary cultural discourse superheroes are prime currency, yet no economy is invulnerable to depression. “Age of Ultron” won't be the film to sink the ship, but it might prove vital in pin-pointing the instant this industry started to sour. The stars are out, the budget's big and it certainly goes well with a diet coke. Still, one suspects that whilst the lights are on, Joss Whedon's not always home.
“Ultron” opens with a spectacular (albeit digitally stitched) one-take, a paean to the awe these characters instill. Since kicking off with “Iron Man” in 2008, this generation of Marvel has gone from strength to strength, building an admittedly impressive tradition of entertaining fare. It's the superb cast that have made this such a possibility. “Ultron” basks in the brilliance of its performers, and a take on the material that prioritises humanist concerns and levity over superficial brooding. The worst comic-book movies (I'm thinking “Daredevil” and “Ghost-Rider”) presume a level of sophistication because of how they're lit, or due to the fact the leading man elects to growl every syllable of dialogue; all the time dancing around a pre-pubescent conceptualisation of angst. Whedon takes very plain, very common motifs and executes them with sincerity and wit. It's been his bread and butter since “Buffy”, and he remains a consummate pro in the field. When “Ultron” works its because Whedon nurtures tender beats, particularly between Johansson's Black Widow and Ruffalo's (this time under-used) Hulk. Two of the franchise's more tortured and understated souls make for a well-matched romantic duet. It never becomes a suffocating facet of the whole, instead Whedon lets it breath nicely between action beats, ageing into future installments with all manner of emotional stakes still in play. This stuff works, and highlights what charms about Whedon's approach. On the other hand...
The ironic quips feel forced, and the action's unmemorable. The scale is never in question, but beyond the aforementioned opening it's hard to recall much of the robo-bashing that consumes the rest of the picture's budget. New characters float in and out (including a promising bow for the radiant Elizabeth Olsen), but a slavish adherence to in-house structure, and Whedon forcing himself to regurgitate the more superficial elements of his artistic identity (the dialogue is much too ripe in places) render the sequel a consumer good. As Ultron, a menacing but broadly motivated nasty, delivers his doomsday speech, all manner of blurry combat filling the periphery, it's almost impossible not to disengage. The film charges through the Marvel beat sheet, leaving enough plot in the air to rob us of total catharsis, with the promise of further carnage banked. We've been amused, even touched in places, but when push comes to shove, we end up were we always end up.
Waiting in a dimly lit auditorium for brief clues about future adventures.
“Age of Ultron” is the very embodiment of its villain. Cooked up on a whim, glaringly artificial, but with just enough smarts below the bonnet to push it above “Transformers”-esque guff. That'll probably be enough to ensure the sustainment of this team's popularity for now – but not forever.
A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2015