Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, Joss Whedon)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When an artificial-intelligence programme called Ultron is let loose, he wants to destroy the world – only the Avengers stand in his way…

This second Avengers film is big, flashy and at times a lot of fun. But because it tries to squeeze so much into a paper-thin plot, none of the elements gets enough attention and the film also feels too long. It’s 136 minutes and sags in the middle under the weight of too many characters and too many action sequences…

In the first scene, as the Avengers launch an attack on a scientific base, there’s a continuous, 59-second shot that reintroduces the six core members of the team. (Well, it’s not actually continuous – you can spot how various elements have been stitched together in post-production – but it’s still impressive.) We meet Clint Barton aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) and Bruce Banner aka the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). They’re a well-drilled team, complementing each other’s abilities and trading quips while they fight.

But some big things have changed since the first Avengers mash-up movie. The SHIELD agency that recruited the gang has been disbanded and our heroes are now a self-governed collective (who even have their own logo). Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Rhodey (Don Cheadle) and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), three secondrary characters from previous films, are still giving them occasional support – but there’s dialogue to explain why conspicuous absentees Pepper Potts and Jane Foster can’t be arsed to turn up to a party. This post-SHIELD set-up feels like a storytelling backwards step after the political machinations of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s more simplistic and less interesting. For example, the film doesn’t make much effort in placing its story in any context – we see lots of civilian extras looking scared, and a few local cops who defer to these vigilantes at a moment’s notice, but there’s little sense of the wider world the characters are trying to save. The Avengers exist in a bubble, so their storyline feels very inward-looking…

Having stumbled across some research into artificial intelligence, Tony Stark wants to use it to run a global defence system. But when the AI system, Ultron, is prematurely activated it goes rogue and – for some reason – decides to wipe out humanity. Tony has other problems too: most of the team didn’t know what he was up to and are angry with his arrogance. Then, after a big action sequence that includes an Iron Man/Hulk face-off and yet more MCU urban carnage, the group is struck by paranoia thanks to one of Ultron’s sidekicks. Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are twins who want revenge on Tony for building the weapons that killed their parents, so initially team up with Ultron. Pietro is super-fast, while Wanda is psychic and plants hallucinations in our heroes’ heads. Tony sees a grim future where his friends are dead; Thor thinks he’s home on Asgard; Natasha flashes back to her cruel childhood; and Steve fantasises he’s at a party with old flame Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell showing up for a one-line cameo).

So, riddled with doubt and fear, the team are in a bad way. The film is too. As the Avengers hide at a safe house, the pace seriously flags. There’s plenty going on – Thor buggers off on a nonsensical subplot; Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) crops up; Natasha angers internet fans by referring to herself as a ‘monster’ because she can’t have children; there’s a sweet romance between Natasha and Bruce – but the script short-changes the 573 subplots and character stories. A new one even gets added into the mix late on, when Tony creates a new being called Vision (Paul Bettany) by combing the personality of his computer Jarvis with an organic body. It’s all very scrappy.

At least the big, third-act sequence has a twist. This series of films has coined a new action-movie cliché: big things falling onto a city. Now, it’s the city itself that’s about to fall because Ultron has floated it up into the sky with the intention of crashing it back to earth. (It’s a big job and means our villain is busy off-screen for curiously long stretches.) The team fight an endless supply of robots, helpless people need rescuing, Avengers make gags. But it all feels very mechanical and verges on boring.

Six WW2 vets out of 10

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Iron Man 3 (2013, Shane Black)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While suffering from anxiety attacks, Tony Stark must defeat a terrorist who’s severely injured an old friend…

One of the most interesting things about the Marvel Cinematic Universe series has been its choice of directors. Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, Joe Johnston, king of the geeks Joss Whedon – these are people with form, hired to make flashy, popcorn-cinema superhero movies. There’s maybe been a change of emphasis in recent years, with Marvel now preferring directors who have either less clout or more experience of working in producer-led television. (A cynical blogger might assume the switch came after visionary director Edgar Wright quit 2015’s Ant-Man at the 11th hour due to  creative differences.)

