I was going to review Avengers: Age of Ultron for Front Row tonight. At the cinema, I was asked to sign an agreement to an embargo on reviews until 10pm tonight. This was the first anyone at the BBC had been told about such a thing, and it seems awfully silly to me, especially as tweeting was allowed, but there it is – my appearance, which would have been at 7pm had to be cancelled. But now it’s past 10 pm, here’s my review.
Mild-to-moderate “spoilers” follow. (Scare quotes because I don’t think your experience would be spoiled.) No character’s final fate is revealed, but some mid-point reveals are.
AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
Like Tony Stark, Joss Whedon has an eye on his legacy, the scale of the odds he is facing and how very much he has to get right. This, his last Avengers screenplay must juggle not six but nine superheroes; must remain at least mostly-compatible with their solo franchises and the various TV tie-ins; must be sufficiently different from and yet sufficiently similar to the first movie; must go a bit more serious, and yet not dark; must provide the villain with a spectacular world-ending final plan unlike any any world-ending final plan we’ve ever seen before, and somehow, with all of this going on, must lose neither the humour nor the heart.
That this works more than it doesn’t is probably all you can ask. Age of Ultron is a long film, (don’t drink anything before going in, you won’t make it) but it doesn’t lag; despite numerous sub-quests the characters’ goals remain clear, without getting bogged down in incoherent McGuffin-hunting. No, it hasn’t gone “grimdark.” The quips feel a little more subdued but are still there, and it’s honestly a bit of a relief that the Whedonese is a shade less relentless. The CGI-enhanced battle scenes don’t descend into “screensavers crashing into each other.” The set piece action scenes are genuinely spectacular. The scene (which perhaps unfortunately, we’d already seen) of the heroes relaxing together after a party will remind fans of why we root for these characters in the first place.
Yet there are places where the strain shows, and it is the character moments that tend to fumble. It’s not that they’re forgotten, nor even that there’s an absence of pathos. It’s just that the glimpses of the heroes’ emotional lives feel static, rather than impelling them forward. Tony Stark is haunted by a terrifying vision of his friends’ deaths. This leads to the disastrous creation of Ultron –but to little beyond that – there’s no time to weave his fear and guilt toward a satisfying resolution, as there was in Iron Man 3. Some interesting insights into Black Widow’s past are revealed – enough to provide a little depth, but not enough to fuel a real character arc. Her left-field romance with Bruce Banner lurches between genuinely touching and awkwardly unconvincing. It’s sweet that she can soothe him out of his Hulk state and ride pig-a-back on his shoulder into battle, guns blazing. But the scenes where this intensely guarded character attempts to seduce an ludicrously oblivious Bruce by all but throwing her knickers at his head border on cringeably out-of-character, and his angst-ridden refusal of her overtures – “I can’t give you babies!” is more silly than heart-rending. Uh, maybe discuss the merits of dinner and a movie first, guys?
The character who perhaps receives the most fleshing out sadly rewards it the least. To make up for how little he had to do in the first movie, Clint Barton is given a farm, a pregnant wife, and two kids. (Yes, he and Natasha really are just good friends). This does produce a funny line – “You know I support your Avenging,” says the loyal Mrs Hawkeye – but it renders the character more more baffling than compelling. While it’s rather noble to attempt to break the mould of the privately angst-ridden superhero, this feels like a swing too far in the oppsite direction– especially when the character in the comics is the epitome of the screw-up managing to build heroism out of his own dysfunction. What would drive this perfectly contented Clint Barton to something as heroically ridiculous as taking on monsters with a bow and arrow? We have no idea. Mostly the domestic idyll serves as a clumsy and belaboured attempt to make the audience worry that Clint will die – not by placing him under any specific threat, but by evoking the audience’s knowledge of how genre tropes work. Gosh, do you remember his wife is pregnant??? the script nudges us as he heads into battle. He has so many plans for when the battle is over and the baby’s born. He all but sighs that he’s just one day from retirement.
The time could have been better spent developing the newcomers Wanda and Pietro Maximoff – never, alas, referred to as Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, and still less as mutants – they’re “Enhanced” now. The basics are there – orphaned by a Stark Industries bomb in a fictional Eastern European war, they’re out for revenge on Stark and by extension, the Avengers. But somehow the one line that can bring a character to life even in a crowded script (“There’s only one god, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that,”) isn’t there for them, and despite Elizabeth Olsen’s proven talents, we don’t really share their either their pain or the exhilaration of their abilities.
Nevertheless Paul Bettany, finally getting onto our screens after eight years’ faithful service as the voice of Jarvis, is quietly delightful as The Vision. Even from behind layers of CGI and red makeup, he manages to convey a sense of post-human curiosity and nobility in very little screentime.
The Avengers end with a new – and pleasingly more diverse – roster. One can only hope the new blood will bring renewed energy, and the faint weariness of their forebears won’t overshadow their future. If I’ve spent a lot of time on flaws of this perfectly respectable blockbuster, it’s to explain that I left feeling relieved that it hadn’t failed, rather than overjoyed it had succeeded. I still support the Avengers in their Avenging. It’s just that they’re no longer making it look effortless.