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Wednesday, 29 April 2015

REVIEW - AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

Directed by: Joss Whedon
Written by: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, James Spader
Music by: Brian Tyler, Danny Elfman
Release date: April 23, 2015 (New Zealand)


Has it really been three years since the first Avengers came out already? Considering the legacy its built for itself, it certainly doesn't feel like it. Ever since that teaser trailer dropped online featuring a creepy new rendition of Pinnochio's "I've Got No Strings", expectations for this film have been rather high. For those who've been living under a rock for the past few months, Avengers: Age of Ultron is the immensely-anticipated sequel to 2012's The Avengers, the eleventh instalment of Marvel's Cinematic Universe and the penultimate entry into their "Phase Two" of films. It's also the first big comicbook film of 2015, in what's set to be a fairly quiet year for the genre in comparison to the ones it sits between. The first Avengers may not have been particularly intricate or profound, but it could get away with its paper-thin plot and carefree nature because it was about payoff. It was a celebration. But now that the party's over, this film doesn't have the same excuses to fall back on. What can Age of Ultron do to warrant our attention? Considering that this will probably be the biggest film of 2015, let's hope the answer is something positive.

The Battle of New York has passed, and years later the Avengers are still fighting the good fight. While on a mission in the (fictional) European country of Sovokia, they retrieve the scepter of Thor's brother Loki, which contains a gem with supernatural powers. Shortly after returning to their headquarters, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) discover an artificial intelligence within the gem. What starts out as just an unexpected discovery turns to great peril as the intelligence becomes sentient and takes over Stark's new global defence program, "Ultron". With a legion of robotic drones and the aid of the superhuman siblings Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), Ultron (James Spader) takes it upon himself to bring peace to the human race through the only path he believes in: their extinction.


One of the biggest things I can commend Whedon and co. for is for not following the usual Marvel route of making something that's nothing more than just a good time. While this is far from a dark movie by definition, this is Marvel's darkest outing yet. Some of the visions Wanda creates and puts our heroes into are downright chilling. It never crosses the line, but considering the usual bright, family-friendly nature of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it's slightly surprising to see some of the things you do here. But even if some of it doesn't quite work, that same Whedon flavour of humour is very present (even if the laughs are never as big as they were three years ago), and while it's not quite as exciting the second time around, it's just great seeing the Avengers kick arse together again. Make no mistake, this is still generally a "fun" outing, but unlike a few other Marvel offerings, it doesn't feel like harmless filler to tide you over for two hours. The actions that take place here could affect the Marvel Cinematic Universe for years to come.

Between the more complex narrative, weightier themes, old and new characters and set-up for various future Marvel films, there is a lot going on in Age of Ultron. This means that the pace is quite rapid and the story tends to get muddled, but it's also somewhat of a miracle that it actually comes out feeling fairly coherent considering the massive amount of things being juggled here. It also thrusts quite a bit at the viewer that expects you to have seen most of the previous Marvel instalments, but you can still quickly grasp a basic understanding of these characters without having seen them all.

The action isn't exactly Man of Steel/Avengers 1 levels of awesome, but it's still as great as you would expect. The much-anticipated Hulkbuster fight is without a doubt one of the best action scenes we'll be seeing this year, and there's a slight emphasis on more teamwork this time around. For example, Captain America chucks his shield into the air, Thor slams it with his hammer, it goes flying into a horde of bad guys and nerds squeal. However, it's decidedly underwhelming to see the climax be made up of two overly-familiar Marvel tropes: endless waves of nameless enemies and yet another airborne threat to a city - for the fifth time, if my memory serves me correctly. Age of Ultron is also somehow even more action-heavy than its predecessor (guess Whedon's plans to go smaller and more personal didn't exactly work out. Studio pressure, maybe?). The climax we have here is one big, long and action setpiece that gets a just a tiny bit wearisome after a while, although it's rounded off fantasically. It also looks expensive. Really, really expensive. Seriously, look at the budget on this thing.