But for Iron Man 3, the series put all its chips on Shane Black, a writer/director with both a real authorial voice and a proven record of success. Since bursting onto the Hollywood scene as the writer of Lethal Weapon (1987), his career has been notable for both his smart scripts and huge salaries: $1.75 million for The Last Boy Scout (1991), $1 million for rewriting Last Action Hero (1993), $4 million for The Long Kiss Goodnight (1994). He then started directing his own scripts with 2005 caper movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which starred Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr. Black’s style is idiosyncratic, postmodern and full of dark humour. His films are crime stories with vivid characters, deliberately surprising plot developments, sharply comedic dialogue, self-aware voiceovers, and sequences that build up to an archly cool moment…. only for that moment to then be undercut. He also has an obsession with setting stories at Christmas. Well, all those traits appear in Iron Man 3 (which, as well as directing, Black co-wrote with Drew Pearce).

After the events of Avengers Assemble, Tony Stark (Downey Jr) is in a mess. He’s dogged by panic attacks, sleep-deprived, and suffering from flashback nightmares. He’s got PTSD, basically. It’s an instantly interesting place for a movie to position its hero. It gives an extra shading to everything that goes on and, of course, means his journey is all the more textured. Meanwhile, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is still by Tony’s side and even gets to put on the Iron Man suit in an action scene. She then becomes a damsel-in-distress and you think she’s been killed off. But Shane Black revels in subverting clichés: just as you’re wondering why the character’s been treated so shabbily, Pepper shows up alive, kicks some serious ass in a sports bra, and actually *kills the bad guy*. Go, girl power.

That bad guy is businessman Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce, good), though it’s a while into the film before we’re certain he’s behind it all. Initially, the big threat seems to be the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), an Osama bin Laden-type terrorist with an indeterminate accent, a psycho stare and a penchant for broadcasting violent propaganda videos. When one of his attacks puts Tony’s former bodyguard Happy (Jon Favreau, who directed the first two Iron Man films and is now having a ball with his comic-relief sidekick character) in hospital (where he recuperates while watching episodes of Downton Abbey), Tony vows revenge…

As mentioned, when you’re watching a Shane Black film and a cliché is being set up, it’s so the film can then subvert it. This keeps things surprising, refreshing and unpredictable, and lifts his movies above the crowd. Black knows the rules of filmmaking, of movie logic, of genre conventions – and he knows how and when to break them. Iron Man 3 is full of examples of this kind of switcheroo storytelling, from a henchman who immediately surrenders when challenged to the Iron Man suit being destroyed at the worst possible time. The biggest, and best, is the *audacious* plot twist we get at the 72-minute mark. To reveal that the Mandarin is a stooge created by Killian as a decoy and is actually a meek, drug-addled English actor called Trevor Slattery is a bravo moment of the highest order. The gag works so well because we’re used to the theatricality of self-important superhero-movie villains. (And, let’s be honest, because of Ben Kingsley’s reputation as an actor who takes himself too seriously.) It’s pure Shane Black: introducing something you think you’ve seen before and then pulling the rug from underneath you.

If there’s one element of the movie that doesn’t fit that format it’s Rebecca Hall’s character, Maya Hansen, a scientist who gets lost in the mix and feels very functional. The actress has said that the part ended up being very different from what she’d signed on to play, which is a shame as in the finished film she makes very little impression. But overall, this is a superb piece of work. Like all great sequels, it’s more of the same… but different. It’s routinely funny; there’s an engaging story; and the action, such as the free-falling ‘barrel monkey’ sequence, is often spectacular. We also get precisely the right amount of character depth for one of these big superhero tentpoles.

