Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

2015 #130
Joss Whedon | 141 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Avengers: Age of UltronIt feels kind of pointless reviewing Avengers: Age of Ultron, the written-and-directed-by Joss Whedon (and, infamously, reshaped-in-the-edit-by committee) follow-up to 2012’s “third most successful film of all time” mega-hit The Avengers Marvel’s The Avengers Avengers Assemble Marvel Avengers Assemble. In terms of consumer advice, you’re not going to watch this sequel without having seen the first, and therefore “more of the same (more or less)” will suffice for a review. In terms of a more analytical mindset… well, what is there to analyse, really? I’m not sure this movie has anything to say. “Of course it doesn’t, it’s a blockbuster,” you might counter, which I think is unfair to blockbusters. Not to this one, though. Nonetheless, I have a few thoughts I shall share regardless.

Firstly: Marvel’s initially-stated goal of keeping each of their film series separate enough that you don’t need to watch them all has clearly gone out the window by this point. Okay, you really needed a fair bit of knowledge from The First Avenger and Thor to fully understand Avengers Assemble (indeed, as I noted at the time, that first team-up movie is practically Thor 2), but I reckon you could get by without. In between, things have got worse: jumping from any of the pre-Avengers films to their post-Avengers sequel without viewing the team-up movie renders them semi-nonsensical, and now swathes of Age of Ultron make little sense without at least having seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which fundamentally shifted the status quo of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That’s not all, though, because Age of Ultron is also concerned with setting up the future. Far from being self-contained, there’s heavy-handed set-up for Avengers 2.5: Civil War Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, and the two-part Avengers: Infinity War. Titular threatEven though the first half of that is still three years away, we’re still very much on the road to it. Heck, we have been practically since the MCU began, thanks to those frickin’ stones (if you don’t know already, don’t expect me to explain it to you), but now it’s overt as well as laid in fan-friendly easter eggs. The titular threat may rise and be put down within the confines of Age of Ultron’s near-two-and-a-half-hour running time, but no such kindness is afforded to the myriad subplots.

Said threat is Ultron, a sentient robot born of Tony Stark’s work, who seeks to make the world a better place by obliterating humanity. As played by James Spader, it seems like Whedon has created a villain in his own image. Oh sure, every character speaks a little bit Whedon-y, but Ultron’s speech pattern, syntax, tone, and sense of humour is often reminiscent of how Whedon himself sounds in interviews; and if you told me Spader was doing a Joss Whedon impression for the voice, I’d believe you. Considering the well-publicised behind-the-scenes wrangles the film went through, especially in post-production, it does make you wonder how conscious it was — Whedon casting himself as a villain with good intentions who’d like to destroy the Avengers. Something like that, anyway.

A behind-the-scenes story Marvel Studios are more keen to emphasise is how they did a lot of real-world-related stunts for real, like in the Seoul bike/truck/Quinjet chase, for instance (you know, the one where Black Widow is on the bike in the film but controversially not in the toy because of the “no girl toys!” rule). Behind-the-scenes features on the film’s Blu-ray detail the extent they want to in closing down real locations, performing dangerous or hard-to-achieve stunts, and so on and so forth. You have to wonder why they bothered, because there’s so much CGI all over the placeNo one wants to play with Scarlett Johansson (not just obvious stuff like the Hulk, but digital set extensions, fake location work, even modifying Stark’s normal Audi on a normal road because it was a future model that wasn’t physically built when filming) that stuff they genuinely did for real looks computer generated too. All that time, all that effort, all that epic logistical nightmare stuff like shutting down a capital city’s major roads for several days… and everyone’s going to assume some tech guys did it in an office, because that’s what it looks like. If you’re going to go to so much trouble to do it for real, make sure it still looks real by the time you get to the final cut. I’ll give you one specific example: Black Widow weaving through traffic on a motorbike in Seoul. I thought it was one of the film’s less-polished effects shots. Nope — done for real, and at great difficulty because it’s tough to pull off a fast-moving bike speeding through fast-moving cars. What a waste of effort!

