2010s, Action-Adventure, Scifi

Justice League (2017)

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Directors: Zack Snyder, Joss Whedon (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

Here we go again.

Zack Snyder’s films for the DC Comics-Warner Bros. imprimatur have provided ready whipping boys on the contemporary pop culture scene. Compared to Marvel-Disney’s current stranglehold on the zeitgeist, with their chintzy, jolly, near-indistinguishable entries, Snyder’s films, cloaked in a dusky, gothic stature, have aimed higher. I was never particularly sold on Christopher Nolan’s laboriously pseudo-realist Batman films, but I found Man of Steel (2013) a truly ambitious attempt on Snyder’s part to render DC’s superhero roster distinct from its rivals by viewing it through lenses of both neo-mythology and the post-Alan Moore style of introspective, self-critiquing comic book saga. His Superman questioned his own right to do what he does before finally being obliged to shatter a city to save the world. Such conceits were true to the themes of DC’s attempts to deepen its lexicon and complicate the world-view of their superhero comics since the late-1980s, but many critics and viewers responded as if their understanding of the mode hadn’t changed since the 1960s Batman TV series.
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When I first saw Snyder’s follow-up, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), I found it a ragged, intermittently impressive mess. Revisiting Snyder’s director’s cut of the film, I saw the themes and style had been rendered truly epic, interweaving real-world contexts – fears of terrorism, the fallout of war, the tattering of social and civic institutions in the face of the 21st century’s atomising realities – with familiar but refreshed generic concerns and some irretrievably lumpy franchise development. All this was achieved through Snyder’s patented visual muscle, granted a stately gravitas that stands a good chance of being remembered not as the worst moment of the superhero craze, as many declared it, but the finest. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman earlier this year won popular plaudits for retaining a fair mimicry of Snyder’s style whilst cutting out the complexity of theme and vision and offering a straight-up new-age heroine. And David Ayer’s Suicide Squad…well, that was just crap.
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Justice League, Snyder’s latest offering, is the official moment of consummation when the DC-Warner brand arrives at its The Avengers (2012) moment in teaming up its flagship heroes. Supposedly, following Dawn of Justice’s oft-withering critical reception, it was hastily redrawn, and Snyder’s withdrawal during post-production because of a family tragedy saw The Avengers helmsman Joss Whedon, who is also credited as co-screenwriter with Chris Terrio, brought in to oversee reshoots and inject more of his trademark blend of gags and geekery. There is good reason to be nervous about such shifts in vision. Snyder’s Sucker Punch (2011) and Dawn of Justice were both badly hurt by studio-mandated snipping only to be revealed more truly in their extended editions. Justice League also has its share of heavy lifting to do. Although these specific takes on Clark ‘Superman’ Kent (Henry Cavill), Bruce ‘Batman’ Wayne (Ben Affleck), and Diana ‘Wonder Woman’ Prince (Gal Gadot) now have been thoroughly introduced to audiences, we also now have along for the ride Arthur ‘Aquaman’ Curry (Jason Momoa), Barry ‘The Flash’ Allen (Ezra Miller), and Victor ‘Cyborg’ Stone (Ray Fisher). These newcomers were briefly glimpsed in Dawn of Justice as a gallery of ‘metahumans’ Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) was tracking, with the potential to create a potential line-up of heroic defenders to fill the extremely large gap left by the death of Superman.
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The start of Justice League takes up where that film left off, with its landscape of ruination and setback both physical and moral: in an opening that tips a self-evident nod to Snyder’s equally iconographic opening for his take on Moore’s Watchmen (2009), he sets Sigrid’s cover version of Leonard Cohen’s cynical anthem “Everybody Knows” to visions of resurging patterns of crime and anxiety following the fall of the Kryptonian hero. Renewing his nocturnal adventures in Gotham City, Bruce encounters a grotesque, flying alien creature which he attracts by dangling a hapless criminal from a rooftop as bait. Diana returns to crime fighting, saving hostages from a gang of nihilist terrorists who want to restore “holy terror” as a state of being for humanity in the face of titanic universal forces. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) has retreated into a bubble of soft news stories whilst trying to work through her grief following Clark’s passing. His mother Martha (Diane Lane) loses the family farm to the bank. Believing the alien to be a scout for an oncoming assault by a powerful host, Bruce and Diana set out to track down the other metahumans. Soon that host arrives, flocking at the behest of interdimensional fiend Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), who in aeons past almost conquered and laid waste to the Earth in his attempts to bring together three “mother boxes” that when pieced together fuse into a terraforming device of unbelievable power. A great alliance of ancient races and alien ‘gods’ defeated Steppenwolf’s armies and drove him into exile, but now with Earth absent its great defender, Steppenwolf attacks the Amazon capital Themiscyra where the first box is held, battling Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her hordes of sword-wielding equestriennes.
