Saturday, May 16, 2015

"Avengers: Age of Ultron" Review: While The Formula Isn't As Fresh, This Super Sequel Still Delivers The Goods


Marvel's The Avengers was an event. It was the culmination of this grand idea that no one ever thought possible, yet there it was. It was the combination of our amazement of its actual existence and the surprising quality of the film that helped propel it into the same league as other feature film events such as Star Wars (1977), Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Jurassic Park and Titanic. It was a once in a lifetime movie going experience that might be duplicated, borrowed and stolen from for years after its release, but like those other films it could never be replicated. The conundrum thus becomes how to gauge the success and failures of the inevitable follow up with a clear mind and objective eye. The Avengers: Age of Ultron is a sequel to the first Avengers, but it is also much more than a simple sequel. Thus the question becomes two fold, is it as good as the first film and does that even matter? Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: Digital 2D             
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime: 2 hr 21 min
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Release Date: May 1, 2015

Biases:  
Loves: Most Marvel stuff
Likes: Almost all the Marvel movies
Neutral:  Iron Man 2 & 3
Hates: Stuffing too much into 2 hours
Wasn't Quicksilver in X-Men: Days of Future Past? Yup.


The Avengers: Age of Ultron (henceforth to be referred to as AOU) is a sequel, origin story and launching pad for the new Marvel initiative as well as acting as the bridge between multiple character's individual stories that will continue to intersect further down the line. To say writer/director Joss Whedon had his work cut out for him is quite the understatement. While he was tasked with bringing this disparate group of superheroes together in the first Avengers, that gargantuan responsibility is dwarfed almost instantly when you realize the true scope of what AOU means in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) which immediately makes the film more difficult to simply soak in compared to its much leaner predecessor.

Whedon wasn't simply making a sequel to the first Avengers, he was making a film that is at the very center of Marvel's ultimate plan to eventually inundate us with every single Marvel property known to man, whether they are worthy or not. Luckily for us though, Marvel hasn't seen fit to go digging too far into their deep history of off the wall heroes and villains just yet (the jury is still out on Ant-man's contributions until this July) and even though AOU introduces us to a whole new stable of characters they are all interesting new editions who add their own personal flavor to the MCU, something that will become more commonplace in the near future.


That is what AOU succeeds at the most, not so much in how it works as a sequel, which it does, but in how it isn't satisfied with just bringing back Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to smash some more heads and call it a day even though that would have fulfilled most fans expectations. No, Whedon and Marvel decided to once again straddle that fragile line between sequel and stand-alone feature and deliver a film that serves many masters while miraculously never succumbing to the need to over indulge in one area over the other which leaves us with a film that concludes one chapter of the Avengers and simultaneously, almost deceptively, paving the way towards the next.

But even though Marvel has their sights set towards the many grand things to come (there are many none-too subtle hints towards the upcoming Civil War and Infinity War), Whedon never loses focus of our core group of characters who by this time audiences feel comfortable with in such a way where they can all suddenly show up in the film's spectacular opening action sequence and we never question how or why they ended up where they are (even though the pieces to that puzzle can be put together if one felt so inclined to do so). Nothing hammers home this idea of family and acceptance more than the scene directly following their raid on Hydra where all our heroes get loose and let their hair down at one of Tony Stark's big parties to celebrate their latest victory over the forces of evil.


In many ways seeing these mighty super heroes rubbing shoulders with one another instead of pounding faces upstages the films many elaborate and expertly executed action sequences simply because we see them as friends as well and it becomes a treat to see them in these much more mundane settings. By this point there isn't much we haven't seen them do, Iron Man shoots missiles, Captain America throws his shield, Thor calls down the thunder, Hulk smashes and that stuff is still as exhilarating as ever (especially a showdown between Hulk and a super sized Iron Man, the surprise of which was sadly ruined by early trailers), so seeing them in these quieter awkward social environments allows us to get to know and relate to these larger than life characters as real people for a moment before all hell breaks loose.

This is most telling with the budding relationship between Banner (Hulk) and Romanov (Black Widow), as up until now almost all the personal relationships of our heroes have been relegated to their individual films. It was refreshing to see these two characters build a bond over the course of the film that isn't based on some sort of life or death decision, they simply have a connection and the only threat that comes between them is their inability to trust themselves and each other. These smaller moments, such as a series of dreamscapes for each Avenger brought on by a new threat, signify the best of what AOU has to offer, as each character grows in ways that will have greater impact far beyond this particular film while also bringing to the forefront many of their deepest fears to face.


Whedon has already proved once before that he knows how to handle these characters, but where he truly challenges himself (and us) is by introducing a number of new characters who have never appeared in any of Marvel's previous films (with the exception of the twins who appeared in the end credit scene for Captain America: The Winter Soldier). The majority of the newer characters aren't immediately relatable, but what most might not expect are the extra layers of complexity that peel away over the course of the film's mostly straight forward narrative. Most filmmakers have a hard enough time developing one or two main characters into fully three dimensional individuals in a single film, but Whedon shows every other screenwriter and/or director how to do it with a film that was top heavy with characters four films back. He even had enough time to give Hawkeye a full character arc finally!

