Review – Avengers: Age Of Ultron

For a film with so much baggage it could clog up a whole fleet of invisible S.H.I.E.L.D jets, this latest instalment in the unstoppable Marvel juggernaut somehow manages to avoid collapsing under the weight of its own cinematic universe.

Avengers: Age Of Ultron may not be the game changer its predecessor was, but Whedon has closed this particular chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe about as as well as he could. Now what's next?

Avengers: Age Of Ultron may not be the game changer its predecessor was, but Whedon has closed this particular chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe about as as well as he could. Now what’s next?

Guided by any hand other than that of Joss Whedon, Avengers: Age Of Ultron could so easily have turned into another Spider-Man 3 (2007) – overloaded to the point of bewilderment.

Despite having enough characters to fill a whole season of Game Of Thrones and a plot that, when boiled down, follows a very similar thread to its 2012 predecessor (supervillain exposes the underlying tension between our team of superheroes before they assemble stronger-than-ever for the good of humanity), Whedon just about keeps the plates spinning.

Iron Giant: Ultron (James Spader) in Avengers: Age Of Ultron

Iron Giant: Ultron (James Spader) in Avengers: Age Of Ultron

Ignoring Jeff Goldblum’s immortal warning from Jurassic World that man shouldn’t be “so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should”, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), with the help of Dr Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) creates artificial intelligence to give life to his Ultron project, a global defence force of Iron Men to help thwart threats both terrestrial and extraterrestrial.

No sooner does Ultron (James Spader) spark up then he unleashes a diabolical plan to wipe out the Avengers; a scheme bolstered by the assistance of the super-fast Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the mind-bending Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen); mutants whose grudge against Stark seems well founded.

Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) wonder what to do next in Avengers: Age Of Ultron

Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) wonder what to do next in Avengers: Age Of Ultron

With the odds stacked against them, the Avengers – Iron Man, Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Hulk – must come together as never before in order to stop Ultron.

In some ways, Age Of Ultron is actually superior to its monstrously successful forebear. The time given to each character is more democratic, in particular Hawkeye, who virtually becomes the beating heart of the team.

Thor-some: Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in Avengers: Age Of Ultron

Thor-some: Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in Avengers: Age Of Ultron

We also finally get to see Hulk properly lose it in an epic bust up with Iron Man, while the film’s final extended set piece endeavours to keep the action grounded (a bad pun for anyone who’s seen the movie, sorry) while all hell is being unleashed and – unlike some other superhero flicks – actively gives a damn about the poor civilians caught up in the ensuing chaos.

It is at its strongest when it takes the time to let the characters breathe and interact with other, most amusingly at a party at Avengers HQ (formerly Stark Tower) in which the team kick back and chew the fat alongside some of the franchise’s periphery characters, including Don Cheadle’s War Machine and Anthony Mackie’s Falcon. A scene in which Thor challenges his comrades to pick up his hammer is lovely and mirror’s the film’s best exchange late on between the crown prince of Asgard and a character whose origin I won’t spoil.

He's fast, she's weird: Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and sister Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) in Avengers: Age Of Ultron

He’s fast, she’s weird: Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and sister Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) in Avengers: Age Of Ultron

In spite of Spader’s cooly malevolent delivery, Ultron fails to leap off the screen as effectively as Loki managed to in Avengers Assemble. However good the visual effect, a human villain will almost always engage more with the audience and if that bad guy is a maniacally grinning Tom Hiddleston then so much the better.

Whedon has now taken a step back from Avengers duties and it’s not too difficult to see why. In a recent interview he said: “There’s basically 11 main characters in this movie, which is quite frankly too much.” When your writer/director acknowledges there’s simply too much stuff to crowbar into one movie you have to start wondering if he maybe has a point. That he’s kept this stew from boiling over is, frankly, remarkable.

Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers: Age Of Ultron

Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers: Age Of Ultron

The torch has now passed from a seemingly relieved Whedon to Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘s Anthony and Joe Russo who, before helming the two-part Infinity War will first serve up Cap’s next solo outing Civil War – it’s safe to say there’s a lot of war coming up.

Avengers: Age Of Ultron may not be the game changer its predecessor was, but Whedon has closed this particular chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe about as well as he could. Now what’s next?