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Meanwhile our earthly heroes attempt to fuse into a coherently operating unit. Barry, having been blessed with astonishing speed thanks to a freakish incident involving lightning, is a waggish but neurotic outsider living off the grid and fuelled by needy angst concerning his imprisoned father (Billy Crudup). Arthur is the heir to the sunken kingdom of Atlantis, but rather than hang out with his fellows like Mera (Amber Heard), who watches over the second mother box, Arthur prefers to spend his days wandering the seas, lending a hand to folks in need like a penurious Icelandic village and a sinking trawler crew. Victor is the newest and most troubled candidate for superhero status. He’s the son of a scientist, Silas Stone (Joe Morton), who was investigating the third mother box, retrieved by perplexed archaeologists. Following his son’s terrible injuries in a car crash, Silas tried to rebuild his boy with the box, only to result in a strange, constantly evolving and upgrading fusion of man and machine. Victor hides out in his father’s apartment, fretting over his changing nature and battling the alien influence he constantly senses attempting to subsume his identity and control over the new form he’s taken. He has the ability to connect with other technologies and parse information at incredible speeds, and he detects Bruce and Diana’s attempts to track him down even before they properly start. Diana, who’s attempting to come out of her self-imposed isolation after the death of her lover Steve Trevor in World War I, appeals to Victor to do the same. But when they go up against Steppenwolf and his minions for the first time, the team realises quickly and forlornly that they don’t stand much of a chance without Superman.
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Justice League arrives on the big screen with a heavy air of compromise hovering about it. Often it betrays an initial intention to follow on from Dawn of Justice’s weighty reckonings, and add up to a mythic-scale song of rebirth to counter the previous film’s death trip. This aspect is borne out not merely by Superman’s eventual resurrection but by a climax that pays off in the perversely beautiful sight of alien flowers blooming amidst devastation, capping the motifs of revival and synthesis. Early sequences including Diana’s intervention in the terrorist attack and Steppenwolf attacking Themiscyra prove Snyder’s chops for this sort of thing are almost unequalled in current film, striking momentously heroic notes Wonder Woman laboured for two hours to sound properly. The second sequence is a particularly giddy and momentous interlude, as the cosmic monstrosity beams into an Amazonian temple stronghold to retrieve the mother box, complete with hammer-swinging muscular giantesses bringing down the roof and a desperate relay race trying to keep the box out of the villain’s hands, culminating in a colossal Amazon cavalry charge. It’s a pity the whole film can’t sustain such elephantine, madcap absurdity.
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Much as he threatened to do often on 300 (2006), Snyder shifts into full-bore Peter Jackson-does-Tolkien territory for a flashback to the ancient war to defeat Steppenwolf, a gloriously weird spectacle of Amazons, Atlanteans, deities, and even a Green Lantern getting stuck into a colossal brawl. I got the feeling this scene, interpolated halfway through the film, was initially intended as an epic prologue like the Krypton scenes in Man of Steel. Instead it’s reduced to mind-numbingly expensive exposition. The epic film originally intended has been chopped up and interspersed with another one, Whedon’s more traditional matinee romp draped over the mythopoeic design. This is not necessarily a terrible thing, although I would’ve preferred to watch Snyder’s original concept. The relative ease with which the film incorporates the Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman, on the other hand, raises the question as to whether all those long, involved stand-alone introductions were necessary, as we go down the Seven Samurai (1954) route of meeting new heroes with individual talents and angsts noted in quick thumbnails of biography and characterisation. Flourishes of Whedon’s trademark stammering yet wordy humour, most of it wielded by gawky and entertaining Miller, actually work in the same way as those sprouting flowers, little squiggles of colour decorating a moody landscape. And yet it also leaves the film creaking in uneasy switchbacks of dramatic style and affect.
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Snyder is anything but a subtle filmmaker, but he has two qualities that constantly arrest me. First, and most self-evidently, he’s a director who is properly and entirely visual. His images maintain connection with a bygone age in cinema, the time of Fritz Lang, Michael Curtiz, Cecil B. DeMille, F.W. Murnau, and other masters of film seen as an atavistic art of unchained spectacle. In an age in which cinema too often feels squeezed, cropped, and otherwise denuded by eyes too used to other platforms, he wants his pictures to sweep up the viewer like a physical force. Even in some throwaway sequences in Justice League, like a moment when Aquaman strides out onto a groin to let storm waves crash upon him, Snyder offers pictures of acromegaliac beauty. Snyder wants the audience to see every particle of water and feel its gush and enjoy the noble boner provoked by such manly spectacle. Secondly, he’s developed a surprisingly rigorous chain of motifs in his work. Even 300, the digitally-rendered peplum that made Snyder a Hollywood heavy-hitter and became a dudebro keepsake, was a work compelled by the disparity between the roots of heroic myth and the act of transmitting it, retelling the legend of Thermopylae in a manner its participants would have understood, a duel of propaganda in outsized nobility and debased and deformed opposition. Watchmen set the infrastructure of the comic book universe at war with itself. Sucker Punch portrayed the ecstatic release of fantasising colliding hard with bleak realities. Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice mediated his critical impulses amidst the borrowed finery of a commonly beloved cosmology.
