Saturday, May 2, 2015

Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments

At long last, the biggest, baddest superhero film of 2015 has arrived, and given the track records of Marvel and Joss Whedon, the only question was this: is it gonna be cool, awesome, or revolutionary? Marvel set an impossible bar to reach with The Avengers three years ago, when they proved with flying colors that the massive superhero team-up crossovers of the comics can, in fact, translate to the big screen, making for one of the most exciting, witty, action-packed blockbusters in the last ten years. Everybody, from comics fans to critics to Joe and Jane Moviegoer, was surprised that such a film, and the entire setup of a shared universe of comic book superheroes, even made it to the big screen in the first place, and they were absolutely astonished that it worked.

Now, in 2015, every Hollywood journalist worth his or her salt has to possess a basic knowledge of decades' worth of Marvel and DC Comics lore (gleaned from Wikipedia, if nothing else), the stuff that was dismissed as the realm of basement-dwelling nerds a mere ten years ago. Every studio that has any licensed superhero properties in their portfolio has sought to use them to build their own cinematic universe to copy Marvel's success, and even Universal is trying to reboot their classic monsters and make a similar franchise out of them. Whenever a young actor suddenly emerges as a promising star, the first question on people's lips is what set of colorful tights he's gonna be wearing in a few years. Comic book movies have become a big enough business that calls for more female and non-white heroes are actually taken seriously, with Marvel prepping the Black Panther and a female Captain Marvel for their own movies (especially with it seeming likely that Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans are wrapping up their involvement in the franchise) and many of their TV shows, from ABC's Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter to Netflix's upcoming AKA Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, doing much to challenge the idea that comic book adaptations have to be pasty sausagefests.

In short, comic book adaptations rule the world of film today as thoroughly as Westerns did in the '50s, musicals did in the '60s, and gritty "New Hollywood" dramas did in the '70s. Of course, all of those trends ran out of gas eventually, sometimes spectacularly so, leaving much carnage in their wake as Hollywood struggled to pick up the pieces and find the next big trend. And indeed, many have raised the same concern about superhero movies today, fearing that, before long, audiences will grow tired of seeing seven superhero movies in any given year. And to be honest, I agree. With everybody jumping onto the bandwagon, there are undoubtedly going to be some bombs, as we saw with Sony's Spider-Man debacle last year and as we'll undoubtedly see in the future (and I already have certain movies in mind, though in the interests of niceness I'll spare the snark). The bombs will be a minority, but a big one will undoubtedly take the luster off the genre, especially if it happens to Marvel with its carefully-crafted brand image. Just look at Pixar -- the Cars films (especially the second one) caused their next couple of releases, Brave and Monsters University, to suffer under a far more critical eye than their past efforts did, and their once-sterling reputation has since dipped to "quite talented, but still just as human as the rest of Hollywood." I assure you, one of these days, the same fall from grace that afflicted Pixar is going to hit Marvel, and people will realize that they too are capable of failure.

Today, however, is not that day.

Avengers: Age of Ultron couldn't possibly reach the heights of the first movie, and it isn't the revolution that that film was, but it still stands that they pulled it off again. It's big, sprawling, and at times unwieldy, but all of the great strengths of Marvel and writer/director Joss Whedon are on full display, delivering an eye-popping, action-packed, and often hilarious popcorn blockbuster that fires on nearly all cylinders. With great characters, a memorable villain, and good old-fashioned heroics, Age of Ultron isn't perfect, but the rest of this summer's slate of blockbusters is going to have their work cut out for them challenging it for the top spot.

The plot here, if I may oversimplify a bit, can be summed up as "the Avengers vs. the Terminator". That's the short version. The long version is that Tony Stark, after seeing way too much death and destruction in the course of his career, decides that it's time to take the job of protecting Earth to the next level. Working with Dr. Bruce Banner (who you won't like when he's angry, lest you meet his big, green, Hulking alter ego), he creates an AI program called Ultron that will take control of Stark's legion of Iron Man suits for the purpose of protecting the world from another alien invasion or supervillain threat. As anybody who's seen this sort of movie really ought to know, it takes only about thirty seconds after Ultron's activation before he decides that humanity itself is the problem. Now Stark, Banner, and the rest of the Avengers team must take out Ultron and stop him from destroying the world in his quest to replace humanity with his "more evolved" robots.

However, while all of the Avengers recognize the threat Ultron poses, some of them secretly -- and not-so-secretly -- blame Stark for setting off the whole mess in the first place. Most outspoken of all is Captain America himself, Steve Rogers, who's quick to give Stark a piece of his mind and let him know just how badly he screwed up. Meanwhile, Ultron recruits Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, a pair of Eastern European twins who have superpowers thanks to experiments by HYDRA, to help him in his plan. Pietro and Wanda harbor a grudge against Stark after his bombs landed on their home in a war, and they happily volunteer to help Ultron, knowing that he too wants to destroy the Avengers but little else about his plan. Along the way, the rest of the Avengers -- Thor, Natasha "Black Widow" Romanoff, Clint "Hawkeye" Barton, and leader Nick Fury -- kick robot ass alongside Iron Man, the Hulk, and Captain America, all the while forming relationships and examining their own places on the team.

