Sunday, April 26, 2015

Avengers In, Avengers Out, Avengers In Again: The Avengers: Age Of Ultron Barely Reaches Average!

The Good: Performances are fine, Generally good direction
The Bad: Unrelenting effects sequences/splintered cast makes for a strangely underdeveloped couple of hours.
The Basics: With The Avengers: Age Of Ultron, Joss Whedon has a rare stumble into mediocrity that advances the Marvel Cinematic Universe into a particularly unthrilling direction.

I have been worried lately that I will never again fall in love with a new work of art. I listen to a lot of music, watch and review a lot of television and movies and I try to experience food on multiple levels when I am introduced to new culinary delights. Having critical standards has led to a number of conversations around my house between my wife and I. She has voiced a concern that my idea of a "perfect film" is virtually unattainable and when I spend a significant amount of time after a viewing trying to find something wrong with a movie just to not give it a perfect ten, I am actually delivering a contrived rating that works to deny perfection, as opposed to celebrate it.

With The Avengers: Age Of Ultron, I fear no such contrivance. The Avengers: Age Of Ultron was easily the film I was most unabashedly excited about seeing this year, so it was the one I was also at the greatest risk of rating high based on prejudice in favor of the film. The irony for me is that X-Men: Days Of Future Past (reviewed here!) last year came with so much less hype and delivered such a vastly superior film that I was not genuinely prepared for how mediocre The Avengers: Age Of Ultron actually was.

To his credit, Joss Whedon had a herculean task at hand when he penned and directed The Avengers: Age Of Ultron. The Avengers: Age Of Ultron is a sequel to Whedon's The Avengers (reviewed here!) and the marketing department at Marvel Entertainment/Disney has worked overtime to leak its forthcoming schedule of Marvel films. Joss Whedon had to try to top a superhero team origin story that brought together disparate heroes and made them into a group that could fight a single villain and his incredible army. Where do you go after that?

The problem Whedon faced conceptually within the narrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was that he had one film to introduce and defeat a new villain that could hold his own in the imagination of the viewer with Loki (the adversary from The Avengers), while servicing a sprawling cast of established heroes and making that work within the confines of the stories told since The Avengers. From a studio, practical moviemaking point of view, Whedon had to wrestle with reorganizing characters so the franchise could survive if significant actors decided to leave when their contracts came up and that meant adding new cast members to the mix. With all those pressures upon him, Whedon had to write an entertaining super hero story that could entertain and set up the next, known, installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That's a lot of balls in the air for anyone and the only real hope for the Marvel Cinematic Universe comes in the promises made outside the actual film The Avengers: Age Of Ultron. Writer/Director Joss Whedon has promised that The Avengers: Age Of Ultron will have a slew of deleted scenes and unseen footage when it drops on Blu-Ray. One has to hope that there will be a director's cut because as it is, The Avengers: Age Of Ultron is something of a mess.

At the core of my issue with watching The Avengers: Age Of Ultron is the fact that so much of it felt like it had been done before that I kept waiting for the movie to begin, to get engaging, to thrill me, to show me something new, to surprise me, to . . . well, you get the picture; I just kept repeating and rephrasing things without actually saying anything fundamentally new. The Avengers: Age Of Ultron feels a lot like that. In fact, were one to do a double-feature, one suspects that if one dozed off at any point in the Chitauri attack on New York City in The Avengers and awoke at virtually any point in The Avengers: Age Of Ultron, they would feel like they were in the same movie.

The Avengers: Age Of Ultron goes from one sprawling, fast-paced, CG-encrusted action sequence to another to another to another with breaks that are surprisingly uninteresting. Much of The Avengers: Age Of Ultron is like watching The Avengers blended with outtakes or b-roll footage from Iron Man 3 (reviewed here!). It is chaotic, warlike, easy to lose track of and takes a long time to get through before it gets to anything truly good. And in the quiet, character-building moments, The Avengers: Age Of Ultron focuses on the least-impressive Avenger, belabors the set-up to Captain America: Civil War and entirely jerks the audience around. We'll come back to that.

