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.

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X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

2014 #113
Bryan Singer | 132 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

X-Men: Days of Future PastI think I’ve previously discussed my life-long love of the X-Men franchise, so I shan’t go into detail again, but suffice to say Days of Future Past has been one of my most-anticipated movies ever since the title (which is that of a classic and influential story from the comics) was announced. Thank goodness, then, that the final result doesn’t disappoint.

After two Wolverine-focused spin-offs and a ’60s-set prequel, Days of Future Past returns us to the world of the original X-Men movie cast — Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen and all the rest. Only now it’s a future dystopia, where mutants are killed or imprisoned by giant robots called Sentinels. A gang of former X-Men led by Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) think they’ve worked out a way to send someone back in time to before the incident that incited this terrible future, so that they can stop it. The man chosen is — of course — Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Transported back into his 1970s body, Wolverine must find the younger Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), reunite him with an imprisoned younger Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and stop younger Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating the inventor of the Sentinels, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). Throw in almost every other mutant who’s ever appeared in the extensive ensemble casts of the four previous X-Men movies, and you’ve got yourself an epic — reportedly the second-most-expensive film ever made by 20th Century Fox (after Avatar).

There’s an awful lot going on in Days of Future Past, which, if you want to dig into it, makes for quite a rich film. There’s the obvious need to balance major storylines taking place in both the past and the future, though the latter has been sacrificed to focus on the former — quite literally, in the sense that a subplot centred around Anna Paquin’s Rogue was famously deleted (leaving Paquin with high billing for a three-second cameo). There’s also the inevitable complexity of time travel stories — how do changes in the past impact on the future, etc. Men of Future PastBeyond that, there’s the characters: the younger versions are having to deal with the fall-out from First Class, which tore apart friendships and families; meanwhile, Wolverine is having to deal with a new level of responsibility and maturity — he is, almost literally, having to do for Charles what the professor did for him back in the first X-Men movie.

You wouldn’t think of an X-Men feature being an actors’ movie, and at the end of the day it’s not really, but there’s enough material for a quality actor like McAvoy to sink his teeth into. When we meet him Charles is a disillusioned drug addict, entirely different to the man we know from First Class and his future as Patrick Stewart. He’s forced to face his demons in every way possible: stopping his drugs, accepting his mutant superpowers, facing up to the man who did this to him, and the woman he raised as a sister but who turned on him… None of this is necessary to serve the blockbuster spectacle that the film also excels in, but it makes for deeper viewing than your average 2010s tentpole.

If McAvoy is the star, many of the rest of the cast do alright. As mentioned, Jackman has a bit on his plate as a one-time loner trying to become a teacher. Jennifer Lawrence is best served, the depth of her role no doubt bolstered by her Oscar-winning success elsewhere in the acting world. Although the original story also features Mystique as the antagonist, she’s far less conflicted: it’s a straight-up assassination attempt. The dilemmas that leave her torn between Xavier and Magneto are entirely an invention of the film franchise, but they make for a much more interesting story — it’s genuinely unpredictable what she’ll do and who she’ll side with.

Villain of Future PastNot everyone gets to shine in a cast this big, although pretty much everyone gets a moment. The future-set cast have the least to do, people like Halle Berry turning up to do little more than show their face, though Stewart and McKellen get a moment or two worthy of their talents. After he was the focus of the last film, Fassbender is slightly shortchanged here; but after McAvoy gave him essential support in First Class, Fassbender plays the same service here, informing Charles’ journey. Of the new additions, Evan Peters as Quicksilver (that’s the one who’ll also be played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Avengers: Age of Ultron) gets both laughs and the film’s stand-out action sequence, as he races around a room, literally faster than a speeding bullet, to save our heroes. Dinklage, on the other hand, is underused. As with Stewart and McKellen, the fact he’s an excellent actor brings extra layers to the little he does have to do, but if you want to see what he can really do you’ll need to get your Game of Thrones box sets back out.

For those that like their blockbusters explosive and adrenaline-pumping rather than character-driven, Days of Future Past doesn’t drop the ball. It kicks off with a mutant vs. Sentinel sequence that innovates with an X-Woman who can create portals. I’m sure this looked grand in 3D, with all that depth disappearing through the other side of the aforementioned gateways. The side effect for us 2D viewers is that Singer is a skilled filmmaker: he does the sensible thing and holds his shots longer, reigning in the fast cutting style of most modern action sequences. That’s essential in 3D, for viewers’ brains to get their bearings, but is a nice change of pace in 2D too.

Quick as a flash...Later, there’s the aforementioned ‘slow-mo’ sequence, and the grand climax, which offers more “fly something big around” antics a la First Class’ submarine, only considerably grander. Yet for all the spectacle, the final moments once again come down to character: what is Magneto prepared to do? What is Mystique prepared to do? Will anyone listen to Charles? And so on. Even the much-vaunted Marvel Studios movies tend to base their climaxes in slabs of ‘epic’ CGI crashing into each other; Days of Future Past does that for a bit, then brings the characters back into focus for the real final beats.

By all rights, Days of Future Past should be a mess. There’s too many characters, too many storylines, too many time periods, too much inconsistency in the continuity of the previous films to allow for a time travel-focused story. Actually, in the case of the latter, it’s used to straighten things out a bit: events we saw in The Last Stand are barely acknowledged and, by the end, are completely eradicated. As for the rest, well, turns out everyone involved actually knew what they were doing, in spite of the fears of some fanboys. Those who number certain characters among their favourites may feel ill-served by some cameo-level appearances, but for less wedded viewers, all the roles are well balanced.

Despite the all-franchise team-up, this is First Class 2 as much as it’s X-Men 5, and that’s only right — although it leaves the door open for more adventures featuring the future X-Men, their stories are probably all told. It’s already been confirmed that the next film, X-Men: Apocalypse, will be First Class 3, taking the younger cast into the ’80s and centred on MystiqueWoman of Future Past (Jennifer Lawrence being the third pillar of the past triumvirate, as they’ve already focused on Xavier and Magneto). While Days of Future Past does wrap up the majority of its threads (the open-ended ones are answered by previous films, if you want them to be), there’s plenty there to play with in the next film (and, perhaps, ones beyond that) if they want to… which they do.

But that’s for the future. For now, debate can rage over which is the best X-Men film. Personally, I’m just glad that we’re in a situation where there are three or four X-Men movies that are contenders for the crown of, not only the best in the series, but to be among the best comic book movies ever made. And as that’s the genre du jour, it’s an important title to hold. Whether Days of Future Past’s all-eras team-up can best X2 or First Class, I don’t know, but it stands alongside them.

5 out of 5

X-Men: Days of Future Past placed 9th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.