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I keep wondering what film scholars might make of the popularity of superhero tales in the second decade of the 21st century in a few decades’ time. So resolute is the mode’s grip on the current box office that it will certainly seem a prognosticative aspect of the age, like the popularity of westerns and religious epics in the 1950s or spy films in the 1960s. It’s certainly not that hard to discern the reasons for their popularity. The genre – I feel it’s safe to call it a genre now – places specific individuals at the centre of modern special effects techniques, and on the dramatic level they work the same way, enacting and complicating basic fantasies of empowerment. It seems the basic matter of whether or not these individual films in this style work revolves around the degree to which they satisfy the schism between the desire to render them dramatically coherent and serious enough to sustain their own weight, and acknowledge their ridiculousness. The Marvel brand has maintained an unbroken run of success through easily and confidently varying a basic formula: a few laughs, a few thrills, a few feels. It’s both reliable and the exact opposite of any kind of creative risk, even the sort exhibited within the imposed limitations of genre and blockbuster intent. Even the superior examples of their approach, like Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Thor: Ragnarok (2017), only merely exemplify rather than enlarge their formula. Attempts to paint the superhero craze as some adjunct of a neo-fascist spirit have an accurate facet but also tend to get belaboured, in large part because they also fail to read their essential subject as being the ambivalent relationship between the individual and the community.
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I seem to prefer this branch of the superhero craze in part because of this sort of thing, as it exists in the same context as any other genre, one where bad things happen that mostly can’t be undone and the distanced metaphors mean something. If superhero movies are the westerns of today, call these the John Ford and Anthony Mann westerns to counterbalance Marvel’s pleasant servicing of The Lone Ranger crowd. I know that’s a blasphemous way of framing this phenomenon for many, perhaps even to me, and yet I can’t get away from it. For instance, most takes on Superman neglected his alien state before these films; Snyder put this aspect, and the question as to whether he can effectively defend a species who physical nature he does not share, at the centre of his take, a question that proved maniacally offensive to Bruce Wayne in Dawn of Justice, who proposed that only a weaker, mortal creature can be truly brave. Snyder and Terrio blurred the lines between Bruce and Lex Luthor’s motivations to a fascinating degree, suggesting the difference between their ultimate selves was one of personal struggle, one who emerged as Batman and another as supervillain. Bruce is back on an even keel in Justice League, purpose renewed by a sense of mission and also guttering guilt over his near-murder of his better self. He gets into a brief contretemps with Diana as he prods her over her prioritising her personal grief over her natural status as warrior leader, earning himself a wallop in the chest over mentioning Steve Trevor’s name in such a fashion. Similarly, the film’s glances over the shoulder at the travails of Lois and Martha keep the film rooted in the mood of bruised humanity that’s linked the entries in this cycle.
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Victor’s struggle with his new, unpredictable, unnervingly self-willed cybernetic enhancements offers another stage for the running psychic struggle of man and superman. Victor’s lot as something not too far from the antihero of some body horror movie, glimpsed hiding in the shadows of his father’s apartment in a faintly menacing and baleful fashion that recalls Jeff Goldblum in David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), dealing with his rebelling body’s whims in randomly releasing dangerous energy blasts. Victor’s mainline into the technological marrow of the world swiftly proves indispensable, as he gains greater control over his “body” and joins his natural gifts for analysis to his augmented senses. Barry, on the other hand, in spite of his troubled past, provides uncomplicated dash and eccentric, boyish vigour to the enterprise. Aquaman arrives as perhaps the least well-developed of the characters in spite of possessing legendary backstory and having the oceans at his command. The film offers such brief visions of his underwater kingdom and fellow merpeople they scarcely register, and whilst the approach to Aquaman as a hairy, macho outsider, a bit of rough trade covered in tattoos, intends all too obviously to rescue the character from his previous status in the eyes many as a fey embarrassment in this realm, but instead too often symbolises the film’s awkward pandering in his swaggering faux-cool, such as his already immortally stilted exclamations of “My man” and “Booyah.”