Review – Guardians Of The Galaxy

The Marvel Cinematic Universe lives up to its name in this star-spanning space opera that puts the fun back into a genre that had disappeared up its black hole.

A genuine pleasure, Guardians Of The Galaxy should give JJ Abrams something to think about for the next installment of  that other well known space opera

A genuine pleasure, Guardians Of The Galaxy should give JJ Abrams something to think about for the next installment of that other well-known space opera

The fact that Guardians Of The Galaxy is drawing so many comparisons to Star Wars is not only a testament to the high esteem it’s being held in by so many critics, but also to the fact that it’s so refreshing to watch a film of this ilk that resolutely refuses to take itself too seriously.

Too often, sci-fi filmmakers get bogged down in blindsiding their audience with Midi-chlorians, flibbertigibbets and unnecessary solemnity at the expense of an intriguing narrative and engaging characters. Although Guardians… isn’t averse to a spot of Basil Exposition (understandable considering it’s the first in what will undoubtedly become another Marvel franchise), it does so with a light and breezy air that avoids spoon-feeding the audience.

The A Team - Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Groot (Vin Diesel) and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

The A Team – Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Groot (Vin Diesel) and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

Abducted from Earth as a young boy following the death of his mother, intergalactic thief Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, (Chris Pratt) incurs the wrath of the super-evil Ronan (Lee Pace) when he steals a mysterious orb. With Ronan’s henchmen, and women, hot on the trail of the orb, including his lieutenant Nebula (Karen Gillan), Peter forms an uneasy accord with assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), genetically engineered racoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), the tree-like Groot (Vin Diesel) and warrior Drax the Destroyer (WWE star Dave Bautista).

When the extent of the orb’s power becomes clear, and Ronan’s diabolical plan reveals itself, Peter must turn his ragtag associates into a full-on fighting force to save the galaxy from destruction.

The heroic Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

The heroic Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

Marvel’s policy of trusting its multi-million dollar products to leftfield directors (Edgar Wright’s departure from 2015’s Ant Man notwithstanding) once again pays off. The edgy comic touch of James Gunn’s previous flicks Slither (2006) and Super (2010) is a perfect fit for Guardians‘ tongue-in-cheek sensibility.

The film takes great pleasure in sending up the clichés of the genre, such as the team’s slow motion walk towards the camera in which Gamora can be seen yawning. Gunn and Nicole Perlman’s meta script goes off on tangents, some funny, others less so, and concentrates on the relationships between the lead characters. This is a bunch of misfits we can believe in and the bond they gradually form is convincingly handled by the cast.

The evil Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) and his loyal lieutenant Nebula (Karen Gillan) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

The evil Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) and his loyal lieutenant Nebula (Karen Gillan) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

One of the more successful elements of Guardians… is its soundtrack of 70s and 80s classics, ingeniously crowbarred into the film as they form part of Peter’s beloved mix tape from his mother. Setting aside the fact that his Walkman wouldn’t probably survive 26 years and that AA batteries would likely be a little hard to come by in outer space, the music serves as a reminder that Peter, like Buck Rogers and John Carter, is a human in an alien environment and our way into this universe.

Gamora (Zoe Saldana) learns more about the mysterious orb in Guardians Of The Galaxy

Gamora (Zoe Saldana) learns more about the mysterious orb in Guardians Of The Galaxy

Despite trying a bit too hard at times to be Han Solo’s slightly less cool brother, Pratt is a good fit for Peter and proves a likeable lead. Saldana may look like a character from Star Trek, but she kicks ass and is proving a formidable presence in the world of big budget sci-fi, what with the Trek and Avatar franchises already in place. Cooper’s energetic, fast-talking voice work for Rocket is nicely played, while Diesel manages to give a new meaning to each new utterance of his singular phrase “I am Groot” and even non-actor Bautista does some solid work as meathead Drax.

Elsewhere, Gillan is impressively alien as Nebula, while Gunn makes sure to give his other supporting cast members something to do, especially Michael Rooker’s blue-skinned alien Yondu and John C Reilly’s corpsman Rhomann Dey.

A genuine pleasure, Guardians Of The Galaxy should give JJ Abrams something to think about for the next installment of  that other well-known space opera.