Tuesday, 21 April 2015


It's been a while. I've been promising to update my World of Stuff for...well, years to be honest. But life and things got in the way and I've been devoting most of my writing energies to the new, relaunched, reinvigorated Starburst Magazine (and its regularly-updated website www.starburstmagazine.com). But as I don't always get the chance to review some of the big new movies for Starburst I thought Stuff might be the ideal place for me to wax lyrical and, if need be, at great length, about some of the big blockbuster movies (and maybe some other bits and pieces too) over the next few months. Let's kick off with Joss Whedon's Avengers: Age of Ultron which I had the pleasure of seeing at a multimedia screening at the Odeon in London's glittering Leicester Square yesterday (Monday). I also attended the star-studded Press launch at the Corinithia hotel today (Tuesday) and a report will appear on Starburst's site shortly. meanwhile, here's what I thunk of Avengers: Age of Ultron...
There's a moment towards the very end of Joss Whedon's Avengers: Age Of Ultron which finally raises those back-of-the-neck hairs which have, until now, remained stubbornly unmoved. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes - with a few new faces thrown in for good measure - are facing off against Artificial Intelligence Ultron and his army of robots. The Avengers are all in action; spinning, whirling, kicking, smashing, shooting...and it all looks like it's been lifted wholesale from some 1970s comic book double page splash spread. It's superheroes on the big screen as we've not seen them before, bigger and brasher than ever and it seems to effortlessly capture the pure essence of the superhero. Your spine will tingle. Which is just as well because much if what's gone before in the previous couple of hours, whilst agreeable and enjoyable enough, doesn't really sing and soar and offer up those pure punch-the-air moments which characterized 2012's Avengers Assemble, the third biggest Box Office hit of all time. Maybe that's no surprise though; second dates are rarely as thrilling and so full of the unknown as the first. So while it's a joy to be back in the company of Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner and co, the shock of the new and the thrill of it all isn't quite the same. It's nice to catch up with them all and find out what happened next, but the novelty factor , inevitably, isn't there this time.
Two movies in and the problems inherent in crafting adventures for characters as magnificently powerful as the Avengers become uncomfortably clear. Together this bunch can do pretty much anything and, like the similarly-blessed Superman, it takes a pretty formidable adversary to give them a real run for their money. And because blockbuster cinema - especially superhero blockbuster cinema - demands an explosive climax, it's inevitable that the last act of an Avengers movie will feature our heroes, together as a team despite whatever personal disagreements and squabbles they’ve endured in the past, fighting off some unstoppable force. Last time it was the alien Chitauri doing their best to demolish New York, this time it's Ultron and his swarming robotic hordes. It's fun and it's energising to see Iron Man and co slicing and dicing an army of metal meanies but the result is that the last act of the film plays as if someone has pressed ‘repeat’ from the last film so the song sounds very much like the one we heard at the end of the first film. But at least in Age of Ultron it's not New York under threat but rather some fictional mid-European country, press ganged into service by Ultron in his fanciful scheme to fashion an Extinction Level Event which will wipe out Mankind. The action scenes - and there are several big set pieces here – are as thrilling and kinetic as we might expect, even if the CGI occasionally shows the strain a little. Whedon, on scripting and directing duties, can do this fightin’ stuff in his sleep but his real strength, of course, forged in the fires of his TV masterpiece Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is in layered characterisation and snappy, punchy, witty dialogue. The former seems a bit perfunctory here, character beats ticked off a checklist; Hawkeye's family life, Natasha's burgeoning attraction to a reluctant Bruce Banner (seriously, Bruce...it’s Scarlett freakin’ Johanssen!) , the sibling rivalry between newbies Pietr and Wanda as well as a bit more soul-searching from Tony Stark and man-out-of-time Steve Rogers. Dialogue - when it's not apocalyptic technobabble - is peppered with Whedon's trademark one-liners, sight gags and asides and he’s lost little of his pizzazz in putting the right witty bon mots into the right mouths. But alarmingly some of the gags are a bit lazy and easy and there are times when almost everyone - including bad guy Ultron - seems to speak the same way, with a pithy, snarky retort for every occasion. The humour works best in a nice, relaxed sequence where The Avengers are chilling out after a particularly-exhausting battle. Thor challenges the rest of the team to lift his immovable hammer and obviously none of them are quite up to the mark. "You've had a tough week," Stark tells Jeremy Renner's recently-injured Hawkeye. “There's no shame if you can't get it up." A running gag based on Captain America's dislike of swearing is fun at first but quickly becomes a convenient stop-off point for an easy moment of passing light relief.
