AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015) review
written by: Joss Whedon
produced by: Kevin Feige
directed by: Joss Whedon
rating: PG-13 (for intense sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments)
runtime: 141 min.
U.S. release date: May 1, 2015
Joss Whedon’s 2012 “Marvel’s Avengers” was a huge success financially and accomplished what superhero movies hadn’t been able to do up to that point on the big-screen – get a bunch of live-action costumed heroes together to form a team and save the world. Whedon fans were reminded how talented the writer/director is at balancing an ensemble cast and Marvel fans geeked out over seeing the likes of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor fight alongside each other. Three years and four Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies later comes “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, which surprisingly found me appreciating our heroes interaction more than their manic action.
But action is what is expected and that’s what we’re literally thrown into as the movie opens. All six Avengers are seen barreling through the snowy forest of a fictional Eastern European country named Sokovia, as they raid a HYDRA base overseen by Wolfgang Von Strucker (an underutilized Thomas Kretschmann). The camera swirls around CGI-heavy sequences of Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) plowing down goons with a jeep and the archer Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) covertly taking out unsuspecting bad guys. Hulk smashes, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) effortlessly takes out every poor sap in his path and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) provides air cover, all while stalwart tactician Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) leads the team.
It’s during this skirmish that we learn that Strucker has been tinkering with human experimentation (remember the end credit scene at the end of that last Marvel movie?), in particular, two Sokovian siblings – Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), has been endowed with telekinesis and hypnosis and her twin brother, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), has been given the ability to move at superhuman speeds. These powers get tested out on some of our Avengers during this opening sequence, we’re not sure why because their motivations matter not. We also learn that Strucker has somehow procured that other-worldly scepter of Loki’s from the first movie, but no worries – he’s taken out without a sweat and our heroes nab the magic stick and head back to Avengers HQ back in NYC.
All this happens before the movie’s title pops up on the screen. It’s a lot of movie to download in about fifteen minutes time. That’s the big problem with this movie though. There’s just a ton of characters, action and comic book plot thrown our way in 2.5 hours.
Just as I try to figure out what’s what, Whedon is off and on to the next thing. It makes me wish for the reported 3-hour movies he originally had in the can. Supposedly, we won’t see that until the DVD/Blu-ray is released (which has already been announced, cuz that’s how the incessant 24/7 nature of pop culture rolls), but maybe in that version there’ll be more time for me to take a breath and take it all in. Somehow, I doubt it.
In all the opening 3D chaos, it’s hard to tell what is actually lensed by cinematographer Ben Davis (who also worked on “Kick-Ass” and “Guardians of the Galaxy”) and what was obviously done in post-production. Most of the action is just fast, fast, fast, freeze-frame, swirl, followed by more fast, fast, fast. There are some cool action moves that involve Cap and Thor collaborative combos, but overall, I couldn’t wait for these heroes to just settle down and have a drink, spout some exposition or some sci-fi mumbo-jumbo.
That’s where Whedon shines anyway. Not in the action, but the interaction and the introspection. Sounds boring for a superhero move, right? Wrong. Seeing the Avengers chill out at a party, alongside their buddies, Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), is our way in to these characters. Whedon balances them all deftly, from the budding beauty and the beast romance between Natasha and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to finding out that Sam Wilson is still searching for a certain missing person with enough time to explain Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman out of the picture. Of course, such downtime cannot last long. After all, our primary villain needs to be introduced.
Enter Ultron, a towering robot, from the mind of Stark (with help from Banner), who’s still haunted by the alien invasion from the last movie, to protect the world from threats. With an artificial intelligence-gone wrong, Ultron takes out J.A.R.V.I.S. (voiced by Paul Bettany), in the process of his awakening and finds his existence curious and alarming. The antagonists self-aware birth is an intriguing “what am I and why?” sequence.