The character dynamics that drive Age of Ultron have long been a staple of both Marvel's films and the work of Joss Whedon, and here, it is no different. Many scenes, especially in the second act of the film, do little to drive the plot along, instead putting the spotlight on characters both major and minor and exploring their pasts, who they are now, and where they feel they're going. In a movie with so many characters, they really had no choice but to pace themselves rather than throw us into non-stop action, and the result was incredibly refreshing. Whedon's flair for witty humor is on full display in these scenes, with the quips flying at a mile a minute and nearly always landing straight in my funny bone, as is his skill at making a very diverse group of people -- weapons engineers, super soldiers, scientists, government agents, and mutants (shh, they're inhumans, 20th Century Fox owns the rights to "mutants" in superhero movies!) -- come together as comrades, friends, and most importantly, a team. If it means that parts of the movie feel like narrative wheel-spinning, then I'll take it, because even in those scenes where I could tell they were stalling for time, I still loved seeing these characters interact. Everybody brings their A-game, from the major players like Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, and Scarlett Johansson to comparatively minor Marvel Universe figures like Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner and Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton, who haven't shown up in a Marvel movie since the last Avengers film but who still feel like they never left, getting some much-needed development in the process. If I did have something to complain about, it's that the romance between Natasha and Bruce felt shoehorned in, seeming to come out of nowhere and dragging on the film quite a bit, and that a good chunk of Thor's story felt like it was trimmed for time.

After that, we come to our villain, Ultron, voiced wonderfully by James Spader and physically represented by a horde of killer robots. Ultron is very much Tony Stark's son, in both his outlook on the world (as Steve Rogers often pointedly notes) and in his sense of humor, something that the trailers haven't done nearly enough to show us. He's probably the snarkiest genocidal AI to ever grace the big screen, which adds an extra level of malice to his otherwise time-worn world destruction plot, while at the same time, he's essentially an angsty teenager trying to escape the shadow of his "father". While past Marvel movies have been fairly hit-or-miss with their villains given their focus on the heroes, I fell in love with Ultron almost immediately. He is, in almost every way, the mirror of Tony Stark and what he represents, unable to tell the difference between saving the world and destroying it. Still, Ultron is not the one who tears the Avengers apart the most. That honor goes to Elizabeth Olsen's Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch, a young woman with psychic powers who preys on her foes' greatest fears. Through her power, we get an up-close look at the insecurities of many of the Avengers, helped along by Olsen's delightfully weird performance that feels like Carrie White brought into the Marvel 'verse, packed with her own fears about Tony Stark. And when her redemption comes, she proves herself as a hero no less capable than the rest. Her on-screen brother Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Pietro Maximoff, aka Quicksilver, doesn't get as much to do, but by and large, he redeems himself after his dull performance in Godzilla, reminding me of just why I loved the Kick-Ass films.

Another important thing that I loved about this movie, and one that I cannot stress enough, is that unlike some other recent superhero films (again, not naming names, except I totally am), Age of Ultron actually understands heroism. If these people are supposed to be the good guys, you can't show them causing more damage than they prevent. Throughout the film, the Avengers have an almost obsessive urge to keep human casualties to a minimum. Bruce Banner spends much of the film agonizing over the people he killed after Wanda drives him insane and makes him Hulk out in the middle of Johannesburg, and when Tony Stark comes in to stop him, he goes out of his way to divert the fight to a building that's still under construction and has nobody inside. The number of times the Avengers are shown not just fighting bad guys, but going out of their way to save people from peril, almost feels like Joss Whedon wagging his finger in the direction of *ahem* certain movies, telling them point-blank "no, nonononono, this is what a superhero is supposed to do!" And my God was it a relief to see. As great as The Dark Knight legitimately was, I've just about had it with other movies (and not just superhero movies; see the Transformers films, or rather, don't) copying the most superficial elements of it, which often translate to "dark, brooding, and violent" without an ounce of the depth of their inspiration. Nice to see that the folks at Marvel have had it too.

Finally, we come to the action, and while I can't call Whedon one of the great filmmakers in this regard, he is most definitely hyper-competent here. Even seeing this in standard-definition 2D, every action scene looked and felt like a million bucks (and given this film's budget, I may be low-balling it a bit), with the whole crew given plenty of room to shine. Right out of the gate it gets rolling, with an explosive battle in the woods that shows off all the Avengers' many talents, and everything after that keeps stepping it up. The final battle especially was simply glorious, with a setup so ridiculous that I can't spoil it lest you start staring at your screen in disbelief. It was at this point that Age of Ultron truly came together, with everybody both in front of and behind the camera doing what they do best and delivering a glorious finale, from the characters to the wisecracks to the fighting to the explosions to the OH GOD I FEEL LIKE AN ELEVEN-YEAR-OLD BOY AGAIN THIS IS SO AWESOME!!!

...yeah. When it comes to action, Whedon knows his stuff, and he goes hog-wild in bringing the most ridiculous elements of the Marvel mythos to life. Other filmmakers have done superhero action slightly better, but none of them have done it on such a grand scale before. Age of Ultron wasn't just a damn good action movie, it felt epic and larger than life, with truly massive scenes and scope, in a way that few superhero movies have managed to pull off. They weren't just adapting the comics, they were adapting the big moments from the comics, the truly world-changing events that completely dispense with any pretense of realism and become truly cosmic. It never quite went over-the-top into truly splatter-my-brains-across-the-theater territory (maybe I need to see it in IMAX 3D), but many, many times, it got oh-so-close.

Score: 4 out of 5

Again, a case where only a few real faults (in this case, it felt like a number of important character moments were left on the cutting-room floor) mar what is otherwise an excellent start to this year's summer blockbuster season. You've probably already made up your mind to see this, so I probably can't change your mind either way, so I'll just say that you're gonna love it.

(Oh, and for once, you can leave the theater after the mid-credits bonus scene. I checked. No need to keep your ass in your seat after that.)

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