Film (2015). Marvel Studios in association with Paramount Pictures. Written and directed by Joss Whedon. Story by Zac Penn and Whedon, based on the Marvel Comic by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Cast includes Paul Bettany, Don Cheadle, Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Clark Gregg, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Kretschmann, Elizabeth Olsen, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Renner, Marc Ruffalo, James Spader, Aaron Taylor-Johnson. 141 minutes. Colour.
It is perhaps not entirely fair to fault Avengers: Age of Ultron for being so consummately true to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whose all-consuming self-referentiality it "honours" without dropping a stitch: the skills required, and the sacrifices made to attain the level of obedience to template here achieved, are conspicuously evident throughout. The most obvious technical challenge its makers took triumphantly in hand was clearly that of co-ordinating, in terms consistent with the franchise bible, a wide range of prowess-displays on the part of various trademarked Superheroes – Gods and Demons, Mutants, Robots, Androids, Cyborgs and Aliens; plus the occasional gifted example of unaltered Homo sapiens – all of whom must be allowed to escape the eyekick-tapestry background most of them mostly occupy, and to enjoy a stage-front vaudeville turn during which their unique manna can be displayed, at least once.
But the makers' task was not as simple as that, as the film demands that this congeries of Marvel action figures must act out their mutually incompatible powers as an ensemble, without bashing each other to smithereens (it is sometimes a close call, even with an unprecedently heavy use of VFX). Writer/director Whedon must be deemed primarily responsible for managing this feat, this balletic translation of normal scene staging via advanced motion capture into something like parkour: one suspects his script was less written than labanotated. At the same time, however, quite astonishingly, while dancing this maze, each hero or heroine is also given at least one customized quip to utter, in terms entirely consistent with the carefully artefacted personality kits – one per superhero – whose Marvel Comics-derived rote quiddities Whedon had to honour. Age of Ultron is perhaps the smartest superhero film yet made.
That all this obedient inwardness might seem airless may have been a cost its makers anticipated, as being both inherent to a mid-series instalment that cannot come to climax, but more generally inherent to the task of maintaining the internalized thrust of Marvel's Premised Land, a cognitively vacuous though minutely bibled Multiverse-like array of loosely conjoined Alternate Worlds whose storylines depend upon, and whose bully-pulpit value system is defined by, Superheroes. Marvel's need to maintain strict control over this array may explain the fact that there has been no attempt – indeed, one suspects the converse – to confiscate from the real history of this planet any even remotely plausible Jonbar Point to explain how this universe came about. Despite occasional references to the history of the twentieth century, usually World War Two and/or the Cold War, and to a mythologized version of New York, almost always here called something else, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is profoundly detached, encased within a gated-community solipsism that renders it incapable of the world-sensitive address of sf at its best, or of Fantastika as a whole. Each new film in the sequence – significantly now almost always a sequel or a reboot – increasingly focuses on an all-devouring centripetal narrative megatext from which no Ishmaels have yet escaped.
It is true that within this denial-friendly domain something called America – along with various faked-up foreign locations riddled by terrorists, which is to say safe venues whose denizens already look like migrants – will be threatened or in fact secretly ruled (see Secret Masters) by a constant escalation of toolkit enemies, from heritage geeks in Powered Armour up to the nearly invincible AIs or Aliens now almost mandatory, Age of Ultron being prolific with such figures. But these worlds are fantasticated from within the walls of Marvel, the enemies are from the toolkit; and the End of the World, which the Avengers team of vigilantes must prevent in this film (as usual), seems to function primarily as an internal plot device whose introduction as threat marks a point about two-thirds through the action when the heroes, battered by their first encounters with the villain of the moment, will be summoned from morose R & R to devise a new Weapon and re-enter the fray. But no stigmata of genuine suffering, no real fears of a genuine End of the World – which, as is customary in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is threatened through the action of Villains and their minions, none of whom are us – can be admitted here. What Age of Ultron offers, from inside the Marvel belljar, is speed.
It would be to grant its predecessor The Avengers (2012) too much gravitas to suggest that Age of Ultron replaces history with farce, as there is no history to replace. But it is possible to catch en passant some bits of actual narrative, all the same. Much of the action is set in the made-up Eastern European country of Sokovia, heavily populated by shopkeepers, young men staring skywards, women attempting to shelter children, and huddled masses (see Imperialism; Race in SF). A HYDRA outpost (see mainly Captain America: The Winter Soldier), under the command of von Strucker (Kretschmann), is under assault by the Avengers team, comprising at this point by Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey Jr), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Evans), Thor (Renner), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Johansson), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Renner). The action is carefully calibrated to allow Thor (who is a god) to perform universe-busting feats in partnership with Hawkeye, whose vulnerability (he is merely human, and suffers bad bruises) must come close to violating PG-13 strictures against any visible wounding to protagonists as the world ends in cataclysm, though insurgents in their own countries are not similarly exempt, ever. Two opposing Superheroes are encountered, twins: Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver (Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Olsen), who fancy each other within PG-13 limits, and who can control the minds of others; everyone else is very lucky they never quite get their acts together, as in unison they are "realistically" unstoppable. The raid on HYDRA is successful, and the team is able to snatch the fantasy sceptre inside of which, djinn-like, lives an AI Stark was seeking.
Stark and Banner secretly implant this AI into Ultron, a distributed defense network Stark has developed; but the AI has a mission of its own, which is to save the planet, which in Marvel Cinematic Universe speak is synonymous with destroying the planet. As the villain of this film, Ultron is willing to sacrifice Homo sapiens in order to accomplish his goal. "The human race," he says,
had every opportunity to improve. And if they don't? Ask Noah. There have already been more than a dozen extinction events: even the dinosaurs got theirs. When the earth starts to settle, God throws a stone at it. And, believe me, He is winding up.
The rest is action. The entire cast is challenged in turn. Ultron recaptures Strucker's base in Sokovia, necessitating the evacuation of the city (not even refugees can be killed on screen); luckily, Sokovians seem to be used to this sort of thing, and abandon their livelihoods in scenes of portion-controlled pathos. Ultron then levitates Sokovia, in order to manufacture a Robot army in peace. JARVIS, Stark's AI from earlier movies, dons new Powered Armour and eventually, now known as Vision, collaborates with others – along with Nick Fury (Jackson) of S.H.I.E.L.D, who has been acting as a Secret Master of the gang – to destroy Ultron. In a final scene placed deep into the credits, we are introduced to an irritated Thanos – a quasi-omnipotent Immortal from Titan (see Jupiter) who first appeared in the Comic Iron Man #53 (1973) – in his fortress deep in what may be interstellar space, who prepares to take over after the failure of his minion Ultron. Almost certainly given the Marvel team's patent familiarity with the SF Megatext, this scene is meant to evoke the Slingshot Ending scale change that closes off each volume in the main sequence of E E Smith's Lensmen series with a promise of bigger things to come. These bigger things duly emerge in Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and its sequel or second part (projected for 2019). There is no sure bet, however, that Thanos will be terminal enough to bring about the End of the World. [JC]
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