This unintended creation sees humanity as the threat though and believes a mechanical evolution is necessary to bring order and peace to the world, at least from his warped childlike point of view. Eloquently voiced by James Spader, Ultron is an entertaining threat to the team, delivering paranoid and impatient outbursts as he carries out his plan for global domination, injected with sarcastic quips (he must get it from his father) and quotes from “Pinnocho” (ah, corporate synergy). Aware that he can’t go about his nefarious plans alone, he recruits the twins, geneticist Helen Cho (Claudia Kim) to create a new body and a black market arms dealer named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, who is brushed off, to be used later on in “Black Panther”). Such activity finds the Avengers chasing Ultron’s trail to Johannesburg and to Seoul and back to Sokovia, doing their best to prevent civilian casualties at every turn.
Eventually, the Avengers receive assistance from some obvious sources, such as an undercover Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the mysterious humanoid named Vision (embodied by Bettany). The main reason the team needs help is because they’re emotionally wounded when Wanda plays with their minds – everyone except Barton, who’s taken preventative measures after the mind trip he previously endured.
This is where the movie gets interesting, at least for an MCU movie. We see Steve and Natasha haunted by their pasts while Tony and Thor are freaked out by visions of their future. These scenes are mostly trippy and are intended to open up characters we think we already know. It’s rare for a big-budget Disney/Marvel blockbuster, guaranteed to make a gazillion dollars, to delve into the psyches of their superheroes. It’s a clever way to peel back the layers and connect audiences with the insecurities, regrets and fears of these heroes.
The exception is when Wanda manipulates the Hulk, which is the equivalent of lighting a powder keg. This sends the monster off to demolish a good chunk of Joburg, which results in Stark breaking out his Hulkbuster armor. Oh, I’m not spoiling anything. You’ve seen all that in the trailers and all the TV spots and, quite honestly, if you have, then you’ve seen the entire throwdown. To be honest, seeing it all in context is kind of unfulfilling since so much footage of this action sequence (and almost the rest of the film) was shown prior to its release.
That actually finds me wanting to go down a bit of a rant. You’re aware that studios have been giving away way too much in movie trailers for some time now. It’s been going on for decades. But now there’s 3 second previews of teasers as well as soundtracks and toy lines that reveal plot points, all over the internet. Who benefits? Not the fans. What do people do with this information? Does knowing the outcome of the plot before you sit down to watch the movie really satisfy viewers? Apparently.
Sure, the answer is to use will power and steer clear of such information, but it’s become increasingly challenging lately. Disney/Marvel really blew it this time by showing more and more footage leading up to the release of “Age of Ultron”. Let’s be real. This movie did not need any additional promotion or even a press junket (even those interviews proved to be a quagmire). Could you imagine the insane curiosity if all we were given is one teaser with a menacing Ultron standing atop a mountain of defeated Avengers bodies?
Enough about that though. As previously mentioned, the character interaction supersedes the action in “Age of Ultron”. Whether Cap and Tony engage in ideology arguments (setting up “Captain America: Civil War”) or seeing how Natasha can bring Banner out of his gigantic shell. These are the kind of story points that draw us in, not the incessant action. Whedon know this and is aware that a team movie is where we find such interaction, as opposed to each character’s solo movie.
He also knows that a team movie is an opportunity for those character’s without their own movie (yet) to shine. Which is why we get a disturbing backstory for Black Widow (where we find Julie Delpy) and more for her character to do with Hulk. But the character who surprisingly benefits the most is Hawkeye though. Whedon surfaces a revealing secret for Clint Barton, providing an understanding of who he is and why he does what he does. It’s a revelation that surprises just about all the other Avengers and offers Renner a chance to become the heart of the movie (along with Linda Cardellini), both in his words and his deeds.
In a movie that often feels rushed, the moments we’re given to focus on who these Avengers are will be the scenes I’ll be talking about. When I rewatch “Age of Ultron”, it’ll be for those character moments, especially that ending that had me smiling from ear to ear.