I don’t go to the cinema very often – there are only a few films that I make the effort to see on a big screen, generally preferring a comfortable sofa to a seat in a room full of rustling popcorn. Currently though, I try to go see the Marvel superhero films; they tend towards grand spectacle, and work better when able to be larger and noisier.
Avengers: Age of Ultron continues on from both the previous Avengers film and the various films of the separate superheroes who make up the Avengers. There are aspects of character and situation that you’ll have to catch up on if you missed one of the earlier films, but the basic idea is simple, and the film makes sense even if you don’t understand every little detail.
It takes a while to get into it, but Age of Ultron‘s basic plot is that the world is threatened by a catastrophe, and only the Avengers can stop it. In a bid to create AI that will preserve global peace, the Avengers accidentally create an AI that sees humans as either irrelevant to that goal, or injurious to it. Suddenly, the band of superheroes find themselves fighting countless robots with the same distributed mind animating them all. Complications are provided by internal team squabbles, standard superhero angst about their powers, and psychic witchery.
Age of Ultron contains all of the elements that are required for such films – there are drawn-out battles, powers and technology are used in interesting ways, characters make quips as they punch robot monsters. New superheroes get introduced, grand set pieces are destroyed, and so on. All the parts are there.
One particular aspect I enjoyed was the relationship between Captain America and Thor, in combat and out of it. It’s one of the more graceful and subtle aspects of the film, building a strong and resilient friendship out of little details. I also felt that Hawkeye was better used in Age of Ultron than in previous films – given the somewhat limited nature of his abilities, playing him straight just makes the character seem out of place and ridiculous. In this film, Hawkeye not only gets the funniest lines, but is also the much more human side of the Avengers; the one who soldiers on despite issues, the one the audience actually worries for.
It’s not without its flaws though. Much of the film feels like it’s there purely to ensure that it has those expected elements; all the main heroes get their first “witty” line of dialogue to establish them, one after another, and then many later conversations seem designed to be quotable before anything else. I’m not saying the dialogue is bad – it’s often entertaining and fits the genre well – but sometimes it seems as though the film is trying rather too hard to make every single sentence the most punchy and successful.
Similarly, the set piece, incredibly destructive superhero battles are both exciting and a staple of the genre; you can’t have a superhero film without dramatic confrontations. However, they aren’t particularly consistent: characters seem to vary wildly in effectiveness from scene to scene, needing to team up to kill one robot at one point, but then tearing apart scores of identical enemies only moments later. It occasionally feels as though the battles are dragged out for no reason, which is an issue: they’re supposed to be the most tense parts of the film, and shouldn’t ever feel like just filler.
The ending involves an entirely literal Deus ex Machina, which is both something of a cop-out and under-used – if a film is going to put in an easy out, then it needs to both foreshadow it and hype it appropriately. Instead, the new character is both not sufficiently built up to, and then built up to too much; it arrives very quickly, spends a while being compared to a deity, and then does remarkably little for the remainder of the film.
Other issues are somewhat minor; civilians in the Marvel universe are almost incredibly stupid, just sitting there waiting to be rescued when simple actions would let them save themselves. This Cracked article’s first point is very relevant. The symbolism of the robots’ design is slightly irritating as well – I can think of no in-universe reason why the robot that was created (and thinks of itself) as a force for good should be designed to look like the devil.
The end result of all of this is a film that is perfectly functional, perfectly entertaining, but one that is a bit too formulaic and applies that too knowingly – nothing is left to chance, everything is incredibly tightly constructed. Each plot point is shown clearly in multiple ways, each inner dilemma is incredibly clearly signposted. Countless little details build up a totally unassailable superhero film with no cracks or rough edges. It’s impossible to miss what nuance there is – all the villains are colour-coded, any significant detail zoomed in on again and again. You can’t get confused as to who is who, or what is going on. And that’s great – I’m a big fan of not being confused.
But there’s a point at which something is so polished that it starts losing character. Age of Ultron has this problem. It’s not bland exactly, but very constructed and run on expected lines. Every element is exactly to the archetype, and any complication or wrinkle is simplified and ironed out. Age of Ultron is a film produced to a blueprint, a film that doesn’t take risks. The final product is, again, enjoyable and entertaining, but it lacks a certain spark; it’s all too slick to be soulful.
No rough edges seems to come packaged with no amazing strengths either; the film is good but no more. I did enjoy it, and it was, as I’ve said above, entertaining, but Guardians of the Galaxy is currently my favourite Marvel film – it has more character whilst still keeping all of the good things that Age of Ultron does.
Age of Ultron is a good film. Despite the negative tone of this review, that is my overall judgement. It does a lot of things right. But that same competence is also what stops it being any better than that.
Buy it here, whenever it gets released on DVD. It will almost certainly be in cinemas for a while longer.