Age of Ultron avengers

Avengers: Age of Ultron Review: A Big Ol' Pile of Not Half Bad

Friday, May 08, 2015 Rob Samuelson

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Director: Joss Whedon
Writer: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, James Spader, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Rating: Three and a Half Stars out of Five
In theaters now.

Avengers: Age of Ultron, on the whole, is a movie that knows it needs to be fun. It is at times an effervescent, invigorated piece of pop filmmaking at its finest when it shows the banter between gods and scientific monstrosities, literal high flying action, and evil robots threatening to destroy the world. But it is also a movie that gets too cute with itself, taking the knowing winks associated with the Marvel Cinematic Universe brand and turning them into several scenes of chessboard shuffling fluff, filled to the gills with foreshadowing of future pictures' conflicts that don't pay off in the movie in question. It is a film with an at times unfinished look but one of the best – and best looking – villains of the Marvel series. It has a peculiarly mixed quality that just barely tips in the right direction.

We know the gang by now. Iron Man (Downey), Captain America (Evans), Thor (Hemsworth), Black Widow (Johansson), Hawkeye (Renner), and the big green guy (Ruffalo) do battle with the Earth's biggest threats. At the film's outset, we are presented with a team that appears to be a well-oiled machine – thank whatever you consider holy that writer-director Joss Whedon abandoned the first film's individual character introductions for an action sequence with everyone together. Unfortunately for the members of the Avengers, cracks are beginning to form. More unfortunately for the audience, the cracks in the staging of action in this snowy forest result in the worst looking part of the movie. The heroes zoom through the air looking very much like the computer generated magic they are, with physics out of a glitching video game – it's more floating like bubbles than jumping and swinging like bodies with mass would do. There's a literal weightlessness to Whedon's direction here that, under normal circumstances, would make the audience's rooting interest much more of an uphill climb. Luckily we have a history with these characters that brings us onboard. That does not forgive the sloppy effects work, which is a symptom of a larger problem with the movie – it puts too much on the shoulders of the other films in the Marvel series, past and future, without putting enough care into making the present one great.

That opening scene turns up the banter up to unbearably cutesy levels. In the previous films and generally throughout the rest of this one, this back-and-forth chatter is what makes the Avengers such fun characters, but in the opening, Whedon belabors the point of Captain America being an old fuddy duddy and Iron Man being the snarky too-cool-for-school guy. If Whedon didn't call back to it so much, it would be a minor annoyance, but he doubles down on this one dumb joke so hard, spoiling it in the process. There's so much obvious work going on here, jamming the point down the audience's throats without relying enough on the actors' abilities to convey these ideas in subtler ways.

It does, however, serve up the primary intra-team conflict of Age of Ultron being between the competing worldviews of Cap and Iron Man. These two guys rarely get along and always bicker, but this time things start to get more heated, as Iron Man wants to build an artificially intelligent security system for the entire planet to make the Avengers obsolete the next time aliens attack. Captain America, essentially citing the “if it ain't broke, don't fix it” philosophy, doesn't think that's such a hot idea. After all, the humanity of these heroes led to their improvisational triumph in the first Avengers film, a humanity this robot security guard, code named Ultron (voiced by James Spader), doesn't have as a matter of course. Oh yeah, Iron Man and Bruce Banner, the Hulk's alter ego, work on Ultron in secret against the other team members', especially Captain America's, wishes.

It's collar-tugging time here, and the overall through line of Age of Ultron is so strong, with this tug of war over how to best protect the planet serving as a backdrop to action spectacles and comedic relief that stems from the natural charisma of the performers. It culminates with the creation of a best-of-both-worlds amalgamation, The Vision (Paul Bettany), a character whose unabashed optimism about the human race is heartening. He's a character who acknowledges all our flaws but sees only beauty in our mistakes. To him, the imperfection of humanity is what is right about humanity, a notion that is total anathema to Ultron, an AI with abandonment issues taking out his rage on the world. That disconnect between artificial intelligences mirrors that of the Avengers' dual leaders, but perhaps more extreme, and it will be fascinating to see the shadings of these opposing viewpoints in future films. But again, that doesn't help us now.

If Whedon had tightened up the structure of the movie to focus like a laser on this stuff, we would have a classic pop art film on our hands. But corporate tie-in mandates get in the way. We must set up the upcoming Black Panther film, so there's a trip to fictional African nation Wakanda to meet the future villain of that movie, when his plot connection to this movie is negligent and would have been better served by the easily dispatched minor villain of the opening scene. The Captain America-Iron Man showdown will be the point of next year's Captain America: Civil War, so we can only see them yell at each other a little bit before the robot fighting gets in their argumentative way. New characters Scarlet Witch (Olsen) and Quicksilver (Taylor-Johnson), super powered fraternal twins, are utilized as mere plot devices too much of the time, ways to point out the future for the franchise.

That franchise building takes some wind out of the sails of the climactic battle sequence, too. We know a cosmic free-for-all is coming with the two-part Avengers: Infinity War movies in a few years, so the scale of this battle feels a little off. Even if it is of the “saving the world” variety, staging it in a fictional small town in Eastern Europe feels like a step backward in optics. It's a thrilling sequence that does everything right in the way the opening does things wrong, with punches landing, characters moving like they are made of something resembling matter, and buildings crumbling with both practical effects and CGI. But it lacks the destruction of New York City, arguably the world's capital. There are no cultural signposts for the audience to latch onto, to say, “Wow, losing this really matters.” It's faraway and, despite the movie telling us the destruction of this place would mean game over for the entire planet, we can't feel it the way we could in the first film, and probably not in the Infinity War films.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a strange movie in its contradictory levels of quality from moment to moment. It never loses its sense of playfulness, its inherent comic book-y setups, its lovable outlandishness. But it feels so often like it is holding back, waiting for a different moment, to land the knockout punch. It's a procrastination movie, as we won't get the real payoffs for years. Perhaps when viewed as part of the whole, it will age gracefully. But as its own entity, it feels off. But that's okay, because the characters remain great, the actors up to the task, and a missed opportunity here might just mean a heck of a course correction is on the way. Such is the beauty, and pitfalls, of serialized storytelling.

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