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The film is also duty-bound to resurrect Superman, the figure whose presence haunts all the others, and this franchise in general. Superman’s fall and rise is one of those essential motifs, enacted in three of Christopher Reeve’s movies, and now taken to an extreme here, capping a trilogy that’s never been shy about evoking Superman’s status as messiah figure. Snyder’s visions of Clark in his cornfields retain a dusky romanticism as sentimental as anything Richard Donner purveyed in his classic film. Bruce concocts a method of resurrecting the singular hero by utilising the technology in the crashed Kryptonian spaceship still lying in downtown Metropolis and the power of the one mother box still in their hands. Successfully revived, Superman proves confused and aggressive, tossing his would-be helpmates around like skittles and threatening to crush Bruce between his bare hands. Bruce only forestalls his own messy demise by bringing out “the big gun,” which proves to be Lois; she successfully pacifies Clark and spirits him away to regain his bearings. Left with no choice but to venture into battle with Steppenwolf in his stronghold, the rest of the nascent league track the fiend to his base in an disused power plant somewhere in a former Soviet state, where he sets about uniting the talismanic boxes and unleashing its world-fashioning powers.
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Whedon’s imprint on this material is apparent not just in the humour style and the quick fillips of characterisation, but also, more vexingly, in the resolute lack of cleverness in the storyline. We get elements of both his Avengers movies recycled wholesale, including a villain who beams in unexpectedly through a wormhole, and this kind of setting for the finale. Steppenwolf is a regulation comic book baddie, a big, weird, nasty alien with a demonic look whose motivations are never delved into beyond the obvious “he wants to destroy our world and build his own” sort of thing, who gets what he wants and then stands around waiting before doing what he intends just long enough for the heroes to turn up and stop him. Again, it’s not such a big crime to simply offer sufficient antagonism to spur the heroes, but it cuts against the grain of what this imprimatur has been striving to achieve. The only real topic The Avengers tackled was the proposition that a bunch of immensely talented screw-ups could unify and prove themselves an effective team, a theme with a certain level of self-reflexive import insofar as it clearly reflected the life of a Hollywood player like Whedon himself. And the essential theme of Justice League is…well, whether a bunch of immensely talented screw-ups can unify and prove themselves an effective team. Hell, DC already did that with Suicide Squad.
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It’s this aspect of Justice League that left me frustrated even as I enjoyed the Irish stew it finally served up. Until now the Warner-DC cycle had tried, in however lumpy a fashion, to engage on committed dramatic level and translate comic book fare into a legitimate wing of cyberpunk-hued sci-fi. Justice League’s ultimate answer to the popular pressure upon the series delivers a fair crowd-pleaser but also jettisons the greater part of what made it interesting and distinctive. It pays off, but not with the heft Snyder’s labours to date deserved. There’s also been a noticeable shrinking of the horizons of this series since the truly epic opening scenes of Man of Steel, a film that was majestic on an audio-visual level. Now most of the fights seem to take place in sewers and industrial abodes, the finale drenched in ugly CGI patinas that look like the backdrops of computer games. The amazing thing about Justice League is that it doesn’t just hold together but somehow, in spite of everything compromised and cynical about it, it still manages to count for me as a kind of success, if only because it remains doggedly entertaining. Justice League certainly appeals to that perpetual six-year-old in the back of the mind who just thinks it’s rad to see Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman kicking ass together. And those other guys too, why not.
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There’s at least one great joke at the expense of these superfriends, as Barry wheezes a proud gasp for breath after pushing a family out of the danger zone only to see Superman swing by with an entire apartment block on his shoulders. The glue that holds the enterprise together tend to be elements already been well-proven – Cavill’s disarmingly warm grin that lends supple charisma to his igneous frame, Gadot’s statuesque glamour charged with plucky, soulful intelligence. Affleck, who I found a surprisingly effective Caped Crusader in his first outing, seemed less sure to me here, however, particularly as he seems to have walked through some of the mandated reshoots: at least one of his line readings made me want someone to give him an adrenalin dose. Jeremy Irons (as Alfred) and J.K. Simmons (as Commissioner Gordon) were in there too, bewilderingly but gratifyingly. It also helps that Danny Elfman’s scoring is at least willing to service my kind of fan and toss in occasional flourishes of his old Batman (1989) theme and even a faint pastiche of John Williams’ mighty Superman fanfare, deployed at just the right moment, when the finale finally delivers the kind of righteous bash-up this entire cycle has been moving towards. I expect the film was always intended to be this kind of capstone to the cycle, and to get there, even in such an awkwardly framed result, still has a charge of fulfilment. And whilst I can’t say it knocked my socks off, I can’t say it was a few dollars badly spent, either. Perhaps, yet again, what this was supposed to be will eventually be seen on a smaller screen.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Scifi