As was the case in Iron Man 2, the middle act here sees Tony at rock bottom. But rather than that earlier film’s maudlin tone, Iron Man 3 has richer and more dynamic storytelling. Some critics and fans have complained about this segment of the movie, saying it’s Iron Man minus Iron Man because it sees Tony with no working suit, no fancy workshop and no huge mansion. But it’s very interesting character development. The world thinks Tony’s been killed, and on a metaphorical level he has been. He’s lost his swagger, he’s lost his support network, and he even refers to the lifeless Iron Man suit as ‘him’, as if detached from his old life. It takes a friendship with a young boy he meets to get him back on track – but again this subplot takes a surprising turn. Tony doesn’t talk down to Harley (Ty Simpkins). He treats him like an equal, which involves being rude and arrogant towards him, and Harley gives as good as he gets. Their friendship is therefore likeable and fun and interesting and entertaining and unpredictable. Just like the film as a whole. The old Tony is back.

Nine beauty-pageant judges out of 10

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Avengers Assemble (2012, Joss Whedon)

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Note: In most of the world, the film is called The Avengers (or, to be pedantic, Marvel’s The Avengers). In the UK and Ireland, however, it was renamed Avengers Assemble to avoid confusion with John Steed, Emma Peel and the rest.

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Asgardian god Loki comes to Earth and prepares for an alien invasion, a group of superheroes is assembled to fight him…

There’d been character-crossover events like this before, but they tended to be monster mash-ups: 1943’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, 2003’s Freddy vs Jason, 2004’s Alien vs Predator and so on. Here, however, it’s multiple superheroes in the same story. It feels huge and it’s very often a lot of fun.

We’re firstly reintroduced to the agents from covert organisation SHIELD – series regulars Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) plus newbie Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) – who are dealing with an incident at their headquarters. Living god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has arrived on earth to steal the Tesseract, a cube of almost unlimited energy. He also hypnotises Barton into being his lackey, which is a shame. The character has barely had any screen time in the series yet so it’s difficult to care about his plight.

Then we cut to Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), who’s recalled from a mission so she can go and recruit Bruce Banner to SHIELD’s cause. Since we last checked in with Banner (in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk) he’s learnt how to control his urge to turn into a giant, green monster… and he’s also changed his face. Edward Norton’s contract negotiations hit a rut so he’s been replaced in the role by Mark Ruffalo, who’s a very interesting and soulful presence in the film. Then Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and eventually Thor aka Thor (Chris Hemsworth) sign up to the squad. There are also a few other subsidiary characters in the mix: Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Jarvis (Paul Bettany) from the Iron Man films, and Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) from Thor’s solo movie (2011).

So that’s our cast. The size of it doesn’t seem that large now, given the enormous roster of characters in later Avengers films, but it’s still a lot of people to keep busy and alive. The script does an impressive job of spinning all the plates, though at times it can feel like you’re watching an extended trailer rather than a fully dramatised story. Whedon uses a lot of short scenes and terse, comic-book-style dialogue. This can often be witty and clever – check out how the last line of one scene often foreshadows the next – but it can also feel very ‘written’. The pithy replies (Rogers: “We need a plan of attack.”/Stark: “I have a plan: attack.”) are fun and always tell us about character, but can mean everything feels a little superficial. When scenes of intimate drama do play out – such as Natasha conning Loki into blabbing some information, or the subplots concerning tensions within the team – it’s engaging stuff. There just aren’t that many examples.

This film is more interested in scope and scale and size and spectacle. It’s 136 minutes for a start, the longest MCU film yet. It begins in deep space with a Skeletor-type alien pontificating about invading the earth. There are huge sets, vast locations, massive action scenes, and many special-effects shots. Avengers Assemble is also clearly set in an even-more-comic-book-y world than its predecessors. Previous films in this series had impressively found real-world justifications for the superhero whimsy. For example, Captain America’s outlandish outfit was explained away as a theatrical costume.

However, here we have an enormous aircraft carrier that (somehow) hovers in the sky, a shadowy cabal who run a global security agency (seemingly with no recourse to any governments), and a secret agent who uses a bow and arrow…. just because. If the film weren’t so pacey and fun, this silliness might be more of a problem. But it *is* funny, as you’d expect from the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. Among the standout gags are Coulson phoning Natasha while she’s tied up by some bad guys; Coulson having a man-crush on Captain America; Tony Stark calling Thor ‘Point Break’; and the Hulk thrashing Loki around like a doll. (Note the mentions of Agent Phil Coulson. He was such a success in this series that he was spun-off into a TV show. The up-and-down Agents of SHIELD is, at time of writing, on its fourth season.)

