It wasn’t until I was flicking through channels, and came upon The Incredibles, that the realisation hit me: there’s a reason why Avengers, and its sequel Age of Ultron (AoU), are as good as they are, despite being stuck in the confines of the superhero genre. In a subtle refined way, amidst an overwhelming supply of comic book materials, padded with bombast and explosions, flung at consumers in every imaginable medium, the three movies share a muted, almost relaxed, centre; a solemn calm in a perpetual sea-storm – it’s directors.
To call any superhero movie an auteur’s work, creates a hot-bed for creative argument. Not with standing that, these movies come pretty close to the notion.
The Incredibles (2004), directed by Brad Bird, an animation that is perhaps less animated then most comic book movies, was mature years ago, when we were less used to men and women, clad in chic oxygen-cutting skintight spandex, saving mankind from harrowing oblivion. Bird made his movie around people you could relate to. Not the pomp and circumstances of 3D and videogame-ish kaboom. By Avengers, eight years later, we had become thick-skinned, and yet, the director, Joss Whedon, presents an impossibly wild concoction within an awfully confined headspace. Working within a set of movies in a shared, and gradually expanding universe of comic properties isn’t a happy holiday by any measure.
Whedon’s work, both writing and direction wise, translated beautifully with the first Avengers, in part because he gave centre stage to people, rather than single-minded hero archetypes. In pivotal moments, we see two characters talking, jesting, arguing, coaxing, and to pull that off efficiently is harder than whipping up a vfx driven action sequence. As a build-up from these moments, characters turn into a functioning group brimming with camaraderie, who, when tag-teamed later to take down greater evil by the obligatory city-stomping finish, become real people rather than silhouettes.
Burdened grimness – a high-selling point as far as Batman, and now Superman movies are fascinated with – wasn’t applicable either; in Avengers, the skies looked clear with colour and even dramatic beats, like Tony Stark’s traumatic revelation of an impending worldwide assault come Avengers 3, is handled without cinematic bossiness.
For instance, the opening action sequence is linked directly to the Agents of Shield finale from television. In a spiritual sense similar to the first movie’s climax,we see the Avengers working in unison in a slightly fake looking, andwholly gratifying throw-down – yes, the two divergences do work together if structured well. Tonally, and this is again Whedon’s slight-of-hand, the scene – right down to its jarring imposing title card – feels like a James Bond opener, than that of a superhero flick.The rest of the AoU branches off into a slight take of good intentions, and original sin, gone wrong.
Tony Stark’s realisation of an upcoming catastrophe has him and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) creating the Ultron ‘safe-keeping’ project. The program gains sentience when Loki’s scepter, a device we learn plays a crucial role later in AoU, warps its logic. Ultronescapes, recruits twin genetic experiments Wanda and Pietro Maximofffrom neo-Nazi villains Hydra (re: Captain America: Winter Soldier and Agents of Shield). Wanda (aka.The Scarlet Witch – Elizabeth Olsen with an accent) can manipulate minds and kinetically displace objects; Pietro (Quicksilver; Aaron Taylor-Johnson) can run really, really fast. Soon, the Avengers are badly battered without a plan, that is, until – as it happens in movies, and real life – a plan forms up.
The constraints imposed on AoU issuffocating at times – especially if seen from a filmmaker’s point of view. Still, the lack of adornment on the material is handled with discretion. Whedon allots moments, in sparse segments to under used heroes – in particular both Bruce Banner and the Hulk, Natasha Romanov (aka. Black Widow; Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton (aka. Hawkeye, Jeremy Renner) – and turns them into effective pillars of strength the movie itself can fall back on.The big-three solo heroes – Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) – have brief particularities relevant to the overall movie.
Ultron, voiced with malicious, self-pondering villainy by James Spader, is a master-stroke of voice casting. Spader’s Ultron has an idiosyncratic identity that is manipulative, philosophically speculative, and tonally expressive. AoU is as much a pop-corn flick as the Avengers. Every action event is marvelously played – not because it is formulated that way, but because Whedon had fun writing it. When good writing meets stable filmmaking – not one action sequence became a headache or has a short attention span, editing and choreography wise – then the result is nothing less than spectacular. •