Sunday, May 3, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron Review

Avengers: Age of Ultron Review
A Quick Review from the Comic Book Lover in Me:

Oh. My. God. How incredible was that! The action scenes in "Avengers: Age of Ultron" are all awesome and some of the closest-to-the-comics images in any superhero movie ever! I loved the heroes! I loved the introduction of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch! I loved Hulk and I loved Hawkeye! And all the Easter Eggs and passed characters who are introduced? GEEK OVERLOAD! This feels like a comic book brought to life.

Final Grade: A+

A Quick Review from the General Movie Fan in Me:

While some character aspects are quite impressive, and the action sequences superb, "Avengers: Age of Ultron" feels painfully slim. Much of the humor in the movie feels forced, and there is an underwhelming quality to the film that anchors the film down for me. Plus, the shared universe quality that this franchise has become famous for is precisely what hurts this sequel to one of the biggest movies of all time. But hey, the actors look good at what they are doing, and there is big fun. I just feel there is a better movie somewhere.

Final Grade: C+

If you'd like more of an in-depth analysis, I'd be happy to indulge. I have been thinking a lot about this one all day. See, these Marvel movies matter to me in a big way. As much as I am HUGE Batman fan, if I had to pick a favorite overall comic distributer, I would have to pick Marvel. Marvel has always appealed to me simply because I like how their heroes are more ordinary people in extraordinary situations. A lot of the heroes on the Marvel roster didn't ask to be heroes, it just kind of turned out that way, and how these people handle that reality has been constantly rewarding over the years. I will never forget that moment back in May of 2008, after sitting through ten minutes of credits after witnessing "Iron Man" for the first time. When Samuel L. Jackson reveals himself and recruits Tony Stark into the Avengers Initiative, I knew in the upcoming years that I was going to see something never been done before, and that filled me unquenchable excitement. When the first "Avengers" movie came out, it felt like the summation of everything that special scene promised and I was rabid for what comes next.

With "Avengers: Age of Ultron," I know that the team assembling itself was not going to be as exciting the second time around as it was the first. But there are still plenty of ways to make this sequel worthwhile, and it seemed director Joss Whedon was more than up for the task. Sequels are ultimately frowned upon, but that doesn't mean good sequels are never made or even sequels that prevail over the original. I didn't know what to expect from this sequel, and while spoilers have been everywhere the last week, I was able to remain clean with ease. Today was my girlfriend's 25th birthday and it seemed fitting to see "Avengers: Age of Ultron" together for the celebration, as she has been by my side throughout most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, watching this world unfold has almost become second nature to us.

The film opens with one of its best moments, as The Avengers rally together to strike what sounds like the last HYDRA stronghold left. Right away we see Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) taking out a bunch of HYDRA agents, some with some cool toys. Those toys were created by Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) who we met at the very end of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and it seems Strucker has been busy playing with Loki's Scepter, Chitauri weaponry and even experimenting on people and turning them into human weapons. While the Avengers have no problem taking care of Strucker's goons, they have a little problem with Strucker's two stand-out human weapons--The Twins Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). While the Avengers survive their first encounter with The Twins, they can't help but realize that they will be back. And Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) in particular receives a vision from Scarlet Witch that is more than alarming and springs him into action to create an artificial intelligence that he can put around the world so he and his friends can retire, it is called The Ultron Program.

Yep, the anxiety Tony Stark had in "Iron Man 3" carries over into this movie, which I found surprising and shockingly dull. It also puts into question some of the other continuity concerns in a strange light. Like at the end of "Iron Man 3" it seems like Stark is ready to give up on being Iron Man, yet he seems to be funding the Avengers and fighting with them with the same amount of purpose as the first movie. Also, Cap made it pretty clear that he was going to hunt down his old friend Bucky at the end of "Winter Soldier" and if Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) didn't show up to give a brief dialogue about that mission, the audience would have probably forgotten it. For a franchise that takes pride on it "all being connected" they sure don't connect the dots so well on this movie compared to the other films.

Anyway, Stark and Dr. Banner (Hulk's alter-ego) secretly begin to develop this masterful A.I. without telling the rest of the team. But it never seems to go anywhere, until one night Ultron (voiced by James Spader) becomes aware of itself and what it was programmed to do. The thing is, Ultron sees all of humanity as a threat to Earth, so he puts a plan into motion that will pull the Avengers apart, involve the Twins and also J.A.R.V.I.S. (voiced by Paul Bettany) in way you would not expect.

