Monday, May 4, 2015

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON is Entertaining But Largely Emotionless Would-Be Epic


Minor Spoilers Ahead ...

- The first Avengers film was a fairly awesome culmination of "Phase 1" of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It delivered a satisfying team-up of Marvel's finest, and it felt like a well-earned payoff to much of what had come before. In contrast, AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON feels like an aimless, overstuffed midpoint in this grand Marvel experiment. It's plenty fun - there's entertaining action, lots of Joss Whedon's trademark quippy dialogue and humor, and a breakout, damn-cool new character in the android hero The Vision. But the whole affair is oddly emotionless. The film seems so intent on cramming a universe worth of characters and subplots into its two-and-a-half-hour running time that most of its major arcs feel rushed. What makes that particularly disappointing is that AGE OF ULTRON has the ingredients to be a movie with real thematic heft. This could have been the ultimate Marvel version of Frankenstein, with Tony Stark as the prideful mad-scientist at its center. But what we get is the movie equivalent of what comics fans are all too familiar with - the mega-crossover that promises world-changing epicness but instead boils down to a lot of sizzle without much steak. Of course, if this were comics, we'd have about three dozen tie-ins and crossover books to provide substance that helps to flesh out the main arc. But what we get is one movie that has to do it all - tell a great standalone story, pay off the last half-dozen Marvel movies, set up the next "phase" of this universe ... and the list goes on.

There's at times a sense then that this movie was pushed out of the Marvel/Disney factory with little motivating its existence other than a dutiful sense of obligation. Given that, it's perhaps a minor miracle that the film is as good as it is. But for every too-clever Whedonism that hits, and every nerd-out moment that causes audiences to applaud, there's a lot of zooming from Point A to Point B that to some extent drowns out the movie's best bits. As we know, Marvel has a plan. But it's also important that its films don't feel like mere parts of a plan.

Despite what I just said, there's not that much back-story you really need to know to dive into AGE OF ULTRON. There's some follow-up to Winter Soldier, with The Avengers now working in a post-S.H.I.E.L.D. world and having their own distinct HQ. And the film opens in media res with the team infiltrating one of the remaining Hydra facilities, where some evil Nazi types make a last stand by unleashing "the twins" - Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver - on their foes. From there though, the film quickly transitions to its main focus: Ultron. A super-advanced AI created by Tony Stark, the program created to be a global protector decides that the only way to create true peace is to ... wait for it ... destroy humanity. So the James Spader-voiced program creates a humanoid body for itself, takes control of an army of Iron Man 'bots, recruits mind-controlling Scarlet Witch and speedster Quicksilver as his henchman, and decides to go all-in on the whole supervillain thing.

From the get-go, things seem to barrel forward without much time given to proper build-up. We've seen a lot of films about artificial intelligence of late, including a great one in Ex Machina. There's a lot of interesting stuff to be mined from an AI created to bring peace developing an appetite for destruction. But for all of the long-term plotting we've seen in these Marvel movies, Ultron's turn to the darkside is remarkably sudden. Not only that, but his evolution from non-corporeal AI to wise-cracking, one-liner-spouting, evil-scheming robo-Spader is nearly instantaneous. Spader adds an amusing smarminess to the character, but ultimately, Ultron falls mostly flat as a Big Bad.

And a huge reason for that is one that could have easily been fixed, and one that seems like a huge miss for the film: this should have been, first and foremost, Tony Stark's story. Stark stubbornly created Ultron - a villain who goes on to wreak massive havoc - and yet AGE OF ULTRON just barely scratches the surface of what this all means. For one thing, the movie should have built to a climactic showdown between creator and monster. But amidst all the chaos of the film, Stark is too often sidelined. And what of the emotional toll that creating Ultron might have / should have on Stark? There's barely a hint of real weight in the film. Ultron should have been Stark's greatest failure - an epic mistake of hubris that forces him to re-evaluate everything. But that character arc is either ignored or being saved for another movie. AGE OF ULTRON does have a couple of big scenes of tension among the Avengers that seem to set the stage for continued drama. But by film's end, all is pretty much forgiven. It's not just a matter of waiting for Civil War or what have you. AGE OF ULTRON suffers for not following a clear character arc for Tony and with regards to his relationship with the rest of the team.

The film's clutter also severely hampers the introductions of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. Again, it's odd - because their back-story is yet another thread that ties back to damage caused by Stark that has come back to haunt him. But even with their anti-Stark agenda, the twins' motivation for allying with the obviously evil-with-a-capitol-E Ultron seems pretty shaky. It's why their eventual turn to the side of the heroes feels weightless and rushed.

