Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers-Age-of-Ultron-PosterThe biggest name in movies right now (that’s not Star Wars) is Marvel.  This week saw the release of their hotly anticipated Avengers sequel, Age of Ultron.

Spoilers ahead

The first Avengers was a bit of a gamble going in.  In fact pretty much everything in the Phase 1 set of movies (Iron Man 1&2, Incredible Hulk, Captain America and Thor) was a gamble going into them.  So far though, Marvel has the golden touch.  Even their “weaker” movies were still well received financially and critically.  I would argue that they haven’t yet released a failure or weak movie.  Each movie has it’s own set of strengths and weaknesses.

Age of Ultron is the eleventh movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  A shared universe that has grown with each successive movie, and nearly every major character from the previous films shows up here to some extent.  In fact there are so many cameos in the film that those who don’t appear seem to stand out even more.  Most of the romantic leads from the individual films do not appear however.  There is a fun scene early in the film that addresses some of the missing leading ladies.  In fact one character even echoes the critics of the film’s marketing in a weirdly prescient meta way by asking “Where are all the ladies?”

This is a dense movie.  Between cameos, characters and subplots there is a lot going on.  The plot of the first Avengers movie was a fairly simple take-over-the-world story.  This time around the plot is jumping around almost as much as the action itself.

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The movie opens with an attack on the evil Strucker’s lair.  At first it seems that the story is going to be picking up the thread of the Hydra-SHIELD story thread from Winter Soldier and Agents of SHIELD, but that’s not the case.  The attack on Strucker is an impressive opening scene, as we see all of our heroes in top form battling the entrenched Hydra forces.  One of the first shots of the movie brings back the famous continuous shot from the first movie.  A single shot that goes from hero to hero showing them doing something fantastic.  It’s clear that Whedon and company want to start big and go bigger, which they do.

Inside Strucker’s lair are enhanced people who Hydra has been experimenting on and more importantly they have Loki’s staff from the first Avengers.  I may have to revisit a few things but I thought Loki’s staff was captured at the end of the first movie.  It’s not really explained how it got into their hands.  Most likely it has to do with the fall of SHIELD, but aside from a few lines of throwaway dialogue, the fall of SHIELD is almost never mentioned in the film.

The plot moves on to Stark and Banner trying to build an AI.  Stark is still haunted by what happened to him over New York in the first film, and he knows bigger things are heading their way eventually.  He’s afraid they will not be enough to stop it.  Gone is the PTSD from Iron Man 3 but instead it’s replaced by an obsession to make something bigger and better.  This is where Ultron enters, apparently this is an idea Stark and Banner have been working on.

This brings up what may be the biggest flaw of the movie.  There is so much going on that we almost feel like we missed a piece of the story.  Not necessarily major pieces, but that we have entered a story already in motion.  Lucas and Spielberg are very good at this technique, but I feel it’s lacking here.  If this was a comic it feels like we started on issue #2 and we missed #1.  You would think between Agents of SHIELD on TV every week, and the other movies that preceded this we would’ve gotten a hint, sadly we did not.  Again, it’s a big universe that has been built and there are a lot of characters and storylines at work.  Almost too many.

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As dense as the movie is I’m glad they left in as much as they did, especially something like the party scene.  We get some great character moments from everyone and some cameos from our heroes in other movies.  Sort of a “Hey, remember this guy, he might pop up later in the film or other films down the line so don’t forget about him.”  Watching everyone get drunk and then try to lift Thor’s hammer is a terrific scene.  We were teased with it months ago, but it still works just as well.  I still got a bit giddy watching Thor’s face when Captain America tried to pick up mjolnir, and the hammer moved just a bit.

 

A lot of the character moments in the film are centered around the different relationships in the team and setting up the next movies.  We see the beginnings of what will most likely be the “Civil War” between Captain American and Iron Man.  Thor is now starting to realize that things are not as they should be in Asgard.  What bothered me the most was a relationship forming between Black Widow and Bruce Banner.  It bothers me because last time we saw Bruce Banner he still cared for Betsy Ross, but there is no mention of her here or a failed relationship between them.  He has seemingly cast her aside without a second thought.  Even some of the scenes where Widow soothes the Hulk reminded me of moments in The Incredible Hulk where Betsy was the only one who could calm the Hulk.  I guess even Marvel has forgotten about The Incredible Hulk movie.

