Saturday, May 2, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

It's weird thinking that what started in 2009 with a movie based on the Marvel Comics superhero Iron Man has blossomed into a mega-franchise that has grossed over seven billion dollars worldwide and shows absolutely no signs of stopping. Some people thought that the franchise's final endgame would have been The Avengers in 2012, but here we are three years and five movies later talking about an Avengers sequel. The hype machine is in full gear and the anticipation is high, but Avengers: Age of Ultron isn't quite as good as I'd hoped it would have been. But you know what? It's still pretty fun.

The movie takes us immediately into the action, as the Avengers launch a raid on a secluded Eastern European laboratory where Hydra scientists have been using the mystical powers of Loki's scepter for human experimentation and creating super-soldiers for Hydra. Despite the interference of Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), twin siblings granted superpowers through Hydra's experiments, the Avengers' raid is successful. The bad guys are apprehended and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) claims Loki's scepter for himself so that he can study it further.

His research proves fruitful, as Stark discovers that the gem within the sceptre contains a hyper-advanced artificial intelligence that Stark and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) believe could be the key to perfecting "Ultron," Stark's unfinished global defense system. But upon its activation, Ultron (voiced by James Spader) proves to be not only sentient, but also very, very angry. It downloads itself into Stark's mechanical peacekeeping drones and attacking the Avengers before it escapes with the sceptre.

Using the scepter and the leftover resources at the now-abandoned Hydra laboratory, Ultron builds himself a new, more powerful body and a personal army of robots. He recruits Pietro and Wanda to help him in his fight against the Avengers so that they might settle an old grudge with Stark, but what the Maximoffs don't know is that he has more than just killing a group of superheroes on his mind. In truth, his final goal is far more sinister: human extinction.

I entered Age of Ultron excited to see it, but afraid that it wouldn't live up to the hype or that it wouldn't be as good as the first Avengers movie. And while I did think Age of Ultron was a tremendously fun, exciting ride, I simply didn't think it was as strong as the first one. It's a solid movie, don't get me wrong, but I felt a little... I don't know, perhaps "underwhelmed" is the word I'm looking for.

Returning to the Avengers saga is writer/director Joss Whedon, who, from the looks of it, adopted an "if it isn't broken, don't fix it" approach to making the movie. I saw a double feature of both Avengers movies at my local theater, and in watching them back to back, I couldn't help but notice so many similarities that it's like they're practically the same movie. There are differences, sure, but Whedon hits so many of the same notes that he hit back in 2012 that it feels like he isn't interested in bringing a lot of new to the table. Perhaps it was a case of burnout or being exhausted creatively, or maybe Whedon was being hassled by Marvel and Disney executives to deliver a certain kind of movie. I wasn't on the set, so I don't know for certain.

And maybe it's me, but the film's pacing seems to stutter and stumble every so often almost as if it was being put together from scraps. And truth is, Whedon's original version of the movie is supposedly over three hours long, but word on the street is that he had to do a bunch of haphazard editing due to Marvel executives being unhappy with some of the material he was producing along with wanting to keep the movie under two and a half hours.

But what I thought was the movie's real problem was its script. The plot is typical paint-by-numbers superhero stuff, and the returning characters are written pretty much the same way they were before. That's not what bugged me, though. What got me was the addition of some unexpected subplots that don't really go anywhere or add anything to the movie. Case in point: the Hulk/Black Widow quasi-romance felt awkward and forcibly tacked on. I didn't think it was really all that necessary to the story (or even well put-together, really), and all it did was make me wonder what the heck ever happened to Betty Ross? Did Liv Tyler not want to return, and Marvel Studios didn't want to replace her? Or could they be distancing themselves from The Incredible Hulk due to its relative lack of success compared to the rest of the franchise?

There were some things I did enjoy, though, like the additions of Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and The Vision to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I though each of them added something very cool to the movie, like there's more to the world of the Avengers than just good guys fighting bad guys. And I know a few people who were curious to see how this version of Quicksilver would compare to the one that appeared in X-Men: Days of Future Past last year. They're so completely different, though, that it's almost not worth comparing them. X-Men's Quicksilver was barely in the movie but contributed the movie's best, most memorable scene, while Age of Ultron's is an important character and appears throughout, which means he might not make as huge an impact as the one from Days of Future Past but still plays a continually important part of the story. Apples and oranges, the two Quicksilvers are.

The movie might have its share of weaknesses, but it also has its strengths as well, the greatest of which is its cast. Many of the returning actors have played their characters so many times that they could probably do it in their sleep, and although they're not given any material to shake things up, the cast is still top notch. Mark Ruffalo and Jeremy Renner get to do a bit more dramatic heavy lifting, with their characters being the only ones to experience any kind of growth or evolution. Both Ruffalo and Renner are great, showing why both of them were great choices for their roles. And despite the contractual hangups regarding it, I still want to see Ruffalo get his own solo Incredible Hulk movie.

But of the actors returning to the franchise, I thought Paul Bettany really stood out in particular. Having only appeared previously as the voice of Iron Man's snarky digital assistant Jarvis, Bettany gets to stretch his legs as the android superhero The Vision. While Vision doesn't appear until the third act of the movie, Bettany still gets to make a heck of an impression. He's really likable in the role, and it left me wanting to see more of the character.

Among the franchise's newcomers, we get some really great performances from Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, and James Spader. Taylor-Johnson still plays his role in a way that's fun to watch, but he ends up being overshadowed by Olsen. Olsen is a very talented actress, and she brings a lot of depth and a sympathetic nature to Scarlet Witch. And like with Bettany as The Vision, I'm genuinely excited to see Olsen turn up in future movies in the franchise.

The real star of the show, though, is James Spader. One could make the argument that the Ultron we see here is kinda boring and underdeveloped (could his "kill all humans" supervillain plan be any more clich├ęd?), but Spader's charismatic voicework makes the character captivating to watch. He's essentially playing a dark, twisted version of Tony Stark, believing his intentions are noble but in truth causing more harm than good yet with a more intimidating, angry, evil tone to it all. Ultron takes Stark's egotism and "know it all" nature and cranks them up to a million, and Spader plays it up for all it's worth. He absolutely steals the entire movie, and despite Age of Ultron's flaws, Ultron himself makes the movie worth seeing.

I know that for a lot of this review, I've been kinda down on the movie. And personally, after how good Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy were, Age of Ultron is a bit of a letdown. But I really couldn't imagine a better way to open 2015's summer blockbuster season. Even if it's nothing we haven't seen a million times before, I can't ague that the movie isn't a totally fun way to spend two and a half hours. I enjoyed the hell out of it, but then I'm totally a sucker for this kind of stuff. And there's nothing wrong with that, is there?

Final Rating: ***