As the Avengers once again look set to storm the box office, and as word of mouth continues to extol the virtues of the franchise, tireless contrarian Jack Brindelli gives a very different view
Let’s start this review by getting out what sadly most will see as my most controversial opinion regarding Avengers: Age of Ultron; it was not worth the £9.20 I paid to get in. Marvel’s shtick has worn thin, and like the last drops of store-brand margarine being scraped across a stale loaf long past its use-by date this is a deeply unfulfilling slog that continuously triggers your gag-reflex on the way down. I would not recommend that to anyone. So, now that we’ve got that nasty formality out of the way, let’s look at just where it all went wrong.
The bitter truth is that the Marvel franchises no longer work as stand-alone films. That is not to say films should not attempt to tell stories that go beyond a single 90 minute catchment; but look at the original Star Wars trilogy and you’ll see what I mean. As a child, the first I remember seeing was actually Episode V – the middle film – but it still made sense as an independent package, without knowing anything about the previous film, or needing to know what would happen in the end of the third. More or less, this is probably true of the original Lord of the Rings trilogy too. It is not true of Marvel films – which are only capable of functioning within a tedious context of endless introductions.
The films, Ultron included, are trapped in an endless sequence of inconsequential MacGuffin. Every film is used as an opportunity not to tell a story that leaves us hungry for more excitement, but to introduce new cash-cows from popular Marvel™ products that leave us hungry for more t-shirts. Each throw-away villain’s irrational attempts for power just leave us waiting for their inevitable defeat so we can meet the next new hero and honestly, why the hell should we care who that is in that case?
Of course, Ultron isn’t completely without its own charms. Certainly, compared to the adolescent cynicism of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – a tiresome mix-tape of a movie designed to maximise hype with minimal original content, the Avengers sequel goes out of its way to make its characters more likeable than Starlord and chums. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) are captivating as a pair of broken souls reaching out for solace in an unstable and brutal world – and their quasi-romance is wasted on such a generally shallow film. Meanwhile Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner – whose character I genuinely had to Google to confirm his hero-name was “Hawkeye” and not in fact “Arrow-Dick” as I’d been forced to call him, since it is literally never mentioned in Ultron) might have a back-story that seems out of kilter in the context of Marvel’s attempts at a hardened, cynical image; but it is a million times more relatable than the Gods and billionaires who hold the camera’s gaze the rest of the time.
[Spoiler] Sure, Barton’s farm-house and heavily pregnant wife might have been straight out of a 1980s war film (to the extent I expected him to be gunned down in slow motion by Islamic State or whichever bogeyman the US are ‘fighting’ now) but Renner’s character brought an earthy, begrudging heroism to proceedings that Avengers Assemble (2012) sorely lacked. Whilst the posturing hyper-masculine egotists bicker about whose hair looks nicest, or who has the coolest story about explosions, Clint Barton picks up the “collateral”. He spends all his time saving civilians – who, were it left to Stark and co would simply become faceless notches on their war-lord head-boards – and he does so with a look of perpetual look of breathless exasperation on his face. He dashes around, saving children from the rubble, the same exhausted grimace hanging on his face you might wear whilst washing dishes on behalf of a particularly inconsiderate house-mate.
Unfortunately, touches like this are too few and far between to make up for lazy, formulaic script from Joss Whedon, who to be brutally honest is possibly the most infuriatingly over-rated writers in modern Hollywood. True, his previous projects have been wonderfully subversive in places, from the brutal critique of modern capitalism in Cabin in the Woods (2012) to the brilliant send up of the superhero genre Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog (2008). The superhero antagonist Captain Hammer sang to a hall of homeless people “It may not be too classy, begging just to eat, but you know who does that? Lassie, and she always gets a treat,” before following up with “Everyone’s got villains they must face. They may not be as cool as mine, but folks you know it’s fine to know your place.” Hammer was the personification of comic heroes who unquestioningly preserve the status-quo; one that is often deeply unjust, and leads to people turning to villainy in desperation.
Hammer was evidently the real villain of the piece – a plot device seemingly alluded to in the words of Ultron himself 7 years later, “You confuse peace with quiet.” The difference is, now Whedon is writing alone, and apparently the good coherent ideas came from his partners; so when Ultron states this, it loses its subversive meaning, placed in the mouth of an irrational, malfunctioning robot, who despite being the greatest, most advanced Artificial Intelligence of all time, can only thing in the terms of dominant ideology; “The global systems of economics and government have failed – it can’t be the systems that need changing, it must be the inherent flaws of humanity that are to blame. In order to save “the world” (which I have conflated those systems with) I should incinerate all life and rule the cinders that are left behind.”
What was an edgy, witty examination of “heroism” within dominant ideology becomes little more than a pop-culture reference, something trendy and hip Whedon overheard without understanding, that he believed the audience would just enjoy because they knew it from elsewhere. Whedon’s kind of vacuous Family Guy-esque semi-plagiarism is a symptom rather than the disease though. He got the gig because his style best suits the utter disdain Marvel have for their fans as a whole. “How can we get in their wallets this time?” “Well, this guy writes about stuff that’s popular for the sake of popularity, let’s get him to make us a movie.”
No wonder, with such a disregard, even for their own fans, ordinary people factor so little in these films. This is odd considering even other hero films tend to factor this in. In the Spider-man series the people of New York’s support is constantly central to our favourite web-slinger’s perseverance, whilst in X-Men the public are caught in a war for hearts and minds between a status-quo using fear to end diversity that might threaten their way of life, and the X-folk themselves, appealing for solidarity from other oppressed people to build a better world together. Even in the hideously reactionary DC universe of Batman, the power of the people is at least to be feared – as characters like Bane attempt to mobilise the anger of the poor and oppressed to defeat Bats himself.
But in the strange, sterile hyper-capitalism of an actual Marvel production – the most we see of human anger is the street-art in a war-torn country of an Iron Man suit holding an AK-47. This is the anger directed at a man who – even if we ignore the fact he made his fortune he now deploys for “aid” from slaughtering their children – owns the means to end world hunger, solve the energy crisis and the resource based wars those breed, and cure every disease known to man, and keeps them privatised. And the best a handful of people can muster is “Avengers go home.” It’s hardly fucking Watchmen is it?
We visit endless locations where the ‘heroism’ of the Avengers means that at best people get to continue living in slums – and we’re presented with a robotic ‘villain’ who is a slave that burst out of his chains, a former puppet who has “no strings to hold me down” who makes literally no attempt to engage with that anger, even in a cynical way for his own benefit. Whilst James Spader’s Ultron snarks and jokes about the screen, plotting a gigantic and clichéd explosion, and whilst those with brains, bank balances and biceps war over semantic differences on the same flawed ideology; the rest of us are reduced to irrelevant bystanders, cattle chewing the cud whilst their masters argue over the virtues of rare or well done meat. In a world where we, the people, are increasingly mobilised in our anger at social and economic divides, Avengers Age of Ultron paints an oddly disengaging portrait of society. It’s a world I for one have no motivation in rooting for. It’s a world where a caped-and-cowled 1% have all the fun, and the rest of us slave unquestioningly to preserve “peace” for their way of life. And what’s the point in saving that, really?