Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

★★★★

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Avengers Age of Ultron PosterDirector: Joss Whedon

Release Date: April 23rd, 2015 (UK); May 1st, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo

When Marvel rolls into town, you can absolutely expect two things: sarcastic humour and blistering action. The first phase of Kevin Feige’s super-cinema initiative had both of these in abundance. Iron Man brought the wit, Thor the hoopla and while Hulk mainly sulked, Captain America struck a balance between fun and funny. Phase Two, especially since The Winter Soldier, has provided something even more. Sure, those characteristics are still plentiful but now that the franchise’s myriad of characters have had time to flex their muscles — or branches — storytelling has the stage.

In a way, Avengers: Age of Ultron is the perfect amalgamation of everything MCU-related up until now. It is formulaic in the sense that you know the narrative structure before the lights go down: early energetic sequences designed to engross, a meatier, more reserved middle section, and finally a ball-busting finale. That’s not just superhero cinema, that’s action cinema. The antithesis of formulaic, however, is how director Joss Whedon almost manages to divulge equal spotlight to the most star-studded cast on the silver screen.

We re-rendezvous with the Spandexed Six during a battle in the frosty forests of Eastern Europe, where ardent anti-swearer Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans) is calling the shots. The raid is a success, thankfully, with the Avengers managing to obtain Loki’s sceptre. It’s an opening scene worthy of closing many a superhero jaunt, packed with effervescent camera work and some fist-pumping teamwork: Cap and Thor’s shield-hammer double team manoeuvre is a particular highlight. The Asgardian receives the least amount of screen time, certainly it feels that way, which is a shame as Chris Hemsworth’s gallant personification has become a wholesome source of entertainment.

As it turns out, Loki’s magic stick is the final piece Tony Stark needs to initiate his Ultron program, a system designed to defend the world from extraterrestrial threat. Stark’s unfiltered approach, driven by his insistence on protecting others and living up to expectations, ends in disaster when the artificially intelligent Ultron (James Spader) embarks on a violent purge of humankind.

The film fragments its characters when they’re not in the process of resisting their machine-bodied, prescient enemy. Hawkeye finally gets his chance to shine as a result, and Jeremy Renner hits the mark when it comes to emotional beats and wry comedy. A scene towards the end is one of the funniest of the entire franchise, this down as much to the actor as the writing. It pits Hawkeye, bow in hand, directing murmured threats towards a companion (“Nobody would know”). Nobody would.

The bowman has largely been ignored up until this point because he is just that, a supremely skilled man with bow. By inconspicuously embracing this notion, Whedon and company essentially break the third wall. Under the guidance of many others, playing the ‘normal guy challenging adversity’ card might have come across as cheesy and cheap, but Renner’s earnestness encourages us to believe in the character.

Draped in American patriotism and outdated chivalry, Captain America once could have flailed in the same situation — embodying an unrealistic symbol of humanity. Fortunately, since his initiation back in 2011 Chris Evans has injected palpable authenticity into Cap, and here we watch Evans evolve into a true leader with stature and assuredness. Even the egotistic Stark quips, “Actually, he’s the boss”. The piece is littered with Civil War previews built upon the duo’s clashing ideologies, paving the way for another Captain America instalment currently brimming with potential.

Age of Ultron, despite the customary destructiveness, is actually at its most compelling when it hones in on the people involved. It’s basically a quarter of a billion dollar psych evaluation, with relationships tightened or, as above, hollowed. Mark Ruffalo maintains his best-Hulk-yet aura, often sharing solid romantic screen time with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are the latest lover-to-sibling converts, following on from Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort. The Godzilla co-stars play Wanda and Pietro Maximoff respectively, both welcome additions despite some shaky accent work.

As the main villain, James Spader has stumbled into an almost impossible task. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki managed to eclipse convention by being devious and charismatic in equal measure. Computer generated Ultron is a bad entity, plain and simple, and Spader’s croaky voice is packed full of calm menace, which works really well. But comparison, perhaps unfairly so, is inevitable and the character isn’t as enticing on screen as Loki.

The main problem abound throughout Age of Ultron is a familiar one: in handling so many characters, Whedon must oversee the lighting of touchpaper for multiple story arcs. You can feel the film seeping at the seams on occasion, with so much being rammed into such a short window (though, ironically, two and a half hours is normally an overindulgent runtime). Resultantly, some of the goings-on are left underfed. Hot off heels of Alex Garland’s probing science-fiction parable Ex Machina, the AI story told between Ultron and the Vision here isn’t quite as fascinating as recent evidence suggests it could have been.

Not consigned to resting on its opening sequence laurels, the piece ups the ante even more during a blistering, if somewhat disorienting, conclusion. You do get the sense that the stakes are shuffling their way up a notch the longer the clash between our Avengers and Ultron’s robot army goes on. By the time Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman’s booming score coalesces with Ben Davis’ now signature circular shot, goosebumps are flourishing. We’ve seen it before, and yet it carries no less weight this time around.

This is a Marvel film first and foremost, and a properly pulsating one at that. We live in a cynical world when it comes to big budget blockbuster movies, and at $300 million this is a very big budget blockbuster movie. But it’s one that doesn’t discriminate against proper storytelling and intelligent character development in favour of the extra exploding vehicle. Prompted by a build-up where hype levels usurped dollar bills, Age of Ultron matches expectations — at least, for my money.

