Tag: Robert Downey Jnr

Zodiac (2007)

Zodiac (2007)

A chilling chronicle of the hunt for a serial killer told with a superb mix of journalism and filmic flair

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal (Robert Graysmith), Mark Ruffalo (Inspector Dave Toschi), Robert Downey Jnr (Paul Avery), Anthony Edwards (Inspector Bill Armstrong), Brian Cox (Melvin Belli), Elias Koteas (Sergeant Jack Mulanax), Donal Logue (Captain Ken Narlow), John Carroll Lynch (Arthur Leigh Allen), Dermot Mulroney (Captain Marty Lee), Chloë Sevingy (Melanie Graysmith), John Terry (Charles Thieriot), Philip Baker Hall (Sherwood Morrill), Zach Grenier (Mel Nicolai)

It’s one of the great unsolved mysteries of American history, like San Francisco’s version of Jack the Ripper. For a large chunk of the late 60s and early 70s, a serial killer known only as “the Zodiac killer” murdered at least five (and claimed 37) innocent people, all while sending mysterious, cipher-filled letters to San Francisco newspapers, taunting police and journalists for failing to catch him and threatening further violent acts. The investigation sifted through mountains of tips and half clues but only produced one possible suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen: though no fingerprint or handwriting match could conclude a case.

The story of the hunt for this elusive killer, stretching into the 1980s and concluding with another dead-end coda in 1992, is bought to the screen in a film from David Fincher that expertly mixes cinematic flair with journalistic observation. Channelling All the President’s Men and 70s conspiracy thrillers as much as it does the dark obsession of Fincher’s Seven, Zodiac is a master-class not only in the bewildering detail of large-scale investigations (in the days before computer records and DNA evidence) but also the grinding, destructive qualities of obsession, as those hunting the Zodiac killer struggle to escape the shadow of a case that grows to dominate their lives.

Zodiac focuses on three men, all of whom find their lives irretrievably damaged by their investigation. At first, it seems the drive will come from Robert Downey Jnr’s Paul Avery. Avery is the hard-drinking, charismatic, old-school crime correspondent on the San Francisco Chronicle. In a performance exactly the right-side of flamboyant narcissism, Downey Jnr’s Avery is a man who likes to appear like he takes nothing seriously, even while the burden of the case (and a threat to his life from the Zodiac killer) tips him even further into a drink habit that is going to leave him living in a derelict houseboat, in a permanent state of vodka-induced intoxication.

The second is Inspector Dave Tosci, a performance of dogged, focused professionalism from Mark Ruffalo. He’s confident he’ll find his man, and will go to any lengths to do it, staying on call night and day, and hoarding facts about the case like a miser. He relies more than he knows on level-headed, decent partner Bill Armstrong (played with real warmth by Anthony Edwards). Tosci’s self-image and belief slowly crumble as every lead turns dead end, every gut instinct refuses to be backed by the evidence. The killing spree becomes his personal responsibility, a cross he bears alone for so long that when a belated letter from Zodiac surfaces in 1978, his own superiors believe Tosci sent it in some vain attempt to keep a cooling case alive.

Our third protagonist, present from the arrival of the very first Zodiac letter at the door of the Chronicle, is Jake Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith. A quiet, studious, teetotal political cartoonist who is literally a boy scout, Graysmith spent a huge chunk of the 70s and 80s trying to crack the case, eventually turning his investigation into a best-selling book. It’s Graysmith who becomes the focus of Fincher’s investigation of obsession. The glow of monomania is in Gyllenhaal’s eyes from the very start, as the cipher and its deadly message spark a mix of curiosity and moral duty in him. He feels compelled to solve the crime, but it’s a compulsion that will overwhelm his life. The Zodiac is his Moby Dick, the all-powerful monster he must slay to save the city. (“Bobby, you almost look disappointed” Avery tells him, when Avery suggests some of the Zodiac’s murderous claims are false, as if reducing the wickedness of the Zodiac also reduces the power of Graysmith’s quest.)

The real Graysmith commented when he saw the film, “I understand why my wife left me”. It’s a superb performance of school-boy doggedness, mixed with quietly fanatical, all-consuming obsession from Gyllenhaal, as the film makes clear how close he came (closer than almost anyone else) to cracking the case, but nearly at the cost of his own sanity. Graysmith pop quizzes his pre-teen children on the case over their breakfast (a far cry from, at first, his instinct to shield his son from the press coverage) and as he becomes increasingly unkempt, so his house more and more becomes a mountain of boxes and case notes.

It’s the secondary theme of Zodiac: how obsession doesn’t dim, even when events and evidence drop off. The second half of the film features very little new in the case (which peaked in the early 70s) but focuses on the lingering impact of the ever more desperate and lonely attempts to solve it. Armstrong, the most well-adjusted of the characters, perhaps knew it was a hopeless crusade when he threw his cards in and left the table after a few years to spend time with his children while they grew up. Avery cashes out as well – even if his health never recovers. Tosci is cashiered from the game, and even Graysmith finally realises the impact on him.

That second half of the film is long. Too long. It also, naturally, leaves us with no ending – a sad coda that hints at the guilt of primary (only) suspect Arthur Leigh Allen, but gives us (just like the surviving victims) no closure. It’s fitting, and deliberate, but still the only real flaw of Zodiac is that, at 150 minutes, it’s too long. The deliberate draining of life from the case, like a deflating balloon, also impacts the narrative, which consciously drops in intensity (and, to a degree, interest – despite Gyllenhaal’s subtle and complex work as Graysmith). It’s even more noticeable considering the compelling flair with which Fincher delivers the first half of his scrupulously researched film.

Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt spent almost 18 months interviewing everyone involved with the case. Nothing was included in the film unless it could be verified by witnesses. That included the crimes of the Zodiac: only attacks where there were survivors are shown, the only minor exception being Zodiac’s murder of a taxi driver (where only distant eye-witnesses were available) – even then, every event is confirmed by ballistics and no dialogue is placed into the mouth of the victim. The film also acknowledges the unknown nature of the Zodiac killer: each time the masked killer appears in recreations of his crime he is played by a different (masked) actor, subtle differences in build, tone of voice and manner reflecting the contradictory eye-witness statements. These chilling scenes are shot with a sensitivity that sits alongside their horrifying brutality. Fincher felt a genuine responsibility to reflect the horror of what happened, but with no sensationalism.

