Age of Ultron: Pinocchio, But More Wooden

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Weirdly, while watching this latest Marvel box-office guzzler, I thought of Tina Turner. Few would put Tina on the pedestal of Earth’s mightiest thinkers, but as I watched another guy in a metal suit punch another robot into another crumbling building, I couldn’t help returning to the wailed adage with which she introduces Mad Max 3: we don’t need another hero.

Marvel Studios show no signs of getting this message, and have recently announced that they plan to keep the gormless masses enticed by superhero films into the next decade. Adding DC’s Justice League output into the mix, it looks like we are going to have at least three big superhero films per year for the next five years. Judging on how unengaging and predictable this latest iteration is, that time might turn out to be more exhausting than ten rounds with the Hulk.

Occasionally Marvel creates something which has integrity and originality, as seen with the first Avengers, The Winter Soldier and last year’s surprise hit, Guardians of the Galaxy, but as this cinematic world has become more gargantuan, it has become a muddled and aggressively-corporate franchise. Age of Ultron is everything you would expect a sequel to be; it is essentially a genetically-mutated version of its predecessor. It is bigger, louder and darker, but it is incredible that a film so full of ‘stuff’ leaves its audience with little more than a ringing in the ears.

The ‘stuff’ in question regards artificial intelligence and the future protection of the world, but don’t bother asking anyone to explain the nuances of the narrative. We start big, with a team assault on an Eastern European castle to retrieve Loki’s magic sceptre, and in truth this is a thrilling, witty sequence which expertly reintroduces us to the super team and some new adversaries. MacGuffin acquired, Tony Stark (a character now welded to the body of Robert Downey Jr) starts work on a sentient robot force that will one day make the Avengers programme obsolete. A few concerned looks, some science talk and a montage later, everything goes tits up and AI badass Ultron (voiced by James Spader) is born, a psychotic, evil mirror of Iron Man determined to destroy the world because… Well you see he… There’s this… Erm… Nah, you got me.

There is great potential for Ultron to be a terrifying villain, and director Joss Whedon draws out lots of good parallels with Frankenstein and Pinocchio. Ultron’s ditty of choice is ‘I’ve Got No Strings’ from Disney’s version of the latter tale, and there are moments where he demonstrates daddy issues with Stark that would give Bruce Wayne nightmares. James Spader’s voice work is sarcastic and occasionally very funny, much like Loki in the previous film, but his lack of motive reduces any fear factor. Furthermore, you see far too much of him, and it might have been interesting to continue the Pinocchio vibes and have Ultron as more of a puppet-master, lurking in the shadows.

Ultron is helped in much of the film by the Maximoff twins, Pietro and Wanda (“he’s fast, she’s weird”), who are so astoundingly Eastern European that they wear Hummel casual-wear. Aaron Taylor-Johnson moves so fast that he barely makes a mark on the film, but Elizabeth Olsen fares better with some impressive finger-twiddling and a comedy accent (the film is so full of them that it resembles a Carry On in parts). These new characters have a bungled back story involving a Stark-approved bomb that apparently gives them a motive, but it’s all rushed through in order to get back to the total levelling of cities.

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The obscurity of Ultron’s plan is not helped by the fact that much of the film appears of have been written by Basil Exposition. At his best, Whedon writes zippy dialogue between the Avengers, and this is seen in a dick-swinging episode where the male heroes attempt to lift Thor’s hammer (the gag is continued later to great effect). But too often the script slips into discussion of ‘neurones’, ‘matrices’ and ‘vibranium’, which is totally alienating and, put simply, makes much of the film rather dull.

It’s not just the writing which makes it difficult to keep up – the pacing and structure are remarkably poor. Clearly there is a lot to get through here, but lots of important details are washed over in favour of smashing, fighting or advertising. Despite the importance placed on action here, the second act bizarrely becomes an Abercrombie advert, in which everyone puts on a checked shirt and chops wood. No, really. Here Whedon is struggling to tell a standalone Avengers story while also being pressured into introducing the next phase of Marvel films. Ultron travels to Africa to set up Black Panther; Thor takes his top off in a cave to set up his next film, while the post-credits sting ties everything to Guardians of the Galaxy. The first thing to end up on the cutting room floor is motivation for actions, and we see the characters travel from South Africa to London to Oslo to Seoul to the fictional state of Sokovia with no real indication of why they are doing this.

Well, the trip to Korea is easy enough to explain, as is the casting of Claudia Kim as Dr Helen Cho. Among all the Gilette razors and Audi convertibles, it is now common to include Asian actors in minor roles and Asian locations, in order to sell more tickets in the exploding Eastern market. This is all very cynical of me, but I find these moments totally disorientating, and they are in fact a hindrance to the development of narrative clarity and pathos. As well as this, Whedon tries hard to incorporate a conveyor belt of characters from the last decade of Marvel cinema. Just when you think you’ve worked out what the hell is going on, you’ve got to deal with Black Iron Man, Black Eye Patch Man and Black Bird Man. I am being irreverent, but there is certainly something important to say about Marvel’s flurry of pointless roles played by minority actors. Here, Dr Cho and Co do nothing more than tick a BAME box, and it seems as though you can only be in the Avengers if you’re white, male, or you’ve got big tits.