Avengers Age of Ultron - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios

Godzilla (2014)

★★★

Godzilla (2014) PosterDirector: Gareth Edwards

Release Date: May 15th, 2014 (UK); May 16th, 2014 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe

On a scale respectively topped and tailed by Gareth Edwards’ Monsters and Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, the former’s reincarnation of the latter beast is perched around the middle. In other words, Godzilla 2014 is something of a disappointment. Not a bad film, far from it. In fact its technical aspects are better than many a modern blockbuster has to offer. Edwards’ contemporary version of the giant kaiju is both reminiscent and magnificent, and it bellows a rumbling roar that’ll have your popcorn flying and Coke Zero spilling. The problem isn’t when he’s on screen, but when he’s not. The director’s intentions are clear and commendable: to gather tension in preparation for that first monster reveal. But while said anxieties are simmering the characters must carry the torch and they, unfortunately, are burned by a deficiency in multi-dimension.

Having attempted to destroy the creature known as Godzilla half a century ago with the aid of nuclear weaponry, civilisation now faces another threat in the form of Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTO). Physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) believes that a 1999 earthquake in Janjira, Japan is actually a government cover-up rather than a natural disaster, shielding from view the mistakes of humankind. His son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) heads out to Japan after hearing of his father’s arrest and witnesses first-hand the validity of Joe’s argument in the form of a creature wreaking havoc on everything in its path.

Clocking in at just over two hours, Godzilla is a game of two halves. The first hones in on the people involved and their actions, whereas the second explodes into a big-budget blockbuster bonanza. For a long time we don’t see Godzilla, instead teased only by murmurings and the occasional fin shot. In the monster’s place are a number of characters set to fulfil a variety of uninspired roles and, sadly, none of them really matter. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ford isn’t a compelling lead and it’s not just him either. Ford is our latch, the constant human presence who we are supposed to invest in: he has the loyalty chops as a US Navy officer, whilst his young family denotes a common identity and demands empathy. But we’ve seen it all before. There’s nothing particularly special about him, nor anyone else. Ford’s wife is a nurse and she spends her limited screen time frantically pushing hospital gurneys and panicking over the phone.

It doesn’t help that those portraying these inconsequential characters are a talented bunch, their talents frustratingly wasted to all intents and purposes. Elizabeth Olsen, the aforementioned wife, is fairly fresh off of exceptional work in the likes of Martha Marcy May Marlene, but here she’s diminished to nothing more than husband-fodder. Bryan Cranston plays Ford’s father and probably delivers the best performance as his character’s flesh is allowed to grow, but even he struggles to be memorable. It’s less of a shame than a surprise really, given Edwards’ track record when it comes to delivering engaging presences on-screen. Perhaps we’ve become attuned to gorging our way through masses of CGI and rip-roaring action when blockbuster season hits and in that sense, well-rounded human beings aren’t necessarily top of the menu. However, given the nature of this narrative in particular — one that endeavours to build before letting loose — audience captivation must begin with the characters as they are the primary load carriers.

The story itself is customary and therefore doesn’t offer much in the way of support to its participants. We watch an awful lot of Tab A into Slot B shenanigans — there’s to-ing and fro-ing aplenty — but again, we’re only really here to see gargantuan beasts collide. Right? On occasion the film does delve into the semantics of its historical monstrous figure and in those moments Edwards is in control. The opening sequence sets an ominous tone as the theory of natural selection is enshrined by images of nuclear testing and bolstered by a booming sound. Not long after, Japan’s misfortune sees it become the site of both natural and human-made catastrophe; we view both a volcano and a nuclear power plant as they loom forebodingly over family homes and a local school. Somewhere amongst the raft of uninteresting characters and impressive effects is a serious satirical backbone that denounces the domineering attitude of humanity. (“The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control and not the other way around.”) Edwards brings a semblance of dignity and respect to the nuclear-nature fable, two traits totally lost throughout the franchise’s 1998 meltdown, and this version would benefit further from purveying greater impetus in this regard.

The director’s obvious admiration is also wholly captured in Godzilla’s visual manifestation. The reptile is a mishmash of classic and modern, wearing a familiar scaly attire that has been furnished by digital implants to make the creature look as grotesquely fearsome as ever (and, thankfully, as un-tyrannosaurus rex-like as possible). The reptile itself is going through post-Emmerich debilitation syndrome and Edwards successfully paves the way for phase one of recovery. The filmmaker who now infamously created his previous outing whilst curtailed by a minute budget of only $500,000, is eager to unleash the grander financial backing afforded to him here and to the Brit’s credit, he absolutely makes the most out of the cash available. From an early mine visual through to the final showdown, no skyscraper is left standing and each demolition job is almost as fun as the last. The ghostly infestations of urban decimation seen in Monsters are carried into this outing, destroyed landscapes as disconcerting as they are imposing. The film is also capped off by one of the year’s best scenes: a HALO jump that is both haunted by eerie hums and utterly scintillating in execution.

Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is an odd concoction. His decision to reveal the monster later in the game is a good idea. A great one in fact. But the minutes subsequently left action-depraved must then be filled by goings-on that are even more engaging, and the characters offered are simply unable to comply. Perhaps high expectations are to blame but, more than anything else, Godzilla is an opportunity missed.

Godzilla - ATJ

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Legendary Pictures, Warner Bros.