What is it about? The Avengers: Age Of Ultron follows in the wake of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (reviewed here!) with The Avengers - Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hawkeye, Black Widow, and the Hulk - working to clean-up the problems left in the world from the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. In Sokovia, they hit upon the motherload: Baron Strucker and Dr. List have a laboratory where they have the scepter Loki used, along with corpses of Chitauri vessels and two powerful (for lack of a better term) metahumans. When the Avengers break in to put an end to the H.Y.D.R.A. lab, the twins Pietro (who has superspeed, much like The Flash) and Wanda Maximoff (who is not actually magical, but has the ability to influence neurons in the brain to make people see things and has telekinetic powers over matter and energy) escape. As the battle for the H.Y.D.R.A. base is winding down, Wanda returns and uses her powers on Tony Stark, who sees a nightmarish image of the Earth under attack by legions of the creature/ships that attacked New York City with the Chitauri.

Their mission successful and the scepter recovered, the Avengers return to New York City and Avengers Tower where they plan to put the problems that have been lingering behind them. The recovery of the scepter will allow Thor to return it to Asgard and remove the lingering influence of Loki from Earth, the destruction of Strucker's organization and lab effectively decimates S.H.I.E.L.D.'s biggest enemy (which removes a big psychic burden from Captain America). Only Tony Stark is not over-the-moon thrilled about the campaign. While studying the scepter, Stark realizes that the glowing piece at its tip is not a brainwashing device, but rather a complex program or neural network, comparable to (but vastly more complex and alien than) Jarvis (Stark's A.I.). He pitches an idea to Dr. Bruce Banner; they can use the alien a.i. in their mothballed planetary defense project, Ultron. Bypassing the rest of the group, Stark and Banner activate the alien intelligence and then go off to a party celebrating the victory of the Avengers over the Earth's enemies. While they party, the alien a.i. kills Jarvis and takes control of the Avengers's robotic army (a collection of flight suits much like those in Iron Man 3, which are now serviced through Avengers Headquarters).

After the main party, the a.i. reveals itself as Ultron by attacking the Avengers using the Avengers robots. Calling for human evolution through the extinction of the Avengers, Ultron disappears into every computer on earth when his robotic body is compromised, but in the attack, his forces make off with the scepter. Needless to say, the other Avengers are pissed at Stark and Banner (especially Thor, who now has to try to find and recover the scepter yet again!) and they soon become terrified that Ultron will break into computers that have nuclear launch codes and obliterate the Earth. Ultron makes a new body and heads with the Maximoff twins (who want nothing more than revenge upon Tony Stark for the death of their family) to the African nation of Wakanda. There, Ultron acquires Vibranium he needs for his nefarious plan and when the Avengers track him down, they are set upon by Wanda and Pietro. Wanda influences Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk before she is stopped by Hawkeye. Shaken, the team retreats to a safe house where they try to figure out what UItron wants and how to stop him. Their brainstorming leads them to Dr. Helen Cho's skin-growth machine where Ultron is attempting to create the entity that will be the downfall of the Avengers. But in the process, Wanda sees Ultron's plan and his idea of peace comes through an extinction-level event and she (and her brother) are forced to choose sides in the battle for the fate of the planet.

Writing out the plot for The Avengers: Age Of Ultron actually makes the movie sound really interesting and engaging. On screen, it didn't seem as awesome, though (much like the way some of the plots to Star Trek: Enterprise sound pretty good, but then when one turns on the show and the characters start talking, the dialogue and acting are so bad, it doesn't matter what is going on, the show is virtually unwatchable the way it tries to tell the story). The film opens with a big battle, montage/regroup/party, post-party battle, characters argue, Wakanda battle, moody safe house scene, extended climactic battle. It's a lot of fighting. And, try as he might, Joss Whedon and the special effects department don't have a lot they can do that hasn't been mined by The Avengers and Iron Man 3 (Whedon had a real disadvantage in that Ultron's robot army is basically made up of shiny silver Iron Man-style suits).

So, it comes down to character. Tony Stark gets one or two quips (they've been in the trailers), Bruce Banner is predictably conflicted, and Nick Fury pops up for a dramatic speech just at the right time. But Ultron never pops - he's General Grievous from Revenge Of The Sith (reviewed here!) meets any generic Decepticon. Ultron is the real shock; he's such a monolithic villain. Even James Spader voicing him cannot make him seem less generic and, therefore, entirely un-frightening. Will The Avengers unite to find a way to stop Ultron? Gosh, I hope so. Come to think of it, if they just crashed the world's power grid long enough for every computer in the world to actually shut down, wouldn't that have stopped him?! The point being, it would be a surprise if the Avengers couldn't stop Ultron more than any real revelation that they can.

