Sunday, 26 April 2015

[Film Review] MCU 11: Avengers and the Age of Ultron (2015)

It is no secret to those that know me that I have a bias towards DC, but that isn't to say I am into that whole DC vs Marvel thing. One is not inherently better than the other on any real measurable level. The only thing that really separates DC and Marvel in a comparative sense is how the comics resonate with the readers on a personal level and in my case almost universally, it is DC that far outshines Marvel. I think this is important to disclose before I continue.

When MCU 6: Avengers Assemble hit theatres in 2012 I went to see it with very low expectations, partly due to my relatively unenthused interest in the source material and was really blow away with how immensely enjoyable the film was. Age of Ultron on the other hand gave me the exact opposite experience. I went in with high expectations and found a flat, lifeless tale lacking in almost all the areas that made the Avengers Assemble so great.

I think a lot of reviewers and possibly even the film makers themselves have completely missed the point as to why Avengers Assemble was so successful. This failure to understand the reasons for their own brand popularity has lead them to focus on the wrong aspects in Age of Ultron and pull focus from the very things that would assure them of retaining the audience they have cultivated. The most interesting part of all this is that between Avengers Assemble and Age of Ultron we had Guardians of the Galaxy, a film that got nearly everything right and seamed to show they understood completely why Avengers Assemble was so successful.

Avengers Assemble and Guardians of the Galaxy where so popular and so widely accepted that comic fandom can simply not account for their astounding success. For these films popularity was born through a cross appeal that struck home to not just comic fans but all film goers, that enjoy spectacle cinema. These films were record breakers despite being comic book films, not because they were comic book films. This is the crux of the problem with Age of Ultron and it is a problem I am worried Marvel will compound as the MCU continues into the future.

One of the most glaring faults of Age of Ultron stems from this misunderstanding. This lead to an indulgence of the film makers on the individual characters, banking on the appeal of the characters themselves rather than on how the characters behave. The fun interplay is nearly lost in this film, apart form some all to brief fleeting moments at the start. This film is more interested in showing us the comic book icons than in providing a actual story for them to exist in.

Gone is the large group dramatic arcs from the last outing and instead we have a number of dramas involving individuals. Of course in a film this size with so many characters and with so much time devoted to action, this collection of dramatic threads can only be sketched out in a rudimentary way. In this case the attempt is absolutely puerile, leading to ridicules mellow drama that makes the audience groan and check their watches for these sequences feel, and are, completely tacked on.

This is no more evident than the manufactured family connection given to Hawkeye where he suddenly gains a house complete with wife, kids and unfinished home improvement projects. A few thrown away lines and we as a audience are supposed to feel a human connection to the fantastic events of the film. This entire idea to ground the movie a little with some good old fashioned family values is one of the most bizarre and randomly out of context things I have seen in a blockbuster for a long while.

Yet this film is full of this same error, through admittedly less pronounced, I mean this family thing was just bizarre on a epic level. Action sequences are stopped in mid battle for brief conversational drama between to characters, the film is literally put on hold. They do not even try to contrive to have the characters in the same location, they can just speak to each other though magic communication devices. The audience feels this dead stop in the flow of the film and the rolling of eyes start as we just want them to get back to the action we were enjoying. You could fan edit out these conversations and what you would be left with would be a single long uninterrupted action sequence, these small dramas would not be missed.

Avengers Assemble got around this type of cheese ball mellow drama by having the Avengers experience a dramatic curve as a group. The main theme being about coming together in unity, as well as finding ones place and personal voice. As all the characters were experiencing the same group arc, rather than all these individual ones, any time spent on the arc affected all the leads. This gave depth to the story, as each "time out" for drama built on the last, rather than each "time out" being a small, separate and self contained.

One of its most exciting sequences in Avengers Assemble was during the main fight at the end of the film. There was a glory shot of all the Avengers on screen at once in a single dynamic action shot showing them all working together in perfect harmony framed by powerful music. This exact shot though done with more complexity, is in Age of Ultron, but without the emotional backing it completely fails to be anything more than a cluttered special effect shot.

This is Age of Ultron in a nutshell. We have more of everything in that increasing of scale that comes in blockbuster squeals, but that "everything" comes at the cost of storytelling. Drama and more importantly for these films humour is lost for exposition and action and we are left with all the sights but none of the soul, ultimately leaving us feeling hollow and unfulfilled.

You note I am talking about drama a lot, but if you ask most people about Avengers Assemble what they talk about is the humour. This is the thing that everyone seams to get wrong about why Avenges Assemble and Guardians of the Galaxy were so popular. It was that they were fun, adventure films.  There was humour, action and light themes that produced a true roller coaster of amusement. The comic angle was not the draw. I suspect that if Guardians of the Galaxy was a completely non comic related IP it would have still been as popular, as it was the "fun adventure" nature of the film that made it cross cultural boundaries.The fun is lost in this film, instead we had a focus on the comic characters at the expense of what I feel was the very thing, the style of the film, that drew the much larger non-comic reader crowd.

That is not to say there isn't a lot of good parts in this film. The action is competent, and the plot itself while rushed is decent enough for this type of film. I would have loved Ultron to have more of a arc to evil badguy mode, but there simply wasn't time to have him start good and go bad. He just appears, and is evil. Why? Well that is the soul discussion of his motivation.

Ultron in fact was sort of schizophrenically written.  He at times talks in a very casual way, other times he monologues like a James Bond villain and at other times he speaks like the Starship Enterprise computer. It seams his dialogue was tooled specifically for the scene rather than him have any real defined voice. This is unfortunate as James Spader was a real delight and for me by far, the best bits in the film was Ultron when he spoke and acted the most human.

So, this film has a lot of problems. Ones I think will compound as the MCU continues and more and more characters are crammed into the universe. Less time will be spent on anything other than action and the most superficial characterisation.

We have seen the future of the MCU and it is Transformers 3.

Yet the cast is extremely charismatic, the production values are off the chain amazing and there are moments that pepper the show which remind us of why these kind of films can be so fun. So even with its faults it is still one of the better super hero comic films and will be a strong contender as a top blockbuster of the year. I just feel that this is a clear decline in not just quality of what was produced, but the quality of what they even tried to produce.


Recommend, with a warning.

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