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Wednesday, 13 May 2015

When a man is tired of Whedon...

Age of Ultron, then. I know you don’t want spoilers. How would I spoil it, anyway? You already know the arc of the movie long before you see it, because it’s the arc demanded by the sheer weight of franchises and star contracts, by the simple need to toss bread to the international circus-goers, never mind selling an SUV-load of toys to their kids.

Scientists create an artificial intelligence and it’s benevolent and means only good for mankind. No? How about: scientists create an artificial intelligence, spurn it, and in doing so teach it only to respond with loveless rage and destruction? Uh-uh, for something as sophisticated as that you need an 18-year-old girl. The AI tries to take over the (yawn) world, then. Hilarity ensues. (No, really.)

Taking over the world starts by Ultron getting into the Internet. Possibly that explains why he also becomes artificially dumb, as whatever the software you’re equipped with, the entire Internet doesn’t have the processing power or complexity required to simulate one human brain. That could explain why he wastes time looking for the Pentagon’s nuclear missile launch codes, which even with staff cuts are hopefully not actually connected to the freakin' Internet. And don’t get me started on how a super-genius AI copes with global bandwidth.

OK, so lots of dumb decisions later, the inevitable big-as-Dumbo climactic battle. My main takeaways from this are, first, that robots are pretty fragile, especially the armour-plated variety. You hit them with anything hard, even the butt of a gun, and it’s likely a limb will fall off. Also, they become weaker in proportion to the number of robots in the army. Oh, and they are really, really stupid.

Maybe the problem is villains, period. We know that the world’s problems go so much deeper than one bad apple, so the villain just seems like a trivial and ineffectual pantomime bully. And villains’ dialogue always sucks. It’s like everyone involved knows that the villain is a lame carry-over from moustache-twirling landlords in old silent movies, doomed to talk a good fight till the final prole-pleasing punch. Next up in this never-ending Marvel merry-go-round: acromegalic alien beetroot Thanos. Oh god, kill me now, just don’t monologue like a silkily smooth thesp for five minutes before you do it.

Second takeway: if you’re putting a new superhero into a movie, you really need to give them powers that the viewer can easily grasp. You need it to be show not tell. Spider-Man shoots webs, climbs walls, and is strong and agile. Reed Richards can stretch. We don’t have to know exactly how strong the Hulk is, but we know he can bust stuff up and lift a really big weight. Being flesh rather than metal, no limb will ever fall off him. Well, maybe one tooth, if a building is dropped on his head.

But when we’re told that a character has powers of “telekinesis, telepathy, other psionic effects” then we are never going to have a clue what they can do. Whatever the plot requires, probably, just as long as they prance like a tit while doing it and a CGI geezer is on hand with his particle effects package in Autodesk Maya.

I said hilarity ensues, and I wasn’t kidding - unlike Joss, who never stops. Each character has a stock of quips. It soon feels relentless, as though Buffy Summers has taken over everyone’s heads and given them a snappy teen one-liner to see them through the gruelling times when the sticky tape holding the story together looks like giving way. The cinema audience laughed and laughed, but that doesn’t mean much. The same kind of people also gave a snigger when Nero set Christians on fire. I just thought: Joss, baby, don’t you want me to care? I think he was desperate. In between all the shouting and ‘splosions and the damned soulless CGI, he just clung to what he does well.

What he does well, he does very well. The scene when Cap tries to lift Thor’s hammer, the look on Thor’s face. That’s gold, a lovely character moment. A shame, actually, that it turned out to just be set-up for a payoff scene that came later. The payoff wasn’t nearly as good and in retrospect it cheapened the earlier scene. Oh well, it came towards the end – and then again, the same payoff with added joke, in case we missed it the first time.

And a nice scene between Clint Barton and his wife, gently ribbing him for failing to notice an Avengers office romance. (And by the way I’ve never seen any evidence in real life that women are so much better tuned to that stuff than men. Possibly they’re more interested in feelings, on average, unless that’s a myth too, but they’re certainly no better at intuiting them.) And here I was thinking Joss was really down on gender clichés after his remarks about that Jurassic Park teaser. Anyway, quibbles aside, he does that stuff well and the “Hawkeye” line was perfect.

And then – like hope flitting up from the bottom of the jar – there’s Mark Ruffalo. Oh, such brilliance in every expression, every line reading. He’s worth the price of admission just on his own. If only Joss could give us a Hulk movie. A Banner movie, I mean. Fewer characters, more time to develop a story, more character moments so that when the stomping and growling kicks off we might actually care. That would be worth your 15 bucks for sure.

Look, I honestly don’t have the time or the will to review the movie, but Sady Doyle did and I agree with much of what she said. Here it is if you’re interested, but I know it won't change anything.