As for those new faces, unless you are into the comics, chances are you have never heard of Ultron before this film and chances are just as likely that after you see it you will never forget him either. Part genius, part asshole, part psychotic and part Tony Stark, Ultron is destined to become a fan favorite as he shares many of the same qualities that made Loki a favorite among many hardcore and casual fans alike. Much of what makes Ultron work though isn't so much in the writing or the way he is integrated into the story (both of which are on point), but how he is played by James Spader who did both the vocal and motion capture work to bring him to life.


While there is no doubt the animators and special effects artists for Ultron are to thank in no small part to Ultron's creation, it is Spader who breathes life into him and makes him such an effective and often times hilarious villainous counterpart to Tony Stark's over-inflated ego. In fact, it is how Ultron reflects many of Stark's more glaring flaws (over confidence/self indulgence/ego driven) which helps make him one of Marvel's most interesting bad guys to come down the pipeline in some time. Ultron may not go down as one of the great villains, but he makes the fact that he is more or less just a plot point in the grand scheme of things less of an issue that it could have been.

The twins on the other hand aren't so lucky as it is always apparent that their inclusion was meant to push the story forward. Twin siblings Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), aka Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, can't avoid being exactly what they are, plot devices set up to bring forth multiple new story arcs for our heroes (Thor and Iron Man in particular) where as their own motivations, while functional, are treading ground we have been over long before (remember Whiplash from Iron Man 2 and his issues with Tony?). Thankfully Whedon had enough sense to switch up their roles midway through which didn't exactly make them as compelling as they could have been, but went a long way to preventing them from feeling like the cookie cutter antagonists they first appeared as.

The biggest gamble Whedon made though with AOU was sneaking in the origin story for a brand new superhero and that gamble paid off in spades. Already stuffed to the brim with superheroes and villains, the last thing AOU needed was another new hero to clutter up the screen, but Whedon knocks it out the park with the introduction of The Vision (Paul Bettany), a fascinating fresh new face to be added to the ever growing roster of characters. The Vision isn't human nor any other known life form, he simply IS...and his zen-like attitude towards life and prosperity are like a breath of fresh air in a room filled with individuals who are all constantly battling their inner demons. His character becomes even more compelling when you realize how his fate is intertwined with the upcoming Infinity War which has the possibility of transforming him into one of the more tragic figures in the MCU.


Alas, the film isn't without fault and many of its faults lie in its very own ambitions. Being ambitious can be a double edged sword and AOU falls prey to that old adage as it struggles to jam multiple character resolutions along with new and old characters being expanded upon all the while trying to open the flood gates for future films in each heroes respective individual franchise AND also tying up some loose ends left over from all the previous films. Whedon does the best he can given the circumstances and is to be commended for keeping it all together as it is (this could have easily just been an over bloated mess). But that doesn't change the fact that the seams of this intricately woven tapestry are more than visible and not everything meshes together as well as it was probably expected to.

Case in point, near the middle of the film when all our heroes are hold up at this farm and suddenly, without warning, Thor decides to fly away to pursue a vision he had. We then get some thinly edited together sequences showing Thor go through the motions and eventually come thundering back to the group wiser and more knowledgeable, but we really have no idea what happened, even with a quick scene with Thor taking a dip in a magical hot springs somewhere underground. Other rough spots such as never fully explaining why the twins are suddenly OK with Tony Stark after seeking vengeance their whole lives, why War Machine and Falcon decide to not help the Avengers after being with them upon Ultron's first attack, why Ultron decided to capture a member of the Avengers instead of killing them when his intentions the whole time are to simply kill them and at least one action set piece involving a semi truck that could have been cut altogether (perhaps in favor of letting us known what Thor was doing?) conspire to make the film a little more rough around the edges than the Avengers previous outing.


It's easy to overlook all that though as Whedon is constantly filling the screen with amazing visuals and some of the best popcorn entertainment around. It's hard to imagine anyone coming away from the film and feeling let down, perhaps a bit underwhelmed, but definitely not let down. All the pieces are there that helped make the first Avengers such a phenomenon and we even get a bit more character depth than we did the first go around (AOU functions as a better Iron Man movie than either Iron Man 2 or 3). With a great new villain, some interesting new superheroes and the ominous feeling leading towards the future, AOU is just about as perfect a summer blockbuster as one can hope for, even if it leaves room for improvement.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

It's hard to really put your finger on it, but there is something a bit off with AOU as an overall film. Clunky isn't the right word and neither is wonky, perhaps there is no word that properly describes that feeling I got after I saw the film for a second time. There was an indescribable sense of joy while watching the first Avengers movie that simply isn't there this time around. The proceedings are much more melancholy, which they should be considering what this and all the other Marvel franchises are working towards. AOU may not be the superhero follow up some were expecting, but there is no doubt that it is still a more than solid addition to the MCU and once again solidifies Marvel's hold over superheroes on the big screen.

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