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Black Widow (2021)

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Director: Cate Shortland
Screenwriter: Eric Pearson

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

It’s odd at this point that a Disney-Marvel superhero blockbuster could seem like an underdog, but Black Widow feels like one. The so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe series’ domination of pop movie culture grew wearisome for many well before the clumsy and disappointing but historically successful Avengers: Endgame (2019), and the enforced cessation of it during the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to drain the steam from the juggernaut. Black Widow, the chief victim of the hiatus in being pushed back a year, has then become an ideal target for a takedown. Making a solo outing for Scarlett Johansson’s lithe engine of destruction is fraught with ambiguities. Marvel was long weak at the knees when it came to female superheroes fronting their own movies, having previously only dared it with Captain Marvel (2018), a film with an utter nonentity for a protagonist, and might as well have simply been delivered as the succession of internet memes it so patently wanted to spawn. Natasha ‘Black Widow’ Romanoff was by contrast the most genuinely interesting of the classic line-up of heroes in the film franchise, a warrior whose gifts were more those of enormous precision and skill rather than force and magic powers, with an enigmatic background involving lodes of trauma and guilt, allowing her to seem more than just another Smurfette in a crowd of fast and bulbous pals. The character, introduced impressively in the otherwise awful Iron Man 2 (2010), was presented as a professional femme fatale, enticing with a passively sexy veneer only to reveal by degrees the hard-as-nails and omnicompetent combatant beneath.

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After numerous stand-out roles as a child actor, Johansson hit stardom with her performance in Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation (2003), where she surprised everyone with her display of intelligence and soulful maturity despite still being a teenager, successfully playing a character older than she actually was. Perhaps not since Lauren Bacall had a female star come along who seemed to worldly wise beyond her years, and that aura certainly informed her casting as Natasha, a woman who’s lived ages before her 30th birthday. But Johansson struggled to make good on her promise with lacklustre performances in films like Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia (2004), and she skidded around in the next few years, mostly in middlebrow award-bait movies. It wasn’t until she played Black Widow and embraced a more populist appeal that her screen persona finally resolved, playing deftly off her clammily hailed sex appeal but also giving the perfect vehicle for her to assume a cagey kind of sovereignty, creating an image she parleyed into vehicles as different yet commonly rooted in her persona as Under The Skin (2014) and Ghost In The Shell (2017). Meanwhile Natasha provided a great foil for her co-stars in the Marvel films, particularly Chris Evans’ Captain America in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) where the two shared what Natasha wryly noted was his first kiss since 1945.

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Cate Shortland’s Black Widow faces a special challenge, in being both a star vehicle reliant on Johansson in the role – she’s billed as one of the executive producers – and also a salutary farewell to her and a potential set-up to posit her replacement. The character was killed off in Avengers: Endgame, sacrificing herself to obtain one of the super-MacGuffin Infinity Stones to save half the universe. On paper it was a gutsy, nobly selfless end for a character driven by a stinging awareness of her moral compromise, in practice an odd and clumsy outro for a figure who never quite got her due and then suffered from being identified as the expendable one not required for the big punch-up finale where she was ridiculously supplanted by an array of suddenly inducted female superheroes. Black Widow is set in the series continuity between Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018), avoiding revising Natasha’s death, a weirdly deflating move, but also one the film turns to its own advantage in exploring its own fin-de-siecle mood, trying to give her fate some new meaning. The film begins in suburban Ohio in 1990, depicting young Natasha (Ever Anderson) and her sister Yelena (Violet McGraw) playing and strolling with their mother Melina (Rachel Weisz). Later they settle down for dinner as their father Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) gets home, only for him to announce that the great adventure he once promised to take them on is now imminent.

