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.
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.