Instead, he keeps his virtuoso brilliance for the investigation. The newspaper room filling with the super-imposed scrawl of the Zodiac killer, while the actors read out the words. Restrained but hypnotic editing, carefully grimed photography, camera angles that present everyday items in alarming new ways, a mounting sense of grim tension at several moments that makes the film hard to watch. A superb sequence surrounding the Zodiac’s demand to speak to celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli (a gorgeous cameo from Brian Cox), first on a live TV call-in show, then in person (a “secret meeting” swamped by armed police, which Zodiac, of course, doesn’t turn up to). This is direction – aided by masterful photography (Harris Savides) and editing (Angus Wall) – that immerses us in a world (like drowning in a non-fiction bestseller), while never letting its flair draw attention to itself.

Zodiac was a box-office disappointment and roundly forgotten in 2007. It’s too long and loses energy, but that’s bizarrely the point. It implies, heavily, that Allen (played with a smug blankness by John Carroll Lynch) was indeed the killer, but doesn’t stack the deck – every single piece of counter evidence is exhaustingly shown. In fact, that’s what the film is: exhaustive in every sense. It leaves you reeling and tired. It might well have worked better, in many ways, as a mini-series. But it’s still a masterclass from Fincher and one of the most honest, studiously researched and respectful true-life crime dramas ever made. And just like life, it offers neither easy answers, obvious heroes or clean-cut resolutions, only doubts and lingering regrets.

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

The importance of journalism is loudly praised in this engaging but faultlessly liberal Clooney film

Director: George Clooney

Cast: David Strathairn (Edward R Murrow), George Clooney (Fred Friendly), Robert Downey Jnr (Joseph Wershba), Patricia Clarkson (Shirley Wershba), Frank Langella (William Paley), Jeff Daniels (Sig Mickelson), Tate Donovan (Jesse Zousmer), Ray Wise (Don Hollenbeck), Helen Slayton-Hughes (Mary), Alex Borstein (Natalie), Thomas McCarthy (Palmer Williams)

In the early 1950s America seemed to be in the paranoid grip of one man. Senator Joseph McCarthy was the tip of a spear of anti-Communism, targeting every part of American life. To have even had thoughts that might be seen as socialist or communist, was enough for you to be considered an Anti-American and potential enemy of the state. McCarthy led a campaign to unearth Communist spies and sympathisers in the government, military, business, academia and the media. Blacklists and persecution were rife, and the slightest past association could condemn you. It took many years before anyone took a stand against this.

One of the leaders of this stand was renowned journalist Edward R Murrow (David Straithairn). Famous for his broadcasts from London during the Blitz, Murrow hosted an investigative journalist programme See It Now. A passionate believer in the power of television to educate and inform, Murrow and his producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney) are appalled when Air Force officer Milo Radulovich is condemned to be discharged, based on members of his family being communists and a sealed envelope of charges he was never allowed to see. Despite the worries of network CBS, Murrow, Friendly and their team run an episode of the show that exposes McCarthyism and its injustice, the first of several investigating McCarthy. But what price will they pay?

Clooney’s well-made, heartfelt film, is an impeccably liberal piece of film-making that is a very sincere tribute to the potential of television to be more than just an idiot’s lantern. Clooney frames the film with Murrow accepting a lifetime achievement award in 1958: he uses the opportunity to make a speech rebuking the room full of executives and journalists for squandering the potential of television to inform rather than just entertain. Murrow would of course be horrified by what TV became. Good Night, and Good Luck is a rose-tinted view of television journalism at its pioneering best: just as the end result of See It Now being gutted by cuts is a realistic look at where the scales will fall if entertainment and money are balanced with principles and education.

Clooney’s father was a TV journalist, while Clooney himself majored in journalism. The cut-and-thrust of the newsroom is as intrinsic to him, as is a desire to investigate and inform as part of a healthy political debate. Good Night, and Good Luck captures the mood of a newsroom with a convincing confidence. Journalists debate the fine point of stories, editors rush to assemble films and executives balance the pros and cons. It’s all shot in a beautiful monochrome, that exquisitely captures the haze of cigarette smoke all this takes place in. It’s a shot with a handheld urgency, sharply cut, that puts us into this world of cut-and-thrust media decisions.

And it makes clear what TV news can be. Not agenda led, but facts led. Not kowtowing to power, but challenging it to justify itself. Looking into matters that are important, not sensational. Wanting to inform people and expand their understanding, rather than pander to the lowest common denominator. Murrow’s shows are scrupulously fact-checked, and allow full rebuttal from their subject. He comes at story not with a pre-supposed position, but based on where the facts and his editorial judgement leads him.

It all takes place in a TV set that’s really striking in its humbleness, compared to the operatic news sets we see today. The 1950s studio is small, cramped and simple – and by contrast the ideas are large, expansive and complex. Murrow’s set is little more than a chair with a TV monitor. His producer Fred Friendly, literally sits at his feet to hand him notes and cue him in with announcements and VT. The See It Now set contrasts vividly with the more grandiose sets for Murrow’s other show, a series of puff piece interviews with popular stars like Liberace. (While Murrow learns his scripts by heart for See it Now, he professionally reads through a series of cue cards for these for-the-money interviews).

Murrow and Friendly also won’t compromise. They defend their right to make the show to CBS President William Paley (a brilliant performance from Frank Langella), who prides himself on no direct intervention on the news but pushes for a less controversial line. The entire team is consulted on every issue. The newsroom is a place where our better angels can come out.

But it’s still happening in an America where people are careful about what they say and do. A subplot concerns reporters played by Robert Downey Jnr and Patricia Clarkson: secretly married – contrary to CBS policy – like those suffering from McCarthyism, they must live a lie in order to protect what they have. See It Now is in danger of criticism, cancellation and attack. Another CBS anchor, Don Hollenbeck – perfectly played by Ray Wise (and few actors are better at suppressed desperation than Wise) – is dealing with constant media persecution for his perceived communist sympathy. Murrow and Friendly are not perfect: they sometimes dodge the fights they can’t win and Murrow in particular shrugs off or ignores Hollenbeck’s concerns with tragic results.