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Turns out the family isn’t really a family, but a carefully planted group of sleeper agents sent to steal information by General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), a power-mad hold-out from the Communist era still running covert operations. Alexei is the closest thing the Soviet Union ever created to Captain America, a supersoldier codenamed Red Guardian, and he’s seen casually managing feats of strength and agility, including clinging onto the wing of the aircraft they use to flee to Cuba after dodging American agents. Natasha has to fly the plane after Melina is clipped by a bullet. Once they arrive in Cuba, where they’re met by Dreykov, the family is immediately disbanded, Melina spirited away for surgery, whilst Natasha snatches a pistol to ward off threatening soldiers from harming Yelena. But in imagery interpolated during the subsequent opening credits, Natasha and Yelena are glimpsed with a number of other frightened girls being shipped back Russia in a cargo container, deliberately reminiscent of human trafficking. We, or at least anyone familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, know what happens to Natasha at least, as she’s put through the ruthless training program for female assassins Dreykov runs called the Black Widows. The program is run out of a secret abode called the Red Room, the mere name of which sends a shiver up the spine of anyone who knows of it, but none of the Black Widows actually know where it is because of the elaborate security protocols.

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Cut to twenty-odd years later, as Natasha is being hunted by former General, now Secretary Ross (William Hurt), the asshole-in-chief overseeing the implementation of the Sukovia Accords designed to put a check on superhero activity. Natasha easily keeps a step ahead of Ross, relying on her fixer pal Mason (O-T Fagbenle) to provide her with equipment and safe houses. He leaves her in a caravan in rural Norway along with a bundle of her belongings transferred from a safe house she used to keep in Budapest. What Natasha doesn’t know yet is that the now-grown Yelena (Florence Pugh), also a Black Widow, has secreted something very important and very dangerous amongst her belongings. Yelena belongs to the subsequent generation of Widows who, after Natasha successfully defected, were subjected to chemical brainwashing that left them all completely unable to resist any orders from Dreykov. On a mission in Morocco to track down a renegade former comrade, Yelena caught a face full of a red gas that suddenly freed her will just as she fatally stabbed her quarry: an older Widow created an antidote to the enslaving treatment. Yelena is obliged with her new-found freedom to keep it out of Dreykov’s hands, turning to Natasha who had no idea Yelena was still a Widow and thought Dreykov was dead, because she and Clint Barton blew up Dreykov’s apartment in Budapest along with his young daughter.

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On a plot level Black Widow is nothing special, a little bit Bourne, a little bit Bond (Shortland includes a scene of Natasha watching Moonraker, 1979, on TV, signalling which particular Bond template the film will soon follow), a little bit Boris and Natasha from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. It stakes out similar territory to Andrew Dominik’s Red Sparrow (2017), which dealt with the harsh training of Russian female agents and might as well stand in for the mostly off-stage experiences of Natasha, Yelena, and the other Widows, and David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde (2017). Both of those, whilst not particularly good in their own right, went to places Black Widow might have gone and maybe should have in dealing more overtly with the guilty fantasy figure of the ass-kicking, hard-loving female spy, but Black Widow tries to stay wedged in the confluence of family adventure flick and dark-and-gritty genre film. Hard action aficionados and those who love the Marvel movies for their flashy special effects and generally bouncy tone will likely find it a frustrating watch because the nominal storyline is often placed aside for long tracts engaging in interaction and hard reckoning. Deep down it’s a character drama wrapped in the glitz and glamour of a tent-pole epic, studying the obverse of the usual driving power fantasies of superhero movies, in depicting people who are despite their abilities all human wreckage, stymied by circumstance and conspiracy, trying desperately to hang on to what few fragments of grace and worth they have left.

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Shortland, who emerged with the excellent debut feature Somersault (2004) and eventually followed it up with Lore (2014) and Berlin Syndrome (2017), has been until now associated with quietly intense art house dramas that double as dark fairytales, with a fascination for young and naïve female adventurers abroad, often thrown into situations with complex and duplicitous men who may or may not mean them harm. What’s surprising is the degree to which Black Widow feels of a unit with her earlier work, down to retaining a toned-down version of her trademark jittery visual style utilising handheld cameras and shallow-focus, ever-so-slightly disorientating camerawork. Of her three films Berlin Syndrome, a complex and discomforting work about a young woman held captive by a man she’s had a one-night stand with, probably landed Shortland the job of directing Black Widow, as both her most recent and one concerned with enslavement and coercion, although the opening scene with Natasha and Yelena playing feels closer to Somersault’s portrayal of hapless innocence and a blithe attitude to a world hiding cruel fates. Shortland’s approach is most effective in the early scenes which smartly establish the fake family as nonetheless inhabiting a working simulacrum of normality and functioning, as Melina schools the two girls with her vast knowledge of biology, before returning home to a family dinner where the chemistry of the family members feels genuine, no matter how many secrets everyone is keeping. The escape plays out as a mostly realistic thriller-action scene only punctuated by Alexei’s feats of strength. It all has a down-to-earth quality that worked well in the first MCU entry, Iron Man (2008), before the fantasy and sci-fi aspects trucked in from the source comics took over, and was revisited to a degree in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the entry in the series Black Widow most closely resembles.