In a way Whedon’s Frankenstein comparisons permeate the world outside of this film; he and Marvel have created a monster in this never-ending franchise, and torches and pitchforks ain’t gonna be much good against intergalactic gemstones.

Guardians of the Galaxy: They’rrrrre Groot!

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This review contains minor spoilers.

In one of the final shots of Star Wars, we see the droids, Luke, Chewie, Leia and Han lined up on a stage, proudly puffing out their chests after being honoured for blowing up the Death Star. On the surface it is a simple scene of triumph, tying up the loose ends and letting us know that, after all, the good guys will walk away with the medals. But it is important to remember that two hours ago, the audience couldn’t tell a Wookie from a Womp Rat, and now we are whooping (and crying) for the success of the Rebel Alliance. To achieve this depth of characterisation in a short time is an incredible feat, particularly in today’s blockbuster climate where spectacle comes before relationships.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s new frontier into space operatics, takes all the great lessons about narrative, pacing and character learnt from George Lucas and invigorates them with new colour and a twenty first century irony; this is Fnar Wars, a meta-cinematic, shamelessly exciting and often hilarious take on the increasingly predictable superhero genre. It speaks volumes that about halfway though the film, director James Gunn plays around with his own Star Wars identity parade. The Guardians walk towards the camera in slow motion, but there are no beaming faces and proud posture here; instead, one member is scratching his rodent balls, while another yawns, seemingly bored with saving the world.

So who exactly are these Guardians? Well, originally they ain’t that heroic, and are thrown together through chance rather than a shared desire to protect alien-kind. First we meet Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), an Earth-born petty crook with delusions of grandeur (he’d rather be called Star Lord, which I’m sure is a Bowie alter-ego). He was abducted by aliens in the 1980s, and and has taken much of that culture into other universes: his spaceship is lined with Troll Dolls, he references Indiana Jones and he is totally protective over his cassette walkman and mixtape, from which a lot of the film’s soundtrack comes. In an opening ripped from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Quill struts around a cave to funk music, using a space critter as a microphone, before nicking a powerful MacGuffiny orb.

It’s this orb that brings Quill together with the other Guardians. Genetically modified warrior Gamora (Zoe Saldana) wants the orb for her own financial gain, while bounty hunting duo Rocket (a talking raccoon-ish creature voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (a vocab-limited walking tree voiced by Vin Diesel) want the price attached to Quill’s head. In a vibrant four-way metropolis brawl, the quartet are arrested and thus begin their friendship, with room too for aspergic brick shithouse Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). Even describing the Guardians feels like Homer Simpson’s film pitch about a time-travelling talking pie, but Gunn has a clear vision here and is just asking you to roll with it, however much of a space oddity it is.

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Despite its strangeness, it is difficult to think of a film since the first J.J. Abrams Star Trek which is as consistently impressive. This is partly down to the joyfully anarchic tone, which finds room for childish bickering, soul music and dance-offs amid prison breaks and intergalactic dogfights. What’s more, Gunn allows his characters to breathe, never sacrificing characterisation for explosions. As mentioned, these are not heroes, and come with believable, engaging baggage. Quill’s eternal cockiness and Drax’s concrete exterior cannot hide the regret they feel over losing family members, Gamora has some (admittedly quite bungled) sister issues, while Rocket and Groot have moments of frightening violence which challenges how cuddly they seem.

This makes Guardians quite a morally difficult work, as Gunn is asking us to root for a team of sociopaths who leave a massive body count in their wake, and this is partly solved with some exploration of ‘the greater good’. It helps, also, that there is a tenderness between the group, seen in Drax’s warped protectiveness over Gamora, and Groot’s auto-function to save Rocket from danger at all costs. There are essays to be written about every member of the Guardians, and curiously, most of the writing on Rocket and Groot has already been penned in GCSE work on Of Mice and Men. In the short, organised genius of Rocket and the large, dim yet loving Groot we have a space age interpretation of George and Lennie, a comparison that reaches a tear-jerking climax in the final scenes.

If there is one thing detracting from the sheer entertainment of Guardians, it’s the shoddily underwritten villains. Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser is terribly miscast, perpetually frowning like a grounded teenager and moving awkwardly in black robes that don’t quite seem to fit. Elsewhere, Karen Gillan doesn’t break past scowling bitch face and Djimon Hounsou doesn’t seem to know what planet he is on. The outlaw behaviour of the Guardians might be slightly more acceptable if the were fighting against a threat that made them look saintly, but aside from some fabulous accusing, the antagonists here are more Ivan Ooze than Darth Vader.

This is, however, a minor quibble. The success of Guardians rests on the carefully explored camaraderie of the team, and the trust Marvel have in Gunn’s relaxed tone. As the closing moments play out to ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ and the Jackson 5, it’s impossible to feel anything other than total ecstasy, while looking up the practicalities of keeping raccoons at pets.