Saturday, 2 May 2015

Movie Review: Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015)

With the current cinematic dictatorship Hollywood is under thanks to Marvel Studios, it’s easy to see the point of view of people who are getting sick of comic book movies considering not only the frequency of their output but also the insane amounts of preparation they put into their releases, ensuring said frequency for the next several years. However, given the rather lackluster comic book fare that came before Iron Man curb-stomped its way into the public consciousness (Look at any list online for worst films ever made, and I guaran-damn-tee you that several of the entries will be older superhero films) as well as my own preference for the genre, I’m not sharing in that thought process. So, when the release date came out for the follow-up to Joss Whedon’s 2012 geekgasm The Avengers, I joined in and added to the already copious amount of fanboy drool in the ocean. But, considering how legendary the original has become in such a short amount of time, how does this hold up? This is Avengers: Age Of Ultron.

The plot: After retrieving Loki’s scepter from a HYDRA base, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) tries using it to jumpstart Ultron (James Spader), an artificial intelligence that he hopes will help him protect the world from extraterrestrial threats. It all goes wrong and soon Ultron wants the Avengers dead, using Stark’s own robot suits against him. In an effort to stop both Ultron and his accomplices Pietro/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Iron Man brings the Avengers together once more… but this time, they may not be so willing to work together and they find themselves under as much threat from each other as from Ultron.

Needless to say, the cast is spectacular and continue to give the Marvel casting directors a seriously good reputation. Chris Evans pulls off the World War I boy-scout attitude of Captain America very well, not to mention pulling off a surprisingly effective running gag; Downey Jr. shows some major evolution with his performance of Stark, flexing some real dramatic muscle with how he clashes against the others; Chris Hemsworth does great with his overly eloquent dialogue as Thor; Mark Ruffalo continues to be the best representation of the Hulk’s dichotomy we’ve gotten on screen so far; Scarlett Johansson juggles the darker moments of the Black Widow’s backstory nicely with her jocular banter with the rest of the team, along with showing some good chemistry with Ruffalo; Samuel L. Jackson, while having a reduced role this time around, still rules every frame he’s in as always as Nick Fury; and Jeremy Renner continues to impress as the Xander of the group with his performance as Hawkeye, bringing that necessary human element through a lot of working man’s humour and heart. But you know all this already, unless you’ve somehow managed to avoid the original film; how are the newcomers of the cast? Well, James Spader as Ultron makes for a damn good villain. At once unsettling, aloof, deadly serious and packing one hell of a god complex, he’s another notch on Marvel’s casting belt. His reciting of I Got No Strings from the trailer might have been a little creepy, but when it happens in the film, it becomes genuinely spine-chilling stuff. Taylor-Johnson and Olsen as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch respectively are decent, but I definitely would have preferred if Taylor-Johnson could have pulled off the faster talking of his graphic counterpart (also, they represent a weird bit of inter-film discontinuity that involves so much copyright red tape that it would take a whole other blog post to explain it all). We also have Paul Bettany as both J.A.R.V.I.S. (which is still cool) and The Vision, and while his characterization has notes of Space Jesus throughout, he does well with the character and avoids just recycling his portrayal of J.A.R.V.I.S., something the film seems to lampshade.

Writer/director Joss Whedon has a natural talent for casts of larger-than-life characters, as his work on Buffy/Angel, Firefly and even his comic book with teams like The X-Men and The Runaways will attest (Okay, save for Buffy Season 7) and he shows it off here expertly. The Avengers contrast, conflict and complement each very well, with relationships between characters being progressed even further from the animosity between Stark and Captain America to the budding relationship between Black Widow and Dr. Banner. Not only that, he manages to integrate the new characters into the fold nicely also, along with some returning faces from previous entries like Don Cheadle as War Machine, Anthony Mackie as Falcon and Idris Elba as the most awesome bit of in-joke casting ever with Heimdall; seriously, casting a black man as the Norse god who, among other things, was depicted as “the whitest of the gods”? Not to say that he has ever been bad in the role, least of all here where he actually makes for a really good exchange with Thor along with what I’m assuming is some mild foreshadowing of Thor: Ragnarok; it’s just something I happened to notice and you can choose to make of it what you will.