Of the new characters, that leaves Wanda, Pietro, Vision, and Laura. Wanda and Pietro are motivated by a sense of revenge that is adequately explained in The Avengers: Age Of Ultron. It's not so satisfactorily explained to make viewers feel satisfied when Pietro doesn't kill Tony Stark in the film's first twelve minutes. Seriously; Pietro stands, watching the completely vulnerable Tony Stark take possession of the scepter when all he had to do was run over at super-speeds, kill his family's mortal enemy . . . movie over. Vision is engaging to watch, but is just about as generic as Ultron. And Laura . . .

. . . Laura gives Joss Whedon an excuse to keep Hawkeye in the mix in The Avengers: Age Of Ultron. Hawkeye is, as the film openly acknowledges, an archer in a team that includes a super soldier, a demigod, a trained assassin, a raging lab experiment, and an armored weapon equivalent to a small army. So, Hawkeye is given a sudden, abrupt, backstory and when the Avengers arrive at Laura's safe house, it humanizes the archer and gives the viewer an emotional root. And Whedon uses all the momentum with Hawkeye to set up one of his famous reversals and it would be truly nitpicky to say that doesn't work. Whedon pulls off his final-act reversal with Hawkeye and that is one of the few treats of The Avengers: Age Of Ultron.

Of the big three (Thor, Iron Man and Captain America), The Avengers: Age Of Ultron is unfortunately fractured. One has to guess that a number of the scenes Whedon could put back into the film center around Thor and his large chunk of time away from The Avengers entering the mysterious pool and leading to the resolution that brings him back. Thor sits out a surprising and significant chunk of The Avengers: Age Of Ultron. That gives Tony Stark and Steve Rogers a lot of time on screen to disagree. Rogers is, reasonably, pissed because Tony Stark does in The Avengers: Age Of Ultron exactly what Pierce did in Captain America: The Winter Soldier; he tried to anticipate world problems and stop them before they ever occur. Stark's characterization here makes sense: he is reeling from fear that Earth cannot protect itself and he doesn't want to debate with the team the merits of having a global defense system. When it goes wrong, Rogers climbs off his high horse to yell at him and Stark yells back. But the conflict between Stark and Rogers never quite boils up to the level where it would create a credible schism to result in Captain America: Civil War. In fact, while the conflict between Stark and Rogers is essential for that, Whedon takes a big crap on the writer who has to create that film with where he leaves Stark. And while Rogers moralizes, he's essentially the same guy we've been seeing. This time, he's already so disillusioned from S.H.I.E.L.D.'s actions in The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, he doesn't seem particularly surprised when one of his teammates screws him (and humanity) over.

The other big character arc in The Avengers: Age Of Ultron is just a colossal mindfuck for fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After finally figuring out how to make The Hulk interesting and truly work, The Avengers: Age Of Ultron belabors a romantic relationship between Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow). Mortgaging the chemistry Romanoff and Rogers developed throughout Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Avengers: Age Of Ultron teases a "will they or won't they" through most of the film. The result is particularly unsatisfying, if for no other reason than that Joss Whedon (who is both incredibly intelligent and remarkably personable, at least in interviews!) perpetrates the stereotype that incredibly smart people are emotional idiots. Bruce Banner can be absolutely brilliant, but to offset that, he can't have enough emotional maturity to face his demons, ask for help, or accept the compassion and love of someone who fits him surprisingly well.

The acting in The Avengers: Age Of Ultron is good. But, that's it. The Avengers: Age Of Ultron is not bursting with big emotional scenes that allow the actors to actually do much in the way of stretching. In fact, newcomer (to the franchise) Elizabeth Olsen is given the character with the biggest emotional journey. Wanda transitions from angry to triumphant (her smile at seeing Tony Stark shaken after she mojos him is wonderful) to horrified when she realizes Ultron's plan is embodied well by Olsen's performance. Olsen has good emotional range for her eyes, posture and body language to sell the conflicted emotional states of Wanda well. Sadly, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is not given as much in the way of big moments to make Pietro pop.

So, Joss Whedon had a tough task with The Avengers: Age Of Ultron and the fact that he has already said there is much more to the movie than viewers will see in the theaters virtually guarantees a time when he admits that the theater version is not the film he intended to make. The Avengers: Age Of Ultron contains noticeable narrative gaps, some troubling gaffes and a "ho-hum this is *supposed to be* adventure" feel to it that makes one wonder if more will actually be better when the longer version is eventually revealed.


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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