One more aspect of the film that seems awkwardly shoehorned in: a romantic subplot between Bruce Banner and The Black Widow. Without any real hints of a budding romance in previous films, the mild sparks between the two feel a bit contrived. But what's worse is that some fun flirtatious moments abruptly become full-on rainbows-and-unicorns soul-mate stuff. Before the two have even gotten physical, there's awkward talk about kids and families and how their romance can never be. One step at a time, you crazy kids.

There's a lot in the film that feels like unneeded filler, especially when the meat of the story - the Stark vs. Ultron stuff - seems to struggle to get the screentime it needs. There's an extended detour to the safe house of Hawkeye that feels extraneous (though it's always nice to see Linda Cardinelli, who plays the never-before-seen Mrs. Clint Barton). There's a whole thing about Thor bathing in a mystical pool so as to conjure a vision of the Infinity Gems that could have probably been cut out. There's a trip to Marvel U mainstay Wakanda (no Black Panther cameo ... sorry fanboys) that feels like an extended tangent. These are the kinds of stories that in the comics would have probably had their own tie-in miniseries. But here, they're just bloat.

Writer/director Josh Whedon has always excelled at peppering his sci-fi epics with great little character moments. And AGE OF ULTRON is no exception. The movie's most fun sequence involves a fancy-dress party in honor of an Avengers victory that's capped off by a hilarious test-of-strength among earth's mightiest mortals to see who among them can lift Thor's enchanted hammer (and there's a great, surprising payoff to the scene later in the film, too). Whedon kills with his banter - and that's no surprise, but it's still remarkable how well he pulls this stuff off. AGE OF ULTRON is chock full of killer one-liners and asides. There's a freaking Eugene O'Neill reference tossed in there, and it's great. Whedon nails those little moments. But what AGE OF ULTRON needs more of are the truly epic, truly memorable, truly fist-pumping BIG moments. There's nothing here as applause-worthy, for example, as the Hulk "puny god!" line from the first Avengers.

What comes closest though is Vision. If there's one thing that's undeniably awesome in AGE OF ULTRON, it's him. I'm not sure if it was always the plan for Paul Bettany's Jarvis to evolve into The Vision, but if so - kudos - as it unfolds to perfection. The character just looks cool - like something straight out of an Alex Ross painting. And Whedon steps up to the plate whenever Vision is on-screen - majestically filming him like a creature out of sci-fi dreams. We don't get to see Vision take form until late in the film, but man, we're left wanting more.

When it comes to action, AGE OF ULTRON mostly delivers. It has some of the most epic action of any Marvel film to date. Some of it is pretty rapid-fire and videogame-y, but mostly, Whedon delivers some fairly spectacular, comic-book-brought-to-life battles. There are some great moments in which the characters deliver XBOX-worthy combo-attacks to their enemies. And the Hulk vs. Mega-Iron-Man battle does indeed live up to the trailer-induced hype, giving us a hero vs. hero smackdown that trumps any overhyped pay-per-view boxing match by a country mile. What Whedon also takes care to do is to make sure that the action always includes a truly superheroic element of getting civilians out of harm's way and saving lives. Many criticized Man of Steel for neglecting to show Superman's efforts to save the innocent in the midst of his destruction-causing battles. AGE OF ULTRON, in contrast, is incredibly concerned with the idea of heroes saving people as being their defining characteristic. In many ways, it's a theme that's defined this era of modern Marvel movies. But in AGE OF ULTRON, it's one of the ways in which the film inspires true awe and wonder despite whatever other flaws it may have. It's fun to see the Captain America ideology of selflessness permeating through the broader team - even if the Tony Starks of the world miss the forest for the trees.

AGE OF ULTRON delivers plenty of spectacle and explosiveness. But it's also a messy film - one that seems to be pulled in so many directions that its obvious thematic through-line feels trampled-on and obscured. Creator vs. creation, father vs. son, man vs. machine - these are weighty themes that should and could have produced multiple epic, chill-inducing moments. But the film seems content to breeze by a lot of the big moments in the name of cramming in everything and the kitchen sink. Think of comics. They speedily direct the reader from panel to panel, and then deliver the big, dramatic moments with jaw-dropping full-page splash pages. AGE OF ULTRON feels like a big comic composed of 180 12-panel pages. On paper, this is the blockbuster to end all blockbusters. But in practice, this one was lacking the jaw-dropping moments that truly make a big movie like this an epic and a classic. The movie checks all the boxes - it's entertaining and fun and full of Whedon-powered wit. Is it the ultimate Marvel epic that we've been waiting for, however? Nope - for that, looks like we've got to keep on waiting.

My Grade: B+

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