Marching Towards Infinity (kinda)
A Film Review of Avengers: Age of Ultron
I am reminded of how earlier in the year, during the last Academy Awards, of the anti-super hero/comic book action blockbuster sentiment that filled the air. I do not subscribe to the notion that a flashy, licensed Hollywood production is somehow less worthy of being validated as “cinema” than the garden variety art house film made with zero budget and maximum imagination. A hell of a lot of creativity, hard work and organization goes into the art of filmmaking that it would be irresponsible for anyone to casually dismiss any segment or genre as drivel for any reason under the sun. We are all entitled to our opinions so chances are Indie purists will continue to diminish Hollywood for its profit driven grandiosity as fanboys will continue to mock Indies for their obscurity and therefore irrelevance. However, the next time you have a moment to bash a film for the sake of bashing please keep in mind that it is a major accomplishment simply getting a film made. Its ultimate worth is in the hands of audiences and critics, but there is no such thing as a perfect film nor does any film warrant a true value of zero.
And with that we have director Joss Whedon’s second (and final) contribution to Marvel’s cinematic universe in Avengers: Age of Ultron, a mega budget Hollywood production that continues the episodic journey of some of the most iconic characters in comics in live-action on the silver screen. Those who have been following these films since the first Iron Man in 2008 know that the quality of these films began at a relatively high level and (for the most part) have shown steady improvement. When combined with media hype, this franchise’s own success has justly set expectations for every installment at an equally high level. The audience can be assured that investing in a general admission will once again result in a high level of entertainment and fun for a film that features lots of action, visual effects and computer graphics. Every character has a moment or two (or more) to shine just like before as the genuine camaraderie among the cast relays a comfortable warmth and relatability to the audience with this assembly of superheroes. Joss Whedon knows that half of the wow factor for these spectacles is simply allowing these A-list actors representing top tier characters to simply share the same space together and watch what happens. The secret to his success is getting them into the same space and balancing the screen time all while cramming in as much action as possible to show off the full extent of their prowess as super individuals of a super team.
Age of Ultron’s story was also written by Joss Whedon, and it revolves around the Avengers dealing with the global threat of a maniacal AI and its unpleasant plan of achieving world peace by making human beings extinct. There is no question that there are several other movies that delve into the ideas, benefits and threats of a self aware artificial intelligence as a scientific reality better than Age of Ultron, but the plot of this film isn’t the draw. The Avengers are, and when a movie is driven by characters, the plot needs just enough to get them into position and keep them there until resolution. An army of evil robots is certainly a threat worthy of the Avengers in every respect, but it isn’t a far cry from Loki’s army of invading Chitauri in narrative terms. How the Avengers “deal with it this time” is the name of the game and that’s where Whedon’s dialogue is as efficient in its exposition as it is with its character interplay to not only keep the plot moving, but keep it entertaining. Unfortunately, with so much focus on character, important plot points like the infinity stone inside Loki’s staff, Thor’s “spirit walk,” and the introduction/deletion of characters from the team are glazed over in the most expedient of manners. Of these, Thor’s brief hiatus is the least satisfying and most frustrating because it comes out of nowhere, is riddled with plot holes, has no setup and therefore has a whimpering impact.
There is a greater dedication to action sequences in Age of Ultron than there was for the first Avengers because this film does not require any additional screen time for setup exposition. There are more of them and there is more happening within each extended cut with layers of simultaneous action. Hulk smashes while the Widow stings while the Hawk snipes as Cap shields, Thor bolts and Iron Man soars. Once again, there are several instances of combining powers as tag team attacks such as combining Thor’s hammer with Cap’s shield to produce a rather effective shockwave to debilitate a wave of opposition instantly. There are moments where the mammoth amount of content and movement within the frame is simply too much to process, but Whedon compensates with slow motion effects without using it like a crutch vis-à-vis Michael Bay in any film he does. There is plenty of martial arts, acrobatics, melee fisticuffs and gunplay at work throughout, however with the exception of the climax, there didn’t seem to be as many explosions this time around.
CG and visual effects are once again top notch for this production. Iron Man animations and Thor flight and lightning are reliably proficient as ever. Hulk animations (movement and facial) seemed to have an upgrade as the character is not required to be destroying everything in his path as often as before. I wasn’t as impressed with the powers of the “Twins.” Wanda’s chaos magic was essentially mini clouds of red dust emanating from her fingers, and Pietro’s super speed was simply outclassed (no pun intended) by the visual effects for the same character used last year in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Cap’s shield throws and bounces are really fun to follow onscreen. It’s almost like a “follow the bouncy ball” guide through a sequence of chaos and destruction. Ultron’s animations are very smooth and emotive (especially for his face) which is odd seeing how his AI is presented as various platforms of killer robots. Perhaps this was done to incorporate as much of James Spader’s motion capture performance as possible, but I’m not sure if using the same voice over with more rigid/mechanical animations would have yielded a more menacing villain.
Performances by the cast are the meat and potatoes of these Avenger films and once again, the individual micro contributions of all result in a fantastic group dynamic that has become the gold standard for comic book adaptations that feature more than two or three major characters. Everyone does an excellent job for the screen time they are afforded so I won’t guild the lily anymore by reminding everyone how great Robert Downey Jr. is playing Tony Stark. The most valuable relationship is between Bruce Banner/Hulk and Natasha/Black Widow. Sure it seems cheesy that the one female combatant on the team holds the key to soothing the savage beast on the battlefield, but there’s some actual chemistry going on between Johansson’s sex appeal and Ruffalo’s awkward innocence. Like it or not, their relationship adds a much needed romantic subplot to all the super heroics for the shear sake of variety. Most valuable standout performance goes to Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye for having all the best comedic moments as well as a nice heart-warming surprise to explain what he’s fighting for. Special recognition goes to Paul Bettany for making his first physical appearance as a member of this cast as well as added appreciation for not making the Vision a full on CG character. Bettany’s demeanor and facial expressions will compliment his witty banter in bringing even more charisma to his character. I also loved James Spader’s interpretation of an evil Tony Stark as his inspiration for Ultron: same ego, similar self reflections.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is a cinematic adventure worth paying a little extra to see on the big screen sooner rather than later. The added cost for a 3D viewing is much more justifiable than 80% of the rest of the films that get a cheap conversion these days. Casual movie goers need not be intimidated by the series of Marvel films that have built up to this point as the events of this film are contained enough for novices to come in fresh and enjoy nonetheless. Fanboys and girls will enjoy this film in general, but may be a bit underwhelmed for three reasons: 1) it isn’t as amazing as seeing the Avengers assemble for the first time (as few other films could ever be), 2) the connections to the ominous Infinity conflict were poorly developed and 3) the team will not be the same moving forward. Age of Ultron will most certainly be the biggest money making film of 2015, but it will be interesting to see the comparison with another Disney owned IP in Star Wars Episode 7 when it begins its theatrical run December.