Saturday, May 16, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson. Directed by Joss Whedon. Written by Joss Whedon. Based on The Avengers comic book created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. Produced by Kevin Feige. U.S.A. 141 minutes. Color. Science Fiction, Fantasy

Talk about your review-proof films. Avengers: Age of Ultron hit U.S. theaters in the past few weeks and along with its international box-office take should top a billion dollars by the time you read this review. Since no review would make much of a difference, least of all mine, there is no reason to rush to publish.

I will start off by saying I was a big fan of the first Avengers film, having written two reviews of the movie for the blog, once after seeing it in 3D IMAX and once after watching it a third time at home prior to the second phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I even refer in my first review that “bigger does mean better,” something that I often say is quite the opposite in sequels. Too often the sequels are over-the-top follow ups to the original, thinking the only justification for existing is to deliver a bigger story that the first one. The problem is that most of the times, what gets lost in the bigger presentation is the thing that made the first film such an appealing winner. Sadly, Avengers: Age of Ultron does this to its own detriment.

It doesn’t take more than a casual viewing of the MCU to realize that with every success, there has been a bigger budget and more special effects. There is no more building Iron Man in a cave with a bunch of scraps. Everything now is machine-made, computer designed and highly polished. And as in Iron Man 3, when it was decided that multiple Iron Mans were better than the one, now we have a seemingly never-ending supply of Ultrons, the main villain of the piece. More I won’t say, in case, gasp, you haven’t yet seen the film.

To spice things up, Whedon has written a script that throws in a few surprises, some good, and some bad. There is still a lot of humor in the film, which helps offset the tension that builds, but sometimes the story/character motivations seem to be more for off-screen reasons than perhaps the realities of the story.

As an example, there is no Pepper Potts, who has been by Tony Stark’s side for the entire MCU. Not that I really miss her in the film, but her absence is most likely due to contractual reasons and given a throwaway line of explanation. The same with Thor’s earth-bound love, Jane Foster, who seems to only appear in Thor-centric films and is otherwise always away on research. Again, there are enough cameos in this film that another, by Natalie Portman, isn’t needed or missed.

Other than that, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) gets an unexpected backstory, which almost seems to be a plot convenience more than anything else. And a relationship blooms between two members of team Avengers that I honestly didn’t see coming from the previous films in the MCU.

The main characters seem much more comfortable with each other now, which if they are really a team would be a sign of the comradery that develops in battle tested groups. But there is still an underlining sense of distrust that never quite goes away. And for good reason as it turns out.

There are also some new characters that are added to the mix, a few of which will no doubt return in the next promised edition of the series. Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but I think they will definitely make for an interesting mix when the Avengers return in their own film in 2018.

Ultron (James Spader) is a pretty good villain.
For a villain, Ultron seems to be pretty good one and James Spader was a great choice. He has always been an interesting actor to watch and has given some really great performances and still does on The Blacklist TV series. But the plot and Ultron’s motivation seems as old as the Star Trek episode The Changeling (1968).

And there is the new big budget cliché, that Age of Ultron falls victim to, of destroying a city, a trend that dates back to the Transformers going to Chicago in Dark of the Moon (2011) and Superman laying waste to Metropolis in Man of Steel (2013). Here it happens twice, once to a city in Africa and once to a town in Sokovia, a fictional Eastern European country. 

If it seems like we’ve seen this plot and its outcome before, that’s because we have.

Part of the problem with the MCU is that going in we already know that Ultron, no matter how powerful a villain and no matter how fool-proof the plan, will not succeed. How else can Marvel already be planning for Avengers 3, which will be a two-parter, another new big budget cliché in itself? (Thanks Harry Potter). But we kind of knew that going into The Avengers as well, as the second phase was already planned out. So why doesn’t it work as well this time?

First, this is a much slicker film, perhaps too slick when compared to its predecessor. Take for example, the motorcycle sequence shown on the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. show the week of its release. There is really no danger of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) being hurt as her motorcycle falls from a jet and then maneuvers its way through the thick traffic of Seoul. Everything seems too choreographed and CGI-ed to be believable in the least. Her character is turning into one that possesses whatever talent is required at the moment: Need her to fly a plane, she’s an expert; need her to fight in battle, she’s a good soldier; need stunt motorcycle-riding, she’s your gal. How can we lose if she’s on our side?

Second, is the problem with hype, in that things rarely live up to their own (see also the Fight of the Century: Floyd Mayweather, Jr. vs. Manny Pacquiao which took place during opening weekend). Leaving The Avengers in 2013 was sort of like leaving Spider-Man 2 when I saw it in 2004. I couldn’t wait to see it again and did so the following weekend. The Avengers was the same way. However, after Spider-Man 3 (2007) I wasn’t in as big of a hurry. In the three years between films I could only imagine having that same rush when the credits kicked in, but that film fell with a certain thud.

Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn’t land with a thud, but it is not nearly as satisfying as The Avengers had been. After Spider-Man 3, it was clear that it was time for Sam Raimi to move on. He had given his all for the franchise, but for a number of reasons, some out of his control, his best work on the series was behind him. The same is true of Whedon’s work on The Avengers. Maybe he should have quit after the first one. In this case, bigger was not better.   

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