But, as Clooney makes clear, the good outweighs all the rest. As Murrow, David Straithairn (Oscar-nominated) has never been better. He perfectly captures Murrow’s mannerisms, but mixes it with wonderful measure of honesty and decency, mixed with a degree of pride and self-righteous certainty. He dominates the film (with Clooney as a generous foil) and carries much of the film’s liberal message that smart, intelligent, dedicated men can change the world.

Good Night, and Good Luck might be the most soft-left liberal film made in Hollywood in the last fifteen years. But it is a fine example of film-making craft and the earnest honesty with which it is made in its own way inspiring. It’s Clooney’s finest film and it’s grounded in his strengths: fine actors and writing carrying a sincerely told message.

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Time to got to work: Avengers: Endgame caps off a 22 film series

Director: Anthony and Joe Russo

Cast: Robert Downey Jnr (Tony Stark), Chris Evans (Steve Rodgers), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner/Hulk), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton), Don Cheadle (Rhodey), Paul Rudd (Scott Lang), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Bradley Cooper (Rocket), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Josh Brolin (Thanos), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Danai Gurira (Okoye), Brie Larson (Carol Danvers), Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa), Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr Stephen Strange), Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Evangeline Lilly (Hope van Dyne), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson), Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff), Chris Pratt (Peter Quill), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes), Rene Russo (Frigga), John Slattery (Howard Stark), Tilda Swinton (Ancient One), Robert Redford (Alexander Pierce), Linda Cardellini (Laura Barton), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Tom Vaughen-Lawlor (Ebony Maw)

So this really is it. For now. As Dr Strange says at one point “we are into the Endgame now”. Avengers: Endgame is Act Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s ten-years-in-the-making finale. It’s also a sequel that, for me, enriches and improves the “bangs before brains” Infinity War. Where that film played too hard to the fanboy wet dream of seeing X teaming up with Y and lots of bashing, Avengers: Endgame focuses more on the intelligent character work and decent acting and writing that has underpinned what has turned what used to be the preserve of geeks into a franchise now almost universally beloved across the world.

The film picks up almost immediately after über-Baddie and misguided-humanitarian Thanos (James Brolin) has successfully used the powers of the infinity stones (a series of mystical macguffins that have been omnipresent in the series so far) to wipe out half of the population of the universe to save it from overpopulation, including dozens of our heroes. Those that remain – predominantly the original roster from the first Avengers film – must work together to find a way to overturn this destruction that Thanos has wrought. But more sacrifices are inevitable along the way.

Avengers: Endgame is a film that the less you know about where it is going, the more you are likely to enjoy its twists and turns. Viewers who may have been anticipating a series of increasingly brutal smackdowns between the Avengers and their nemesis Thanos will however be disappointed. This is not a film of acative avenging: it’s a film where our heroes cope with the burden of unbearable failure, survivor guilt, PTSD and are desperate to try anything to try and make amends. Surprisingly, for the biggest budget entry in the whole cannon, this feels like a smaller-scale, character driven film which carries far bigger (and realistic) stakes than several films earlier in the franchise.

For the opening two hours of this three hour epic, there is actually precious little in the way of action. Instead we explore individual reactions and struggles of each of our heroes. Some have slumped into depression. Some are struggling to move on. Others have shut down and focus on their work. Some have managed to put their past failure and loss behind them to rebuild their lives. Others have embraced the darkness altogether to extract a revenge upon the world that they feel has taken everything from them. It’s a real change of pace from the high octane action and smart banter of the first film. This feels more earned, more invested and more designed to engage our brains and emotions rather than pound us into joyful submission with its bangs and crashes.

In fact it builds back into what has made this franchise so successful and so beloved. It turns these heroes into people, rather than just monoliths of action. Way back in the day, when making the first Iron Man film, Kevin Feige said if they got the film right the name “Tony Stark” would become as famous as “Iron Man”. It sums the aims of the franchise up – that these should be real people to us rather than just comic book cartoons. If we think of Chris Evans, we think of him as being “Steve” not Captain America. Jeremy Renner is as well-known as Clint Barton as “Hawkeye”. If Scarlett Johansson is addressed as Natasha we don’t blink an eye in the film, in the way we would if she was called “Black Widow”. The Hulk can be calmly addressed as Bruce or Ant Man as “Scott” and we never think it strange. In fact it would feel odd to have them calling each other by their cartoon names. It’s normalised the personalities behind the badges and masks.

And that works so well because the writing, when it works, focuses on making these characters feel real – and the actors they have brought on board to fill out the roles have excelled at adding depth and shading to the roles. Chris Evans will probably forever by the noble, dedicated humanitarian Steve Rodgers and rightly so as he has turned this potential stick-in-the-mud into a person we deeply respect and love. He’s terrific here, marshalling a plot arc that brings his time in this crazy franchise to an end with a neat bow that feels fitting and fair (even if it’s got some logic gaps).

Robert Downey Jnr also does some excellent work in his final sign off from the series. The role here plays to all the strengths Downey Jnr has brought to the role:  the smartness, the intelligence, the slight smugness, the charisma. But also the vulnerability and longing to be genuinely loved and to build a family around him. The desire to protect people. The nobility under the off-the-cuff exterior. Downey Jnr’s departure was well advertised and again it works a treat here.

But then the whole cast are marvellous. Hemsworth gets to stretch his comic muscles even more than his regular ones, and balances marvellously a plot about a hero who has lost his way. Scarlett Johansson gets some of her meatiest material as Natasha, unable to fully take on board what has happened but determined to make amends. Jeremy Renner has some of the film’s darker material – and confirms that he has always been the heart of the team – with a plot line that hinges on the loss of his family. Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner is presented in an intriguing new light that both delights and feels like a real rounding up of his character arc.

The eventual plan to underdo the work of Thanos revolves, it’s not a spoiler to say, around Time Travel. With a run, jump and leap the Russo Brothers acknowledge every cliché of time travel lore from dozens of films (Rhodes and Lang at one point hilariously name check virtually every time-travel-based film ever as back-up for their concerns about the mission) before basically throwing it all out of the window by making up its own rules (since, hey, time travel is impossible anyway so why not say all that “you could kill your own grandfather” stuff is bollocks?).