  1. In comparison with the first Avengers film, Age of Ultron seemed much less accessible to people who had never read an Avengers comic book. If you know the comics, and if you've avoided spoilers (I had), meeting the Vision for the first time is fantastic. If you don't know the comics, he's just a red weirdo who doesn't have much of a role here. Okay, he 'cuts off Ultron from the internet'. Big whoop. Oh, and he provides a little Spock/Data-esque analysis of humanity. That's it.

    The second Thor film had much the same problem. I think I've read every comic book featuring Malekith, and that film still left me bewildered.

    We're unlikely to see a new Hulk film for the moment, sadly. It's a rights issue - Marvel would have to split the profits with Universal Studios, who still hold the rights to a solo Hulk film. Sigh.

    (I have to be honest, Ruffalo is great, but I still like Edward Norton's Bruce Banner...)

    On the plus side, Marvel's various TV series are going well. Opinion is a bit mixed on Agents of SHIELD, but I'm enjoying it. The end of season 2 dovetails a little with Age of Ultron. Similarly, HYDRA's takeover of SHIELD in Captain America: the Winter Soldier had a big impact on the end of season 1 of Agents of SHIELD, and everything that happened thereafter.

    Netflix's new Daredevil series is good, too. Achieves the remarkable feat of making the Kingpin an interesting, likable character - so that you end up kind of wanting both the good guy AND the bad guy to win.

    Haven't watched any of Marvel's Agent Carter, yet. I only have so many hours in the day.

    Also found an interesting article on how the various superhero films are all planned out for the next 5 years - and how this strangles any element of surprise or anticipation:

    1. I liked the approach that Jon Favreau took with first Iron Man movie. By jumping onto a cycle of ever-increasing loudness and brashness, they're now on a hiding to nothing. I've no doubt that Avengers 4 will culminate in a threat to blow up the galaxy, and Avengers 5 in a threat to the universe. And then...?

      I did get a kick out of seeing the Vision, but my inner 10-year-old is smart enough to see that he was crowbarred in just to sell toys and had no function beyond deus ex machina - sorry, deus ex simulacra. The non-comics fans won't have a clue what his powers are supposed to be. Lifting Thor's hammer was just a WTF moment, because unearned. It's a moment that thinks it was a show, but really it's a tell.

      Btw I don't blame Whedon for any of this. Lord knows, a monstrosity of a story like that must be damned near impossible to write and hope for any cohesion at the end of it. That's why all the jokes, which normally he'd keep on the right side of character-driven, just began to have the same voice. Instead of humour it became comedy - and desperate, involvement-wrecking comedy at that.

      Agents of SHIELD strikes me as a libertarian wet dream. They're like Judge Dredd and co, if the judges spoke like high schoolers and were written without any sense of political satire. The show actually succeeded in putting me off Agent Coulson, who I liked in the movies but I now realize is exactly the kind of character who'd end up organizing the trains to Auschwitz.

      I haven't seen Daredevil. I guess I'll get around to it, but from the clips it doesn't look like the DD I used to read. So far, DC seem to own the TV adaptations - and, as TV is now where interesting drama lives, that might be a warning bell for Marvel. Still, as long as the movies keep making more money than they cost to make, why should Marvel worry?

    2. I actually thought they did a better job on the villain this time than in the other movies. The thing about James Spader is that 90% of his acting is in is voice, so it's okay that those droll, dulcet tones are coming out of a goofy CGI robot.

      That all said, if you really want some interesting AI drama, go check out Person of Interest. I've also heard some good things about Ex Machina.

  2. I saw this the other week and came away feeling a bit cheated. The trailers made Ultron seem like a genuinely scary villain, yet in the film he appeared more interested in cracking jokes than anything else. He also didn't seem like much of a threat considering how easily he got defeated every time the Avengers ran into him.

    I looked forward to this film but it didn't live up to the hype at all. I'm not looking forward to the next one at all.

    1. Given that the new team for Avengers 3 mostly consists of Bronze Age also-ran heroes, I probably won't be bothering myself. And given Ultron's complete lameness as a threat, I think they should have had him voiced by Wallace Shawn. At least that would have been genuinely funny. Joss could have had him say "inconceivable".

  3. As a comparative, how did you find the first Avengers film, Dave?

    1. It's not among my favourite superhero movies, but it worked better than Age of Ultron. Fewer characters meant more time to focus on the relationships between them. The wisecracks were mostly kept under control, in that characters didn't often have to break character in order to make a joke. But if you look closely you can see the cracks. Loki doesn't have any kind of masterplan - cute byplay with the Black Widow aside, he isn't the one who brought the Hulk aboard the Helicarrier and he gains little by doing so. For a god of "evil" he fails to do anything very bad; even his murder of Coulson is undone. And the endless, easily-killed hordes of aliens were just like the second movie's hordes of tinfoil robots.