Avengers: Age of Ultron (Review and thoughts)


Joss Whedon was handed a double edged sword when he was tasked with helming the sequel to the wildly successful “Avengers” movie. On one hand, Whedon had a vast wealth of characters and stories to draw from. He also had the established Marvel Cinematic Universe, one of the strongest brands in the entertainment industry. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” was practically guaranteed to be a financial success.

On the other hand, with the strength of the MCU brand, there is increased pressure on each new film to live up to the high standards set in previous films. And a follow up to “The Avengers” is a completely different animal from a sequel for a solo character. The 2012 movie was a game changer for the movie industry. It was the result of four years of careful planning, successful solo movies, and a painstakingly intricate cohesive cinematic universe.

As a result, “The Avengers” hit theaters with unprecedented hype. Never before had a film of that magnitude and scope even been attempted. Crafting the MCU was a task that many thought was an impossible task, especially given that the most popular Marvel characters (Spiderman and Wolverine) were not owned by Marvel Studios. But by time “The Avengers” was released, it hit theaters on the backs of five strong solo movies.

avengers

Image Credit: marvel.com

“The Avengers” wasn’t just a movie. It was an event. A cultural landmark. A literal once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. To put it simply, “The Avengers” was a history-making film. Following something like that wasn’t an easy task. It was impossible to drum up the same amount of hype for “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” That’s not meant as an insult, but a once-in-a-lifetime movie by its very definition only comes around once in a lifetime.

That being said, Joss Whedon was able to deliver a worthy, if not superior sequel. Where the first movie failed was also its greatest strength, it was more of a spectacle than a movie. Out of necessity, “The Avengers” had to follow a tight, predictable formula in order to tell its story. AoU was able to break the formulaic mold and stand on its own strength. This pattern of bucking established trends is what has allowed the MCU to gain strength and momentum, especially with its most recent efforts “Captain America: The Winter Solider” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Instead of having to establish The Avengers as a superhero team, AoU was able to hit the ground running. The movie has strong action sequences interspersed throughout the movie, from beginning to end. The first of these action sequences basically begins when the opening credits stop rolling. Whedon goes back to the rotating, character spanning style that he used in the Battle of New York. This allows each character to get a chance to show off their skills in the bigger fights.

The team battle scenes are strong, and each of them carry a sense of purpose and desperation. The final battle in particular has a frantic pace that effectively conveys the potential doom the team is trying to avert. During The Battle of New York, it never felt like The Avengers were in any danger of losing the fight. But the battle against Ultron, every member of the team seems vulnerable and beatable. Even the likes of Hulk and Thor seem to be right on the brink of falling to Ultron at various times.

Speaking of Ultron, the artificial intelligence entity is a worthy villain for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. He(?) is created from Tony Stark’s fear of failure and carries subtle similarities to Stark’s personality. James Spader is absolutely brilliant as the titular villain. Ultron is a near-perfect combination of creepy, powerful, and even sympathetic. His manipulation of both his allies and enemies leads to a desperate fight for the fate of the world.

ultron

Image Credit: sideshowtoy.com

Ultron debuts in the film fairly early, and in an incredibly memorable fashion. His monologue in his first scene really sets the tone for the character. He is driven by his primary protocol, to create peace and order. Predictably, this protocol is not executed in the way Stark imagined it would. But the simplicity of Ultron’s motivations allows the film to focus on the execution rather than the plan. As a result, Ultron’s scenes really focus on his character development rather than using him as a plot device.

Where the Marvel Cinematic Universe has really failed has been in the creation of memorable villains. Obadiah Stane was charismatic, albeit a bit cliché. The Winter Soldier was a badass, but he is more of a tool than a villain. And Loki was amazing on just about every level. Beyond those three, Marvel has not really had a very strong lead villain in any of their films.

Ultron brings another great bad guy to the MCU. The very nature of his character will allow him to be a potential threat for the duration of the MCU. Ultron is essentially a compilation of data. Data is difficult to completely destroy and always has the potential to be recreated. The AI creature is also a manipulative, single minded, and insanely powerful. It definitely helped that the character was well written and James Spader was able to make the most of the strong material he was given.

