Marvel’s The Avengers was everything a comic book movie should be- exciting, have likeable characters, witty banter, and most of all it was fun. The film felt like a breath of fresh air after the darker comic book movies from rival DC. Now we’ve arrived at the main sequel after the follow-up solo pictures (Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Could Joss Whedon and his capable cast pull off another billion dollar winner at the box office? Or would the film collapse under its own weight, suffering the fate of so many sequels? Would it best its predecessor or fall short? The answer is a mixed bag. In many ways Age of Ultron takes what the first Avengers movie did and upped the ante. Banter comes quickly and often, and never fails to elicit at the very least a chuckle from the audience (and in many cases the banter is just downright funny). The action scenes are plentiful and filled with some terrific visual effects (one being a floating city, topping the floating stadium in X-Men: Days of Future Past). The cast has settled comfortably in their roles, and they all deliver beautifully. The newcomers are welcome additions, fitting nicely into the cinematic Universe that Marvel has woven, breathing life into the characters previously only known on the comic book page. The 141 minute run time flies by for the most part, with only a couple of scenes feeling like filler. Whedon does a great job by giving every character their moment in the spotlight, and giving Marvel fans plenty of Easter eggs and cameos to enjoy. Stan Lee once again graces us with another fine cameo moment, ending up with him drunkenly saying “Excelsior!”
The movie also gives us further glimpses into these characters, both with their past lives and their fears. This was nicely done courtesy of Wanda Maximoff, aka the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), one of the twins experimented on by Baron Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), who uses her psychic abilities to prey on the team’s worst fears. Her brother, Pietro, aka Quicksilver (Olsen’s Godzilla co-star Aaron-Taylor Johnson) devils the Avengers in his own way, using his super speed to deliver blows and taunts. By tapping into their fears we get to see the Avengers fragment ever so slightly- Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) witnesses the end of the world at his own hand, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson) recalls her days of being molded into an assassin, and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) has his alter ego The Hulk rampage across a city. Captain America (Chris Evans) gets a fleeting look at Peggy (Hayley Atwell), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is tormented by visions of a slightly nastier Heimdal (Idris Elba). Only Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is spared, perhaps because he spent a majority of the first Avengers movie under the spell of Loki. Which turns out to be a good thing, as we get a glimpse into the life of Clint Barton, making him a much more fully realized character this time around.
The visions Wanda presents the team with do end up being a mixed bag, however. Tony’s visions work, especially in light of his creation of the artificial intelligence Ultron (voiced terrifically by James Spader). Seeing the results of his handiwork and Cap’s cracked shield (a hint at the next Captain America film, Civil War) has a particularly chilling effect on Stark, and drives him to do anything he can to avoid that end result at all cost. Thor’s visions seem to be more extraneous though, included as more of a set-up to the next Thor movie, Ragnarok, rather than something that enhances this film’s plot. It also provides a plot hole, at least for me, but I’ll leave that for you to decide since I don’t want to end up spoiling any more of the film than necessary. Perhaps this will be explained in a later Marvel film, but for now it poses the question of how could he know something when he didn’t witness it. Trimming these scenes might not have been a bad idea, though they aren’t overly long. The visions do work in having the team rally together, even while being somewhat fractured in their own individual psyches. This extends to the film’s villain as well.
As Ultron, Spader delivers a performance that is almost delightfully evil while being convinced his is the only logical path. His plans to acquire a body extend to forcing the aid of Dr. Helen Cho (Claudia Kim), which inevitably leads to the creation of Vision (Paul Bettany, who also voices the AI Jarvis in the film). Vision proves to be a valuable ally to the Avengers, and Bettany plays him just right, with a touch of innocence and an unassuming sense of humor as he wields enormous power (there’s a great scene with Vision and Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, that shows this off). Vision provides the Avengers the backing they need to thwart Ultron’s plans of bringing about the extinction of the human race. Ultron plays nicely as Stark and Banner’s personal Frankenstein, leading Tony to at one point say to Bruce, “We’re both monsters.”
And though Ultron proves to be a very dangerous foe, you know how things are going to wind up in the end. And that in part is one problem with this movie, in that it plays it a little too safe. Towards the end of the movie, during a spectacular special effects sequence where part of a city is levitated into the air , there was a chance if the filmmakers had chosen to do so would have forced our heroes into making a hard choice, one that could have very easily set up the inevitable rift that we know is coming with Civil War. Instead a last minute save from out of the blue thwarts this choice, enabling our heroes to have their cake and eat it too, so to speak. Lives are spared so bad guys can be safely fought, but that we all could foresee. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to avoid the criticisms leveled at Man of Steel, where Metropolis suffered mass destruction while Superman battled Zod without a thought to the innocent civilians caught in between. Age of Ultron evens goes so far as to have Iron Man scan a building and once it’s known that there are no people there to endanger he uses it to his own ends, which of course results in massive destruction. It’s half a dozen of one and six of the other, as destruction is just a by product of superheroes defeating bad guys, and yet after viewing we can wonder why, when it’s their self appointed job to protect the people, do they endanger them so much? There’s no clear answer, as applying logic and making an exciting movie sequence don’t always mix, especially when it comes to those movies involving superheroes.
Age of Ultron does do a lot of things right, despite its few flaws. The humor is especially spot-on, providing plenty of laughter to accompany the action. It keeps the movie from getting too dark, though its subject matter is a bit more somber than that of the first Avengers movie. The cast delivers, breathing life into their respective roles and making them fully realized characters, giving them some depth and nuance. The human touches were nice to be seen, whether it was the glimpse into Clint’s domestic life on a farm with his wife and kids or the budding romance that developed naturally between Natasha and Bruce. The action is all well staged (the money shot of the Avengers leaping into action in slow motion comes at the beginning of the film) and the visual effects are spectacular to behold. Marvel fans will enjoy the many nods to the comics along with the cameos. The additions to the team in Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Vision all work well, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of them in future installments. It should be mentioned here that while Johnson’s Quicksilver doesn’t completely have the same charm as Evan Peters portrayal of the character in X-Men: Days of Future Past, but in the end he proves worthy of the part. Olsen has more to do with Wanda, getting to show a greater range of emotions, first as she inflicts fear on the avengers and sides with Ultron, and later when she realizes Ultron’s ultimate goal and then switches sides. It’s a nice arc, and never feels forced or contrived. Her character becomes nicely established by the movie’s end, and should prove to be a worthy addition in future installments.
But for all of what Age of Ultron does right, it still just misses the mark of tying its predecessor. The ending is mostly to blame here, with a missed opportunity, as are the reminders that this is an episode in a series, with plenty of set-ups being dropped for future Marvel movies. Even with those set-ups, there were missed opportunities, both towards the end of the movie and in the obligatory mid credits scene (no end of credits scene for this one). It’s that sense of what could have been that holds this back from being as good as the first Avengers movie. Not that it will matter in the box office. The film is sure to make huge bucks, and audiences are leaving feeling generally pleased at the movie’s conclusion. Age of Ultron will entertain you, and it’s money well spent to see it on the big screen. It’s got the action, it’s got comedy, and it’s got the characters we’ve come to know so well and love. So definitely, if you’re a fan of these films, get out and see it. And see if you too will wonder at what could have been, despite the good time the movie provides.
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