The time travel allows us to fly back into the plots and events of several other Marvel films, principally the first Avengers film, Guardians of the Galaxy and (hilariously considering it might be the worst one) Thor: The Dark World. This flashback structure works extremely well, with our heroes woven neatly into the events of films past – as well as allowing for “unseen” moments from those films to be staged here for the first time.

For a film that, up until now, has dealt with the pain of loss it also makes for a playful series of missions (or at least until one of them turns out to carry huge personal cost) that contrasts really well with the first half. The missions focus on a “heist” structure also gives us the chance for our heroes to work through the demons, often with the help of several (deceased) characters from past films living again (Rene Russo in particular gets easily her best ever scenes in the series as Thor’s mother in the past urging her son to come to terms with his guilt).

All this intelligent and emotional character work, mixed with sequences that are focused less on action and more on adventure and capery means that when we get the inevitable battle scenes at the end of the film – and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say most of the film’s final act returns us to the action beats that governed Infinity War – actually feel really earned. Having reminded ourselves why we loved many of these characters in the first place, seeing them fight for good and do incredibly cool things while doing it suddenly feels both really earned and also hugely entertaining. Investment in these action scenes grows from the detailed work earlier.

It’s also a testament to the Russo Brothers direction. I will say right away that while I found part of Infinity War lacking in personality and identity behind the camera, I think I massively overlooked how effortless the Russo brothers make balancing all these plot lines, characters and events seem. Never once does the film seem to dip or droop the ball, and I don’t think there are many directors who could even begin to manage what they achieve here: a fusion of popcorn action with character study, which juggles 20-40 characters at various points. My hat sirs.

Avengers: Endgame is a delightful film. I went into it sceptical after Infinity War left me a little cold, but I needn’t have been so concerned. This is a film that, on its own merits, is almost a sort of masterpiece. Have you ever seen a film that juggled so much – not least the crushing expectation of its fans – and delivered so superbly? Chalk that up as another success for the Russos just turning in a film that the huge fanbase loved. Avengers: Endgame isn’t Citizen Kane – but just as the Russos couldn’t make a film as great as that, you can’t imagine Orson Welles would ever have managed to direct a film like it.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

Our heroes are on the run in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Director: Guy Richie

Cast: Robert Downey Jnr (Sherlock Holmes), Jude Law (Dr John Watson), Jared Harris (Professor James Moriarty), Noomi Rapace (Madame Simza Heron), Stephen Fry (Mycroft Holmes), Kelly Reilly (Mary Morstan), Rachel McAdams (Irene Adler), Eddie Marsan (Inspector Lestrade), Paul Anderson (Sebastian Moran), Geraldine James (Mrs Hudson), Thierry Neuvic (Claude Ravache)

Sequels are tricky beasts. You need to work out what people liked about the first film and double down on it, while also expanding the story in new and exciting ways. When I first saw Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows in the cinema, I was very sceptical about whether this film managed that. But actually, viewing it a second time around (and almost seven years later), I enjoyed it a lot more than I remembered.

As Watson (Jude Law) prepares for his wedding to Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jnr) is consumed into an investigation targeting the “Napoleon of Crime” Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris). A series of bombings across Europe is being blamed on anarchists – but is it in fact a scheme launched by Moriarty’s military-industrial complex to instigate a world war (from which he can make a profit)? Well what do you think?

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows doubles down most strongly on the relationship between Holmes and Watson. Recognising that the things from the first film everyone loved was the brotherly banter between these two, the sequel places it front and centre. While the first film felt the need to introduce a traditional love interest for Holmes, this film kills off Irene Adler in the first few minutes (despite this, poor Rachel McAdams has better material here than most of the first film). Instead the true “romantic” relationship of the film is Holmes and Watson, as they banter, bicker and make huge sacrifices to protect each other. 

It’s helped again by Downey Jnr and Law’s excellent performances and their strong chemistry. Saying this, the first half hour of the film thinks it’s funnier than it is, with its intermixing of Watson’s stag night with a series of Downey fights. There is a little too much brashness to it early on, without sufficient grounding in the warmth between the two characters. But once we hit the real action 40 minutes into the film, the balance between comedy, affection and peril is pretty effectively met.

And Ritchie directs some very fine action sequences here. There is an extraordinary sequence of a chase through the forest, which uses an exquisite mixture of hand held cameras, Steadicam, slow motion and half a dozen other tricks to deliver a series of striking and immersive shots. Yes it’s overblown and in-your-face but it works perfectly. The film is crammed with brash, powerful action scenes like this that really strike you between the eyes. 

It also still keeps in touch with the original novels in a nice way. Some of the best dialogue scenes are those between Holmes and Jared Harris’ muscular but serpentine Moriarty (Harris is very good, a far stronger villain than the first film). These scenes use dialogue from the original stories extremely effectively. Meanwhile, its build towards its version of the Reichenbach fall is actually very clever, one that twists on the movie’s “calling card” of Holmes predicting every move of a fight before it begins by having Moriarty pull the same trick (which is in itself a neat scene).

Where the film does fall short amidst all this action and explosions and jokes (some good, some bad) is that we don’t get much in the way of investigation or deduction. There is a bit of sleight-of-hand and a touch of pocket picking, but most of the “deductions” are based on highlighting with the camera or dialogue objects that might as well be labelled “Important Plot Device”. Holmes doesn’t so much as investigate here as charge head first from one combat sequence or dangerous situation to another. There isn’t a lot of patience in his method here – and not a lot of patience in the film itself. But then this film is largely based on The Final Problem, probably one of the least “detective” of the stories in the cannon.