Effort invested elsewhere has been better spent, however. For instance, this is a Joss Whedon movie, so we all know somebody has to die. Credit to Whedon, then, for investing in a thorough attempt at misdirection. He goes all-out to imply that (spoiler!) the bucket shall be kicked by Hawkeye: the archer has suddenly got a bigger role; we get to meet his family; every time there’s a montage and someone starts discussing sacrifice or the inevitability that they won’t all survive, it’s Barton who’s on screen; he’s the most sacrificeable Avenger anyway, the only one with neither his own movie nor fan demand for one; and Jeremy Renner’s dissatisfaction with the role he got in Avengers 1 has been well documented. If anything he goes too far in that direction — it’s so obvious Hawkeye’s for the chop that it’s not wholly surprising when there’s a ‘twist’ and (bigger spoiler!) the even-more-dispensable Pietro Maximoff (he apparently has just seven lines in the entire film) is the one who make The Ultimate Sacrifice. Which is… neither here nor there, really.

Double troubleThe really daft thing is, Whedon specifically added Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver… wait, are Marvel allowed to call them that? I forget. Anyway, Whedon added the Maximoff twins because, as he said himself, “their powers are very visually interesting. One of the problems I had on the first one was everybody basically had punchy powers.” I know Hawkeye’s power is more shoot-y than punchy, and we all know X-Men used the silver speedster even better, but still… Well, I guess it’s not his problem anymore. Nor is the fact the film ends with a radically new status quo, including most of the big-name heroes having sodded off to leave a 66%-replaced Avengers line-up… which will be completely shattered almost instantly in next year’s Captain America: Basically The Avengers 3. But hey, nothing lasts forever, right? Or even a whole movie, it would seem.

Other people’s opinions, and the expectations they foster, have a lot to answer for when you first watch these films months after release. I found the first Avengers to be massively overrated — only sporadically fun; not that funny; in places, really quite awkward, or even dull. I couldn’t really enjoy it; it just was. This sequel, on the other hand… isn’t underrated, but comes with so much negative, niggly baggage that, with lowered expectations, I was able to just enjoy it on a first viewing. I found it funnier than the first; I thought the characters and their relationships were smoother. It’s still flawed (the Thor arc is clearly bungled; the climax is too much; stuff they did for real, at great expense and difficulty, looks like CGI; and so on), but no more than the first one. I think people’s over-hyped memories make them think it’s worse than it is by comparison. Then again, there’s no accounting for taste — there are definitely things people have criticised about the movie (the level and style of humour; the focus given to Hawkeye) that were actually among my favourite parts.

Some assembly requiredAt the end of the day, what does it matter? Age of Ultron isn’t so remarkably good — nor did it go down so remarkably poorly — that it deserves a reevaluation someday. It just is what it is: an overstuffed superhero epic, which has too much to do to be able to compete with its comparatively-simple contributing films on quality grounds, but is entertaining enough as fast-food cinema. Blockbusterdom certainly has worse experiences to offer.

4 out of 5

Avengers: Age of Ultron is on Sky Movies Premiere from Boxing Day.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher (2014)

2015 #59
Kenichi Shimizu | 83 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

Avengers ConfidentialAnime take on Marvel properties. S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Black Widow teams up with vigilante Frank Castle, aka the Punisher, to investigate a threat to global security.

A clichéd, heavy-handed screenplay and stilted line delivery tell a rote story through talky exposition scenes and uninspired action sequences, with little joy to be found in the design or animation either. Some bigger-name Avengers turn up for the climax, but they’re a motley crew of random choices (Captain Marvel?), most of whom don’t even get any dialogue.

Marvel may own the live-action superhero arena right now, but DC remain the clear frontrunner in animation.

2 out of 5

Avengers Confidential featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow (2008)

2014 #50
Jay Oliva | 75 mins | DVD | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Next Avengers: Heroes of TomorrowNo, not the ’70s spy-fi series The New Avengers (is there no way for Marvel’s superheroes to avoid sounding like that franchise?), nor the sequel to the third highest grossing film of all time (but you knew that), this direct-to-DVD animated movie follows in the footsteps of the two Ultimate Avengers animated movies (though not in the same continuity… I don’t think…), and concerns… the children of the Avengers! How kids’ TV can you get, eh?

