The biggest fight in Avengers: Age Of Ultron won't be on the screen, it will be in the cinemas afterwards.
So I saw Avengers: Age Of Ultron in London a couple of days ago. Joss Whedon was there to introduce what he jokingly called "a film that I hate". Well, he has spent two years working solidly on it, but it's a view that could be more widely shared than some might have anticipated. More on that later.
This is a non-spoiler review, which basically means all the good bits have been excised and vaguely referred to. There will be a Spoiler version along in a few minutes.
But this will not be entirely spoiler free, just spoilers are reduced as much as possible to what I hope is your comfort level. Enough to educate and intrigue, not enough to ruin.
There are a lot of people in this film. It will be easy to get lost. We have The Vision, a blank canvas, introduced late into the film, that has one scene that totally redeems him and wins the audience and the Avengers over to a cheer. A Scarlet Witch, there to point out the flaws of all our heroes in nasty ways and to fight for redemption. And there's Quicksilver – and yes, the film had a bit problem. X-Men: Days Of Future Past had done it first, and blown all their Quicksilver money on one, amazing, relatively short film. So this film doesn't try to match that scene. Instead it gives you moments, spread throughout the scene. A bullet fired that suddenly stands on the desk next to the rest of the ammunition. A grab at Thor's hammer that, surprisingly to Pietro, takes him with it. And the rushing air, reminiscent of X2's Nightcrawler. He looks great and he does great too.
Indeed, it is Captain America, Iron Man and Thor who fade a bit into the background in this film, for Bruce Banner, Black Widow and Hawkeye, those without their ongoing film franchises right now, to take much of the emotional strength and exploration in this film. Cap, Thor and Iron Man are the gods, these are the humans acting or becoming like them. And adding a real sense of humanity into their kick 'splodo and the terrible choices they feel they have to make – each has their moment that could doom them but they feel they must make. Joss Whedon makes very good ensemble pieces, and very funny ones at that. This is no exception.
But to the beginning, the film starts strongly, an action packed winter forest fight, choreographed between our heroes, with snappy backchat over Captain America's puritan streak, with light teasing providing a backdrop for the action. This follows on directly from Baron Von Strucker grabbing the Spear Of Destiny and doing naughty things with it.
But this initial uncomplicated battle, even with Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch on the field, contrasts strongly with the anti-Americanism clearly on display in the nearby Eastern European town, with Iron Men drones descending from the skies and trying to control or protect them. The graffiti on the walls, Iron Men covered with dollars demonstrates a certain moral relativism here. The Avengers looks far more like the fascists that well, the bloody Nazis they are fighting.
That's what this film sets up and it's what Ultron uses to challenge them. The Avengers doesn't avenge, they protect the status quo. They don't change the world, despite having machines that heal flesh and robocops. Even Tony's big plan that accidentally creates Ultron is there to keep everyone safe rather than to help people with their actual problems.
It's Tony's use of the phrase "peace in our time", that gets picked up, copied by Ultron, almost mockingly. It's the words used by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, on arranging a peace deal with Adolf Hitler, that would soon be broken and World War II begun. And Ultron takes it to its logical conclusion. As Captain America states "every time someone tries to win a war before it starts, people die."
Or course that's true after a war starts, as well. But it also plays into the theme of the film, of those meddling with things they don't understand.
This is grand Promethean tragedy with Tony Star and Bruce Banner at its epicentre. It is hubris, it is "there are some things man is not meant to know" and there is Frankenstein, literally it seems with Thor summoning lightning at one point. Men behaving like gods and gods behaving like men, and like the pigs of Animal Farm, it becomes hard to tell the difference any more.
Chamberlain is not the only Prime Minister to be referenced, the repurposed British warship HMS Churchill is being used for nefarious purposes in Wakanda. Add to that Captain America's war buddies and this is a film longing for a simple enemy, an uncomplicated one that doesn't reveal their own hypocritical flaws.
They don't get one. Not at first.
Ultron, a massive man of metal, changing forms frequently through the film, mirroring Iron Man in that. He has a real presence on the screen, especially for someone is just not there. When Terry Gilliam made Twelve Monkeys, he talked about how important it was for him to stop Bruce Willis doing "moo moo" shapes with his lips. In Avengers: Age Of Ultron, they gave those lips to Ultron. It's an unnerving physical trait for a large robot to have such flexible lips, and to choose to use them so that, despite all the bombast, it's the biggest special effect to sit with me…
But it's a complex robot, one full of emotion, that invites moral relativism and some really chewy concepts of responsibility, doing the right thing, and the motivation of good men to do something very bad indeed.
This is probably the film's central flaw, it sets up all manner of complicated ideas and themes, issues and perspectives and then decided to just hit them until they stop. It starts off as a more complex, more nuanced version take on some of the issues in Winter Soldier and Iron Man 3 with a shed load more of their own, but then dovetails into a might-makes-right, save-the-innocents smackdown of revenge, redemption and victory.
I thoroughly enjoyed the film, but I spoke to others who have greater reservations. Some found the bombast, explosions and violence far too much – and they loved the first one. Some found the film too simplistic, and I ended up in quite the argument with those who could only see the end of the film and not the beginning it seemed. For me, the beginning was so good, it made up for much of the end of the film.
While everyone seemed to love the first Avengers movie, as if it were some kind of religious creed tat would not brook dissent, I think this film will be more up for debate. But those who do walk out disappointed, hold onto what you experienced to begin with, and try and see it in that light… maybe even see it again. I know I want to.
P.S. Oh and no post credits scene. So when the credits roll, you can start the argument. And remind everyone who the guy in the pre-credits scene is and where it is all going… #ItsAllConnected.