But Game of Shadows is very good fun, has some neat action sequences, is well shot and is more or less entertaining, even if some of the comedy suggests it’s a little too pleased with itself. Sure it loses some of the smaller-scale delights of both the books and original film in its rush to make sure you are wowed. But I enjoyed it a lot more the second time round, since I’d watched the original film more recently and was tuned up into what it was trying to do.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Josh Brolin is hero-villain Thanos in the latest chapter (and it really is a chapter) of the Marvel franchise Avengers: Infinity War

Director: Anthony & Joe Russo

Cast: Robert Downey Jnr (Tony Stark), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner), Chris Evans (Steve Rogers), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Josh Brolin (Thanos), Chris Pratt (Peter Quill), Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr Stephen Strange), Don Cheadle (James Rhodes), Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa), Paul Bettany (Vision), Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Peter Dinklage (Eitri), Benedict Wong (Wong), Pom Klementieff (Mantis), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Dave Bautista (Deax), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Vin Diesel (Groot), Bradley Cooper (Rocket), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Benecio del Toro (Collector), William Hurt (Thaddeus Ross), Danai Gurira (Okota), Letita Wright (Shuri)

Well this is what it has all been building towards. Or at the very least, this is the start of what it has been building towards, since the film ends on a (slightly underwhelming as soon as you think about it) cliffhanger leadinginto the next film. You never reach the end in these movies – each one, while serving some of the story, is also a jumping-off point for the next one. Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is a triumph of long-form storytelling and juggling characters – but it’s also like a shark moving forward, promising us even more thrills and spills if we tune in next time.

This time the Avengers come together (and overcome inevitable personality clashes) to defeat Thanos (a motion-captured Josh Brolin). Thanos is a lunking purple beast who believes the universe is vastly overpopulated. The solution? Why kill half the universe’s population, so the other half can lead lives of perfect contentment on the remaining resources. How? Well he needs the Infinity Stones, six all-powerful gems that, together, will give him control of time and space. He just needs to wrestle them from their various hiding places.

Avengers: Infinity War has been called less of film and more an episode in a long running TV series. I think that’s fair. This film is in no way designed for anyone new to the saga to step in – half of the expansive cast are not even fully introduced. And actually it’s a good thing: we’re almost 20 films in now into this expanded universe, and if you are one of those critics sniffing that there wasn’t any concession made to the newcomer, well tough. One of the film’s strengths is that it understanding its playing to the galleries of long-established fans. Your enjoyment of the film will only increase the more Marvel films you’ve seen.

Unfortunately this sort of “dive straight in and to hell with the consequences” approach is also the root of the film’s weaknesses. This film’s primary aim is to juggle all its characters successfully, balancing its huge number of events and locations so they remain coherent, throwing in enough set pieces along the way for whoops and cheers. What it manifestly is not for is to tell a story about character or to give us striking visual images.

It’s like a mega, mega, mega budget all-action crossover episode of something. The excitement for the viewer is, say, Iron Man and Doctor Strange butting heads or Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy exchanging comic riffs. It’s not designed for us to learn anything new about these heroes. In fact, the character beats are pretty formulaic. A standard arc generally goes like this: brief individual introduction doing something everyday, a meeting where much plot is quickly exchanged, bickering, a huge battle and some self sacrifice. Repeat. The film does nothing fresh on this formula which Joss Whedon introduced so well in The Avengers. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The difference with The Avengers was that it felt like a real novelty, and there was a smaller number of characters to bring together (it seems almost timid now to remember the original Avengers gang was only 6-7 strong – it’s almost 20+ now). Each character had more time and we got a much better sense of how their individual personalities affected the other. Here the Russos have to try and deal with the vast number of heroes by effectively breaking them up into 3-4 silos, giving even the most prominent ones probably no more than 20 minutes of screen time.

On top of which, despite the much vaunted “all bets are off” promotion of the movie, the action still has a stakes-free weightlessness to it. Yes some characters die, and while 1-2 of these might well stick, by the end of the film the main question is how many of the deaths will be reversed, not the impact of them. In fact the final sequence (which sees several deaths) slowly carries less and less weight the more you realise these deaths are really serving as a cheeky “how will they get out of that” moment.

Which is the dark secret of Avengers: Infinity War: it’s really nothing more than a trailer for its sequel. At the end of its vast running time – after all the functionally filmed action and odd decent one liner – you realise you have watched an extended prologue for the next film. That’s the one we’ve all been building for. The events of this film, in the long run, are the long road we need to take to get there.

This is not to say the film doesn’t have moments of enjoyment. The spectacle may not be filmed with much more than a derivative traditionalism, but it can’t help but be enjoyable. There isn’t much imagination about the implications of these heroes’ powers, in the way of say X-Men 2, but it’s still impressive to watch. Thor and Captain America get some pretty cool entrances. 

But I got the impression it must have been pretty boring to act in. Most of the vast cast have very little to do except a few one-liners and then punching. The character who most emerges as a three-dimensional figure is Thanos. Josh Brolin’s interpretation of the character as a sort of misguided humanitarian, who feels to do a great right he must do a greater wrong, yearns not for control of the universe but (in a perverse way) to save it. His quest for these stones is built like some sort of Arthurian epic, involving sacrifice and struggle. It would have been easy to make Thanos a sadistic maniac, but making him someone who believes he is doing the right thing is much more interesting. Essentially he’s the main character of the film.

Of the rest those that get the most to do are those with a connection with Thanos. Zoe Saldana as his adopted daughter turned foe Gamora gets some meaty emotional material, as does Chris Pratt as her would-be boyfriend Peter Quill (Pratt is the actor who probably gets the most “actorly” material in the film by far). Paul Bettany as Vision (the robot with an infinity stone in his head) gets to centre a plot that balances self-sacrifice with his love for Wanda Maximoff (Elisabeth Olson pretty good, even if her character oscillates between bad assery and weeping).

For the rest, it’s just their actor’s charisma that carries them through. Robert Downey Jnr gets a touching moment or two (most notably his reaction to another character’s distressed fear on facing death). Benedict Cumberbatch is great value as Strange. Chris Hemsworth gets to continue flexing his comic muscle as Thor. Others like Chris Evans are criminally wasted.

But then their time will come. Because there is another film in the pipeline – and if our heroes still feel slightly like they can survive anything up to and including getting crushed by a moon, it’s because we know that there are still movies to be made, and money for Marvel to take to the bank. And that’s probably the real nemesis of these expansive, bombastic films: the lack of danger is only going to continue while the studio doesn’t want to kill anyone major off. Hopefully that will change, but without it it’s still a film of the invulnerable hitting the inevitable.

Avengers: Infinity War is pretty good – but largely as a spectacle and because it superficially pays off what you were being hyped up to see in its action and character partnerships. But give it a year or so – and repeat viewings – and I think its stock will fall.  Because it doesn’t really do anything that unexpected, and most of its more daring movies are designed with loopholes to undo them. There are enough bright lights to entertain you (and I mostly was) but I don’t think there is much depth for you to swim in when you come back for a second dip.

