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AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON Review – **** (REVISED)

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Generic poses, generic chaos...generic is the word, no? (Source)

Generic poses, generic chaos…generic is the word, no? (Source)

Avengers: Age of Ultron (why Hollywood has decided to start dropping “The” from movie titles on a regular basis is beyond me, but it’s getting annoying; hell, THE Silver Linings Playbook was the name of the fucking NOVEL!) has an external disadvantage hanging over it from the start, namely its predecessor.

The Avengers felt like an event at the time–indeed, it shattered the opening-weekend record, an accomplishment this film is expected to repeat–and even going back to it now, it still feels special; it may not be Marvel’s best film, but it’s their most epic film. It has scope, it has stakes, it has humor, it has character…whatever faults it may have, it’s a great piece of blockbuster entertainment.

Age of Ultron, on the other hand, doesn’t feel like an event. It feels less epic, the stakes feel lower, the humor is weaker and the rich ensemble work which really distinguished the first film is only sporadically evident. That’s not to say it’s a bad film–it’s certainly not. It’s still entertaining and professionally made. But it feels like a bridge to bigger and better things, and in the grand scheme of the MCU, it’s hard to imagine it’ll inspire lasting affection.

(Since writing this review, I saw the film a second time and have revised my opinion of it somewhat. My additional comments are appended to the end of the original piece.)

Spoilers.

The plot itself is fairly simple, made more complex by the huge cast of characters. Essentially, Loki’s scepter is retrieved from a HYDRA stronghold by the Avengers, who continue to operate after the collapse of SHIELD. During the retrieval, a pair of twins in HYDRA’s employ–Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson)–exercise their powers upon the Avengers; Wanda has several powers, most notably the ability to direct bursts of energy from her hands and the ability to induce visions in others which can influence them emotionally, which she uses on Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), convincing him that all the Avengers will die unless he does something about it. Pietro, for his own part, is incredibly fast, and uses this ability to outfox the team.

Haunted by his vision, Stark urges Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to help him take the power of the scepter and adapt it to an artificial-intelligence matrix. This plan backfires when the newly created intelligence overwhelms Stark’s O.S. Jarvis (Paul Bettany) and is able to secure a robot body for itself. So Ultron (James Spader) is born, and after a brief fight with the Avengers, he disappears, but is able to enter robot bodies at will and enhance them, finally co-opting a cybernetics expert, Helen Cho (Claudia Kim) to create a new and better body for him. Meanwhile, he enlists the Maximoffs to help him, and we learn that, as children, their home was destroyed by Stark armaments, and they were subsequently the subject of medical experiments which gave them their powers.

Ultron’s goal is basically to wipe out the human race, or at the very least force it to evolve past its present, imperfect form. The Avengers, of course, strive to stop him, but a great deal of destruction must ensue first.

I’m cutting the synopsis short for the sake of my sanity (and my metacarpals), but suffice to say there’s a lot of fighting, some within the team, some without. There’s a subplot where Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) tries to spark a relationship with Banner, a glimpse of Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) family life, and cameo appearances from Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Col. James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), and others.

“There are no strings on me.” (Source)

Where the first Avengers worked in part because the characters all felt relatively equally important, here one wonders if the cast could be halved without losing much. Certainly Wilson, Rhodes, and Selvig feel wasted (well, Cheadle has a couple of good bits, but that’s about it), but even characters with a decent amount of screentime can feel slighted; Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), who was a solid team player in the first film and took part in a good deal of the action, is largely relegated to expository duties until the climax.

I’ll be frank with you–since I wrote the preceding words, about 48 hours have passed, and with them much of my memory of this film. I think that says a fair amount, honestly, and while I may remember the first Avengers more clearly because I’ve seen it several times (thrice in the theater), even coming out of the film I had few strong thoughts. But I did have a few. Let’s get into those first:

