Appreciating Hollywood films can feel like Stockholm Syndrome – maybe it should, given that the blockbuster model feels increasingly dusty as entire productions are dropped first-run onto people’s computers. Aside from the need to change with technology, there’s the old paradox of finding artistic value in things commissioned for diametrically opposed reasons. Marvel Studios embody both pretty noticeably this month alone, dropping thirteen episodes of a Daredevil TV show at once onto Netflix while invading an insane number of screens with the crown jewel in their cinematic dominance, Avengers: Age of Ultron. While they hire beguiling talent like Joss Whedon to deliver it, it’s impossible to ignore its dual state as the product of its studio heads, particularly producer Kevin Feige. The shared universe he has cultivated is praised by the same kind of fans who have normalised the word “franchise” into everyday conversation and willfully hype films that won’t come out for another four years, if ever. Likewise, it’s bemoaned by people who mistake overexposure in marketing for over-abundance of productions, and very readily forget both the number of other mainstream distractions that would take its place in a second. There’s nothing “wrong” with having strong feelings either way, and there’s real value to be found in these films, but the process can be perplexing enough to pine for the crest of Hollywood films found in the 70s, before Star Wars well and truly made the wide-release rodeo a thing.1 In this newest team-up extravaganza, the hunt for idiosyncrasy is alive and well, bursting with charm and no more likely to induct you into the fandom as anything that’s come before. It’s good, well-made fun without a hint of subversion.
Marvel has already accrued a reputation for low-balling and chasing away talent,2 so fan-adored Whedon is the lightning rod for a lot of concerns over whethere studio meddling has led a good story astray, especially given the exhaustion he’s expressed in interviews. The first mistake in that scenario is in thinking that the plots he and Feige pen are vital, since it’s the characters and their interactions that have built their church, not the MacGuffin-heavy capers they gravitate around. They’re all back in fine form: Robert Downey Jr. ribs everyone as Tony Stark, Chris Evans and Hemsworth wring remarkable charisma out of often-flat heroes Steve Rogers and Thor, Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner give sly quips as agents Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton, and Mark Ruffalo sweetly steals hearts both as Bruce Banner and his big green alter ego (the latter realised through convincing mo-cap assisted by the Imaginarium studio of Andy Serkis, who also makes an impressive show as a minor villain). They were disparate figures in the first film, but this newer installment keeps them packed tightly together from frame one, as they storm the keep of a villainous faux-Nazi general (Thomas Kurtzmann) to retrieve the mind-control scepter from the first film.
The immediacy and charm of their interplay is the first of several defiant gestures that Whedon makes through the hurricane of breathless action. Another is his choice of villain: Ultron, a robot inadvertently created by Stark and Banner in their attempt to lock the world down from needing hero duties at all. James Spader’s performance (a second gift from Serkis’ company) is magnetic, not just cruel but petulant, like the child he is. The end results of these gestures, as ever, feel less like real culminations than teasers for larger stories to come, with the welcome emergence of Paul Bettany as eloquent counter-AI Vision and pawns placed for a future Captain America sequel that will pit Captain America and Iron Man in an ideological head-to-head. All this makes Whedon’s status as the Atlas of the Universe more apt than the press conference questioner who made this comparison before me might have intended.3 His penchant for idiomatic wit and trope-mocking casts him as a valuable entity in making this feel like more than a shareholder’s cash-in. Yet, blurring that line further is the notion that he really is giddy for this stuff, like most of us. His mise en scène (shot by Ben Davis and prod-designed by Charles Wood, who continue their ebullient work last seen in Guardians of the Galaxy) sings with comic-book compositions, such as when Jarvis and Ultron have an early duel as floating orange and cyan UI holograms, like two sets of encroaching neurons – a lucid melding of source inspiration, modern blockbuster imagery and unwitting metaphor for the movie’s production if ever there was one.
The quickness of the action that follows is his biggest enemy. There is as much of a bevvy of inventive and triumphant moments as in the first film, such as a truck pursuit through Korea and a chaotic final stand in a Russian chapel, and his high-concept staging shines through the onslaught of fuzzy CGI drawings. At a runtime one minute shorter than the previous Avengers (ruthlessly edited again by Jeffrey Ford and Whedon collaborator Lisa Lassek), there’s very little time to appreciate the different beats, to the point where super-speedy new character Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) feels almost like an ironic statement. The power base of him and twin sister Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) make for good diversity in set pieces, which is just as well since they’re given painfully little to work with as far as an arc goes. Olsen in particular is responsible for the sequence that embodies this tension between Whedon’s aspirations and Marvel’s need for brevity, where she uses her vague psychic powers for character-specific hallucinations that cut between one another in disorienting quickness.4 Like the AI tête-à-tête, they are the stuff of a young comic reader’s dreams, but they’re leashed by the same studio that birthed them in the first place. These cause Thor to disappear, again relegated to cosmic allusions and consolation one-liners but in a far more disposable sub-plot involving the inter-series Infinity Stone throughline.5 This is in a moment-to-moment sense though, since on a broader level, he knows how to calm and steady us for a further onslaught. Here, it’s a retreat to a family farm owned by Hawkeye, who is done plenty more favours than he was in the last movie, and not just through the many cute-liners the script has for him. In these aspects, there’s honourable intent from both parties – Whedon and his collaborators to do right by the short-shrifted characters, and Feige’s studio to walk the line between giving money’s worth and not wasting time.
The real metric by which people measure Whedon’s credentials is his gender politics, and there are already complaints that he has short-changed the handful of female roles in this new film. It’s true that The Avengers falls short in this area, as most properties do. Cobie Smulders continues to have utterly nothing to do as Maria Hill, Claudia Kim basically steps into Stellan Skarsgård’s role from the last movie (and yet Skarsgård still shows up to carry the exposition baton at one point), Linda Cardellini gets decent lines and little else as Barton’s pregnant wife and Johansson’s big dilemma as Romanoff over whether to abscond with new beau Banner is a super-conventional drag considering the weight of peace-keeping her male counterparts get to suffer under. For what it’s worth, Whedon’s script makes their points of view as dense as they could be, particularly by adding an old-school charm to Widow and Hulk’s inerplay, so a lot of it has to be chalked up to the nature of the beast – there’s undoubtedly a cutting-room floor situation affecting all of those characters, and having Banner and Romanoff’s situations intermingle certainly saves on precious runtime minutes. He makes do with what rotated-in Marvel hitters he’s given, and he finds opportunity both to cast characters that don’t have to be a particular gender as female and to give the big-name ones more moments of charged agency and responsibility. Widow naturally gets the majority of them, but Wanda could be the defining gift made by him and Olsen, since she makes a promising entrance as a potential meta-franchise main-stayer alongside Widow. Still, as far as that progressive promise being made by current Marvel book titles like Ms. Marvel and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl goes, the day when she is treated with as much complexity as her male counterparts is yet to come.
After all the meta-franchise brouhaha, the end result of Age of Ultron is still indisputable; this is a film that could only come as a result of hiring Whedon, no matter how many fingers his benefactor has in the pie. While the binging approach that has brought Daredevil about and fuelled appreciation of other long-running series like The Fast and the Furious begs to know how many of Marvel’s films need to be seen prior, it’s really only the last he directed, the first Avengers, that’s close to necessary. It’s a minor miracle that one can drop in just for the party and walk away satisfied, even if saying so is another instance of loving our Hollywood captors. The director of both Avengers has brought the band home again, and having turned future installments over to the team currently working on Captain America, it looks like he’s after a break. He’s more than earned it.
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