|Bad photoshop, not Ultron, is the Avengers true enemy.|
Joss Whedon promised to go deeper, as well as bigger, with this sequel to the third biggest film of all time. Did he succeed?
Although an impressive, spectacular piece of superhero filmmaking, Age of Ultron is not as good as The Avengers. There are quite a few flaws, not enough to derail the train, but enough to make the journey quite bumpy. What is obvious, pretty much from the first frame, is that Whedon is a much more confident and ambitious filmmaker this time around. Unlike The Avengers, which took place mostly on the Helicarrier, this film has a truly global feel as the Avengers zip around the world chasing after Ultron, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. I hope Tony has good lawyers because he is going to get sued.
The opening salvo re-introduces each member of the team one by one in an avalanche of action as they battle an army of HYDRA troops in a snowy Sokovia, a completely made up eastern European country. The team are on the hunt for Loki’s staff, which HYDRA’s number one thug, Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, has been using to build advanced weapons and people. After recovering the staff, Tony discovers it contains an artificial intelligence and decides to use it to complete his Ultron project, obviously never having seen Terminator or the billion other films about A.I.s getting out of control. Faster than you can say “Skynet,” Ultron gains freewill, a massive ego and the desire to bring about the extinction of the human race.
In terms of plot, Age of Ultron doesn't do anything we haven't seen in Marvel movies before. There's a bad guy who wants to destroy the world. The heroes try to stop them. Everything ends with a city getting seriously fucked up. Along the way there's lots of funny lines, in-fighting, team bonding, soul searching, in-jokes, Stan Lee cameos and Samuel L. Jackson telling people to get their shit together. Pretty much everything I want and expect from an Avengers movie. It will be a long time before we get an Avengers movie where they just go see a show on Broadway and talk about it afterwards. Which is real shame because that would be the best film ever.
For Whedon, it is never really about the story (probably because the story is dictated by his Marvel overlords); it has always been about the characters and this was his last opportunity to get inside their heads and really mess them up. The director seems interested in exploring how a hero's fears and doubts can be their own worst enemy and that, for all their awesome powers, this group is still all too human, even the thunder god. He isn't always successful with this. The mental attacks Ultron and Scarlet Witch inflict on the team doesn't go nearly as deep or as dark as Whedon was hoping. Romanov's works quite well, showing us the brutality of her Red Room upbringing, but Thor's come across like a scene from an Asgardian version of Eyes Wide Shut.
The film's greatest strength is its cast. The effortless chemistry between the actors, and the obvious affection they all have for each other, is just infectious. As with the first film, Whedon has the unenviable task of juggling all of these actors and their characters and making sure everyone gets their moment to shine. And as with the first film, he succeeds. Mostly. There’s a definite sense that a lot of character beats have been cut out to get the runtime down to one that will be beneficial to people's bladders. Someone was bound to be Hawkeyed, and this time it was Thor. When he's not smashing things with his hammer, the thunder god disappears for long stretches of time, only to pop back to talk a load of stuff that is mostly just set up for future films. Hawkeye, on the other hand, has a greatly expanded role. I have a feeling Whedon felt bad about giving Jeremy Renner hardly anything to do in the first film and decided to make it up to him with this film by giving Hawkeye a more substantial role with what are without a doubt the best lines of the entire film. The rest of the main players are as great as you would expect them to be, although even Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo struggle to make the out of nowhere romance between Black Widow and Hulk (what?) work.
As for the newbies, Wanda and Pietro are abilities first, characters second, and accents third. They get one scene to talk about their tragic backstory and explain their motivation, but they never really come alive as (meta)human beings. Paul Bettany, despite less screen time, makes more of an impact as the Vision. This is the first time Bettany has actually appeared in a Marvel film after voicing Stark’s A.I. butler J.A.R.V.I.S. since day one, so he’s no doubt relishing the opportunity. As for Ultron himself, I have to admit that I was a little underwhelmed. There's nothing wrong with James Spader’s performance. His voice -- so cold, so smugly intelligent, so incapable of saying anything without it sounding slightly sarcastic -- is just perfect for this type of character. But Ultron's personality is nothing more than evil robot 101 with a Pinocchio complex and some Whedonisms thrown in.
Where Age of Ultron does manage to surpass its predecessor is in the action sequences, although the final showdown is just another urban battle between the Avengers and the bad guy's disposable army, which Whedon does manage to add a little bit of a twist to. The film has a lot of fun showing how these different heroes would work together in a fight, how they would combine their varying powers and abilities to battle HYDRA minions or Ultron’s many duplicates. The appeal of these films has always been the thrill of seeing these character interacting with each other, and not just fighting together but hanging out and having fun. One of the best scenes is just everyone at a party, laughing and getting drunk and taking part in childish pissing contests over who has the most awesome girlfriend (sorry, Thor, but the correct answer is Peggy Carter).
Notes and Quotes
--Whedon clearly loves to get his characters in iconic 360 tracking shots.
--Andy Serkis’ entire role is just one big Black Panther prologue. Most of the film is set up for Phase 3 which does hamper things
--Whedon's original cut was three hours plus. An extended version of the film will be released on DVD and Blu-ray along with an alternative ending. Hopefully this will include the cut Loki scene (yes, there is one).
--There is no post credit scene so don't bother staying all the way to the end.
Tony: “Actually, he’s the boss. I just pay for everything and design everything and make everyone look cooler.”
Clint: “The city is flying, we’re fighting an army of robots and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense.”
Maria: “He’s fast and she’s weird.”
Three out of four Asgardian versions of Stanley Kubrick films.