But surprisingly, some of the moments that shine the most in Age of Ultron are the quieter ones. Some character relationships take some fairly unexpected turns and an interval at a safehouse allows for certain ideologies to be explored and gives our heroes a stronger emotional centre than there ever was in the first film. Those who felt that Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) barely existed in the first entry will also find much to love here. As a character who's been largely restricted to these films as opposed to having his own solo outings, the progression he experiences as a character is great to see. 


Speaking of characters, the cast of this film is enormous. There's an abundance of cameos/extended cameos from other sides of the Marvel Universe that are nice to see, even if they do slightly contribute to the film's aforementioned crowded nature. There are also quite a few newcomers, including the aforementioned Pietro and Wanda Maximoff. Considering their usual heritage as heroes Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch respectively, it's no spoiler to say that they don't remain on the bad side for long. Quicksilver barely has a presence here, quite possibly due to Marvel unwilling to give him the spotlight when a rights issue has allowed the character to be utilised simultaneously in Fox's X-Men films. Scarlet Witch on the other hand is a very welcome new addition, as she arguably has the most appealing set of powers on the team, and goes through a fairly unexpected character arc that leads to one of the best scenes in the movie.

The third most significant newcomer to the team is Paul Bettanny as The Vision, who is fantastic, but the less said about him, the better. Just know that you won't be forgetting about him any time soon, and it's not because he has the colour scheme of a watermelon. I'd even argue that Scarlet Witch and The Vision are the coolest members on the team right now, at least until Spider-Man comes along and takes his rightful place. 

But Ultron is the big cheese here. Since it's no secret that Marvel's cinematic villains have generally been quite lacking, and Ultron is a character largely unknown to the public, we cannot be allowed to say the same about this character. Thankfully, Ultron is one of Marvel's biggest successes in this regard (even if that isn't saying much). He's surprisingly human and James Spader's incredible voicework gives him more presence and character than any Marvel villain before him. But he's also never 100 percent convincing as a CGI creation, his relationship with Tony doesn't have any kind of payoff, and most importantly, the logic and motivations behind his plan are barely ever explored. He clearly has a deep hatred of the Avengers - particularly Stark - but why? What makes him feel so strongly about this when he seemingly gained consciousness and deemed them all scum of the earth in a matter of seconds? Was this cut and saved for the upcoming extended edition on Blu-Ray? If so, such a basic and essential aspect shouldn't have been left on the cutting room floor regardless. Without it, Ultron is a solid villain, but it's all due to his style and not his substance.


It has to be said that Age of Ultron is quite a flawed film. Continuity is apparently immaterial here: Tony's apparent retirement during the resolution of Iron Man 3 is literally never brought up. Sure, it was a stupid move to make in the first place but that's no excuse to ignore it completely. There was also certain content shown to us through trailers that made me wonder if Age of Ultron would be repeating certain elements from its predecessor, and it certainly does. There's the aforementioned familiar climax against an army of disposable enemies, the dull convenience of mind control is once again used to move things along when it should never have been in the first film, and our villain resorts to those "tear them apart from the inside" tactics that we know so well. In fact, Age of Ultron as a whole is a bit overfamiliar. It feels slightly more ambitious than the first but at the end of the day it's all the same song and dance, really. If that's what you're looking for, you're set, but those looking for something a tad more profound will only find that in fairly small doses here.

With that being said, Age of Ultron is far from a bad film. I'm sure others will be harder on it than I was, and it may not meet the skyhigh expectations some fanboys undoubtedly have. But there's some truly great stuff in here, and definitely enough to warrant its price tag even if its negatives are a little more complicated than its positives. But now that this behemoth is finally out of the way, what will Marvel do next? What brave, valiant hero will be next to step up after this massive juggernaut of a blockbuster? 

What's that? "Ant-Man"? 

...Oh.


FINAL SCORE: 

8/10