During the end credits of “Avengers Age of Ultron” the camera swoops majestically around a marble statue of our heroes battling against Ultron and his countless facets. Heroic music rises and swells as the all-star cast names grace the screen like the warrior poets of legend. The Avengers then (and all superheroes by proxy) are our consumer, downloadable friendly Greek heroes, flawed but not in the kill your father, sleep with your mother and gauge your own eyes out with pins kinda flawed. Just tainted enough to make parents buy their kids duvet covers whilst keeping the geeks just the right side of happy that their favourite comic book characters haven’t been totally fucked up and ruined.
“Age of Ultron” is a mythical creation, mutated from the thousands of Marvel comic books, cartoons and films that interlock and overwrite one another. They are changed like the Greek myths, but not over thousands of years but in mere decades, such is the speed and quantity of stories available. Like Zeus interfering spectacularly with the fate of humanity so Stan Lee visits us from mount Disney Olympus with alarming regularity. The younger digital film gods ride down on his thunderbolts blasting us into submission with phases that are now infinite rather than temporary. Cronus swallowed his children one by one so they wouldn’t usurp him; Stan Lee regurgitates his so as to finally fulfil his destiny as the master of Hollywood and beyond.
His latest thunderbolt ‘Age of Ultron” is a rampaging behemoth shrieking across the planet like a runaway Hydra. Cut one narrative strand and two more shoot forth to bite and snap at the audience keeping them off balance and from calculating how many more monster run away hits will be snatching at their wallets. Ultron is Tony Stark’s creation for a better world, a world that doesn’t need The Avengers to protect it (or Hollywood?). Of course playing god never ends well (beware Stan) and Ultron’s artificial intelligence runs amok dividing and conquering The Avengers with ruthless efficiency. Ultron likes to sing songs from “Peter Pan” as he dreams of an impossible Disney Universe, one free from The Avengers franchise. “I’ve got no strings on me,” how very meta, how very Disney civil war.
Our mighty heroes are up against it like in “The Empire Strikes Back.” That’s why “Age of Ultron” is superior to “The Avengers” as we finally have an adversary they take seriously. Face it: Loki was a loveable joke who wasn’t really a threat. But James Spader might as well be from old Hollywood as he literally breathes life into Ultron’s superstructure. Spader oozes menace that voice at once authoritarian but always tinged with that Waspish sleaze he made his own in the 80s and 90s. Wasn’t James Ballard a film producer in “Crash?” Has he taken his paraphilia to its ultimate conclusion, gaining sexual pleasure from crashing thousands of robots into his contemporary Robert Downey Jnr. rendering him “Less Than Zero?”
Spader and Downey Jnr. are only two of a galaxy of stars converging in this cinematic cosmos. When we look back at previous all-star casts in films like “The Magnificent Seven” or “The Dirty Dozen” we realise that these were simpler days; these were the films that made men stars. Only in retrospect are these films full of famous faces that we hoisted our banner to and joined battle with, chose our favourite and often watched them die. Now The Avengers, both character and actor are too famous to go down in a blaze of glory. Too much is at stake. Clint Barton gets it. The most human of The Avengers steals the show with snappy one-liners and brooding looks. He’s Steve McQueen shaking those shotgun cartridges in the face of Yul Brynner. As The Avengers get to right the wrongs of American foreign policy in Ukraine he gets it, “The city’s flying, we’re fighting an army of robots and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense.”