So, there’s the son of Captain America and Black Widow; the daughter of Thor and Sif; the son of Hank Pym and Wasp; the son of Hawkeye and Mockingbird; and the son of Black Panther. (Aside: in the live-action movie universe, 100% of those men have or will soon appear; only 50% of the women, though.) These kids must work with the still-living members of the original Avengers to fight… Ultron, the villain of this summer’s Live-Action Avengers 2! (Do you ever feel like the Marvel universe goes round in circles? I suppose that’s not fair — DC does it too.)

I’m being snarky but, actually, this oh-so-childish-seeming cartoon is surprisingly good. Sure, the animation and voice acting is all very ’00s Saturday morning kids’ cartoon, but there’s a moderately solid story in there, and some great new characters. Well, some good interpretations of old characters, and one great new character: Thor’s daughter, Torunn. Her character arc is a good’un, and teen voice actress Brenna O’Brien does good work with her too.

Torunn, James, AzariThe rest of the new characters are largely fine, and while they’re clearly grounded in their parents’ personalities, they’re not just carbon copies — Cap’s son James is less worthy than his father, for instance; Black Panther’s son Azari is less elbows-out; and so on. Though Hawkeye Jr. is a little skeevy… Writer Christopher Yost has done a fair job of crafting realistic-enough kids, and in an era when superheroes seem to spend more time fighting amongst themselves than they do against villains, it’s nice that this team largely get on — though not in an overly-rosy “it’s all happy families” way, thankfully.

As for Ultron, they’ve modified his creation story: he was now built by Tony Stark. That’s where they’re going with it in Avengers 2, funnily enough. It gets hardcore fanboys in a tizzy, but clearly it makes far more sense that the inventor of Iron Man would also create a sentient robot (that does look a little bit like Iron Man, kinda) than that the inventor of a miniaturisation suit would.

It’s quite nice to see a new set of characters and a new ‘world’ within a familiar universe — it feels less re-hash-y than the comics and the longer-running movie franchises can. Rage of UltronCoupled with a good plot, which keeps moving and developing rather than setting up one threat and meandering along until a big fight, as well as a few cameos and maybe even surprises along the way, Next Avengers is the kind of movie you expect to be pretty awful kids-only dross, but turns out to actually be pretty darn good.

4 out of 5

Avengers: Age of Ultron is out in the UK tomorrow.

Ultimate Avengers II (2006)

aka Ultimate Avengers 2: Rise of the Panther

2008 #83
Will Meugniot & Richard Sebast | 70 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

Ultimate Avengers IISome things in life baffle me. Form dictates I now list a couple of humorous examples, but we’ll skip that and get to the point: why would you make a direct-to-DVD movie that has a subtitle on the box but not on the film itself? I can understand why titles get tweaked on cinema-release posters and/or subsequent DVD releases — for marketing purposes, say; or clarity — but why, when your title is going direct to the DVD stage, do the titles not match? And why does the box add the subtitle rather than remove it for on-shelf simplicity? I have no answers — it baffles me, remember — but this is the sort of thing I sometimes muse about. The sort of thing that most other people don’t even notice, never mind care about.

Insignificant title issues aside, the fact that (as of writing) 2,365 people have bothered to rate the first Ultimate Avengers on IMDb, while only 1,325 have bothered to rate this second, suggests many were so disappointed by the initial film they didn’t bother with the sequel. Which is something of a shame, because it’s a lot better. Problematically, it’s heavily grounded in the first, picking up several threads that were left hanging — enough so as to make that weak franchise opener required viewing, sadly.

Why’s it better? We’ll get the obvious out of the way: yes, it’s a modern genre sequel, so yes, it’s ‘darker’. In this case that means “more adult”, touching on issues you might not expect in superhero animation with such a low certificate — marital problems, survivor’s guilt, political isolationism, even vague allusions to alcoholism. None are dealt with in any great depth I should add, but it will likely please adult fans wishing for something more “grown-up”. There’s also a greater amount of violence, though much of it is implied, or just off screen, or against bug-like aliens. The animation still isn’t great, though at times seems improved. Equally, while both script and story are better — there’s no pace issue this time — there’s still plenty of clanging dialogue, and the adult subplots aren’t exactly subtly executed.

