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The follow-up to The Avengers may be the harbinger of a new deluge of superhero movies, but if all turn out as entertaining as this one, what’s the problem? There has been a shrill cultural crisis at the thought of all the superhero films lately due to hit theaters in the next few years: Ant Man, Captain America Civil War, Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, The Amazing Spider-Man, Thor Ragnarok, Avengers Infinity War Part 1, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Avengers Infinity War Part 2, … the list goes on.
But what’s the problem? For me, it’s no more of a problem than all the rom-coms and horror the business is readying at the far end of the chute, and this bizarre new strain of supers could well be stimulating the industry. And there’s definitely no problem if they’re as exuberant, funny, goofy and crazily exhilarating as this new Avengers film from writer-director Joss Whedon, which is a pure aspartame rush.
Once again, the Avengers have assembled under the mercurial and possibly duplicitous leadership of Tony Stark, otherwise Iron Man, played with the usual single-breath delivery of throwaway wisecracks by Robert Downey Jr. It’s a role which now threatens or promises to define his whole career. Previously, I have described the assembled Avengers as the Traveling Wilburys of superheroism. Now they are more like a G7 summit of world-saving and crime-fighting with every constituent member becoming a veritable Angela Merkel of demurely offbeat virility.
Mark Ruffalo is excellent as the troubled and introspective Dr Bruce Banner, for whom Hulk transition is not in and of itself a problem. The problem now is the way in which he must be coaxed into reforming into human form and Black Widow, beautifully played by Scarlett Johansson, is becoming the Hulk whisperer. The intuitive tenderness with which she deals with Banner/Hulk is turning into a sweet love affair: it appears to involve a bunch of delicately erotic hand-holding: her tiny hand in his galumphing green mitt; still, Dr Banner is holding back from returning her love, unwilling to burden her with his horrible rage potential. Chris Hemsworth is Thor, continuously resident on Earth for the time being and without claims from Asgard to distract him. (My sole issue with the movie is that Tom Hiddleston’s Loki doesn’t show up.) Chris Evans’s Captain America is a strong reminder of wartime values and Jeremy Renner is Hawkeye, whose bow and arrow make him the quaintest and yet most romantic warrior of the gang.
But now they find themselves facing a couple of new enemies: Pietro Maximoff (or Quicksilver, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and his twin sister Wanda Maximoff (or Scarlet Witch, played by Elizabeth Olsen). They are blessed greatly with super speed and mind control (as one character says, “he’s fast; she’s weird”) and Scarlet Witch almost instantly uses her head-messing powers to show a secretly aghast Stark how he might turn his back on and even destroy his fellow Avengers .
But more importantly, Stark begins to experiment (without his comrades’ knowledge) with an artificial intelligence programme that could impose absolute power on Earth, supposedly to repel all enemies: this insubstantial mega-brain, like a floating blue jellyfish, immediately goes rogue, becoming a terrifyingly deadly new enemy called Ultron , appropriating a new exoskeleton, and becoming a weird version of his effective creator: Stark. Ultron uses the blandly Chamberlain-ish line “peace in our time” to describe its schemed totalitarian rule, the Pax Ultronica, and the irony will barely be lost on the second world war veteran Captain America. The Avengers learn that they are actually battle against a ugly parodic version of their own ally: Stark, his worst and even probably strongest self.
It’s all operatically insane, and the city-destroying final showdown is becoming a bit familiar, but Whedon carries it off with such joy and even a sort of evangelism. His script is a wonder, jam-packed with incredible lines: I loved Stark’s wearied quote: “I’ve had a long day … Eugene O’Neill long …” And the unresolved romantic and sensual tension between Black Widow and Hulk brings a weird driving force to the narrative: even the absurdity is somehow recirculated into the movie’s internal economy as comedy and irony and the cast-of-thousands effect never appears to split the focus: Andy Serkis plays metal trader Ulysses Klaw and Julie Delpy has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it guest star as Black Widow’s wicked former controller. It’s a superhero cavalcade of energy and fun.