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Robert Downey Jnr and Jude Law made a great odd couple in Sherlock Holmes

Director: Guy Richie

Cast: Robert Downey Jnr (Sherlock Holmes), Jude Law (Dr John Watson), Rachel McAdams (Irene Adler), Mark Strong (Lord Henry Blackwood), Kelly Reilly (Mary Morstan), Eddie Marsan (Inspector Lestrade), Hans Matherson (Lord Coward), James Fox (Sir Thomas Rotheram), Geraldine James (Mrs Hudson), William Houston (Constable Clark), William Hope (Ambassador Standish)

I don’t think there has been a single character brought to the screen more often than Sherlock Holmes. Sure there are certain tent-pole performances (Rathbone, Brett, Cumberbatch) that people automatically think of when you say “Sherlock Holmes”, but there are hundreds of others. It’s a character that survives constant re-imagination. In fact, you could argue it’s pretty much vital to bring something of your own to the table when putting together a Sherlock Holmes dramatisation. It’s what made Sherlock so successful. And it’s something that works very well here.

Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jnr) is part Bohemian artist, part mad scientist, part kickboxer. The sort of guy who can think so far ahead he can plan out an entire fight in his mind before it even begins. He’s partnered up with determined, smart, handy-with-a-sword Dr Watson (Jude Law). With Watson preparing to move out of 221B to marry Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), they take on their last case: defeating creepy Dracula-lite Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), who claims to have returned from the dead and wants to take over the British Empire. Along the way they are helped (or hindered) by the mysterious Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) an old flame of Holmes’.

Guy Ritchie’s rollicking adventure is actually a huge amount of fun that, underneath the crashes and bangs, actually has a really strong respect for the original stories (the film is littered with references and quotes from the originals, none of which feel shoe-horned in except maybe Rachel McAdams’ Irene Adler, perhaps because the producers felt Holmes needed a love interest to stop any worries that he might be a bit too much in love with Watson). Ritchie has crafted a Holmes-Watson relationship that repositions them as a sort of odd-couple surrogate brothers, a marriage of equals (and make no mistake, a marriage is basically what this Holmes and Watson have). It’s big and silly, but then so were the original stories (The Creeping Man anyone?). 

Ritchie is a film-maker it’s easy to find faintly annoying, with his faux-geezer attitudes, his bizarre philosophical views and his love of the poor-taste gag. But on this film he’s basically a director-for-hire rather than putting his own story together and, you know what, putting this director into a studio strait-jacket is actually pretty good. It smacks some disciple on him, makes him drop his indulgent and poor-taste jokes and instead brings his strengths as a director – his sense of pace, his eye for a witty image, his rollicking sense of fun – to the fore. That’s probably why this is his most enjoyable and best film. 

It’s a film that mainly works because Downey Jnr and Law make a terrific pairing as Holmes and Watson. They have great chemistry, they spark off each other extremely well as performers and they really give the sense of two life-long devoted friends. Both actors are very good here. The film hits these notes of male friendship extremely well – a mixture of mocking and abuse, mixed with devotion and loyalty. The film gets the balance of these things exactly right: from debates to fights, you really get a sense that these two are honorary brothers, almost a bickering old married couple. 

In fact, the whole film revolves quietly around this relationship coming under threat (as Holmes sees it) of Watson leaving Holmes to get married – although, nicely, the film makes clear his fears of Mary are completely unfounded. Part of the dual engine of the film is Holmes continuing to tempt Watson into getting more and more involved with his cases, because he doesn’t want to lose his friend. It’s actually quite sweet. As are the protective feelings both have for the other: Watson knows Holmes puts himself at ridiculous risks, in turn Holmes shows a gentle worry for Watson’s gambling addiction (a popular Sherlockian society interpolation from references in the story).

All this warm, brotherly stuff from two excellent performers is built into a dramatic, thrillingly shot, series of action and detection scenes. The film’s big gimmick is Holmes’ ability to use his analytical abilities to accurately predict the outcome of fights (which the film communicates with slow motion and forensic narration by Downey Jnr, before staging the entire fight again at real time). It’s actually a fairly neat way of turning his deductive abilities into a visual language. Alongside this, plenty of this great fun – exciting or, as in Holmes’ battle with a 7ft giant, funny. All hugely entertaining.

Placing the focus on this relationship and the action does mean that the mystery elements of the plot get a bit short-changed. The story is a rather silly series of near-Dracula style high-Gothic mysteries that may or may not be real (all these occult references more than echo The Young Sherlock Holmes!). There isn’t much in the way of the small intricate puzzles of the early stories here – but then plenty of the later ones became increasingly hyper-real Gothic stories, so I guess that is fine. Mark Strong does a decent job as the villainous Blackwood, using his sinister looks and imperious voice extremely well. 

It also looks wonderful – the photography and set design is marvellous – and the score by Hans Zimmer must be one of his best ever, a sprightly mix of Irish music, Westerns and Music Hall. Ritchie directs it with a wonderfully, tongue-in-cheek, entertaining sprightliness, like Sherlock Holmes meets Indiana Jones. Holmes more than survives his re-imagination as an action superhero – and in fact he brings across a lot of the tone and character of the original book along with him. A terrific entertainment and a more than worthy entry to the Holmes movie cannon.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Captain America and Iron Man stand-off in overblown Captain America: Civil War

Director: Anthony and Joe Russo

Cast: Chris Evans (Steve Rogers), Robert Downey Jnr (Tony Stark), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson), Don Cheadle (James Rhodes), Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton), Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa), Paul Bettany (Vision), Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff), Paul Rudd (Scott Lang), Emily VanCamp (Sharon Carter), Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Frank Grillo (Crossbones), William Hurt (Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross), Daniel Brühl (Helmet Zemo), Martin Freeman (Everett K Ross), Marisa Tomei (May Parker), John Kani (T’Chaka), John Slattery (Howard Stark), Hope Davis (Maria Stark), Alfre Woodward (Mariah Dillard)

Captain America: Civil War is another explosive entry in the MCU, and is even more stuffed than usual, with nearly all our Avengers thrown into the mix – with the added twist that they fight each other! Yup it’s time for another playground argument: “If X fought Y, which one would win?!” That’s the main thrust of Captain America: Civil War, but it’s actually a distraction from the real plot. The much hyped fight at the airport (and the build-up to it) is a rather dull hour in the middle that distracts from a richer, more interesting film.