The climax also has its share of flaws. While most of the story is nicely balanced, it’s over-efficient in wrapping up, in the way that only animation seems allowed to be — for whatever reason, this exact story would comfortably fill a two-hour live-action version. The worst effect of this is that some points aren’t treated with their deserved weight — the death of a major character is so hasty and glossed over that I didn’t even realise it had happened until a brief shot of a memorial in the closing scene. On a less pressing note, the giant alien robots of the final battle leave the film just one leg (per robot) away from becoming a total War of the Worlds rip-off. But this tale is of American origin, so the aliens are defeated not by a clever plot twist, but by brute force.

Despite my attention to the film’s weak points there’s actually plenty to enjoy here, provided animated superhero movies are your thing. There’s more action than the first instalment, a more interesting story, more character development… Even if it’s done at quite a basic level it’s still adequately entertaining, enough that you might wish there was a third. An improvement then, if still flawed, but — ultimately — enjoyable.

4 out of 5

For my review of the first Ultimate Avengers, please look here. Live-action sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron is in UK cinemas from this Thursday, 23rd April 2015.

Ultimate Avengers (2006)

2008 #82
Curt Geda & Steven E. Gordon | 68 mins | DVD | PG / PG-13

Ultimate AvengersWith the big-screen live-action Avengers movie on its way in just two-and-a-half years — once we’ve had a variety of tie-ins to lead into it, of course — now seemed as good a time as any to check out this direct-to-DVD animated version (and its sequel).

I won’t say too much about the plot because, if the rumours are true, the live action film may follow it fairly closely — indeed, the first 15 minutes of Ultimate Avengers presents a roll call of elements already introduced in this summer’s Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk: the Avengers Initiative, a super solider serum, a black Nick Fury, Captain America frozen in ice (OK, so that was only in a deleted scene…) But to follow this story wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing… as long as there were some tweaks.

The primary problem is balance. Ultimate Avengers spends the entire first half assembling the team, the story crawling along at a snail’s pace; consequently, there’s nothing like enough time to do the remaining plot justice, leaving much of it to feel rushed. However, the tale itself retains an appropriately comic-book feel — no surprise considering it’s adapted from a specific storyline — while still containing just about enough information to keep newcomers covered. Were it properly paced, and bolstered by the main characters being introduced in their own films, there’s no real reason this wouldn’t suffice in live action.

On the other hand, in its current incarnation it’s very much Captain America’s story — possibly a problem for the 2011 version, as it will follow Cap’s debut feature by just two months. If his solo outing isn’t a success — particularly if whoever plays him is no good — it would likely sink an Avengers movie that was as focused on him as this. Not encumbered with such problems here it works fine, though it’s disappointing how little we see of other major players — Tony Stark/Iron Man barely features and there’s even less of Thor. That said, Bruce Banner/Hulk gets a key subplot which could be even better if fully developed.

Dodging further predictive comparisons for a moment, the animation quality is variable. Some is very good — mainly the opening World War II-set action sequence — but most is no better than you’d expect from a kid’s TV cartoon (unless they’ve got even worse recently). It does the job adequately, but there’s little exemplary. If there’s a theme emerging it’s this: promise is shown, but not fully realised. That’s not the fault of the medium of course, but rather the brief running time and unbalanced structure.

When the live-action Avengers reaches our screens, I suspect this animated outing will be of greater interest — an intriguing point of comparison between a direct-to-DVD fan-aimed version and a Summer Blockbuster mass audience version of (possibly) the same story. Of course, by that point, Ultimate Avengers will be half a decade old and no longer such a contemporary — or memorable — example.

3 out of 5

Ultimate Avengers II will be reviewed tomorrow, Tuesday 21st April 2015. Live-action sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron is in UK cinemas from Thursday 23rd.