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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Movie Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a terrific thrillride and a (somewhat) worthy adversary to the original.

Review by Matt Cummings


Director Joss Whedon exits the Marvel Cinematic Universe in high style with the satisfying follow-up to his 2012 blockbuster. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, his team of heroes have taken down the last vestiges of Hydra, leaving a big question for Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), Captain America (Chris Evans), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to consider: does the Earth need The Avengers anymore? The answer comes quickly when Stark tries to develop Artificial Intelligence in the form of Ultron, a global peace-keeping robot. But an ancient weapon soon corrupts his creation, overtaking JARVIS (voiced by Paul Bettany) and spawning a machine of pure hatred (voiced by James Spader), whose plans to rule humanity start by destroying it. As Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the fragile Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and the rest of The Avengers face Ultron's minion twins Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the team must eliminate a global threat while trying to keep each other's personalities from destroying Earth's Mightiest Heroes.

Let's be clear: Ultron is not 2012's The Avengers, which was as good a film as you could get, nor is it Captain America: The Winter Solider. Both executed their stories flawlessly, filled them with excellent music and memorable performances, and had game-changing endings that elevated them into the national zeitgeist. Ultron gets close, but ultimately suffers from a dull soundtrack by Composers Bryan Tyler and Danny Elfman, along with a hardened belief that bigger is always better. There's no connection to next year's Civil War, nor is Hydra around enough for us to feel that they were either valuable or even worthy of our attention, based on the events surrounding Winter Soldier. Their rather quick exit makes a lot of what Agents of SHIELD feel unrelated to this story and therefore less important. The big-scale action pieces are just that, but none of them are memorable like those of the original. That may not be a fair criticism to some, but in this case bigger isn't always better.

Ultron doesn't want to be a moving experience about the moral questions of AI, and that's ok: it wants to be a big-budget, funny, and energetic film about a team of A-types who still have trouble trusting one another. That formula plays really well throughout, but those hoping for a gut punch ala The Empire Strikes Back will be in for a disappointment. Still, its emotional core - the price of freedom and the challenges of trust and doubt - provide a nice balance to the menagerie of mayhem that leaves some characters in pretty rough positions by film's end. It's also an experience best seen multiple times, with the action, dialogue, and big-movie moments demanding your return, if only to merely catch everything. Sometimes these can be issues that undo the experience (see The Wedding Ringer), but not here.

Director Joss Whedon excels at mixing the Marvel Studios directives with his keen sense of place and how it plays a part in telling the story. His opening sequence is another 360-degree throwdown, complete with several trademark 'money shots' throughout the film of the team being bad-ass superheroes. He's as much a geek as a filmmaker, perfecting the team's combined skills at several points, but is also aware of how new characters like Vision and the twins can interact and learn from The Avengers' harsh battlefield experiences. Olsen gets plenty of moments to show why she's a great Scarlet Witch. Taylor-Johnson isn't Days of Future Past's Evan Peters in any way, which is a letdown considering how high Peters set the bar, even with the horrible press leading up to the 2014 release. Taylor-Johnson is capable, but Whedon the Writer doesn't give him much to do except run fast; granted, he's granted a good monologue which explains why he and Witch join Ultron, but there's no personality behind his Eastern European accent.

But for everything wrong with Ultron, there's more than enough things here that work very well. A film with this much to say is gonna take awhile, but the 141-minute epic doesn't drag. Spader is excellent as the murderous robot, his plans for worldwide destruction drawn with a perfect balance of dark humor, then indignation as he realizes the true might of The Avengers. Whedon imbues him with as much style as Spader himself brings to the role, making his interaction with Stark and Cap in key sequences all the more enjoyable. Evans and team fit their roles like a pair of comfortable shoes, from Hemsworth's Asgardian arrogance to Ruffalo's tortured Banner. Johansson reveals new layers to Black Widow, while we see once more the fragile tapestry that is RDJ's Tony Stark. His dialogue with Evans makes up the film's best dramatic duo, as both use very different methods to keep the world safe. But this also Renner's movie, perhaps a response to the shove he got in the original; here, the reveals are significant, but we also learn just how dangerous he is without the bow. His response to being a non-powered hero also provides for some of the best meta-humor of the franchise.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is not quite as good as its predecessor, but its emotional core and humor are definitely as enjoyable - and perhaps more so - than the original Avengers. With Marvel moving forward on its Cosmic Universe line, and introducing other Earth heroes that will soon grace the big and small screens, Ultron is the last time we'll see this lineup in its current form for several films. That's too bad, because Earth's Mightiest Heroes (and the film itself) certainly works. Don't listen to the critics and their poo-pooing: Ultron is a satisfying penultimate conclusion to Phase 2, and certainly worthy of multiple viewings in large-format theaters.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments and has a runtime of 141 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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