    • Tony Stark is kind of a villain in this film. Seriously. He decides to completely go over the heads of the other Avengers and create his A.I. (pressuring Banner to assist him), professing to be sick of the “town hall” approach. So he creates a super-intelligence which goes rogue and tries to destroy humanity. Then he fights the Hulk in the middle of a city in Africa (which city isn’t specified, because to Hollywood, Africa is one big country–the scene is literally set as being near the “African coast”), using his fan-service Hulkbuster armor, which doesn’t appear long enough to really justify itself, and nearly destroys an entire city just to calm the green guy down.
      • At least the film acknowledges that the world is getting pretty sick of the urban havoc being wreaked. I do give it points for that. Not many, since the climax is essentially more of the same, but given that I was actively thinking how much I’d hate the Avengers if they were real, it was a nice touch.
    • And then Stark decides to do the same thing again, only with Jarvis’ matrix, and thus gives Jarvis physical form as Vision, who proves to be a hero, thereby (sort of) justifying Stark’s maverick wickedness. (Downey’s recent remarks don’t much endear him or the character to me.)
    • Vision is actually fairly cool, mostly due to Bettany’s performance; he evokes Data in his quiet sense of wonderment at the world, and he portrays Vision’s artificiality without overt affect. I hope he actually gets something to do in the next film. Though…why’d he give himself a cape? Does he have a sense of aesthetics? Capes wouldn’t be terribly practical, would they?
I'd like to see Johansson reprise Samantha from Her and ship the two of them. (Source)

I’d like to see Johansson reprise Samantha from Her and ship the two of them. (Source)

  • And I suppose it goes without saying that James Spader is a fine Ultron, his sonorously snarky voice being a perfect fit for the arrogant robot. His first corporeal scene, inhabiting a decrepit mechanical body, trailing wires and leaking oil, hits the same notes that Zod’s address to Earth in Man of Steel did for me: here is a great villainous intelligence, far beyond anything the protagonists have yet encountered, addressing them with menace but without sensation; cold, blunt, and confident. A later scene where Ultron chats with the Maximoffs also gives Spader a chance to display his ability to give even mundane dialogue a witty tone.
    • That said, Ultron feels like far less of a threat than Loki and the Chitauri did, perhaps because he doesn’t engage with humanity to the same degree. Where Loki terrified (almost) an entire crowd into kneeling before him, Ultron stays largely out of the public eye until the end, and even then, I don’t recall him really menacing others to the degree he menaces the Avengers. He’s a good presence, but a rather lacking force.
      • And his final plan–to remove a chunk from a city in Sokovia (the Maximoffs’ generically Eastern European home) and drop on the Earth from a great height, causing an extinction-level event–doesn’t pack the same punch as Loki simply invading the fuck out of New York. Ostensibly, the stakes are higher, but it all feels a little too elaborate for its own good.
  • In case you haven’t heard, the Romanoff/Banner relationship is really absurd and poorly handled. Never mind that the match feels rather arbitrary, that the obvious pairing was Romanoff and Rogers, or that Johansson and Ruffalo have no real romantic spark together (Ruffalo is a fine actor–see his heartbreaking work in Foxcatcher–but a romantic lead he is not); Banner comes off like an older brother more than a love interest. And there’s a really cringeworthy scene where Banner protests his fear of having children, and Romanoff replies that she cannot have children (we learn she was sterilized as part of her training), ultimately leading to the line “You think you’re the only monster on the team?”¹ I get that Whedon probably meant well with this scene, but it comes off very badly indeed.
    • To top it off, Banner decides to fly away to parts unknown at the end, leaving Romanoff alone, making the plotline even less satisfying than it already was. Really, just read this article. It sums up the film’s failure in this department as well as anything.
  • The Maximoff twins aren’t all that impressive either. I feel like Hollywood really doesn’t know what to do with Taylor-Johnson, and here he and Olsen are stuck with stock accents and fairly one-note roles (in the comics, the twins were raised by a Romani woman; there is no hint of this or any other ethnicity in the film). Taylor-Johnson does what he can to bring a little deviltry to Pietro, but he pales in comparison to Evan Peters’ Peter Maximoff in X-Men: Days of Future Past, where he had by far the best scene in an otherwise underwhelming film. Taylor-Johnson isn’t bad, but the character is relatively thin, and his (spoilers) final sacrifice was clearly meant to be more moving than it actually is. Olsen comes off a little better, and I’m interested to see how future films use her (if you didn’t know, she and Pietro turn good after they realize Ultron is bad news), but even if she’s better used than she was in last year’s Godzilla (where, coinicidentally, she played Taylor-Johnson’s wife), one still has to imagine there are better uses for her talents out there.
    • The visions Wanda induces in the Avengers are actually the best-directed scenes in the film; not just Stark’s apocalyptic imagining, but Rogers finding himself at a WWII-era dance with his lost love, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), or Thor² (Chris Hemsworth) in the middle of an Asgardian bacchanal, grabbling with a hallucination of his friend Heimdall (Idris Elba). Or Romanoff reliving her traumatic training which combined ballet and murder. Whedon actually gets a little inventive here, which is more than can be said for most of the film.
They exist (albeit scrubbed of their Romani background). (Source)

They exist. (Source)

  • Oh yeah, and the whole thing with Hawkeye and his family is pretty much filler; it’s cute, sure, to see his (step?)children call Romanoff “Aunt Nat” and so on, but does it make Hawkeye more compelling? Not really, no.

