Avengers: Age of Ultron ***1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johanssen, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Samuel L. Jackson, Thomas Kretschmann, Andy Serkis, and James Spader (voice)
Written by: Joss Whedon, based on the comic created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Directed by: Joss Whedon
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
In the past few weeks, it seems as though I’ve developed a little something called perspective as it relates to the comic and superhero genres of film. Despite this blog’s moniker, I’m poor with the perspective on whether or not a comic film achieves what it sets out to do. Seeing the unfortunate, typical ‘fanboy’ reaction to the recent Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice teaser trailer taught me something, however- nothing can be achieved or enjoyed if we take this genre too seriously, or expect Oscar-caliber material with each entry, despite how much The Dark Knight spoiled us. These films should strictly be for fun, despite how deeply into the mythos we might delve. I admit to caring far too much for them, but I now can tell myself these things: they do not exist to alter filmmaking as a medium (even if they have certainly influenced it), they rarely bring hidden issues to light, and they rarely open my mind to new ideas. Having taken that necessary step back from the ‘everything is awesome’ attitude towards these films now, I can see this genre in a new light, the correct light.
It’s a good thing for Avengers: Age of Ultron that I came to this way of thinking. Despite his likely best intentions, director Joss Whedon has not busted open the proverbial creative bank, nor has he topped what he accomplished the first time around. He has, however, kept the material from being stagnant, whilst maintaining Marvel’s unique identity and giving us all the wit we can handle. Age of Ultron can be scatterbrained from time to time, lacking the focus attributed to previous films in this universe. Some plot points are non-sensical, some are skipped over (like the entire point of the Iron Man 3 film), and we’re handed a surprisingly heavy dose of emotional detachment. On the other hand, it’s an enormously entertaining and witty superhero epic, with gigantic, sometimes even unintelligible battle sequences that pound our senses into oblivion. If we hadn’t invested our time, energy, and emotion in these characters already, the film would be a mess. Alas, we’re invested so hard that it somehow works in spite of its’ flaws.
The film begins tying up the loose end that is the remainder of HYDRA, the World War II-era Nazi spin-off organization. We know from the climax of Captain America: The Winter Soldier that S.H.I.E.L.D. is no more, and that HYDRA is holed up in the fictional land of ‘Sokovia’ with Loki’s scepter from the first Avengers story arc. Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Kretschmann) is in charge here, looking all “Bond villain-y” with his monocle and utilizing the technology within the scepter to do…something. The Avengers storm his castle, which is oddly littered with unfinished robots, some newfangled tech, and two ‘special’ twins, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, respectively). When we first encountered these ‘specials’ (they’re mutants, but because of silly rights issues, this film can’t call them “X-Men”) in the Winter Soldier end credits, they were caged, as if dangerous. Clearly, things have changed, as Strucker can ‘unleash’ them like weapons against the invading Avengers.
One of the twins, the “witch” (Olsen), uses her mind-projecting powers on Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey) to show him a future in which he is responsible for the end of the Avengers, and, in essence, the end of the world. It’s a neat power she has, for it allows the plot to use her based on what it needs, almost like a ‘get out of jail free card for Joss Whedon. Stark’s experience in Sokovia causes him to rekindle a romance with an idea he had shelved- the ‘Ultron’ program. As he explains to Bruce Banner (Ruffalo), this defense program would, in essence, take the responsibility of saving the world off the Avengers. Here’s the problem- in starting the Ultron program, he inadvertently creates artificial intelligence. The film doesn’t focus on the greatest achievement in mankind’s history (the creation of A.I.), but we must remember- this isn’t a science fiction film, and talking about science would delay the explosions.
The ‘essence’ known as Ultron (voiced by James Spader) that emerges from a successful trial of the program rapidly becomes self-aware, gathers a rudimentary ‘body’, and in turn, begins to attack those that would reign it in. I found it interesting, and sensible that at no point did Ultron choose the path of least resistance, and at no point did he show much sympathy- he simply chose the natural path of defending himself, another sensible option considering the framework of evolution. You can imagine what happens after that- Ultron finds the Avengers to be a threat, and systematically attempts to eliminate them. I also find it interesting that the combined intelligences of Stark and Banner couldn’t predict this outcome, with their acute scientific acumen and all. I suppose it wouldn’t be much of a film if they had.
Everything that follows Ultron’s escape and subsequent terror plans is rather standard, and requires no explanation. The fun in this film does not come from trying to make logical sense of what Stark and Banner did, nor does it come from most of the action set pieces. Age of Ultron, like its’ predecessor, is at its’ best when the characters have time to talk. It’s an epic action film, sure, but what myself and most of the crowd cheered for were the personal moments. From the comraderie of the team when they storm the HYDRA castle to the exchanges at Stark’s party at Avengers tower, I loved the ‘lived in’ nature of the film as it recognizes and plays with the familiarity we have with these characters. The banter between fringe team members like Falcon (Mackie) and War Machine (Cheadle), the budding romance between Black Widow (Johanssen) and Banner, and the other side of Hawkeye (Renner) that we get to see is the most fun we’ve had in a Marvel film. Captain America (Evans) again asserts his status as the rightful leader of this team, never wavering in his morality or his dedication. This is an excellent, well-cast team of (mostly) professional actors, and when they’re allowed to interact as a team, it’s an extremely entertaining film.
I’ll go a step further on the casting brilliance and admit that Ultron is so much fun. Spader’s voice is a perfect complement to the CGI creation- completely and totally unhinged, sarcastic, all-knowing. Basically, he’s a psychotic hunk of vibranium. Despite the fact that we know Ultron’s plan cannot ultimately succeed, as there are future movies already planned, I still appreciate and revel in his lunacy, even laughing in disbelief at some of the words spewing forth from his mouth. Spader’s performance may not be the complete tour-de-force that Heath Ledger’s Joker was in The Dark Knight, but honestly, I don’t think it’s that far off. At the very least, it is certainly the film’s main attraction.
As I said before, I needed to step away from my fanboy feelings as I watched the film. Well, I suppose I needed to step away from my feelings on logic as well. I’m sure “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” explains where Agent Coulson is, but I haven’t watched the show, so I’m asking- where is Agent Coulson? Where are any of the remaining S.H.I.E.L.D. agents? Why would Falcon sit out the end battle? Why would Tony Stark push Iron Man aside in his last film, only to come back without question this time? Why should I care?
I shouldn’t, and I won’t care too much. Marvel has done a commendable job of creating their own cinematic world while keeping most of the moving parts in place. I suppose one could consider that the whole is greater than the sum of its’ parts in reference to the Marvel Universe. That doesn’t excuse some of the missteps and all-too-easy confluence of events in Age of Ultron, but if you see the film as part of a twenty-two picture saga (including future installments), the missteps are more palatable. This is the eleventh film of the saga, the literal midpoint, which would seem to be the fulcrum for future change in this universe. We sort of see it, and some events, like the immaculate conception of Vision, show a different voice and look from what we’ve seen before. The fanboy side of my brain, however, just wished for a slightly bolder, and braver, take on this universe we’ve come to know so well. I wish I could have sat with Whedon as he put the pen to paper, whispering ever so gently as he wrote, “Come on, man. Do something brave. Do something bold. We can take it; heck, we WANT it. We love these characters, even enough to let them go if necessary”. Instead, as our mid-credits scene promises, Age of Ultron is simply another bridge-builder, forcing us to stay tuned for the climax. Here, I begrudgingly give you my future money.