“The Avengers: Age of Ultron hardly signals the death knell for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, the best I can say about the film is that it’s a pretty decent romp with a slew of amazing moments and a host of flaws. “
The Avengers: Age of Ultron
Release date: May 1, 2015 (USA)
Director: Joss Whedon
Stars: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, James Spader
Running time: 141 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13
Let’s just get this out in the open: I know full well that it doesn’t matter what I have to say about The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Marvel Studios’ sequel to the 2012 blockbuster and the last film (aside from July’s Ant-Man) to be rolled out before Marvel churns out its third wave of films. If you were planning on watching it, you’re going to pack in and head to your local movie theater regardless of what I have to say. I could tell you that it’s just about how incontinence has made all of the Avengers into insufferable jags for the duration of the story. I could explain that a time-traveling Hitler has joined the team and Iron Man and the gang have shrugged off that whole genocide thing. (Actually, I’d watch that.)
I know this. I do my best to avoid reviews until I watch films, actually, on the off-chance the reviews either inflate my expectations or lower them. So, fair warning, if you don’t want to risk that potentiality, click out of this page now. Won’t be offended. I have like 29 Community articles that could use some love, so feel free to peruse those.
Still here? Okay, strap in.
I’ll say this for Marvel’s films: I am consistently entertained by each of their offerings. Not all of them have been winners—looking at you, Iron Man 2—but even the most lopsided of the bunch have done their jobs; that is, keeping me rapt from the spectacle on the screen. Hell, whenever Iron Man 2 does flicker across my eyes on FX, I’ll stay on that channel for a few minutes to watch Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) try to shake a hangover. Marvel Studios knows how to put the butts in the seats, from the hardcore comic book continuity overlord to the genuine lover of comic books to the casual fan. Aside from The Dark Knight Rises because Batman (hush, haters), I’ve probably seen the first Avengers offering and Captain America: The Winter Soldier more than any other film made in the last 10 years. (Did you hear that? That was everyone in the audience of Inside the Actor’s Studio dying a little on the inside.) Marvel has to be doing something right.
Which is why I’ve been so jazzed about seeing AOU. Admittedly, even before hitting the movie theater tonight, I’d heard a few rumblings that the film might not meet the expectations of fans who marveled (ha) as Marvel struck oil with the first Avengers movie. That’s okay and to be expected. I had made my peace with that. I tend not to judge a film based on the successes or failings of previous movies unless the drop-off is incredibly noticeable. I’ll take a production on its own merits. And, on its own merits, AOU falls a bit flat for me.
Spoiler hats on.
The premise of the film is intriguing, even if you’re not familiar with the Ultron comic book character. Director Joss Whedon, who, of course, helmed the first film, tells a tale of artificial intelligence run amok and the effects of playing God. To make a world of Avengers unnecessary, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), fiddle around with an AI project known as Ultron (James Spader). As what usually happens with these cautionary stories, Ultron evolves beyond his programming and decides that the best way to protect the world is to rid it of the humans who are so intent on destroying it. Aided by superhuman twins who have their hate on for Tony for their own reasons, Ultron throws his entire might at dismantling the Avengers. Scrambling and on the run, Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony, Bruce Banner, the Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) must regroup and decide how to most effectively put a stop to the machinations of this out-of-control science project.
Despite having read the funny books for nearly three decades, I approach watching any of these comic film adaptations with as much a blank slate as I can. As long as the movie stays true to who the characters are, I’m not going to sic the fanboy police on the filmmakers. (Least effectual police ever, by the way.) I can appreciate the work on its own merits and do what I do when I go to almost any movie: delve into two hours of escapism. And while the movie didn’t blow me away, the escapism that AOU does provide is due in large part to the acting. Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., and the core group of Earth’s mightiest heroes have been playing their parts for several years at this point and it shows. Cap, the Black Widow, and the Hulk all have the feel of lived-in people with weighty histories behind them, now merely cardboard facsimiles masquerading as deep players. The dialogue is laugh-out-loud funny at times, taking what could be dour subject matter (for a spandex action film, anyway) to have moments of levity and act as a reminder why we should cheer on our heroes beyond their desire to protect the globe. Evans in particular shines, bringing the gravitas that the character of Captain America needs to be a believable leader while reminding the audience that the man is human. The combination of the performances, the writing, and the actors’ natural chemistry and charisma go a long way to making me truly believe that this assemblage are teammates and a dysfunctional family. Even new-comers such as Elizabeth Olsen as the Scarlet Witch and Spader as Ultron feel as though they’ve always been a part of this universe of characters.
Further, as it is an action movie, AOU delivers on the promise that these sorts of blockbuster films make to the general public: dazzle with nail-biting sequences of derring-do, even when you’ve got a good idea how the battles are going to play out. The Iron Man/Hulk brouhaha, in particular, that’s been featured prominently in all of the promotional trailers for the movie live up to the hype. But then, so do the more personal, one-on-one slugfests, such as an extended action scene with Ultron facing down an outmatched but unrelenting Captain America. Whedon and Marvel know that this combination of the large and small showdowns make for good drama.
