It’s easy to forget sometimes that the geek has colonised pop culture – that we live in a time where the next Doctor’s identity is a national event, where Game of Thrones gets discussed around the watercooler, where everyone loves Groot the living tree, and where Marvel has become the undisputed emperor of the multiplex. Having turned D-listers Guardians of the Galaxy into household names last time round, Marvel Studios have now brought an Avengers sequel, Age of Ultron, as a kind of victory lap and another step in their intricate plan towards total box office domination. Of course, it isn’t really a sequel to 2012’s The Avengers, so much as a follow-up to three separate movies. It probably helps to have seen them, but newcomers are well-served by the opening: a breathless long take following each Avenger as they lead a charge on a mountainside fortress, showing off how they work as a team, battlin’ and banterin’ away. It’s a pace the film maintains as it travels from South Africa to South Korea and back, finally making it clear the Marvel universe doesn’t revolve entirely around the United States.
The fortress belongs to HYDRA, the terrorist cell last seen undermining national security in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and now doing the traditional supervillain thing of evil experiments. The Avengers ruin their plans, but only Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) isn’t happy, still suffering from PTSD after the alien invasion in the last Avengers, and questioning the team’s role. For Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), being an Avenger is a calling; for Tony, it’s a means to an end, and an increasingly ineffective one. He’s seen how small the team is, watched the sky open up and nearly destroy New York, and suddenly punching super-Nazis in the face seems pathetic. He and Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), create an artificial intelligence, Ultron (James Spader), to try and safeguard the planet from threats. Neither men appear to have seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, because they seem surprised when their baby goes rogue and decides that saving humanity means murdering all of the team by way of creepy superpowered twins, a chase across three countries, and millions of robot drones.
Believe it or not, Whedon planned for the sequel to be smaller. Having cleansed his palate with a fine screwball take on Much Ado About Nothing, he’s aware trying to recapture lightning in a bottle is just going to leave him very charred. There’s not a conscious effort to try and outdo the spectacle of The Avengers, although try it does, with Whedon’s attention more focused on the principle players. The man cut his teeth on TV with shows like Buffy and Firefly, very much a writer’s medium where the emphasis has to be on compelling characters since there’s so little in the budget for everything else.
The secret to Marvel’s success has always been the characters and the easy chemistry the actors have with one another, with each subsequent film building on this foundation. The most enjoyable sequences are just them interacting, from the friendly digs at each other to everyone attempting to lift Thor’s hammer at a party. Even Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), benefits this time around, emerging as the true heart of the team. It’s these strong bonds that Whedon puts to the test when the team first encounter Ultron and his acolytes, the twins Wanda and Pietro (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johsnon), like an alchemist putting quartz to a flame. Wanda has the power to cast illusions, making the Avengers see their worst fears and adding further shading and texture. Some like Cap and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), still carry scars from their past. Others, like Stark and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), fear for the future; the former sees his friends lying broken in the cold abyss of space, the latter dreading the inevitability of Ragnarok.
The MCU in general has had trouble giving the women anything to do. While it avoids the Guardians of the Galaxy thing of regarding them like a sniggering preteen boy would, Age of Ultron near-exclusively defines its female characters by their relationships. Natasha is paired off in a Beauty and the Beast relationship with Banner, both being able to see the humanity in another while regarding themselves as monsters. You can see the logic behind it, it’s basically the bond between Ann Darrow and King Kong, but it’s the only arc Natasha gets in the whole film. Worse, the reason she thinks she’s inhuman isn’t necessarily all the people she’s killed, it’s apparently because she can’t be a mother. Maybe it’s just an innocent mistake, but in a story where the women are either plot devices or love objects, it doesn’t look good. Especially not for Whedon, who boasts about how he writes women as actual characters.
On the villain side, Wanda and Pietro have powers and accents, but not actual personalities. The latter, better known as Quicksilver, particularly suffers from this when compared to Evan Peters’ fun and breezy portrayal in X-Men: Days of Future Past. James Spader’s trademark eccentric intonations and gravelly baritone bring gravitas to an underwritten AI-gone-rogue role. There are hints that Ultron got his worst parts from Papa Stark, that he’s all of Tony’s relentless egomania channelled into something darker, but perhaps as a casualty of the editing needed to knock it down from three-and-a-half hours, it’s so under-served that it might as well be a cloud pattern.
The thing with The Avengers is that it’s a lot rougher on rewatch. The opening is murky and awkwardly staged, and it has to go through some heavy lifting introducing each character and carefully placing them on the board so the audience knows what’s going on. But where it resonates with audiences, aside from being the first big superhero crossover flick, is that it has real emotional high points – the death of Coulson, Hulk smashing Loki around like Pete Townshend with his Gibson, and the famous long-take of the Avengers fighting aliens all across New York. There, it felt like the culmination of everything in the last hour, where the heroes finally worked in concert with each other, and felt truly cathartic. Age of Ultron doesn’t quite have a moment like that where the audience pumps their collective fist in celebration. The overall downbeat tone might prove less friendly to repeat viewings than its predecessor, but it fits the bleak undercurrent present throughout Whedon’s work – Firefly is about the losers of a civil war living on the outskirts. The Cabin in the Woods proposes that humanity is built on an inherently evil system. Even Much Ado About Nothing is about how nobody really truly means what they say.
There’s speculation that the perpetual Marvel engine might be in need of repair, what with Whedon talking about the draining experience, an exhausting press tour that’s resulted in a few badly-phrased statements, and Edgar Wright’s public exodus from Ant-Man, a project he spent six years working on. This isn’t the day the empire collapses, though, and it would be unfair to regard Age of Ultron entirely as an excuse to make more money than the GDP of most island nations.
Consider: Whedon was working on this project, from the first outline to the last session in the editor’s suite, for about three years. His job had taken him to Burbank, Johannesburg, Surrey, Bangladesh, Seoul, New York. By his own admission, he was separated from his family in Los Angeles for a long period of time. Halfway through Age of Ultron, we’re introduced to Hawkeye’s family; a wife and two kids, with a third on the way (and Natasha’s very disappointed to learn it won’t be a girl), living far away from the metropolitan cities where danger tends to strike. A family he doesn’t see often due to his work, and one he works hard to balance.
Legacy, by way of parenthood, can’t help but hang over the movie. When Stark tries to create Ultron, as ‘a suit of armour around the world’, it’s to ensure that Earth is well looked after when he’s no longer around. Aside from the culmination of a character arc that started with him as a narcissistic playboy saving the day to stroke his own ego, it’s an apt description of being a parent – creating a successor to carry your banner, to do what you couldn’t. Ultron’s first moment of genuine anger comes when an acquaintance of Stark points out he accidentally used one of his catchphrases. The megalomaniacal conqueror is scared that he’s too much like his old man, and gets his own paternal fears when his own progeny, the Vision, rebels against him.
Mark Kermode argues in The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex that since tentpole films with a big enough budget can’t ever lose money, they’re an ideal Petri dish for experimentation, trying new ideas. In the past couple of years, we got a summer blockbuster with a non-human lead and most of the dialogue in sign language. The studios are wallowing in ‘an endless ocean of cash’, so there’s no harm in branching out a bit. The raggedly personal nature of Age of Ultron, likely to rule the box office until the new Star Wars, is testament to that ideal.
Poster by Matt Ferguson.