There is dissent in the ranks of the Avengers. The UN wants them to sign the “Zukovian Accords” – an agreement that they will work only under the direction of the UN. For Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jnr) this legal framework for their actions is essential – but Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) argues that the Avengers need to have the freedom to go where they are needed, not only where they are told. In this tense situation, a bombing in Vienna is swiftly blamed on Roger’s old friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who has become the brain-washed killer The Winter Soldier. In disagreement with Stark about the Accords and determined to protect Bucky, Steve quickly finds himself on a collision course with Tony.

The central idea here is actually fairly interesting: are superheroes people with a higher duty or just a group of vigilantes? Should they follow the direction of politicians – or be free to go where they are needed, when they are needed? How much accountability should they hold? If, in saving the world, dozens of civilians should die in the aftermath, is that acceptable or not? These are the ideas that lie under the arguments that the characters – principally Captain America and Iron Man – have. 

The first 40 minutes set this up nicely: an operation goes wrong, people are killed and the Avengers are confronted with footage of the collateral destruction they have caused while saving the world. But these ideas get left behind as the film gets caught up with pushing our characters into an artificial-feeling battle so destructive that an entire airport gets trashed by the “let’s cool our actions” team while trying to stop the “we should be independent” faction.

It would have been really nice to have these ideas explored in more depth, rather than a few moments here and there. Essentially, the film hires Alfre Woodard to deliver a top-notch performance as a mother whose son was Avengers collateral damage, to convince Tony things need to change, and leaves it at that. Steve’s counter-argument gets laid out swiftly – though he strangely makes no reference to the fact that the previous film saw a very similar “government organisation” revealed as the source of all evil in the Marvel world. It’s quick beats like this that set up this collision – but only Tony and Steve get any chance to express any form of developed views (in a few very well acted scenes). The motivations of the rest of the Avengers seem under-developed.

But that’s the problem with Captain America: Civil War: it’s seriously overstuffed. With some of these plots and characters removed, we could have actually had a very rich, thematic story.

The whole “Zukovia Accords” plot also has to constantly juggle for space with leftover “Winter Soldier” plotline from the previous two films. Truth be told, the latter is the more interesting, dealing with actual emotions, friendships and loyalties – chiefly the bond between Bucky and Steve (very well illustrated in a few brief, well played scenes). It’s this dilemma of whether Bucky can be held responsible for things he did under mind control that becomes the film’s key question. This plot line works far more effectively as it basically involves only three of the characters and feels like it has genuine things at stake, in a way I just can’t feel about the forced “civil war” angle. 

But it’s that civil war angle that the film is being sold on – and it’s what the middle section of the film is given over to. The big, airport-wrecking battle between the two sides is well shot, has good special effects and throws in plenty of neat one-liners. But what it completely lacks is any sort of dramatic tension or any stakes. As our heroes indestructibly bounce around while swapping light banter you never feel that this battle really amounts to anything. The sides don’t seem that far apart, or really that different – in fact the whole thing feels like playground horseplay.

The big battle is even undermined by the fact that we’ve already seen our heroes fight each other at least twice already in small combinations – and in all these cases, bodies are thrown about mercilessly but no one suffers more than a few scratches. Even after a character falls hundreds of feet to the ground, he’s later shown as basically being absolutely fine. The big battle is supposed to be the exciting showpiece, but it’s basically just big filler. A load of noise, where nothing really happens and no-one really feels at any risk, with no real consequences (all the emotional consequences emerge from the smaller scale final confrontation which would be unchanged if this airport fight was removed).

The film only really recovers again once that fight is benched, and we wind up with three of our heroes squaring off over very personal issues. This also brings to the fore the Daniel Brühl’s fascinating character, a very different type of villain: someone whom the film plays a neat game of misdirection with. The film reveals one of its themes as revenge, and how much it can dominate or twist our lives. This is given voice through a wonderfully written and played scene between Brühl and Boseman (very dynamic as the future Black Panther, dealing with grief over the murder of his father).

That scene gives an insight into the film’s real strengths: the small moments. The bits where the overblown fighting can be put to one side and we can see these characters (and the very good actors who inhabit them) talk. Moments like this carry more humanity, interest and tension than a thousand sequences of a giant Ant-man. In these moments, Downey Jnr and Evans are both terrific. Evans was born to play this part, making Rogers adamantine in his decency and nobility without being wearing, and also demonstrating an increasing streak of an old-soul who is tired of listening to other people and wants to make his own choices. Downey Jnr increasingly makes Stark a man hiding resentments, fears and doubts under a veneer of cool. Several other excellent performances also burst around the margins of the film (I’d single out Mackie who is excellent as the loyal Sam).

It’s just a shame Captain America: Civil War wastes some strong material in the prolonged set-up – and then enactment – of its superhero feud. Enjoyable as it can be to see this sort of stuff from time to time, after a while it’s tedious to watch invulnerable people taking pot shots at each other with no discernible impact. A single conversation with stakes – with a doubt about whether a friendship will hold or not – has more tension and excitement than a hundred sequences of heroes hitting each other. There is a more interesting story here – but between the action and the obligatory set-ups for future Black Panther and Spiderman movies (excellent as Boseman and Holland are in these roles) it doesn’t quite reach its potential.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

The Avengers Assemble to take on robotic villain Ultron

Director: Joss Whedon

Cast: Robert Downey Jnr (Tony Stark), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner), Chris Evans (Captain Steve Rogers), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Jeremy Renner (Clint “Hawkeye” Barton), James Spader (Ultron), Samuel L Jackson (Nick Fury), Don Cheadle (James Rhodes), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Pietro Maximoff), Elisabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff), Paul Bettany (JARVIS/Vision), Cobie Smulders (Maria Hill), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson), Hayey Atwell (Peggy Carter), Idris Elba (Heimdell), Stellan Skarsgard (Erik Selvig), Thomas Kretschmann (Baron von Strucker), Linda Cardellini (Laura Barton)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe: with the wrong director, it can be top a heavy mess, but Whedon showed with the first Avengers film that the right writer/director can weave the competing plotlines into a story that win overs an audience and leave them thrilled and entertained. His problem here was repeating that trick with the sequel.

