The marketing team behind Marvel Entertainment is so omnipresent, that it's virtually impossible to avoid hints about what's coming up in their next film. You try hard to avoid spoilers, but there's still the publicity interviews and gifs floating around tumblr and tweets from the cast members.
(On that note, spoilers follow: you’ve been warned)
Thus it was that I sat down to watch The Avengers: Age of Ultron expecting the Black Widow movie I felt like I'd been promised. We'd get to see the back story of Scarlet Johansson’s Natasha Romanov, I had read, a sop to fans who have wanted a female-led Marvel movie for longer than it took to cook up a Captain Marvel film.
In this film, a pregnant ScarJo performs stunts on motorbikes and planes, she throws and runs and scales and jumps out of a plane. And the backstory we were promised? A couple of minutes of flashback that you'd have to have a pretty deep knowledge of comics to understand. (Or, probably, to have read Black Widow’s Wikipedia page.) Instead we get Clint “Hawkeye” Barton's life story, and as superhero-movie twists go, it's hardly epic. In a film that promised so much, why focus on the least interesting Avenger?
Jeremy Renner’s Barton, we’re given to believe, is the heart of these new post-Shield Avengers, led by Captain America, bankrolled by Tony Stark, a “G7 summit of world-saving and crime-fighting with every constituent member becoming a veritable Angela Merkel of demurely offbeat virility”. They’re fighting Ultron, a villain played with such relish by James Spader, it’s easy to forget he’s entirely computer generated. And he looks amazing. I spent at least part of every scene trying to look inside his skull.
Ultron is cooked up in a lab by Stark and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner – a suit of armour around the world, but inevitably, that all goes horribly wrong. Along the way, the Avengers first battle and then adopt Pietro Maximoff, or Quicksilver, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and his twin sister Wanda Maximoff, or Scarlet Witch, played by Elizabeth Olsen.
I’m a Marvel fangirl – without having read a comic in my life. I fall asleep to Captain America: The Winter Soldier a couple of times a week. I had such high hopes. And with hopes that high, it's impossible to fulfil them. It was always going to be difficult to knit this many storylines together and take the Marvel Cinematic Universe somewhere new.
As big-budget summer blockbusters go, it has everything you want: A line up of impossibly beautiful people defying the odds and coming together as a team to defend something as formless as the "grace of humanity". It is spectacular to look at – the explosions are bigger and better, the locations more exotic, the graphics almost seamless. It’s all stupidly fun.
As villains go, Ultron is the obvious culmination of Robert Downey Jnr’s character arc across the three Iron Man films – in protecting the world he puts it in harm’s way. Ultron is less bastard child, and more evil twin, except his jokes aren’t as funny. “He’s in the internet” is the cry – as though someone forget that Winter Soldier already covered this territory, and in a better and more timely way.
Two scenes stick with me. The first, near the end of the film, one of the moments that make the trailer: our heroes, together, guarding a button that must not be pressed. Music swells, and the camera pans across the assembled Avengers, before all hell breaks loose.
People and robots are fighting, sweeping across the scene, shooting and punching and wielding hammers in a completely bonkers choreographed set piece. It looks incredibly cool, but it's also madly confusing, and it feels like it's there not to tell the story, but simply because the filmmakers wanted to see how far they could push their graphics – and because it’d make great footage for the trailer.
The second scene comes moments later, the final confrontation between a battered (and toothless) Ultron, and newly-minted avenger Vision. Paul Bettany’s Vision is at least in part Stark’s artificially intelligent butler come life coach Jarvis, but without the delightful British sarcasm. If the quips about Captain America's dislike of strong language hadn't made me roll my eyes, the “humanity is doomed but noble” conversation would have.
Noted male feminist Joss Whedon has a history of being awful to his women characters. Ultron is no exception. Bruce Banner and Tony Stark get to be mad scientists, Cap and Vision get to be insufferable, Thor is epic (and doesn’t have much else to do). The emotional heft of the film is carried by Black Widow and the Scarlet Witch.
None of this is to say that I won't watch the film again, and buy it the minute I can. But I wanted something more – fewer explosions, more heart. After Avengers, Whedon said the way to top that film was to make it smaller – “more personal, more painful”. He has admitted he failed spectacularly to do that. Perhaps he should have tried harder.
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