Here the movie moves into the next phase as we meet Ultron for the first time.  It’s like we came in on the end of part 1 and now part 2 is beginning.  Ultron has examined the internet and decided that to preserve peace and stabilize the world he must destroy everything.  I can’t blame him, think of all the YouTube comments he must’ve read.  I do have to admit Ultron’s face was a little silly looking.  I appreciate the fact that they gave me a moving mouth as it helps us to connect to him.  I did find myself wondering why and how metal would move like that.  James Spader makes a fantastic villain.

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This is where the story differs the most from the source comics.  In the comics, Hank Pym created Ultron, but here it’s Tony Stark and Bruce Banner with some help from JARVIS and an Infinity Stone.  In the movies however it makes sense the way it’s been presented and it draws a through line all the way from Iron Man 1 to now.  Marvel has said that Ant Man is a Phase 2 movie and that Phase 3 doesn’t begin until next year’s Captain America 3.  However, Age of Ultron carries with it a finality as it closes a story loop for the character that the Marvel universe has been built on so far, Iron Man.

Hawkeye_AAoUThe fight against Ultron rages across the globe from South Korea to Sokovia, even introducing Wakanda and the vibranium mines.  I had a bit of a squee at that moment.  The second act is centered mostly around Wakanda and the third act is in Sokovia.  Along the way we see why Hawkeye never got a solo movie.  It seems when he’s not being an Avenger he lives the quiet life out in the country with his wife and two kids.  Only Black Widow seems to know about this place as it was part of Hawkeye’s deal with Fury to keep it off his SHIELD files.

I would say that the true heart of the movie is Hawkeye.  He didn’t have much to do in the first one as he was mind controlled by Loki for half the movie.  Here though he gets some great moments.  His talk with Scarlet Witch during the final fight is a great moment as he explains “We are fighting giant robots and I have a bow and arrow, none of this makes sense.”  It was a very comic book moment.  He continues and gives the “If you go out that door, you’re an Avenger” speech and shows why he deserves to be there.  Hawkeye fans will find plenty of great Clint moments in the film.

Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver don’t have a lot to do in the film.  Much like Hawkeye in the first one we are never quite sure where their loyalties lie, but they come around in time for the big showdown.  Scarlet Witch has a bit more to do in the film, but this film is really just setting them up.  I did find it weird that they killed Quicksilver.  I’m sure it was to show that the characters are not immortal and that they can be hurt or potentially killed, but it didn’t really do anything for me emotionally.  It seems like a studio note that someone in the film had to die.  It seems even stranger especially when you take into account the real world troubles the producers had to go through to get the character in the film due to his being mutant and partially owned by Fox.  I do like that Marvel has now introduced true super powered people into their stories.  Before there were science experiments gone both good and bad with Captain America and the Hulk, people who were extremely talented like Iron Man and Hawkeye, and then Thor who was an alien-god.  Now we have introduced the concept of people actually having powers.

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The final act of the movie is where the movie just seems to start throwing everything at us.  Thousands of robots, a vibranium-human hybrid cyborg who is powered by an Infinity Stone, flying a city into the air to create a makeshift meteor.  I wouldn’t say the film has a case of sequelitis, where everything has to be bigger and there has to be more of it, but rather it feels like they just wanted to do so much in one movie.  Maybe later on we will get an Avengers 1.5 comic book or fill in story to explain everything.

The action scenes are bigger than anything we’ve seen to date in a Marvel film but unlike some other recent superhero films there was always a sense that the heroes were aware of the innocent people and were doing their best to be superheroes and to limit civilian casualties.

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Age of Ultron is everything we expect from a summer blockbuster and from Marvel.  For the most part it’s smarter than your average big budget ‘splosion fest.  Is this a perfect film? Of course not.  Is this better than the first Avengers?  Hard to say, since there is so much going on in the film I think repeated viewings will really decide if this is better or not.  There is a lot to enjoy in this movie, but there is also a small nagging feeling that we have missed a chapter or we are playing catch up on some of the exposition.  I know I am very excited to see where Marvel takes us in the next few years with the Phase 3 films, as this sets up a universe that is not only growing but evolving.  It’s hard to believe that it all started with a desperate man held captive in a cave but has now grown to an intergalactic adventure.

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