After (it seems) finally defeating HYDRA, the Avengers relax at last – little knowing that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jnr) is using multi-film-macguffin Loki’s staff to explore the possibility of creating an intelligent army of robots to defend the Earth. Instead, he creates Ultron (James Spader), a deeply flawed robotic version of his own personality, who grows to believe the best way to save the world is to wipe out mankind. Time for the Avengers to saddle up once more!

The greatest nemesis the Avengers faced here was that the first of these superhero smackdown films (2011’s Avengers Assemble) was far better than anyone had a right to expect. It was witty and had a plausible script, a very good villain in Tom Hiddleston (much missed here), and a winning structure that saw our heroes initially far apart and later drawn together into a family. On top of that, it gave all the jaw-dropping action and geeky thrills of watching iconic characters fighting together (in every sense of the word) that the fans expected. It worked so well that, consciously or not, Whedon ended up imitating it its structure here.

Both films open with a piece of shady alien tech: it’s stolen, and our heroes’ noble intentions for its use which   backfire. The villain is an outcast with a personal (familial) connection to one of our heroes (Ultron is, to all intents and purposes, Stark’s son). A first attempt to take on the villains ends in chaos as no-one works together, leaving the gang disheartened. Hulk is unleashed, causes chaos and needs to be restrained. A pep talk from Fury perks the gang back up. They head back into a battle over a city, against overwhelming odds, where they finally work together and turn a weapon of mass destruction into their salvation. With some small thematic twists and some adjustments to the plot they are fundamentally the same movie.

This might be connected to the greater studio interference Whedon dealt with. This conflict of visions results in a wonky balance between pay-off from past films and build up to future ones, and several plot lines being poorly developed. Most obviously most of Thor’s sub-plot ended-up on the cutting room floor. What was meant to be a series of revelations about infinity stones turns into essentially Chris Hemsworth sitting in a puddle. Whedon confirmed that the studio instructed he delete either this sequence or the sequence set at Barton’s log cabin (the emotional heart of the movie) so it’s not surprising that this paid the price. Needless to say, not a frame of the terrifically dull and overextended Iron Man vs. Hulk battle was allowed to hit the cutting room floor.

This confused cutting down of ideas is present throughout the movie. Villain Strucker, introduced with fanfare at the end of the last movie, is unceremoniously bumped off off-screen. Andy Serkis pops up to serve as an introduction to a future movie. The creation of Paul Bettany’s Vision is only vaguely explained. Ultron is never really given time (despite a pitch perfect performance of cold smarm from James Spader) for his plans to fall into shape, or for the audience to really understand him as a character. A backstory for Natasha is fitfully sketched out – but with hardly any time to explore it, the final product was so clumsily done that the film drew heavy (unfairly personal) criticism from the Twitterati, claiming Whedon was denouncing any woman choosing not to have children (“I’m a monster” says Natasha remembering her brutal education, which included GBH, murder and her voluntary sterilisation). He clearly isn’t, but as the plotline is rushed, it becomes easier to read an unintended message in it.

The area Whedon does handle well is juggling the huge number of characters he needs to keep tabs on at any one time – with careful plotting and some decent, fleet-footed scripting, he manages to allow each of the heroes a moment in the sun and a chance for the actors to breathe and perform. Those moments where the film takes five and doesn’t worry about the explosions and comic lore are the ones that work best – and also, perhaps, the ones most warmly embraced by the fans (never the best judges of what they think they will like – in advance they would probably have named the bland Iron Man-Hulk battle as the movie’s big sequence).

There’s a reason why most people would probably remember sequences like the party scene, where our heroes playfully take it in turns to lift Thor’s hammer: they feel real and they deal with emotions and friendships that we can understand and relate to, in a way we can’t with a giant robot man hitting a big green guy for no real eason (can you tell I didn’t like that bit?). It’s why the sequence Whedon fought so hard to keep in the film – Barton’s log cabin – feels genuinely rather sweet and moving. These are sequences where our characters behave like human beings, and they are the sequences that make us connect with the film.

Anyway take a look at these two scenes – which is more interesting and engaging? Make up your own mind!

The best Marvel films have always had an eye for the incongruous insertion of our heroes into a real world. And by placing Barton (an empathetic Jeremy Renner) front and centre as the moral cornerstone of the film, contrasting his (albeit well-trained) normality against the Gods he fights with, Whedon allows elements of relatability to anchor the film. Renner makes an awful lot of Barton’s wistful longing for something away from Avenging, while his relationship with his wife (who “fully supports your Avenging”) is one of the first relationships in these films that feels like it could be from a regular movie.

It’s strengths like this that Whedon brings to these films. It’s not directorial vision – at heart Whedon is quite a televisual director, using simple camera set-ups without much visual flair. The action the film provides is entertaining enough, but in truth we’ve seen all this super action before, and few of the set pieces are really memorable. Even a few days away I’m struggling to remember them all. Which is not to say they are badly staged at all – they’re just nothing new or special, and in many ways just higher budget developments of things from the first film. Whedon’s real visual strength is in his instinct for a comic beat or sight gag – and the film delivers several of these.

Whedon also crucially forced through (against studio objections) the death of Quicksilver. Marvel strongly urged a cop-out final shot of Quicksilver either in a hospital bed or in recuperation, but Whedon wisely stuck to his guns. It was an important struggle, as it forces a sense of peril into this world and gives the viewer the sense that sometimes things might not always turn out well. This is particularly important, since Stark’s entire plot about his fears would make no sense in a world without stakes or consequences. It also allows Whedon to do some very neat audience misdirection with Barton – how many of us, watching Barton solemnly promise his wife that this will be ‘one last mission’, were expecting him to bite the big one later in the film?

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a compromised film, but still a decent one. It’s not in the top five Marvel films, let alone the top five superhero films, but it’s entertaining, has some decent action – and, above all, Whedon manages to put a bit of heart in heart, enough for us to care about the characters. It’s this factor so many of these films miss out on – and it’s a reason that, while Age of Ultron is flawed, it’s not fatally so, and will continue to entertain for a good many years yet.