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

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Director / Screenwriter: Joss Whedon

By Roderick Heath

They’re back – Marvel’s all-star line-up, marshalled by nerd overlord Joss Whedon. It’s been a long three years since the last episode came out, and Marvel’s endless diversification of its fictional universe had, for me at least, begun to take rub of the shine from the brand even as it’s confirmed again and again its box office potency. The Avengers (Avengers Assemble in the UK, to pacify fans of John Steed and Emma Peel), uneven as it was, was a difficult act to follow, surpassing Kenneth Branagh’s grandiose Thor (2011) as the best Marvel movie in ebulliently bringing together a cast of epic-scaled characters and delighting in watching (and listening to) them cut loose. The standalone adventures since then, Iron Man Three, Thor: The Dark World (both 2013), Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the tangentially related Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), whilst all entertaining to various degrees, inflated their production elements for spectacle but grazed one of the major problems with bigger-is-better storytelling: they felt smaller. That, plus the fact that The Avengers, via Whedon’s pithy, zippy writing style, proved these characters, once introduced with origins explored, actually work best when pitched against other characters like them, forcing them again to jostle for the pre-eminence and respect lesser folk automatically cede to them, and treating the audience to super-friends camaraderie.

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In spite of his stature as a major professional fabulist, Whedon is not a particularly original or deep inventor when it comes to the tropes of fantastic fiction. His specific gift rather has been an understanding that the fantasy in that fiction works best when inseparable from the dramatic and emotional impact it has on characters, and through them the audience. The great passage in his TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer depicting the transformation of nice-girl witch Willow into a psychotic killer and sorcerer after the murder of her lover, or the “Gifted” storyline he wrote for the X-Men comics, that inspired X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), illustrate that understanding well. The Winter Soldier, which I admit to underrating last year, left the franchise in interesting disarray, with SHIELD broken and Hydra, the evil organisation of fascist futurists founded by Captain America’s old Nazi antagonist Red Skull, stripped of its cover.

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Age of Ultron commences with the Avengers having stepped into the gap left by SHIELD’s demise, tracking down Hydra’s secret basis and destroying them. Whedon’s greatest coup in his first entry was a single “shot” that moved from Avenger to Avenger along the course of downtown New York, locating each one in the midst of a tussle that fulfilled both Whedon’s delight in connected cinema space that underlined the dramatic democracy of his sensibility, and brought the fluency of comic book illustration onto the screen. Here he offers the same stunt very early on as the Avengers fall upon a castle somewhere in the Mittel Europa enclave of Sokovia, the Avengers charging out of the snowy woods and raining thunder and wrath upon their enemies, in a more focused zone of action where the battle is like a colossal game of tag: Whedon resolves on a slow-motion sprawl with his cast flying en masse across the screen. The once-individualist warriors are now a weathered team: Steve ‘Captain America’ Rogers (Chris Evans) leading Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark (Robert Downey Jnr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce ‘Hulk’ Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha ‘Black Widow’ Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton (Jeremy Renner). Former SHIELD agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulers), now officially working for Tony, provides support, and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) lurks in the wilderness, ready to help with the odd deus ex machina.

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This Hydra base, administrated by improbably monocle-clad Baron Von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), holds secrets beyond the Avengers’ ken, including the fruits of a mysterious experiment in artificial intelligence, the sceptre of unbelievable power brought to Earth by Loki in the previous instalment and filched from the SHIELD vaults, and two siblings, Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his sister Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen). They are, of course, mutants (or “enhanced” as Whedon calls them, to avoid stepping on turf currently locked down by Fox): Pietro, better known as Quicksilver, provided the best scene in last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, albeit with a different actor in the part. Pietro and Wanda in Whedon’s take are a pair of orphaned Russians with a gripe against Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) because some of his weaponry killed their parents. Now their talents have been honed to a dangerous edge by Hydra. Pietro attacks the Avengers and leaves Hawkeye injured, whilst Wanda unleashes her psychic power to give Tony a vision of what he fears is the future, where all his pals are dead and the Earth decimated. Disturbed by this vision, Tony, retrieving Hydra’s experiments, resolves to use the recovered tech to complete one of his brainwaves: Ultron, an AI system more advanced than Jarvis (Paul Bettany), Tony’s digital manservant, to control a system of weapons to defend against alien attacks and allow the Avengers to stand down.

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Tony convinces Bruce to help get the system working with the sceptre as power source. Whilst their experiments seem at first to fail, Ultron (voiced by James Spader, whose mordant purr remains immensely entertaining) awakens whilst the Avengers are partying, and, swiftly parsing his mission as programmed by Tony. Quicker than you can say “Colossus: The Forbin Project”, Ultron almost immediately decides in light of Tony’s desire for “peace”, the only way to achieve it is to annihilate human kind in general. Ultron seems to attack and virtually “kill” Jarvis, takes over Tony’s robotic support team and builds himself a crude body. Although that form is quickly destroyed in the melee that follows, Ultron escapes via the internet to rebuild himself more impressively elsewhere. Ultron invites Pietro and Wanda to help him under the guise of payback against Tony and the Avengers, and begins building a doomsday device utilising Vibranium, the same rare element that Cap’s shield is made from. Ultron also hopes to construct himself a perfect form combining human and metallic elements and powered by the core of the sceptre. To do this he takes control of Dr. Helen Cho (Claudia Kim), a medical tech wizard who has built a machine that fashions flesh, already demonstrated in repairing Hawkeye’s injury. The Avengers track down black market arms dealer Ulysses Klaw (Andy Serkis), who’s stockpiled Vibranium, to prevent Ultron getting his hands on the metal, but the team is split and driven into frantic disarray by Wanda’s psychic powers, each member sent spiralling down the rabbit hole of their own inner turmoil – most disastrously, Bruce’s alter ego the Hulk goes rampaging through a city, demanding Tony stop him with his latest, Hulk-sized Iron Man suit.