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Of course, that kind of approach isn’t going to last forever in a movie that nods to Moonraker as a style guide, but Black Widow sustains it for a surprisingly long time. Indeed, there’s a surprising level of mostly implied but sometimes quite immediate meditation on cruelty and suffering, stated unnecessarily in the Nietzschean catchphrase Natasha and Yelena learn from Melina: “Pain only makes you stronger.” From the nightmarish tint of the opening credits vignettes Black Widow does its best to consider the process that made Natasha and Yelena so damn tough and capable as involving much pain indeed, including the previously-mentioned but still discomforting detail of their having received forced hysterectomies, which proves to be almost an aside compared to the level of control imposed over the newer Widows, who can be forced to blow themselves up. Young Yelena cries over a scraped knee; the older one uses a knife to cut out the tracking chip implanted in her thigh once she gains her autonomy. Returning to confront the institution that pulled her apart and refashioned her into something both more and less than human, Natasha is obliged to face up to the crimes she committed not only for Dreykov but in her campaign to escape his clutches, which claimed, as Natasha puts it, collateral damage. Natasha is genuinely shocked when she tracks down Yelena and her sister tells her Dreykov is still alive, so the sisters break Alexei out of the Siberian prison he’s been cast into for years hoping he knows the truth. He in turn leads them to Melina, who has remained Dreykov’s thrall and collaborator, having played a vital part in developing his mind-control methods, which Melina demonstrates on one of her pet pigs in a queasy moment.

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There’s an interesting edge of the Sadean to all this, communicated through Shortland’s obsessive use of red as a totem, symbolising, natch, the lingering influence of the Soviet Union but also associated with blood, suffering, plundering, and the loss of (and regaining of via the red gas) autonomy. Background trauma is a fairly compulsory aspect of modern heroic identity in fiction, particularly for superheroes, but Black Widow digs into something more rarefied and disturbing, conscious as it is that everything that makes Natasha a potent figure is also sourced in a history of anguish, down the to eventual, brutal revelation that Dreykov had her birth mother, who Natasha thought abandoned her, killed when she kept searching for her daughter. Shortland’s images, which often manage to escape the blandness of contemporary digi-cinema, feel more attuned to bodies, presences, putting muscle behind Johansson’s cumulatively palpable performance. Winstone’s Dreykov is a comparatively weak villain, but for a purpose. The career soldier and master of puppets is rather than someone actually brave and tough himself someone accomplished at using them: he’s less like an octopus with his tentacles reaching into everything and more like a lobster, safe and strong as long as his shell holds. The organisation he runs is one of the few ever presented in pop culture that feels as insidious and perverting as Fritz Lang offered in his Weimar thriller films, more so even than any of Bond’s antagonists, with Dreykov inhabiting his sky castle, plotting to quietly control the world and army of mind control victims, boasting that he can with one command cause financial chaos and cause mass starvation.

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Not, of course, that Black Widow makes as much of any of this as might have: despite offering something grittier than any other MCU film, it’s still trapped within that universe and all attendant commercial necessity. But it keeps its focus on the characters and the story infrastructure around them provides a blueprint describing their emotional landscape. The film’s best choice is almost entirely excising the rest of the MCU from proceedings, with Yelena making a quip about Dreykov not looking for revenge against Natasha lest he bring down “one of the big ones” from the Avengers on his head, and Alexei waxing nostalgic about battling Captain America in his glory days, only for one fellow prisoner to note that Cap was still in the Arctic ice when Alexei claims to have fought him. Yelena makes an acid comment at one point about Natasha posturing as a hero figure to little girls despite her history of bloodshed and the lack of choice afforded Yelena and the other Widows. It’s a nice line that makes a gesture towards dismantling the much-repeated pieties about superheroes, particularly the few female ones on the Marvel and DC movie rosters, serving as presumed role-models for their young audience when Natasha herself is not an easy identification figure. The film is then reasonably courageous in not trying to remake Natasha as some kind of straightforward character, but letting her inhabit a story with some nasty barbs. Only the character of Mason feels superfluous for someone as skilled in taking care of herself as Natasha, seemingly only really present in the movie to provide a kind of drone male all the better to show off Natasha’s dominant stature.

