C’mon, let’s go to the pictures! What’s your cinema snack of choice? I’ve always had a sweet tooth myself, and a bag of sweets- gummy bears, jelly beans, strawberry cables- was my companion to Avengers: Age of Ultron over the weekend. I’d been eagerly anticipating both: as one of the most anticipated superhero films of all time, Age of Ultron is the latest addition to Marvel’s sprawling Cinematic Universe, and was bound to be a great time for all concerned.
Fumbling in the dark as the film started, I started to eat…and while I didn’t regret my decision, it wasn’t everything I’d hoped. Some of the sweets were enjoyable, but a lot were a little tasteless, or sickly. Having eaten one, I would be happy to leave the rest of them- but invariably I found myself scrabbling round, getting the last few bits while discarding very little. Hey, I’d paid for it, after all.
What I’m hinting at none too subtly is that my culinary experience roughly matched my filmgoing one. Age of Ultron is the cinematic equivalent of a bag of sweets you pick off the shelf: it’s great as a treat, and something you eagerly anticipate. But it remains something with relatively low nutritional value, rarely lives up to your expectations, and the end result is probably the sickly pleasure of indulgence over the warm satisfaction of a good square meal.
Let me clarify from the off that I enjoyed Age of Ultron and would happily watch it again: like most of the Marvel films it’s a bombastic, big budget action flick with a smattering of humour and lightness where it counts. They’re enjoyable, but whether they’re good as anything other than frivolity is something that I often question. That said, I suspect this isn’t something we should be concerned with: Marvel has found their level, and it’s a level of entertainment we can happily enjoy if we’re happy to immerse ourselves in something silly and fantastical for a little while.
So, to business: what’s this one about? The Avengers reunite to take down the last vestiges of HYDRA, Marvel’s Illuminati-esque cabal pulling the strings of history since the 1940s. Recovering Loki’s sceptre from one of their last strongholds, Tony Stark discovers it holds the key to completing Ultron- a mothballed defence initiative that will hopefully replace the Avengers on the front line of saving the world. Unsurprisingly, Ultron goes rogue and the Avengers must work together- meeting old friends and new enemies- to take it down before human civilisation is destroyed.
Despite clocking in at 141 minutes- two minutes shorter than the original Avengers- Age of Ultron never feels lacking for content. If anything, the reverse is true: it’s a roller coaster ride interweaving action scenes, gentle ribbing and the occasional tender moment between its cast members. Black Widow and Hawkeye get a little more flesh on their bones in terms of story- even if the former remains a largely mysterious addition to the team- and the budding relationship between Natasha Romanov and Bruce Banner is touching even if it’s not quite clear what motivates it at first glance.
Perhaps invariably, though, Age of Ultron might leave you feeling fatigued by the climax. It’s kind of ironic that the ending feels a little flat compared to the climax of the first one… especially when we consider that the stakes in Ultron are far higher than Avengers, or demand even closer attention than a full-scale Chitauri invasion does. Ultimately, it feels like a case of familiarity breeding contempt: we’ve got some truly exciting scenes in this film, and the scenes where the Vision emerges are kind of wonderful, with some cool interplay between the others.
But by the climax we’ve seen the Avengers… Avengering it up before, both in this film and others, and a robot army bearing down on our plucky gang of heroes isn’t necessarily that enthralling or unique anymore. The film has plenty of pleasant surprises, don’t get me wrong. But any spark of joy it might ignite has been damped down by the deluge of stuff we’ve sat through up to this point.
Where the film certainly succeeds is in its main villain, who is far more nuanced and interesting than the petulant lackey Loki turned out to be. Ultron is calculating and malicious- as well as surprisingly funny on one or two occasions- and he’s a fine foil for the Avengers. He’s a kind of modern-day Frankenstein’s monster, a person who gains his power and notoriety from the neglect of the people who created him, and seeing him appear on screen is never anything but entertaining as the film progresses.
And like said monster, there’s a level of nuance to him that Loki, for all his eloquence and confidence, never really possessed. On some level, I found myself sympathising with the guy: he’s ultimately just doing the job he was created for, even if from our perspective his interpretation of his job duties remains appalling perverse. He’s contemptuous of his creator, dismissive of humanity but dead set on giving them another chance… although his methodology is problematic when his grand plan is finally revealed.
And that brings me to my final conclusion: I enjoyed Age of Ultron, even if it’s the sickly, overstuffed kind of enjoyment that eating a giant bag of candy ultimately brings. It’s big, it’s bombastic, it’s fun- but it’s also kind of wearisome, and the excitement that something like the original Avengers provided is missing from this film despite excelling in a lot of areas over the original. The end reaction is one of quiet joy rather than outright ecstasy… and that’s kind of frustrating when Age of Ultron is meant to be an event rather than just another action film.
Oh, it’s not ending any time soon- the sheer number of new films on the horizon is testament to that, and the Marvel films will always have their fans. But whether we love Marvel in the same way as we do when, say, Inhumans rolls around is going to be an interesting discovery. I’m guessing it’ll remain largely unchanged, but at this point it feels like anything’s possible.
In future trips to the cinema, I don’t think I’ll forgo the sweets entirely. But I’ll regard them with that little more trepidation, and be a little more discerning about what I end up consuming. To an extent, at least.
Header image: Public Domain Pictures