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Already this synopsis should make plain how busy Age of Ultron will get. That busyness may well disorientate and even infuriate a lot of viewers, particularly those not terribly well-versed in this fictional universe or who missed a couple of instalments out of the previous ten movies in Marvel’s unfolding project. Whedon assumes, perhaps fairly by this point, that all of these faces are familiar and so can simply be let out the starting gate at full gallop. Despite being nearly two-and-a-half hours long, a lot of that run-time is spent in breathless motion. Whedon’s versing in the density of the Marvel universe as it’s developed over the past 60 years on the page is plain, and Age of Ultron revels in that richness with authentic passion: this is, for better or worse, is one of the most authentically comic book-esque of comic book movies. The storytelling style achieves the perfervid power of grand pulp fiction, harking back to days of print when villains and heroes chase each-other from page to page with scarcely a concern for anything but the next consequence of their mutual efforts in endlessly metastasising circumstances.

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This does mean however that Whedon’s conceptual interests are flattened nearly into irrelevance. He imbues Ultron with Frankensteinian anger at his flawed creator, and makes Ultron himself into something of a cracked mirror of Tony himself, assimilating his flip speech patterns and plaintive neediness for companionship under the guise of gruff egotism. He accidentally cuts off Klaw’s arm in a tantrum when Klaw notes the similarities. Like just about everything else in the film, this fount of a theme is tightly wound into a narrative that can’t do much more than state an idea, rather than explore it. But Whedon does manage to imbue even a relatively second-string villain like Ultron with a distinctiveness that makes him interesting when he’s around, unlike the flat and dutiful villainy provided by several recent Marvel antagonists.

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The Maximoffs are one of the big new items on this ticket, with Wanda about to evolve into Scarlet Witch, one of the key Avengers and also one of the most fractious. It’s an old adage about genre fiction, and action cinema above all, that character should be revealed in action, and the intensely mutually reliant nature of the Maximoffs defines them repeatedly throughout the film without requiring much dialogue to underline – and also provides a tragic jolt late in the film. Taylor-Johnson and Olsen, who played husband and wife in the tepid Godzilla (2014), have more chance here to show off their charisma even in more limited roles. Olsen is particularly good, plummy Slavic accent and all, in handling the switchbacks of her character, bringing something new to this panoply of heroes, insofar as she suggests a vengeful, dead-eyed confidence in her powers and the lurking spur of neurotic pain (and indeed, given the character’s instability in the comic books, menacingly so). Wanda and Pietro change sides in the conflict according to an essential, bitterly imposed awareness of the brutality in the world and their own motivation to counter it.

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Ultron’s insistence on giving himself a human-like form means giving up the pure sanctity and detachment of a merely digital existence, and allows Wanda to see into his mind, which proves not a pretty place to be. The Avengers swing into battle with Ultron for control of this new, potentially unstoppable cybernetic organism he’s prepared as a shell, and once the body is captured, Tony has the brainwave of installing Jarvis, found tattered but still extant in a pocket of cyberspace, into the body to keep Ultron out and potentially give the team extraordinarily strong new ally. When Wanda, who can see deeply enough into Tony’s mind to know exactly how he thinks, warns Cap and some of the other Avengers what he wants to do, they dash back to stop him, but Thor casts the deciding vote rather literally by powering the new being up with lightning. The being that emerges, Vision (Bettany again, finally gracing the franchise with his physical presence), proves neither human nor machine and can’t even assure the Avengers that he’s not a threat, but instead proves a new and independent life form, who declares himself on the side of life and thus against whoever’s threatening it.

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Whedon tries to make his storyline as organically specific to this universe as possible. But regardless of whether Ultron uses Vibranium in his doomsday machine or not, it’s still a doomsday machine, and the actual plot is, again like Whedon’s first instalment, quite simple in spite of the multiplicity of moving parts. Whedon does cleverly suggest that Ultron’s unresolved filial issues drive his desire to reproduce a human form rather than simply disseminate himself into the fabric of the electronic universe: he strives to reproduce and then evolve the human form into something new, but confirms his divided psyche. Like Michael Mann’s Blackhat earlier this year, Whedon tries to depict the digital world as a microcosmic zone of cause and effect, a new frontier of existence. An important subplot here sees Thor, disturbed by the implications of the vision Wanda stirs in him, daring to enter a mystical pool to commune with “water spirits” (cue compulsory Hemsworth shirtless scene), and emerges with the knowledge that the sceptre, the Tasseract, and the Aether, are all kin to the Infinity Stone in Guardians of the Galaxy, part of a fabled set of powerful objects that can be combined to imbue godlike power. And, what’s more, someone has been manipulating all of the events that have beset the Avengers recently, probably even having deliberately placed the double-edge blade that is Ultron where it would best tempt Tony, for precisely the purpose of making them do the work of rounding up the Infinity Stones. That manipulator is revealed in the now-traditional end credits teaser, and their identity is not actually surprising if you’ve been paying attention, but this element does suggest a degree of planning that’s formed a hidden substructure to the Marvel movies in spite of their occasionally wayward surfaces.