That said, the film is not without its problems, and the action scenes, though powerful when they do work, also sometimes slow down the film or add an unneeded murkiness to the proceedings. While shots of the assembled Avengers leaping into the fray made my nerd heart sing, the sheer flurry of action sometimes made AOU a bit too busy. Of course, some would argue that this is what this sort of film is intended to do; that is, pack as much action per frame as is possible. However, the effect can make the movie feel somewhat bloated and fail to give viewers the adequate few seconds to process what they’re seeing.
In addition, much of the action felt like a retread of the original Avengers installment, with the climactic battle involving a free-for-all clash between Ultron and his drones instead of Loki and Chitauri foot soldiers. That’s not necessarily a ding against the film—again, what else was Whedon supposed to do to up the ante?—but it’s not exactly a gold star, either. At the very least, at least Captain America was given a bit more to do this go-around during the conflict, taking on a greater leadership role than he was allotted the last go-around.
And here’s the thing: I am fully aware that these movies are made for me, the comic book fan who knows many of the character histories of the Avengers inside and out. The Marvel Cinematic Universe films make far more bank than the ever-dwindling comic book readership could ever hope to contribute to Marvel’s coffers. I get that and I go in with the attitude that it’s a film intended to be fun with superheroes and villains for everyone. The fact that I am as familiar with Cap, Scarlet Witch, and the Hulk as I am with some of my dearest friends is just a bonus. Nor do I expect high art necessarily. Whedon is helming the pic, so I do have some expectations as to quality and flourish, but I’m not going in expecting My Left Foot or Cinema Paradiso. I expect a well-rounded, self-contained story, the type that Whedon has stated recently that he appreciates, even accepting that the Marvel Movie Machine has to sprinkle in hints to its Phase 3 plans.
Yet, while I accept that Whedon is under obligation to plant those hints to the future, they aren’t exactly handled with the finesse that was present in most of Phase 1 films. One scene in particular with Thor giving an expositional info-dump about the threat of the Infinity Gems and Josh Brolin’s Thanos felt shoehorned in and quickly skirted over. While I acknowledge that a lot of plot had to covered by that point in the film, the characters barely blinked at this revelation. To the credit of those nods, however, when done right, do make the films have the same feel as the comic book source material, which are often filled with foreshadowing. I just wish Whedon either wasn’t so blunt with their execution or fully fleshed them out as needed.
Many of the films hiccups could be overlooked if not for one troubling scene with the Black Widow. Again, spoilers ahoy, so stop reading if you’re not interested in further revelations. Bruce and Natasha continue their flirtation that was hinted at in the original Avengers film, rolling into the beginnings of a budding romance. However, after a particularly harrowing battle that leaves the team emotionally compromised and drained, the two have a discussion about any real potential of them having a future together. Bruce drops the fact that he can’t have children because of his gamma-altered physiology, while Natasha reveals she’s infertile due to forced sterilization for “expediency” at the hands of those who trained or brainwashed her into becoming a lethal assassin. She puts the unsightly bow on the discussion by saying that Banner isn’t the only monster.
The exchange was completely jarring and left me scrambling to reinvest my attention toward the film. Physiological adjustments are a trope of many spy movies, granted, and it’s possible that she’s using her experiences to connect with Bruce. However, why does that have to be mentioned at all? Why include it in her backstory? One of the conceits of the Avengers films is that each of the characters is damaged in some way: Captain America is a science experiment and a man out of time; Tony is a narcissist; Thor is former arrogant ass trying to change his ways; and so on. Natasha has a past of killing that gives her a blood-soaked ledger. Isn’t that enough to make her “monstrous”? Does her reproductive options really have to come into play in a way that it really doesn’t in the other characters? And why not say that her past gives her an outlook and mindset where she has come to terms that she wouldn’t be a good mother? Why bring in infertility as a “monstrous” quality? We all know that Whedon is a champion of female rights and has a track record of penning well-rounded women, but this felt like a huge misstep and a slap (if unintended) to viewers who might be wrestling with infertility.
If it sounds like I’m being needlessly rough on AOU, it’s because Whedon has such a stellar track record. While I had come to terms with the idea that a sequel to The Avengers wouldn’t live up to the original, I had hopes that the offering would be a bit more satisfying. And regardless of my opinion, AOU will make more cash than God. Hell, I’m seeing the film again next weekend with my wife who hasn’t had the opportunity to check it out. The Avengers: Age of Ultron hardly signals the death knell for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel Studios has a fantastic track record, so there’s bound to be a hiccup eventually. However, the best I can say about the film is that it’s a pretty decent romp with a slew of amazing moments and a host of flaws. And that’s okay: As seen in the film, even Tony Stark makes mistakes.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron is in now in theaters.