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The pivotal scene in the film comes once the “family” is reunited, observed in all their mismatched yet oddly bonded identities, cueing a dinner table scene with alternations of grievance, fury, affection, snarky élan, and personal chemistry: it’s a more interesting breakdown of the concept of a gang of would-be heroes as a family than the several others littering the current movie scene because the characters all have pretty good reasons to hate and mistrust each-other on top of sharing a relationship that was only ever a nominal ruse. And yet they find themselves inheriting all the urges and instincts of reality, as when Alexei tries in his oafish yet well-meaning way to comfort the injured and betrayed-feeling Yelena. Harbour’s Alexei is called upon to provide most of the film’s comic relief as the battered faux-paterfamilias, and yet even he’s stricken with an even worse dose of the same crippling melancholia. The once-proud representative of his nation, degraded and imprisoned through treachery, trapped in aging impotence boasting about opponents he never got to face before struggling to squeeze himself into his old costume, is finally given a moment to shine in the climax as he goes up against Dreykov’s secret weapon, the masked monstrosity codenamed Taskmaster.

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Taskmaster makes several attempts to catch up with Natasha and Yelena, almost killing Natasha when tracking down the cure shipped to her in Norway and then chasing the sisters through the streets of Budapest in an armoured car, two strong action sequences that thankfully don’t overstay their welcome. Taskmaster as antagonist has one intriguing specific ability, to match and exactly mimic an opponent’s fighting style. Taskmaster’s true identity would only be difficult to guess for anyone who’s never seen a movie: it’s actually the now-adult Antonia (a wasted Olga Kurylenko), left badly disfigured and paralysed by Natasha’s bomb rather than killed, and allowed to move by a computer chip installed in her spine that’s made her exponentially more strong and agile, at the price of being reduced to her father’s pure servant of will. This revelation is a bit rich given Taskmaster’s distinctly masculine build when masked, but then again a few dozen horror movies have pulled the same trick. More to the point, Antonia personifies Natasha’s sense of spurring guilt, and her turning out to still be alive helps finally mollify that guilt, whilst also providing her with a Frankensteinian doppelganger, the damaged emblem of what the other Widows only exhibit psychologically.

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Black Widow, as movies of this kind have to at the moment, must walk the middle path between the two most annoying factions in the online world: those policing it for any hint of sexuality that might give a teenage boy even the slightest pretext for a boner, and those policing it for any signs of unwanted “woke” messaging. For the former, well, there’s a coterie of fit women in catsuits, if never lingered on. Despite it being an inherent part of their function and training, the Widows seem to have had their sexual cunning and power removed along with their reproductive organs. As far as the latter goes, the Cold War redux themes are entirely facetious – Dreykov’s project is simply the accruing of power with only a veneer of Soviet nostalgia. The metaphors for villainous misogyny are rather more barbed and tightly wound into the story, but never belaboured through speechifying: they’re allowed to speak for themselves on the essential dramatic level. There’s been controversy recently as it’s emerged that the Marvel production house has been hiring directors from the indie film world to provide a veneer of creative cool and an injection of diversity but not letting them handle their own action scenes. Such a practice was once pretty de rigeur in Hollywood – Michael Curtiz and William Wyler amongst many had practiced action staging hands sub for them – but it does explain why the action sequences in the Marvel films tend to all feel interchangeable. I can’t complain here though: the mostly down-to-earth style of thrills in the early action scenes, and the final eruption of big, Bond-style chaos at the end, are exceptionally well-done, even if noting that a crashing car in the Budapest scene is infuriatingly CGI-rendered. I understand the temptation to take such short-cuts but it hurts the very essence of this kind of movie.