However, this film also gives Whedon a chance to use some of his other writing specialties, namely some far grayer morality than we are used to seeing in superhero films of late. Well, grayer than we are used to intentionally seeing at least; I mean, Man Of Steel didn’t exactly show the most heroic depiction of Superman. Having Tony Stark go down the road he does with this film not only shows some serious consideration for his character development, mirroring of how his comic book counterpart progressed back in the day, it also makes for a rare instance where the clich├ęd hero/villain comparison of who is doing the right thing actually works; the parallels drawn here between him and Ultron are done really well. What makes the more conflicted character decisions here work even better is how Whedon seems to have drawn on themes present in previous films in Phase Two of the Marvel Universe and built on them to craft the narrative; Iron Man 3’s depiction of Starks’ dedication to his work, along with the numerous suits at his disposal, the paranoia and lack of trust shown in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, even the reluctant siding with the enemy from Thor: The Dark World are present here in some form, resulting in the characters that we have gotten comfortable with getting shaken up something good. The Avengers had quite a bit of in-fighting between our heroes, but in hindsight it came across more like a series of hissy fits for the most part; by contrast, things here genuinely feel like they could lead into something worse and given how Captain America: Civil War, an adaptation of a very divisive and epic event comic, is slated for Phase Three, this is an extremely good step to take.

Beyond the stellar writing that I and so many other geeks have come to expect from Whedon, the action is still very good… for the most part. We get a lot of great tag-teaming between the titular heroes with some creative pairings to vary up the fight scenes. However, the effects work is a little too… obvious in places with frankly embarrassing looking results at times. That’s mostly a problem with the action beats though; outside of them, the effects work is still good as the Iron Man suits and Scarlet Witch’s power trails look really nice on screen. It doesn’t help that the camera work can get a little too hectic at times and makes it a bit difficult to focus on some of the set pieces. Again, largely a problem within the confines of the more explosive moments, as the camera work is good for the rest of it, particular during the more trippy dream sequences.

And yet, even with how much about this film works, I can’t help but feel disappointed with how it turned out. Sure, the cast list feels a bit bloated this time around but even then Whedon does a valiant job making sure everyone gets their time to shine. No, the main issue I take with this film comes from its lead-up, which means that this is where I make the big comparison to the first film. The Avengers, to put it simply, wasn’t just a film; it was a cinematic event the likes of which come around once in a decade, if even that frequent. The films leading up to it, the press buzz surrounding it, the initial fears that it wouldn’t work out (don’t deny it); all of that equaled up to a seriously great pay-off of a film. This time round, however, the end result wasn’t given the fuse it needed. With the first one, it was preceded by smaller origin films about the individual members of the team to make the all-out battle against Loki feel that much bigger by comparison. Here, we’ve had progression in most of the team member’s stories involving large-scale stories, one of which involved stopping a galactic-level threat in Thor: The Dark World, as well as another superhero team-up with Guardians Of The Galaxy that somehow managed to outdo The Avengers in that regard; this kind of story is too safe a bet at this point to have the same impact that the original did, even if it does manage to improve on it in some respects.

All in all, Whedon brings his usual level of the talent to the production with a stellar script, a fantastic cast and mostly good action beats. Unfortunately, this falls victim to its own hype and falls short of the rather lofty expectations that are stapled to it considering how successful the first film was, not to mention how well Marvel Studios as a whole has been going of late. However, that might be the best compliment I can give the film: Yeah, it’s disappointing, but it’s still an incredibly satisfying watch despite that. This ranks higher than Fast & Furious 7, which I admittedly like for similar reasons but the writing is a lot stronger and the action felt more grounded (yeah, the sci-fi epic felt closer to reality than F&F 7, wrap your head around that one). That said though, Big Eyes still left a bigger impact on me and felt a lot more focused narratively speaking. The Marvel Universe is very insular, so it goes without saying that keeping up with the series is definitely recommended before going into this one, but for the few people that are on the fence about going to see this, do it as soon as is humanly possible. After this, I am heavily anticipating Marvel’s next batch of releases and can’t wait to see how this all plays out.

Oh, by the way, as a public service announcement because I’ve seen so many people be disappointed by how long they had to wait for the trademark after-credits scene: There’s only one of them, and it happens right after the main cast is listed; after that, you’re all clear.

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