Friday, May 1, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron Review

(dir. Joss Whedon)

Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Pictures

“Everyone creates the thing they fear. Men of peace create engines of war. Invaders create Avengers. Parents create...children that will supplant them.”

As a sequel to the third highest-grossing movie of all time, Avengers: Age of Ultron needs little introduction. When Tony Stark’s effort to save the world through the creation of artificial intelligence has dire consequences, the Avengers must work past their fragile emotional states and distrust in order to prevent humanity’s annihilation. Once again, director Joss Whedon assembles the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes whose biggest challenge will always be their ability to stand together as a team. Age of Ultron complicates the already complicated team dynamics of the first film by adding some new faces to the mix and introducing a big bad with personal stakes. Like a massive network, Age of Ultron is bigger, twistier, more complex, and ultimately a satisfying expansion of all that’s come before. If the first film felt like a comic book come to life, then Age of Ultron is like a whole six-issue trade collection splashed across the screen.

The returning cast members are all in top form. By now these actors have all got a strong grip on their characters and that hasn’t changed. No one seems tired of these characters or inclined to half-ass their way to a paycheck. There are new wrinkles added to the characters, particularly Tony Stark’s ongoing struggle to redefine his legacy, but in terms of characterization, there are no major upheavals. These individuals are who they are, which is their greatest asset and their greatest handicap. While the first film clearly centered on the big three (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor) Whedon makes the effort to give the characters without their own solo franchises (Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye) most of the spotlight this time around. That doesn’t mean that anyone is left wanting for more screen time, but those later three form the emotional center of the film. Anyone still sore about Hawkeye’s treatment in the first film will have plenty to celebrate this time around as Jeremy Renner gets to put his Oscar-nominated acting skills to good use and deliver some of the film’s best quips. Black Widow and Hulk get some of the film’s best action scenes and a romantic subplot. Bruce and Natasha’s relationship is an interesting development but a little too cutesy and heavy-handed at times to be entirely convincing. Still, Whedon has an expert handle on each character’s voice so that every line out of their mouth sounds like something only they would say. There is no generic battle talk or exposition in this film, making the film’s numerous plot points and comic book logic all the more digestible.

New characters Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Vision (Paul Bettany), and the villain Ultron (James Spader) are all well-developed, which is particularly noteworthy given how many characters there are in the film. Though I’d add the caveat that this feels true to a lesser degree for Quicksilver. Still, he and Scarlett Witch are welcome additions to the team as antagonists turned allies. Their initial alliance with Ultron and later team-up with the Avengers feels like an earned transformation and they definitely create some new dynamics for the team. Ultron is full-on James Spader in the best way possible. He may be made of metal but there’s nothing cold about him. He’s all passion, drive, and misplaced emotion. He’s also, unexpectedly, quite funny. Like some of the best villains, Ultron sees himself as a hero, striving towards mankind’s evolution. Marvel Studios has quite the reputation of creating lackluster villains, but Ultron can stand alongside Loki as one of the most memorable Marvel villains so far. And the final new character, Vision, introduced right before the third act proves plenty memorable in his own right. If Hulk was the scene-stealer in the first film, that role goes to Vision this time around. Non-comic readers may not be familiar with the character, but by the end of this film they certainly won’t forget him.

Whedon is also back on script-duties, and as his swan-song for his Marvel Studios involvement, the film is brimming with comic book goodness and Whedonisms. While some critics have complained that there’s too much going on, none of the plot points feels extraneous. While some of the set-up pertaining to future Marvel movies, Black Panther, and Thor: Ragnarok create some extra plot complications, they still feel like natural elements of the central story. More importantly, these extra beats allows for some globe-trotting adventures that really take the characters out of their America-centric element. While it doesn’t go for the funny bone or wow factor quite as much as the first one, Age of Ultron never tries to repeat beats from the first film. While there are a few minor issues, Age of Ultron isn’t a film that’s coasting on the familiar and I think those complaining about superhero film fatigue simply don’t get how pliable the genre is. Yes, there’s still copious amounts of CGI, explosions and destruction, but if those somehow no longer hold any thrill for you, there’s still the deft characterization and dialogue which carries most of the film’s weight.

Age of Ultron is a smart film, one that’s probably too smart to even fully appreciate on the first go round. The film hits the ground running, and its cold open moves so fast that it’s enough to give you whiplash. While the action once again showcases Whedon’s impeccable knowledge of these characters' powers and how they can be combined for full K.O effects, some of the film's best moments come from the quieter ones. While the third act battle against Ultron is the best comic book battle committed to screen, it’s the Avengers Tower party early on in the film that provides not only some of the most satisfying moments in the film, but also the best in all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These quiet and humorous scenes are a reminder that what works about these characters is that at the end of the day these powerful heroes are just people, carved out of the very same stuff that makes us human. That’s the idea that Stan Lee built the Marvel Universe on and that’s the idea that drives the film and separates The Avengers from Ultron. They may have moments of weakness, loneliness, and self-doubt, but they can adapt their ideals, which is ultimately what prevents them from resigning to isolation.

Age of Ultron gives you everything you’d want out of an Avengers sequel, so much so that the issues that do exist barely matter. It’s a film worth seeing at least twice, just because there’s so much eye candy to be dazzled by that it’s impossible to catch everything on the first round. While it faces the impossible task of beating the sheer joy in seeing these characters together for the first time, and it can’t quite match the fresh and irreverent humor of last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron rounds out the top three best Marvel Studios films. And like all the previous entries, it’ll leave you counting down the months until the next installment. Truly, it’s a great time to be a Marvel fan.

Grade: A

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