I think that about covers it. It should go without saying that the film is technically accomplished, although not terribly distinctive; there’s just not much here we haven’t already seen from the MCU. You’ll notice I still give the film a solid rating, and that’s because, all things considered, it’s still a workable piece of superheroics, with moments that excite and moments that amuse. But it feels like a bridge to another, presumably bigger, hopefully better film; rather than being the culmination of Phase 2 (which will technically end in July when Ant-Man comes out), it feels like a double-length episode of an extremely expensive TV show rather than a true film. It gets the job done, no doubt, but I can’t imagine wanting to rewatch it the way I’d rewatch the first film (or Guardians of the Galaxy, but that’s a special case).

I can’t see it becoming a favorite. Something just isn’t quite there.

In conclusion: Thanos has to jack off with the Infinity Gauntlet, right?

Right. (Source)

Right. (Source)

Score: 71/100

Since writing the above, I saw Age of Ultron a second time, and have to admit…I was too hard on it. That’s not to say the film still isn’t problematic, but I enjoyed it quite a bit more second time around. My impressions:

  • The whitewashing of the Maximoffs is still irritating, but Taylor-Johnson and Olsen both do quite well in the film; he’s got an ingratiatingly cocky presence, and she handles Wanda’s arc well, balancing the dramatic aspects of the character with a sly sense of humor. I really wish the film had featured them more centrally–arguably, since theirs is the most significant arc in the film, they really should have been the protagonists. Killing off Pietro was a mistake and a half.
  • The “African coast” caption I bristled at was in fact a reference to the fictitious Wakanda, which is actually referenced in dialogue immediately prior. Why they didn’t just say “Wakandan coast” in the caption is beyond me.
  • Hawkeye’s family is still superfluous (the best moment with them is Natasha’s “Traitor” line). I just didn’t give a shit about them, they didn’t amp up the stakes for him, they were just there, and their presence was logically wonky and extraneous.
  • Brucetasha, as it has come to be known, also still doesn’t work. Johansson and Ruffalo are great, charming performers, but in this context, they’re terribly matched; Bruce feels more like an older brother/mentor/friend than a possible love interest, and the “monster” line still feels awkward, if well-intentioned. The whole lullaby thing is just weirdly conceived (in theory it’s fine, but it’s handled pretty badly). I think this element, more than any other, will haunt the film in years to come.
  • I didn’t find Tony nearly as hatable as I did initially. Yes, he still acts like an asshole, and yes, he’s kind of the shadow villain of the film, but Downey’s presence is hard to resist, and the Iron Man-Hulk brawl is a pretty great sequence when you get past the fundamental horror of it (“Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep!”).
  • James Spader really is great as Ultron, and his final scene with Vision is indicative of how great this film could’ve been had it not focused on being a franchise film and been more its own beast. He too is underused–again, focus on the Maximoffs, make Ultron the primary supporting character, and leave the Avengers as supporting guest stars. I think that would have been a far more memorable film.

It’s still not a great film, and although I’ve bumped it into the **** range, it’s at the lower end of it. But I can definitely go back to it and enjoy it if I so desired.

Score: 75/100

¹The IMDb quotes section has this as “loner” rather than “monster”, but it sounded like “monster” to me.

²It feels to me like Thor in particular doesn’t really do much here. I mean, he’s present, but it seemed to me he was especially extraneous to the narrative.

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4 thoughts on “AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON Review – **** (REVISED)

  1. It was monster, not loner, yeah.

    I agree with you in general about the film, except on Hawkeye’s family- I genuinely thought that Hawkeye had the best arc of the core avengers in this one, and his wife and kids really helped that. That being said, I’m a big Hawkeye fanboy thanks to Matt Fraction’s run on the comic.

    (Also, I loved that he got the Bill Pullman speech moment.)

    • I’ll be seeing the film a second time soon, and I may be more favorably disposed to it then. If my feelings change markedly I’ll provide an addendum to the review.

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