Friday, May 1, 2015

"The Avengers: Age of Ultron" (2015)

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans and James Spader
Written and directed by Joss Whedon
Rated PG-13 — Superhero violence, language
Running Time: 141 Minutes

The Avengers — Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) — finish their war against Hydra by defeating Baron Strucker (Thomas Kretchmann) and retrieving the scepter used by Loki to control the Chitauri during the Battle of New York. As the heroes take some time to rest following their victory, Tony Stark uses the opportunity to study the scepter and discovers that the powerful gem that gives it its power could be the secret to unlocking an artificial intelligence powerful enough to protect the world from future alien invasions.

Unfortunately, Stark's creation, Ultron (James Spader), is not the benevolent force he'd hoped it would be. Ultron is an artificial madman, and he vows to destroy not just the Avengers, but the entire human race. Using the power of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and her twin brother Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Ultron sets the Avengers against their worst fears, tearing the team apart from within, while he travels the globe attempting to put his plan to wipe humanity from existence into motion.

While I generally think that the Marvel movies thus far have done a fairly decent job being self contained enough that newcomers wouldn't struggle too much to get what's going on in the individual entries, "Age of Ultron" is clearly a different beast. Not so much a culmination of "Phase 2," as Marvel calls it, but an important turning point towards "Phase 3," the film is by fat the least accessible entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Practically everything in this movie is built directly off of things that have happened in the first "Avengers," as well as "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and "Thor: The Dark World" and to an oddly lesser extent, "Iron Man 3" and yes, even the disappointingly messy "Agents of SHIELD" TV series. The film's rollicking opening sequence as the Avengers lay siege to Strucker's Hydra mountain base only happens because of intel received from SHIELD in the TV series, and viewers of that series will already be familiar with Hydra's experiments on people with superpowers, which lays the groundwork for Strucker's greatest achievement: "the twins," Wanda and Pietro.

The fact that even the status quo at the beginning of the movie requires so much back-story to make any real sense is problematic for anyone coming in cold, but enhances the feeling of the cohesive Marvel Universe for longtime viewers.

The rest of the movie is just as stuffed full of characters and storylines from other Marvel entries, some of which ultimately become some of "Age of Ultron's" failings. In trying to steer the Marvel Universe toward Phase 3, "Age of Ultron" occasionally veers off course and writer/director Joss Whedon seems to struggle to tie it back together. While the seeds sewn for the upcoming "Captain America: Civil War" sit well at the heart of much of the conflict in "Age of Ultron," a subplot to set up "The Avengers: Infinity War" feel more cumbersome. Further, the film is chock-full of "guest" appearances by characters from other Marvel films and TV series, like Peggy Carter, Falcon, Heimdall and War Machine. Still, for a movie as completely stuffed as this one, it's a miracle that it works at all, let alone as well as it does.

While the first "Avengers" film mostly eschewed individual character development in favor of a two-and-a-half hour team-building exercise, "Age of Ultron" actually goes to great lengths to make sure its ensemble all get real and individual emotional beats. Whedon, perhaps as an apology for his limited role in the first film, hands some of the film's best moments to Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye/Clint Barton. There's a sweetness to the character here that wasn't seen in his two previous appearances, and it's a welcome change.

Elsewhere, Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner struggle with a budding romance and one that's actually intriguingly well done — Natasha is the one chasing after Bruce, who seems to think that pursuing a relationship with her will do nothing but put expose her to the monster he believes himself to be. It's less about him thinking she'd be physically in danger than about her seeing the thing inside of him that he fears and is disgusted by and worrying about her response.

Further, Captain America/Steve Rogers and Tony Stark are at odds over Stark's continued obsession with building bigger and badder technologies. Stark says he's just trying to protect the planet, but Rogers thinks he's opening Pandora's Box — and Ultron seems to be the proof.

The cast, of course, is up for everything Whedon can throw at them. In Downey's case, having played Stark in no less than five appearances over the last seven years, it fits like a well-worn pair of pants. Everyone has easy chemistry with their costars, and the banter between them ends up being one of the film's highlights. A scene in which every character attempts to lift Thor's magic hammer got huge laughs in the theater.

Surprisingly, some of the biggest laughs come from James Spader's Ultron, though this becomes less surprising as the film goes on and reveals more about Ultron's nature and origins. Spader delivers the kind of performance you'd expect, which is to say, it's awesome. The man simply has one of those great voices and he's perfect at delivering the kind of menace Ultron needs to have, while still giving him an emotional core. It's very nearly matched by the computer effects used to bring Ultron to life, with his surprisingly expressive eyes and face, but it's really Spader's voice that makes Ultron so damn cool.

Switching up directors of photography and widening the film to 2.40:1 aspect, director Whedon imbues "Age of Ultron" with a more "movie" look than the first film. Visually, it's a tighter, slicker piece of work. It's also the most comic book comic book movie yet made. The action sequences are pure nerd gold, and Whedon never fails to let the characters bounce off each other in combat the way a good superhero team should. There are multiple occasions where characters will tag-team up to take on groups of enemies, and it's all just a joy to watch unfold. The more cinematic look is a bit at odds with Whedon's writing, which for all its cleverness still feels grounded in episodic TV — not that it's a bad thing, as all that really does is drive home further what a misfire "Agents of SHIELD" is; I'd much rather watch a Whedon "Avengers" series.

Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman's score hits all the right notes (badump-bump-tsh), incorporating Tyler's themes for Iron Man and Thor along with Alan Silvestri's themes for Captain America, SHIELD and the Avengers. It offers the kind of continuity that's been sorely lacking in musical scores for these Marvel flicks. Hopefully, this can become an ongoing trend.

Despite an intense feeling of "fans only," Marvel's "Age of Ultron" is just as brisk and fun as its predecessor, only with deeper characterization. While this continuity can be a boon, it is also where the film stumbles as it occasionally gets too mired in "franchise obligations." If we think of Marvel's 'cinematic universe' as though it were a TV series (which is really more apt than one might think) this isn't the season finale like the first film was, but rather the big mid-season sweeps event to set the second half in motion. That doesn't make it any less enjoyable, but it does rob it of some of its punch.

See Also
Iron Man 2
Iron Man 3
Captain America: The First Avenger
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Thor: The Dark World
The Avengers
Guardians of the Galaxy

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