Speaking of new characters, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (AKA Scarlett Witch and Quicksilver) breathe unexpected new life into an ensemble of established characters. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen were decent in their portrayal of the twins. The accents were a little weird and inconsistent, especially in Olsen’s case. She however was effectively able to portray Wanda’s somewhat tortured nature. Taylor-Johnson was somewhat able to capture Pietro’s personality as well. Neither character was given too much of a chance to shine on their own however. They served more as plot devices than anything. Perhaps with more material, the two could have turned in a better effort.

And then there’s The Vision, the glaring weak spot in an otherwise near-flawless movie. The creation of the character was a strong story, right up until the point where the android was actually created. The fight over whether or not Stark and Banner should finish creating another AI entity was strong and gave each character involved a chance to give voice to their opinion. But after emerging, The Vision never seemed to bring anything of value to the story. Instead, he was something of a deus ex machine. There is definitely potential for the character to get better, but his inclusion in the film just seemed to fall flat.

One of the big complaints in “The Avengers” was the total lack of screen time for Hawkeye. I can assure you that this is not the case in AoU. Clint Barton may not be essential to the story, but he is vital to the functioning of the team. Jeremy Renner delivers a typically strong performance, and he was given some of the best material in the script to work with. In many ways, he’s the heart and soul of the team. His character is fleshed out in an unexpected but extremely satisfying way.

The audience gets a look at Hawkeye’s motivations for fighting the good fight. And that same motivation also provides a logical explanation for why he hasn’t been more involved in the MCU. The script really establishes Barton as an everyman hero. He has every reason in the world to walk away from the fight, but he does not hesitate to put his life on the line to save a single person. In much the way that Mark Ruffalo was the unexpected star of “The Avengers,” Jeremy Renner steals the show in the sequel.

Hawkeye-Jeremy-Renner

Image Credit: screenrant.com

The rest of the main characters deliver in essentially the exact way that you expect them to. Tony Stark makes jokes, makes mistakes driven by fear and arrogance, and finds a way to do the right thing at the risk of his own life. Captain America is the foil to Stark. He is serious, driven by his own value system, and unwilling to compromise his beliefs. Thor is the charming powerhouse. Black Widow is as conflicted as always. As is Bruce Banner.

Speaking of Banner and Widow, their romance story seems both forced and natural. The film doesn’t really seem to allow the time to effectively tell the story of the bond between the two characters. But it does make sense due to the task given to the Widow pertaining to Hulk, and also due to the dual nature of both characters. It does seem to take away from the overall story at times. But it gives Scarlett Johannsson and Mark Ruffalo a chance to get some screen time. And their chemistry is undeniable.

The plot was largely strong from beginning to end. The action sequences were strong, but that was expected. The character beats in the slow moments between the fights were what really makes the movie strong. The motivations of every character are well established, and they all lead to a very satisfying conclusion for each of them. Their interactions were strong, and made sense to the story. The villain was a strong, credible threat to both the heroes and the world as a whole.

Another complaint from the first movie was the oversaturation with humor. Snarky dialogue and witty humor have always been a hallmark of Joss Whedon’s projects. He strongly stamped “The Avengers” with his personal style. And at times, it seemed to distract from the plot. In “Age of Ultron” the humor seems to flow more naturally at more appropriate times. The running joke about Captain America’s aversion to profanity in particular is able to effectively break the tension in a lot of scenes.

Overall, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” was a superior film to 2012’s “The Avengers.” It is able to serve as a strong conclusion to Marvel’s Phase 2 projects. And it was also able to lay down the foundation for Phase 3. The seeds were sown for the upcoming inter-hero conflict in “Captain America: Civil War,” and the build continues for “Avengers: Infinity War.”

The difficulty in making a Marvel movie anymore is to allow it to serve as another thread in the overall MCU fabric, but also to make a film that is strong enough to stand on its own. The strongest example of that was “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but “Avengers: Age of Ultron” did an admirable job. Being the middle film in a planned trilogy is almost always going to make a movie feel like a bridge between the beginning and the end. AoU was able to be this bridge, but also stand on its own two feet.

I’m not big on reviewing things based off of star ratings or a numbered scale. While they can help critics decided a movie’s worthiness of an award, or to help rank movies; I don’t feel that those things are the most relevant for the casual viewer. The casual movie-goer only cares about one real factor, is the movie worth paying money to see? So that is how I review movies. And seeing “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is worth every penny of your hard earned money.
Thanks for playing along…

 

– Ron George

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