Monday, May 4, 2015

'Avengers: Age of Ultron' review

The Marvel movie formula will never change. Kevin Feige knows it, Joss Whedon knows it, and over time, I've come to realize it as well. There are only one or two plots that can work in the world that Marvel has set up. There will be moments of darkness, but the straight-up cynicism of The Dark Knight can't work in the Marvel world. As Whedon noted in a recent interview, "The only stakes are emotional. The only stakes are moral. Can they get through this unscathed as heroes?" Mix that in with the previous comments that Whedon had made about wanting to make the latest Marvel film, Avengers: Age of Ultron, more "personal" and you can get a pretty clear idea of his goals with this one. And I'm here to tell you that he succeeded. Big time. Age of Ultron is bigger, badder, darker, flashier, more emotional and simply a ton of fun. Its flaws are undeniable, but so are its charms. Ultimately, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a true summer blast that satisfies and successfully builds for the promising future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Age of Ultron picks up after the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which saw the destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the reemergence of the evil Nazi organization HYDRA. The World's Mightiest Heroes- Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson)- are attacking a HYDRA base operated by one of the organization's head players, a mad scientist named Baron Von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann). The Avengers are after Loki's scepter, which is in the possession of Strucker and guarded by his advanced mix of technological and mystical weapons, including two magically enhanced twins- Pietro and Wanda Maximoff aka Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen).

The Avengers fight through the base and retrieve the weapon, with Thor allowing Tony to perform some tests on it before he takes it back to Asgard. When investigating the scepter, Tony, Bruce and JARVIS (voiced by Paul Bettany) discover that it contains a mind gem that thinks and feels much like a person. Tony believes that it's the secret to creating artificial intelligence, which he has dreamed of for a long time. Tony and Bruce create Ultron (voiced by James Spader), a super-smart robot who is meant to protect the peace in the universe. Unfortunately, Ultron goes haywire and decides that the best way to save humanity is to destroy the Avengers and create another global extinction event.

Age of Ultron brings back all of the characters from the first movie and several others from the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the whole. Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Heimdall (Idris Elba), Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgaard), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson)- everyone's back for this one. And then on top of that, we get new characters like Ultron, the Maximoffs, Laura (Linda Cardellini), Dr. Helen Cho (Claudia Kim), Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and most notably, the Vision (Paul Bettany), whose origin will remain a secret in this review. In all honesty, that's a ton of characters for one film and it's truly impressive that Whedon was able to keep all of this straight. But he does and everybody gets their moment to shine.

It's important to note that many of those characters have little more than an extended cameo. At the heart of the film, the focus is still on our main team of Avengers and their relationships with each other. But it's not an understatement to say that Whedon was put in a very tricky position with this film. Age of Ultron has been deemed "the connective tissue" of the Marvel universe, with many scenes setting up other important movies coming in the near future. We get a preview of what's to come next year with Civil War, an extended scene set in Africa (the location for Marvel's Black Panther) and of course, there's a big teaser for Avengers: Infinity War and the ultimate villain of the MCU. Putting in all of those touches while also trying to tie off the loose ends of Phase 2, create interesting character arcs and craft a convincing plot is a truly tough wire act for Whedon and Marvel to walk. How is it possible to fit all of this into a 140 minute film without making the audience go insane?

Yet somehow, Marvel has done it again. This movie is fast and furious, with action scenes that pop off the screen, comedic moments that had me doubled over with laughter multiple times and some visual effects that are truly astounding. But when it comes down to it, the unparalleled character development on display in Age of Ultron makes it special and puts it at the forefront of the Marvel catalog. Every character gets their chance to shine, and Whedon develops some characters in ways that I never would have expected.

Whedon effectively challenges his characters and on initial viewing, it's far and beyond the most interesting part of the film. Bruce and Natasha have a sweet and measured romance that isn't rushed and feels quite natural (even though it's sorta frustrating that the one female Avenger has a love interest), there's an interesting twist that happens with Hawkeye, and most of all, we get a lot more tension between Tony and Steve Rogers. Cap and Iron Man are gonna face off next year, and I think that a lot of it will have to do with what went down in this movie. But the best thing about it is that you understand both viewpoints. Whedon doesn't sympathize with Tony more than he does with Steve and vice versa. You understand why Tony created Ultron, but you also get why Steve thinks its a terrible and frightening idea.

There's an extended scene at the humble abode of one of the Avengers (saying who ruins a fun surprise in my opinion) where most of the character development takes place. It's a simple setting and it hints at the grand theme of Phase 2- strip the characters of their armor, beat them down and let them overcome their troubles, yet slightly more damaged than they were before. Iron Man 3 did it, Thor: The Dark World kinda tried to do it, and Captain America 2 definitely focused on damaging the Captain. Age of Ultron allows our characters to be beaten down, morally questioned and yet, Whedon and the team at Marvel still have a strong fundamental understanding of why we love them- they're heroes. They save people and in the end, they triumph over the bad guys. But this time, there are consequences and it makes for a film that is simultaneously a blast of fun and a well-crafted character study.

Overall, the action scenes in Age of Ultron can't quite match up with the stunning thrills of The Avengers, but there are moments and scenes that certainly stack up. The opening attack on the HYDRA base is thrillingly realized, the Hulkbuster fight is dazzling and the final battle is a visual effects concoction that only Marvel could come up with. I love the way that Joss Whedon shoots action scenes, with such fluid camera work and engaging cinematography. It's the perfect contrast to Joe and Anthony Russo's grounded style, and it will certainly be interesting to see how they handle the action when it's their turn to helm Infinity War.

My main issues with the film both result from the rushed nature of the production. Whedon has acknowledged the fact that there was originally a 3 hour cut of this film and you can totally feel that. There were a couple time jump moments that didn't make sense and they clearly spliced some things together to get the film moving along. I also feel like a few key details were cut out every once in a while resulting in some muddy plotting.

Ultron is also a problematic villain, as his motivations aren't always clear. He is voiced brilliantly by James Spader, but unfortunately, his creation and development is rushed as well. He goes from being a program to controlling a massive robot army in about a day. Throughout the movie, he's also stealing Vibranium for nefarious reasons, trying to create a human body, and it's not until the final minutes of the film that we realize the true nature of Ultron's global extinction plan. I liked the character, but Whedon didn't give him enough room to breathe.

But when the Avengers assemble in a final glorious shot to battle against Ultron's army, I doubt that these little nitpicks will even be in your mind. The problems are there, but Whedon keeps the film moving so fast that you barely even notice them. In the end, this is an expertly crafted summer blockbuster that delivers everything I could have possibly wanted. Avengers: Age of Ultron might be too overwhelming for some to experience, but man, I really loved this movie. I've seen it twice in theaters and it got even better the second time around. It might not match the pure thrills of The Winter Soldier or the awe-inspiring spectacle of The Avengers, but it comes pretty close. And the best part about this is that I was skeptical going into this film. I didn't know if Whedon could pull it off but he exceeded every single one of my expectations. It's his last Marvel film and this is definitely a great way to end his brilliant run.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (8.8/10)

Image Credits: YouTube, Forbes, Flickering Myth, Forbes, LA Times, Slash Film

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