The humour’s important, because the climax of the film is the most tiresome of modern superhero-movie clichés: the mass destruction of a city. Watch as thousands of people are killed and billions of dollars’ worth of damage is dished out! But try to avoid noticing how our heroes don’t seem that bothered! It’s by no means the only recent superhero film to suffer from this problem. Modern visual-effects designers have shot their loads over collapsing skyscrapers and urban carnage in numerous X-Men, Dark Knight, DC and Marvel films. Of course, an action climax needs *action*. But Avengers Assemble’s final half-hour is MacGuffin-driven nonsense and the big threat is a sensationally dull CG-army plot device. It’s a shame.

Seven men playing chess out of 10

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The Incredible Hulk (2008, Louis Leterrier)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is on the run after an experiment gone wrong: if he gets too angry or excited he’ll turn into a giant, green, rampaging monster. Meanwhile, the military are on his trail…

In retrospect, this has become the forgotten film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The lead character has never been given a solo sequel and was recast for later appearances in the series; it took eight years for one of the secondary characters to crop up again, while love interest Betty (Liv Tyler) hasn’t even been mentioned. And it wasn’t the first Incredible Hulk movie to be ignored. There had been one just five years earlier, simply called Hulk, which hadn’t been very successful. (People didn’t like Bruce Banner when he was directed by Ang Lee.)

If you squint and ignore the fact all the actors are different, you could pretend that the backstory being told in The Incredible Hulk’s opening credit sequence – Bruce undergoes experiments, gets zapped, turns into monster – is a recap of that earlier film. But this is technically a reboot and it’s quite refreshing that it isn’t yet another origin story. The story begins with Bruce in hiding, his Hulk tendencies plaguing him (he’s on a run of 159 days without ‘incident’). Sadly, the big problem with the concept then rears its head. You only really have one plot with this character: Bruce doesn’t want to get angry, Bruce doesn’t want to get angry, Bruce doesn’t want to get angry, Bruce doesn’t want to get angry, Bruce gets angry.

Edward Norton – who also worked on the script – is not awful in the role, but does seem to be an actor on autopilot. Coming just a month after Robert Downey Jr’s attention-grabbing performance in Iron Man, it’s just not good enough. Elsewhere, the small cast also fail to excite. Liv Tyler sleepwalks through an underwritten role, William Hurt goes for comic-book-villain thinness as gruff General Ross, and Tim Roth is miscast as Emil Blonsky, a Royal Marine from Russia who talks like an American with a Cockney accent and shoots a dog so we know he’s evil.

The film works best when adding lightness to all the shade – Bruce has a good gag when trying out Portuguese: “You wouldn’t like me when I’m hungry!” – but the film is routinely sombre and lifeless. Everything seems like it’s going through the motions. There are flashes of invention, such as a joke about why Bruce shouldn’t use the subway or Tim Blake Nelson as a scientist who feels like he’s visiting from a better movie, but the story is always told in the most straightforward and unsurprising way possible. There are also some ridiculously dull action sequences that are repetitive variations on monster-versus-military. (The climactic battle is CGI monster versus CGI monster and seems to never end.)

At least the film sometimes looks pretty. The early scenes of Bruce hiding in Brazil are quirky and colourful and contrast well with the Michael Bay sheen used for the military characters. The movie then feels like a Jason Bourne spy chase when the two worlds collide. But the movie suffers from a fatal lack of distinction and is often quite boring. The most interesting thing about it is its place in a growing shared universe. There are blink-and-miss sightings of the Stark Industries logo and Nick Fury’s name, then Tony Stark shows up for a fun cameo. It seems like the film itself is already more excited about the rest of the series.

Five bottles of Guarana soda out of 10

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