Avengers: Age Of Ultron does pretty much all that the first Avengers movie did, and does it so well it’s difficult to identify what exactly is wrong with it. I sat through this superhero movie grinning and smiling like an idiot, and enjoyed all the comical banter, but I left feeling unfinished, as if I was building up to something enlightening and got rudely awakened by the end of the movie.
I think it’s got to do with two things: 1) while the villain, Ultron, is designed and envisioned with menace, he doesn’t fit into the plot as being absolutely necessary; he feels tacked on, like the last hour of We’re The Millers (2013). I’ll explain this a bit more. And 2) the action scenes are edited not to tell audiences who is where and what they’re doing, but to confuse and sicken. Here is a movie that should know, almost instinctively, how to shoot and edit superhero action spectacles, but somehow it manages to mess up so badly I had no idea what was going on.
Ultron is an android voiced by James Spader. Spader does a great job. No complaints there.
Here’s what I don’t get. Ultron is synthesised by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), because Tony suffers a hallucination that foretells the destruction of The Avengers at his hands. He determines Ultron to be a necessary step in the protection of the world. But creating artificial intelligence, as proven by HAL before, is a recipe for disaster. Indeed, before long, Ultron has infected the network and booted himself into a robotic body to proclaim to the Avenging world that he plans to wipe out civilisation. Why? Where did this hostility come from? Was there a 50-50 chance that Ultron would play on the side of good, and The Avengers just lucked out? By the end of the film I still didn’t fully believe or even comprehend his motives, nor did I really know how he was going to achieve his vision.
The movie also begins with the completion of a mission, which is usually ominous because something arbitrary and unexpected has to happen to kickstart the plot. Think really hard — you’ll realise that Ultron, and by extension the rest of the story, is the result of chance, not design.
Now, the action. This is a simple case of understanding the basics of filming action scenes, organising them into a logical series of substantial shots that arrange the action on screen into excitement. It might sound a little complicated, but the Chinese have been mastering it for years. Filmmakers like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung sympathise with the marriage of movies and martial arts. They know how the human body moves in front of a camera, and therefore know where and how to position their cameras to make themselves look good. They pull back with their editing, relying on instinctive knowledge about beats and rhythms to show us that not only do they know how to fight, they know how to film themselves fighting (if you want to see a Hollywood film that employs this strategy effectively, see last year’s John Wick).
By contrast, the action in Age Of Ultron appears to be cut together by an incensed teenager suffering from ADHD. Most shots don’t last more than a second, and there are so many cuts and jolts The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) seems to travel through multiple dimensions before crashing into a building. The result is gruesomely disorienting. Some shots don’t even hold long enough for us to identify whose body it is that’s hurtling through the air. Much of it is guess work, and there’s only so much guessing one can muster before surrendering.
This is odd, because Age Of Ultron is directed by Joss Whedon and edited by Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek, who also worked on the first Avengers, and they did a fine job with that one.
I apologise if I’ve made this review sound drab. I am merely trying to articulate what I thought didn’t work. To be sure, much of Age Of Ultron does work, and I was entertained by it. The cast, in particular, now runs like a well-oiled pneumatic pump. In one scene, the movie’s best, all the Avengers lounge around a coffee table and try to pry Thor’s hammer off it. Why is this the best scene? It could be because it highlights the fluent camaraderie that exists beneath the surface of the film and gives it life, or it could be because of the simple, undeniable, satisfying fact that there is no action in it, and is therefore not confusing.
Best Moment | “You want me to help you put Jarvis in this thing?”, “No! Of course not. I want to help you put Jarvis in this thing”
Worst Moment | “Will Thor be there…?”