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Inevitably, with so much lore and action to wade through, Age of Ultron can’t spare much time for more than cursory interaction between some of his Avengers: Whedon assumes Tony, Thor, and Cap, all of whom benefit from their own standalone movies, have been dealt with enough, and they mostly fill out the margins – but given those guys form the core of the fan following, that will probably leave more than a few feeling gypped. Downey Jr.’s art with a smart-aleck quip and Hemsworth’s ever-growing poise and ability to self-satirise in particular give the movie a sturdy support it doesn’t treat too well. Whedon instead concentrates on two character elements to give Age of Ultron a heart amidst the furore. He makes Hawkeye, the least well-served Avenger in the first instalment, the focus for the emotional journey of the episode just as Natasha was for the first. Chastened, bedraggled, and possibly outlawed after their first battle with Ultron and the Maximoffs has resulted in the Hulk decimating a city, the Avengers let Hawkeye take them to a safe house, which proves to be his own, a small farmhouse where Hawkeye has a wife, Laura (Linda Cardellini, always a welcome presence) and two children, with another baby on the way. This unexpected interlude of top-secret domestic bliss leaves the other Avengers toey in the face of their least “remarkable” member’s suddenly revealed settlement and success in keeping his work and life separate, and they move uneasily between rooms in this space, too large for it and too small for their own gifts.

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Hawkeye’s specific gift as an Avenger, in contrast to the overwhelming force of the others, is one of precision, a gentleness of touch that eludes the galumphers around him. Whedon gives Hawkeye a crucial scene late in the film as he appeals to the momentarily overwhelmed Wanda to either stand clear of trouble or engage it wholeheartedly as a warrior. This vignette is a little wonder, referring to crucial backstory – Hawkeye also brought Black Widow over from the darkside – and also illuminating the present, suddenly making Hawkeye perhaps the most vital Avenger as well as the most human, and giving the film the kind of surprising emotional kick that is Whedon’s forte. Meanwhile romance is blossoming between a most unlikely couple, as Natasha is smitten with Bruce: in The Avengers Natasha had an intensely phobic reaction to the terrible spectacle of the Hulk, one that only seemed to infuriate the id-beast all the more. Now she has become the Hulk’s calming salve, able to draw the green guy out of his rages with nothing more than offering her hand, leading to the gently erotic sight of small woman’s palm in giant green mitt. But Bruce, whilst plainly equally taken, denies the attraction at first, and feels too conscious of his potential destructiveness to let the romance run its course.

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Johansson, who ironically after several years floundering in stardom finally defined her screen persona playing Natasha, gets to work new levels to the character in love. Ruffalo, long a charm machine, is wonderful portraying Bruce’s befuddled delight. Whedon’s problematic but amiable film of Much Ado About Nothing (2013) was a long study in the dynamics of intimate staging for a roundelay of character expressed through quick-fire humour and effervescent emotion. Here that model is reproduced as haiku: Whedon even uses Hawkeye’s house as multilevelled stage in the same manner as he used his own house in that predecessor. I noted in my commentary on the first film that it represented a revival of an old Hollywood tradition, the all-star extravaganza, a genre that is distinct from the more prosaic style of the ensemble drama.

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Whedon was rightly praised for modelling the original like a Howard Hawks ensemble flick, like Rio Bravo (1959), watching fractious personalities bump against each-other in a pressure cooker situation and enjoy the process of watching them knit together. Whedon had a chance to make his El Dorado (1966) here, the semi-remake that’s possibly even better. The long, casually comic party sequence that follows the raucous opening does provide an islet of Hawksian interaction between the many different players, laced with appearances by supporting characters from the various sub-branches – James ‘War Machine’ Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Sam ‘Falcon’ Wilson (Anthony Mackie) – and vignettes, from Thor treating some old veterans to some of his potent Asgardian booze, to the various Avengers trying and failing to lift his hammer – except for Cap, who manages to move it ever so slightly, bringing a momentarily worried look to Thor’s face (this also sets up a joke that pays off later on).

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But the simultaneous blend of firm genre structure with free-flowing behavioural study that was Hawks’ forte eludes Whedon here, who’s been forced to contend with a teetering superstructure of franchise business. Wanda’s mind-games with the team destabilises them and allows Whedon to offer some trippy sequences that expose the hang-ups of the characters, based so often in the same experiences that have given them their superlative talents, a notion that particularly intrigues Whedon for reasons already noted. Age of Ultron tries here to annex the same territory so well-handled by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), where the hero was confronted by his own internal chaos, confirming how little distance there was between his heroic side and dark one, but then emerging as purified righteous ass-kicker. In this regard, Whedon fails, rather badly. He can’t linger on the psychological trauma of his individual heroes long enough to make it seem more than another piece of plot hocus-pocus, nor can he leaven even the faintest feeling of anxiety that the team won’t reform and resurge. Age of Ultron is so jam-packed, so overflowing at the margins with throwaway details that it starts to resemble the pages of Mad Magazine, with tiny illustrative flourishes dotted between panels often providing the bulk of fun. Such a stuffed narrative would defeat many filmmakers. And frankly I think it’s defeated Whedon too.