The plot, meanwhile, is a thing if simplicity wrapped up in some heavy-duty moralising about the nature, worth and potential longevity of the human race as the Earth’s dominant species. Stark's plan to create the ultimate peace-keeping Artificial Intelligence goes awry when his creation Ultron develops a will (and a wit) of his own and decides that Mankind should be wiped out to make way for the next stage of evolution. With the help if some old friends and some new faces, The Avengers face their deadliest threat since...well, since the last one...
The new faces, the next generation of Avengers, are an intriguing (and welcome) bunch who breathe some new life into the team. Paul Bettany, previously heard-but-not-seen as the voice of Jarvis, Stark's computerised manservant-cum-conscience, takes on the form if The Vision, a more benevolent AI in human form and brother and sister combo Scarlet Witch/Wanda (Elisabeth Olsen) (Wanda) and Quicksilver/Pietr (Aaron Taylor-Johnson)), initially in the thrall if Ultron, quickly change sides when they realise the extent if Ultron's Machine insanity. But they're key figures in the ongoing comics story of The Avengers and, impressive as they are here, it's hard to shake off the nagging feeling that they're both a little underserved and ultimately a little bit underwhelming. Back for more are Anthony Mackie as The Falcon and Don Cheadle's War Machine although the former gets little more than a 'don't forget me’ cameo at the end of the movie. As for the rest...well, seven solo outings between them has allowed Downey Jnr, Evans and Hemsworth to wear their superhero alter egos, armour and costumes like second skins and in Ruffalo we still finally have the Hulk we always wanted. Scarlett Johanssen's as sleekly sultry as ever as Black Widow (if a little needier than we’ve seen her in the past, an unsual bodyswerve away from Whedon’s propensity for creating gutsy kick-ass women who live for more than just the man in their life) and Renner, hypnotised through much of the first film, gets a better crack of the whip this time with a strong emotional throughline focussed on the normal family life he can never entirely surrender himself to. And, of course, Big Daddy Nick Fury is still around, Samuel L Jackson giving the movie a touch of fatherly gravitas just when it most needs it. But what Age if Ultron lacks most – certainly until the last act - is the human touch. For the first ninety minutes it's all superheroes, robots, soldiers, mad scientists, gleaming hi-tech machines and gizmos and it's all a bit remote from the real world of human beings and their frailties. When the likes of you and I do appear en masse at the climax, it's as a terrified rabble fleeing from robots or else trapped in a chunk if the city lifted into the air as Ultron's lunatic scheme nears its fruition. But at least here the Avengers get the chance to display their credentials as protectors of Mankind as they busy themselves evacuating the doomed city before pitching into battle with Ultron’s robot tide. It might not seem like much in a film full of huge aircraft carriers, massive laboratories and heavy-duty weaponry but it's a step up from Superman and Zod randomly smashing and trashing everything and everyone in their path at the end of last year's lacklustre Man of Steel. The Avengers, at least, give a damn about what happens to the ltitle people.
Without giving too much - or, indeed, anything - away, this is quite clearly the end of a specific era and a specific line-up for The Avengers. Things might never be the same again and that's probably a good thing. A team as powerful as The Avengers needs a good shake-up every now and again (and maybe even a reminder that none of them are immortal...well, maybe apart from Thor) and with Joss Whedon passing the chalice on to The Russo Brothers (whose Captain America: Winter Soldier, did so much to move the superhero movie into a new dimension) for The Infinity Wars two-parter, it'll be interesting to see if this powerful and winning formula can be shaken up in the future because, fun and exhilarating as Age of Ultron is, it's undeniably formulaic from time to time. Joss Whedon hasn’t dropped the ball here, that’s unthinkable; but he’s played safer than we might have expected whilst subtly laying the foundation stones for a whole new era for Nick Fury’s finest. Balancing the need to deliver a kick-ass action movie laced with a strong emotional truth for its characters, Whedon has undeniably done it again. But maybe, in the end, that’s the problem; he’s done it again rather than done it differently. Age of Ultron pushes all the right buttons and will undoubtedly thrill and delight the millions who fell in love with Avengers Assemble and time spent in a world brought to life by Joss Whedon is never time wasted. But here’s to The Infinity Wars...and beyond?