Now the dust has settled: How good actually was Avengers - Age of Ultron?
Directed by Joss Whedon - Produced by Marvel Studios - Cert. 12A
So, I remember coming out of Age of Ultron feeling slightly disappointed. Perhaps it was inevitable. The first Avengers film is as close to perfect as you're going to get for this kind of movie (Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier being pretty damn close).
It was a simple tale - a group of people with little in common coming together to become something extraordinary and powerful. And it was made by Joss Whedon - snappy funny and intelligent dialogue, great action scenes, amazing effects, fantastic production - everything that you would want from such a film.
Ultron had problems that no film-maker could fix. The first film was completely self-contained - the fact that the enemy in that film are largely a mass of identical creatures with no individuality just didn't matter - the thrill came from seeing our heroes actually becoming a team of heroes and destroying a massive alien army. It was fantastic.
Ultron was always a film that was partly broken by design, though. It wasn't its' own film anymore - the characters we knew and loved and wanted to spend time with had to make room for a bunch of other stuff. So, we already had the people we liked, but then additional characters were being pulled in from the other spin-off films and then some new good guys introduced too (Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, Vision). In order for the next film - Captain America: Civil War - to happen you have to have two groups of good-guys facing off against each other and the groundwork for that had to happen in the previous film. So immediately there was this feeling that the film is over-stuffed with characters and the new ones aren't being introduced properly and the old ones aren't getting enough time.
Too. Many. People.
And we haven't even got to the bad guy, who you need to spend some time with in order for him to - you know - come across as a convincing bad guy. And then we've got to find room for the actual story. No wonder Whedon later expressed some misgivings about the film; he's having to tell a story, introduce new good guys, temporarily bring in good guys from other films, create a bad guy we really don't like, and set up the next film. It was a stupidly difficult task. He couldn't have done a better job. No one could have.
On second viewing, happily, the feeling that too much is being crammed into the film isn't anywhere near as strong. Joss Whedon has to keep all these plates continually spinning, but he's a master of dropping in small humanising moments. The first viewing seemed a little overwhelming, but once you're acquainted with the film you're not having to deal with the surprise of yet another new character appearing every 5 minutes; and you can pay more attention to the little moments that make you care about the main characters, that originally got lost in the almost ceaseless blur of activity.
Potentially a fascinating character Ultron's motives are basic and under-developed.
Not that there aren't problems. Ultron is given short thrift - the old "the only way to have peace on Earth is to remove mankind" theme is trite in it's under-developed state. We don't actually see him do anything really nasty - he chops a weapon dealers' arm off, big deal. Seeing as Ultron gets given such a short amount of time in the film some really strong shorthand was needed - we needed to see him kill someone important or do something equally vicious. We needed the equivalent of Coulson being murdered by Loki in the first film. We don't get it. It's a problem.
The ending suffers from the problem that we got in Iron Man 2 - masses upon masses of identical robot killers being smashed over and over and over again. The first Avengers film gets away with this situation because of the thrill of seeing a small team of people we care about managing to beat unimaginable odds - that dynamic isn't as strong here because we've spent less time with the core group. And we've seen them do the exact same thing before. Also, visually it's less interesting - there are no giant metal space whales careening through New York here, just robots. Lots and lots of robots.
Thor takes a magic bath.
The other thing that is, frankly, broken is Thor and the magic pond. Scarlet Witch can read your thoughts to some extent and also put images in your head - but she can't give you universe-changing visions that tell you that you need to travel to Britain and sit in a magic pool of water in a cave somewhere. This aspect of the film is a complete mess. It also directly leads to the creation of Vision, so it's important. It doesn't make any sense - it's completely broken.
There were some pleasant surprises though on a second viewing - little comments that I'd missed but which are hilarious or kind of touching. The action scenes that stuck in my head were the Stark/Hulkbuster-armour vs Hulk battle and, of course the fight at the end, but it's actually the action scene in South Korea that's the real standout - the pacing is awesome; it has everything.
Ultron is trying to move the pod containing his new, dormant, evolved body to a place of safety. Hawkeye is in one of the Quinjets fighting off Ultron's airborne drones, Cap is attacking the truck the pod is in and losing the fight, and Black Widow ("I'm always picking up after you boys", she quips as she snatches up Caps' dropped shield) is thundering down city side streets on a motorcycle on the way to provide much-needed backup. It's a fantastic scene, superbly constructed.
So, where does that leave us? Familiarity with the film means that things that seemed unnatural and contrived and just felt like too much was being crammed into the running time mostly disappear, and we're left to properly appreciate the little touches - the moments of finesse. It's far more enjoyable the second time round.
But Thor sat in that magic pond. We could do without that. It's ridiculous. It comes out of nowhere with little explanation. On Joss Whedon's list of regrets I guarantee that scene is the Number 1. And it's underlined over and over in black marker pen.
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