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Whedon’s sense of throwaway humour in marginalia makes this work for the most part however; the audience I saw the film with had most of its audible fun with such tossed-off touches, like Thor explaining his hammer-swinging technique to Vision, or Natasha shouting “Sorry!” as she pummels through a crowd on a motorcycle. One of my own favourite moments sees Ultron flying a jet whilst singing a ditty that signals just how cuckoo, and how human, he is. There’s a strong dash of the old James Bond spirit to this instalment, littered with rapid shifts between exotic locales to wreak havoc and look good doing it. The ship graveyard of Chittagong, Bangladesh provides the backdrop for an early battle (albeit supposedly in Africa), a location Whedon disappointingly doesn’t make much of, instead shifting focus for the battle between Iron Man and Hulk in a Michael Bay-esque wreck-the-city sequence – a well-staged, spectacular interlude that nonetheless represents screen time that could have been better spent on something else.

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The very end credits scan a grand Grecian-style monument depicting the Avengers in the midst of battle, well aware these are our neo-Olympians. There’s an odd and effective little moment that suggests again the breadth of cultural reference Whedon can make, as he offers a glimpse of Wanda retreating in a scuttling, stop-motion manner like a J-horror ghoul. Sadly, that kind of effective lo-fi trick can’t live long in a film with so many digital effects artists on the case. Whedon’s visual sensibility is also still often surprisingly cramped, staging a major action sequence in a confined metallic chamber that looks like a set left over from City of Lost Children (1995), and offering up a climactic final image of a whole city floating above the Earth, and yet barely registering the surreal intensity of the moment: it’s just more cool stuff happening. Whedon’s visual syntax doesn’t break down, and yet the finale is such a whirlwind of events that his efforts to give every hero their clear ground for individual heroism, something Whedon did extremely well in his first instalment, here become more than a little ineffectual, offering, for instance, just a few blink-and-miss shots of Fury and Hill gunning down baddie robots. There is one grand moment when the heroes form together in Zukovia’s central church to protect the controls for the doomsday device and face a storm of steel and violence, a moment that evokes the most beautiful cover-wrapping comic book illustrations. But such moments of visual power are scarce.

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One reason I liked Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) more than many was precisely because Snyder was alive to the visual impact of such ideas, achieving an almost DeMille-like grandeur and beauty in his city-levelling battles and doomsday machines, and also wrestled with the notion of god-like entities battling as something perhaps frighteningly inimical to the rest of us. Whedon probably won’t be keelhauled for doing exactly the same thing like that film was because he’s got credit Snyder doesn’t have. In the lengthy, gigantic, overstretched finale, he bends over backwards to depict the Avengers trying to save the civilian populace of Sokovia as Ultron turns their city into a gigantic battering ram. Apart from Scarlet Witch’s rousing entry into battle after Hawkeye’s pep-talk, however, Whedon never builds the same elating thrill as his first entry in studying all of his heroes defining themselves through battle, simply because he seems to feel unable to pause long enough to do so, nor the same impact in the face of self-sacrifice. The script promises that the battle will certainly prove deadly for at least some of the Avengers, and one significant character does die, albeit one carefully cross-indexed for relative value.

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But if Whedon was hoping that his second instalment would annex the mythic gravitas of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), all I can say is he doesn’t make it. There is another problem the superhero genre faces and Marvel might soon find the ride becoming considerably bumpier soon because of it: the moment when it starts to become a feedback loop that refers to scarcely anything outside itself, a phase that will hold the long-haul fans but eventually detach the casual aficionados. A large part of the impact of the first Iron Man in 2008 came from its deliberate, naïve but effective tapping of the fantasy of many of finding an impervious shield to the cruelty of the times, worked via a very basic story and easy-going sense of humour. The Winter Soldier brought that to up to date as it depicted the modern American sense of self in vivid conflict: Marvel has traced the history of the War on Terror incidentally. The trouble with Age of Ultron is that it can barely refer outside itself, unless it’s to anxiety over the AI future, which ain’t a new anxiety. Now the brand is brushing the edges of a cosmology, and still uninterested in sacrificing broad entertainment to acknowledge the genuinely deeper streams of its mythos.

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Even Whedon proves caged by this: to put it bluntly, Age of Ultron, like the much-abused superhero films Spider-Man 3 (2007) and Iron Man 2 (2010), is haplessly overstuffed, and like the latter, is forced to bear the burden of expanding this fictional world, which seems a bit ridiculous at this point, eleven films into a series. And yet it coheres more than those likenesses, if only because Whedon is talented enough to do big things with the smallest flourish. My criticisms of Age of Ultron might sound a bit more impassioned than they’re really intended to be: Whedon’s made another enjoyable movie here, fashioned with verve and working the rollercoaster intensity that the modern blockbuster movie aspires to. Many of them these days can’t really manage it: such intensity demands a movie offer the capacity to make the audience feel the ride as well as gawk in bemused amazement. Age of Ultron will undoubtedly frustrate many with its sheer too-muchness, and will riotously entertain as many or more, because it retains honour in that too-muchness. Avengers: Age of Ultron is as determined to entertain to the limit as an old vaudeville act. For the sake of the show it tap-dances whilst juggling, singing, and balancing a chair on its nose. I would have settled for just the tap-dance done well.

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