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The scene where Natasha and Yelena break Alexei out of jail, hovering over the prison with a helicopter and trying to scoop the old Red Guardian up before an avalanche hits, is good fun and at its best when the stunts look real and dangerous, like Natasha ducking the choppers’s sweeping tail rotor, but again is hampered by recourse to too many obvious special effects. The reality and film-texture-distorting impact of such effects might be said however to help such movies keep a foot planted in their drawn source material. The crucial dynamic in the film is most obviously between Johansson’s Natasha and Pugh’s Yelena, offering decent chemistry in their alternations of spiky attitude and quiescent affection. Their relationship is also informed by the women playing them, Johansson the still relatively young but by now weathered professional and familiar face pithed against Pugh, emerging as a star of potential after gaining attention with performances in films like Lady Macbeth (2017) and Midsommar (2019) where she played characters who meet evolve into fiends in the course of purging their own torments. Pugh’s still-young yet leonine face provides a great counterpoint to Johansson’s sleek features. Whilst she doesn’t yet have anything like the same following, Pugh offers real potential as a nominal replacement, partly because Yelena is a less sanguine creature partly defined by her edge of disdain, teasing her sister for being nearly as ludicrous as she is heroic, mocking her as a poser for her signature superhero landing in the film’s best running joke.

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But it’s Johansson’s film and she helps put it over the line with Natasha’s climactic meeting with Dreykov, after she and the rest of her “family” are ambushed and captured by Dreykov’s men thanks to Melina secretly calling them in. Dreykov is eager to reclaim Natasha not just for revenge but because she can help him subvert the Avengers and finally emerge from the shadows to become world dictator. Dreykov’s fail-safes include a mental block preventing Natasha from attacking him, triggered by his pheromones. Thankfully, Natasha’s long-established capacity to use her opponents’ overconfidence and arrogance, seen before to best advantage in The Avengers (2012), here resurges in a piece of narrative three-card-monte as it emerges Melina told her what to expect and how to circumvent it. Natasha gains access to Dreykov by wearing a mask disguising her as her mother, whilst Melina, Yelena, and Alexei escape from captivity and set about destroying the Red Room, which is actually a huge flying techno-fort hovering above the clouds.

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The confrontation between Natasha and Dreykov, which nods to RoboCop’s (1987) Directive 4 as Natasha finds herself unable to stab the man who perverted her life and murdered her mother, takes on a real edge of pathology as Natasha provokes Dreykov into punching her repeatedly, grinning all the time as he takes his best, meanest shots with a mocking pleasure bordering on masochism, a willingness to take punishment for her cause usually only reserved to male heroes. It’s a moment that highlights Johansson’s overqualified but definite affinity for the part, and gains its self-mutilating climax when Natasha, disappointed by Dreykov’s blows, instead smashes her nose against his desk to sever her olfactory nerve, freeing her to wail on him with impunity. Intervention by the other Widows saves Dreykov, as Natasha is despite her prowess overwhelmend and brought to the brink of ruin, only to be saved Yelena’s quick-thinking intervention. This leads to a fitting moment as Natasha releases Antonia, trapped by Alexei and Melina after a fight, from a prison cell as the Red Room begins to disintegrate, willing to face Antonia’s augmented wrath rather than leave her to die.

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Yelena finishes up killing Dreykov by thrusting an explosive into the rotor of his hovercraft before it can take off, exploding the craft and hurling Yelena out into a freefall towards earth. Natasha, in a spectacular nod to the famous opening of Moonraker, leaps from the Red Room and plunges after her whilst trying to pull on a parachute amidst falling hunks of flaming debris. Everything ends well, with Antonia and the other Widows successfully freed from the mind control yoke, Dreykov’s network open to dismantling, and the wayward family surviving and making their peace. Natasha heads off to her ultimate fate with her past thoroughly laid to rest. A brief post-credits coda in the usual MCU fashion provides the gambit for a new looming conflict as Yelena visits her grave and some shadowy government screwball (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) hiring her to go after the man supposedly responsible for her death, handing her a picture of Clint. Black Widow isn’t a transcendentally great entry in the current superhero cycle, mostly hamstrung by its inability through obeisance to its franchise setting to go as far as it should have in embracing a more grown-up and gruelling type of story. But I still liked Black Widow more than I’ve liked most blockbusters in several years, and it cured some of my sourness towards the MCU, because it goes as far as it does.

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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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