Friday, May 1, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Despite the build-up to an Infinity War Avengers film, Marvel Studio threw everyone for a loop when they announced fascist robot Ultron (James Spader) would be the villain of The Avengers sequel. Unlike 2012's The Avengers which was the culmination and payoff for the entirety of Marvel's Phase One films (everything from Iron Man to Captain America: The First Avenger), Avengers: Age of Ultron suffers from some of the same problems that weighed down Iron Man 2.

Not only does the film have to introduce a brand-new villain (something The Avengers didn't have to spend time on) and three new supporting characters (with vastly different origins than their comic counterparts), and weave in ongoing events from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. while providing separate in-depth character moments for every single Avenger, Age of Ultron also has to lay the groundwork for the next two Avengers films, Captain America: Civil War, and Thor: Ragnarok. While also throwing in supporting characters from pretty much every Marvel film so far it's something of a marvel, if you'll forgive the pun, that Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn't buckle under its own considerable weight.

Given so many new characters and plotlines what is surprising is the fact that the film at its core is a basic retread of The Avengers offering audiences a (less) charismatic scene-chomping villain fueled equally by conquest and petty jealousy whose plan is to turn the heroes against each other and doubt themselves (again) while leading an interchangeable Red Shirt CGI army into a climactic battle with the fate of the world at stake as a major city is destroyed. It's entertaining, but it's not as good the second time around.

Judging it not against the first Avengers film but as a summer action flick Avengers: Age of Ultron succeeds...mostly. Jumping us right into the action with the Avengers assault on a HYDRA compound the film doesn't lack for big CGI battle sequences (although some look better than others in quick-cutting IMAX 3D that leaves some early shots blurry and stretched). The opening sequence also introduces to HYDRA's new enhanced human soldiers Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and her brother Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who aren't allowed to be mutants in the film as 20th Century Fox owns the rights to all X-Men characters with a few exceptions such as the Maximoffs straddling both universes.

While it is understandable why HYDRA would want their own speedster, even if he is a pale imitation of the character we saw better realized in X-Men: Days of Future Past (even director Joss Whedon seems to tire of him eventually), as the Scarlet Witch's ill-defined power-set make it nearly impossible to believe HYDRA was able to even begin giving a normal human being such gifts. While Olsen, even saddled with a questionable accent, is good in the role the character is a walking Dues Ex Machina whose powers even the film's screenwriters give up trying to explain and simply refer to as "weird."

Once introduced the character of Ultron, invented here by the combination of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and Loki's scepter rather than Hank Pym (the man who created him in the comics who hasn't been introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe just yet), dominates the film. Spader embraces the craziness of the role although his take on the character is more deranged madman and less robotic than I would have preferred. Different than his comic appearance, the film's more Iron Man-styled design of Ultron's body fits the character's new origin. The origin of the Vision is closer to that of the comics but the special effects struggle to get his look right even as his appearance offers the payoff for the movie's biggest laugh.

In terms of continuity Avengers: Age of Ultron runs into a bit of trouble as well as it rewrites a bit of the Marvel Cinematic history to make Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) far more important to the group's overall dynamic than he was in the first film (in which he spent most of the first-half under mind-control). This does allow us to get a far different take on the character, but it also leads to one of the film's biggest dead spots where the plot grinds to a near halt for character development that never fully pays off.

Along with the action scenes, the film's biggest strength are the character interactions among the team. The sequel introduces an unexpected romantic angle between Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson in a light-up Tron: Legacy costume for some reason) and Banner which works better than I expected while offering the audience glimpses into her past in the Red Room (which isn't well explained and likely to confuse those who don't already have a strong grasp on the character's comic history). While Tony Stark's hubris plays a large role and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) gets his own subplot that is more about foreshadowing coming Marvel films than this one's plot, Chris Evans draws the short straw as Captain America is marginalized somewhat in the sequel (partly due to Hawkeye's larger role).

Although I enjoyed much of the action the film, at least in IMAX 3D, does at times struggle to blend its CGI shots to make them look real. Avengers: Age of Ultron also has the annoying habit of slowing the action down several times offering slow-motion preening of the Avengers leaping into action that is more unintentionally funny than anything else. The film works as a bridge to the next set of Marvel films and as a fun action film filled with recognizable stars. Sadly, it's also a noticeable step down from the last film and raises some serious questions as to whether the increasing size of the Marvel Cinematic Universe may start being a hindrance rather than a strength.

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