Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Reviewed by Jamaal Ryan

Like Iron Man 2, it’s almost unfair to expect The Avengers: Age of Ultron to live anywhere up to what is – to some – perhaps the best Marvel movie to date. The original Avengers was tight, funny, spectacular, and well-orchestrated considering the number of Marvel heroes vying for the spotlight. It’s difficult for Age of Ultron to do much harm with Joss Whedon once again at the helm who’s already established an efficient formula on how to write and direct Cap, Stark, Thor, Hulk, Widow, and don’t you dare forget – Hawk Eye. That said however, like many sequels, Age of Ultron doesn’t quite measure up to the first Avengers as it’s often too self-indulgent, leaving a less muscular superhero action film.

Age of Ultron literally hits the ground running with the imperfect team engaging in an assault on a Hydra outpost in attempts to track down Loki’s all too powerful scepter. Here, the Avengers run into Sokovian twins Quicksilver (who’s distractingly and less charismatically played by Kick-Ass’ Aaron Taylor-Johnson compared to Even Peter’s Quicksilver in Days of Future Past) and Scarlett Witch, both whom you may remember from the Winter Soldier post credits and may or may not play an important role in the Avengers’ future (comic book fans need not weigh in).

The introductory action scene doesn’t do much for the film as an opening not only because the action itself seems muted in a snowy woodland as opposed to the bank-breaking city destruction that Marvel movies are so good at, but because – in spite some of the sprinkled foreshadowing moments – the film doesn’t really feel like it begins until the subsequent story beats, especially after a much welcomed dinner party scene that fans of the previous film would have like to have seen after the post-post credits scene set in the restaurant.

 It’s also when we meet Ultron, the titular big bad who begins as one of the most interesting and captivating villains I’ve ever seen. Ultron, sequentially built from a half destroyed Iron Legion bot to a more complete and more harrowing form, initially comes off as somewhat convincing that he has the world’s best interest at heart, ignoring the fact that it’s later revealed that he wants – unsurprisingly – nothing but to have humanity replaced by “living metal”.

Pulling from his cold, confident, yet oddly benevolent performance in Blacklist, James Spader as Ultron had me best at a scene where he expressed genuine compassion as Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch bled their story covering their experience in their homeland’s bombings. With little human features to illustrate an even fabricated concern for their loss, Ultron’s stillness, head tilted to the right, and empathetic tone was enough to show that he was truly listening. It’s unfortunate that this altruistic villain song and dance doesn’t last throughout the film, as Ultron’s arch inevitably devolves into striving for  generic global extinction.

But despite issues with his increasingly simplified motivations, Ultron sense of humor and comedic delivery is the best among the Avengers cast. I won’t take away from how well written and acted this character is, but Ultron partly stands out because the Avengers themselves are working overtime to make you laugh. Expect to get annoyed at the incessant sardonic quips spliced between frequent and distracting pauses in the action leaving just enough time for the characters to loosen the mood. The Avengers is still one of the funniest of comic book films to date because it knew how to pace itself and show restraint which left some of the lighter moments to be absolutely hilarious. Age of Ultron seeks to one-up itself, and it succeeds – albeit only quantitatively.

 Part of what made the original Marvel film work was the cracks that constantly threatened the cohesion within the Avengers team. This follow up makes great efforts to flesh out these characters even more, but with mixed success. Robert Downing Jr.’s Iron Man, who’s originally responsible for the birth of Ultron, is a true “mad scientist”. His fixation on achieving world piece by building sentient machines in mass quantity is the critical plot device that moves the narrative forward and makes him (still) the most interesting member of the group.

Iron Man’s steadfast motivation proves to be too much for the equally brilliant, but more so hesitant Bruce Banner (Hulk) who’s once again well performed by Mark Ruffalo.  And while this exchange of great minds is enjoyable to watch, Age of Ultron focuses more on Banners relationship with Scarlet Johanson’s Black Widow. Though their time together doesn’t take too much away from the film’s focus as it often neatly finds its place when Banner is “greened out” – outside of one particular scene that aptly humanizes Black Widow even further, it’s hard to say that it adds much to the story. As a fitting second act in their relationship, it’ll be interesting to see where the next Avengers film takes it, perhaps with more drama and potential sacrifice. But for now, it only works as the obligatory romance thread amid the large scale action.

 This then leaves Hawk Eye, the only character who doesn’t have his own film, nor has he been given enough screen time before to establish much character. Age of Ultron makes a huge effort in attempting to make Hawk Eye relevant with a nice surprise that partly comes in the form of Bloodline’s Linda Cardellini. It’s an obvious and even on-the-nose response to fans’ criticisms of Hawk Eye’s forgettable role in the Avengers, which can also be better appreciated after seeing Jeremy Renner’s appearance in Fallon’s Tonight Show. However it’s too bad that not only does it completely loose context once the story moves past it, it also slows the film down considerably, doing little for the character in this movie and leaves little to look forward to in the future.

 As a by-the-numbers comic book action film, Age of Utlron adheres shockingly close to the same formula from the original towards the end, so much so that the next film simply cannot get away with assigning similar roles and tracing the same action beats a third time. It’s less effective because of it, but it’s also less effective thanks to the grey, dusty city that the final showdown takes place in. It’s a noticeable contrast to the glossy Manhattan battle that concluded the first film, losing out on the visual pop of glistening skyscrapers and city skylines in place of crumbing Eastern European architecture. To be fair, that’s quite tough to live up to, as the final battle in the original Avengers is one of the very best large scale fights I’ve ever seen in a film. Full stop.

But none of this means that Avengers: Age of Ultron is a bad sequel in comparison, or even a bad film outright. Each of the cast members have fully settled into their roles, and the chemistry is palpable both in action and off duty. Though some of the character development may feel reactionary or formulaic rather than serving as clever table setting for the next film, they make for good plot threads in a movie full of sexy superheroes. All things considered, The Avengers: Age of Ultron is gorgeous, funny, substantive, and very fun to watch.

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