The best moments in "Avengers: Age of Ultron" are the character moments. Joss Whedon said in interviews that he wanted to make this sequel more character-driven, and I think he accomplished that goal. It seems that the Hawkeye Jeremy Renner plays in this sequel is an apology to how his character was handled in the first film, because he stands out in a big, awesome way here. He is given a lot to do, he is given cool scenes, he given a backstory that Renner sells and there is a great moment when he gives somebody a pep-talk that had me on the verge of tears. There is also a connection between Black Widow and Hulk in this movie that is big fun, and a conversation they have in the middle of this movie, during one of its quieter moments is a wonderful example of great acting. Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Robert Downey Jr. and all the rest, they have become these characters at this point. But that doesn't mean that their performances are sloppy, I just love how consistent their story-arcs have been and just how dedicated to these characters have been, it makes the smaller, more character-driven stuff much more personal to the audience.

I like the work done by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen in this movie. I like their Eastern European accents. I like how their powers are handled in the movie, particularly Olsen's Scarlet Witch. Scarlet Witch's powers of telepathy and illusion-creation are pretty weird when you think about them, but how they are brought to life in the movie is cool. They never once seem cheesy or stupid, which is a great thing. I also really dug how their transitions in the movie never seemed forced. Like I said above, Paul Bettany is given a lot to do, and I don't want to spoil much of it, because it is worth seeing cold turkey. But watching the birth of this particular superhero was very gratifying. Bettany journey will seal the deal for this movie, and his character will definitely be among your favorites.

Those action scenes? Wow. It seems pretty clear that Whedon got a bunch of comic book lovers together in order to brainstorm these scenes, because these scenes are the closest to a comic-book-brought-to-life that I have ever seen. The Hulkbuster vs. Hulk fight? Awesome. The opening battle with HYDRA? Impeccable. The first battle at Avengers Tower against the Ultron drones. Big time fun. Plus, the third act of the movie is filled to the brim with comic-book coolness that my eyes could hardly believe what they were seeing. Sure, there is not much of a difference between watching heroes pound on aliens over them pounding robot drones, and the movie goes out of its way to show us that massive casualties are not happening, but this is big fun. And possibly the most tremendous action sequences you will see in a theater all year.

So how could I hate a movie this good? Well, like I said, there is an underwhelming quality that follows the entire movie to its end. First, the movie went overboard with the jokes, and I think Marvel is taking its lightness to an obnoxious level here. The humor in the first Avengers movie seemed very natural, while in this movie, it feels forced. It also creates a tonal problem. The storyline calls for a dour journey for our heroes, and when Whedon was discussing this film, it seemed to me like he wanted to make the "Empire Strikes Back" of superhero movies. That is kind of what I was hoping for, but that I did not get. It is safe to say that some of our heroes are not in the same place at the end of this movie that they were at the beginning, but it was not the epic game-changer I wanted it to be. The movie turns kid-friendly every time, and that humor-laced atmosphere ultimately hurts the film, and the tone of the film is never realized. How can the death of an Avenger mean anything if they are just cracking jokes every five minutes?

Another thing that was troublesome were all the Marvel Cinematic Universe Easter Eggs, there were way too many of them this time. "Avengers: Age of Ultron" plays like a commercial for all of Marvel Phase Three for a healthy chunk of the movie. So much so that I believe Ultron's origin and Stark's motivation for inventing Ultron are ruthlessly paved over to make room for all the references to Black Panther, the Infinity Gems and "Thor 3." "Avengers: Age of Ultron" suffers from the same problems that "Iron Man 2" did, as it sets up the future of the MCU while also trying to tell a story of its own, and that competition for screen time does not work that well. I like all the extra tid-bits that this shared universe has to offer and I like getting giddy about the future, but not at the cost of seeing a movie that can't stand on its own two feet.

In the end, despite some great character beats and top-notch action scenes, "Avengers: Age of Ultron" feels like a movie Marvel wanted to get out of the way so that it could get to the stories its really excited for. Too bad, because "Age of Ultron" could have been represented another status quo shift for our heroes, and it could have given birth to another great villain. I may like the way Spader's voice gives life to Ultron, but he is kind of a disappointing villain, and that's too bad. I am sure it wasn't easy for Joss Whedon to make a movie that was partially its own thing, while also setting up the future of an entire film franchise, and I can understand why he decided to leave after it. Moving forward, if Marvel producer Kevin Feige wants Phase Three to work, he needs to allow his movies to flourish on their own, cut back on all the Easter Eggs, and let the movies exist on their own. I thoroughly enjoyed "Avengers: Age of Ultron," but "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is still the best MCU film, simply because it does not tell anyone else's story except its own. Feige is planning on introducing lots of cool characters in the third phase of his very ambitious experiment. If he wants it all to work, he needs to be willing to show us how these characters are unique. That means allowing the screentime available on their stories, not this bigger set-up to Avengers three. Still, despite my gripes, "Avengers: Age of Ultron" is a wildly entertaining time at the theater and some of its big moments are moments I will want to experience again once the film hits DVD shelves.

Oh, and the mid-credit scenes? Not that cool. Marvel is treating its Big Bad the way "Game of Thrones" is treating its White Walkers. We know he's coming, stop beating us over the head with him.


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