***SOME SPOILERS BELOW***
Another well-oiled cog in Marvel’s finely-engineered moolah-making machine.
Of all the big media conglomerates pumping out big blockbuster superhero movies today, Marvel are the most consistent at producing palatable stuff. They do come out with some relative stinkers now and then, but nothing on the level of the hideous new Spiderman movies or the pompous and incoherent Man of Steel. One possible reason for their success, I think, is that they lucked out in forging the path for superhero movies – Iron Man was a hit, Thor’s Loki was a fan favorite, and Marvel’s ambitious multi-movie arcs culminating in the gigantic Avengers movie was a shrewd move that built up audience anticipation into a state of frenzied excitement. Their success has given them leeway to experiment, and their fresh take on Iron Man, in particular, set the stage for taking creative risks on untested franchises such as Guardians of the Galaxy. But the X-factor in Marvel seems to be the willingness to allow their filmmakers creative license in making the best movies they can, rather than the one they think will sell the most well. The former is really trick that naturally invites the latter outcome – which is something many other studios somehow fail to understand. Marvel have constructed a rock-solid brand – one that draws people in by the power of the Marvel stamp alone.
Age of Ultron is a great mix of what makes Marvel tick. It’s got all the elements of good Marvel ticked off the box – interesting characters, high-octane sequences, humor, pathos and the germ of something greater to happen on the horizon – the slow leading up to the apocalyptic Infinity Wars duo of movies, in which Thanos, that hitherto shadowy, cosmic threat, will finally be revealed.
What makes Age of Ultron work are its characters. They are human, and their humanity is best captured in humor – which Marvel does a lot better than any other studio I’ve seen. That element is something that was missing from Man of Steel (which, incidentally, completely misunderstood what made the Nolan Batman movies so good – it wasn’t the dour nature of that franchise that was its selling point – it was the fight against a brand of nihilism so alien, strange and toxic that it commanded our terrified attention. Man of Steel was just dour without a shred of moral complexity). Even the titular antagonist, Ultron, himself, is a veritable jokester, dropping a few good howlers – which is a very good vehicle to showcase how disconcertingly human he was, despite being an artificial intelligence – a muderbot version of Pinocchio, in a sense.
In Age of Ultron, the Avengers are allowed to be themselves when off-duty. That’s what makes them so compelling – they aren’t a priori heroes but people made heroes by circumstance and their choice to use their own unique gifts and talents for the greater good. This is a principle that applies to all the Avengers (yes, even Captain America), which was carefully built up by previous movies. I particularly appreciate the famous scene where they are trying to lift Thor’s hammer – it’s that kind of thing that really elevates the movie from a special effects vehicle to something more – a look at the inner lives of those whom we call superheroes – and there are parts of the movie that have the same effect, which I won’t spoil here (although I shall now spoil other things).
The weakest part of the movie is the plot, which is starting to get derivative and is riddled with overused tropes. Tropes are a useful meta-narrative tool to communicate large amounts of context to audiences that have been raised with knowledge of these tropes; it is a format well-suited to genre movies such as this. However, what is irritating is the disjoint due to the fact that the audience is clued in to the tropes, but the characters aren’t. The worst offenders of trope blindness are the two X-Men imports, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, who join Ultron in his quest to kill the Avengers but don’t realize that he also wants to murder the whole world too. Gee, whiz, people, haven’t you learnt by now to never trust an unhinged AI with daddy issues? You think causing the Hulk to go on a rampage in a densely-populated city is somehow less morally objectionable than simply being the CEO of a company that used to manufacture arms, but doesn’t any more? And the whole “turning the Avengers on each other” thing is a tired trope that I hope doesn’t surface again in the Infinity War movies. It’s bad enough that it’s a plot element that will have to be invariably recycled in the Civil War movie next year.
But those are more nitpicks than anything. They don’t fundamentally detract from the enjoyment of the movie as a whole, because we accept them as trope-language. When watching such movies, the intended mode of the audience is to rest that ever-quibbling part of the neocortex, sip a soda, and go along for the ride, laughing at the antics, and getting pumped for the next giant movie (and spending the $11.50 to go see it). And in terms of delivering a neatly-packaged visceral experience, Age of Ultron hits it out of the park, even if it is starting to get a wee bit tiring.
I give this movie: 3.5 out of 5 Vision Capes