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Avengers: Age of Ultron

At first, I was very disappointed that family commitments kept me from watching and reviewing Avengers: Age of Ultron in a timely manner. But then I had an epiphany and realized that my opinion on this movie counts for shit. It doesn’t even matter that I’m just some dime-a-dozen amateur blogger — I could be a nationally syndicated critic with a Pulitzer on my mantle and it wouldn’t make a difference. I’m still going to see the movie, you’re still going to see the movie, and everyone has already decided months ago whether they were going to love it or hate it. At this point, the entire Marvel superfranchise has become the epitome of critic-proof.

That said, there’s a definite sense that Marvel is starting to be a victim of its own success. Backlash is slowly beginning to set in, and oversaturation of superhero cinema is getting to be a serious concern. Between Marvel’s incredibly ambitious plans, the ongoing competition from Fox, DC’s unfolding plans for their own superfranchise, the departures of Edgar Wright and Joss Whedon (both high-profile figures who were crucial in making their films and selling to their audience), and the increasing ages of the starring cast — to say nothing of mastermind Kevin Feige and how much longer he’s willing and able to stay on — there’s a very serious question about how much longer the good times will keep on coming.

Moreover, Marvel is under immense pressure to release consistently good movies at a constant rate, which raises worries that Marvel films will grow to be overly formulaic and more producer-driven, with less input from the artists who are actually making the movies. Some would argue, in fact, that this is already happening — there are some compelling cases to be made about recurring similarities in Marvel’s filmography, and the company famously has a policy about making sure its directors never have final cut.

The very nature of the Marvel superfranchise is another factor. We still don’t have a decent answer for why Iron Man and Hawkeye weren’t called in to help with that whole Triskellion incident, and where the hell was Captain America when the president was captured in Iron Man 3? But of course, the most famous example is Agent Phil Coulson, so famously killed off partway through Avengers before he got brought back to headline his own TV show. It makes sense from a business point of view, since we the audience get more stories with Coulson and SHIELD, and Marvel (and ABC, and Disney…) get to make more money. But then we get into the logistics of how Coulson can be brought back from the dead in a way that doesn’t affect the superheroes who mourned for him, and thereby doesn’t negate the emotional impact of the climax in Avengers. Ever since its premiere, “Agents of SHIELD” has had to twist itself into knots getting that to work, and that one example shows just how tricky it is to plausibly kill off characters without cutting off potential storylines or crossovers further down the line.

Luckily, things have been going well so far. As another example, The Winter Soldier and “Agents of SHIELD” should have completely destroyed each other. The movie was all about the demolition of SHIELD, and the TV show has SHIELD right in the title, so how could they possibly coexist? Beautifully, as it turns out — the TV show developed SHIELD in a way that gave the film a greater emotional impact, and the events of the film provided the TV show with a badly-needed game-changer. Yet they both worked just as well independently.

The execs and producers at Marvel have proven themselves to be very creative, they show a deep love of the source material, and they appear to have a sincere concern for living up to fans’ expectations. If they really are getting more involved in the development and production of Marvel’s films (and we have no evidence to suggest otherwise), it’s hard to complain when the guys at the top have such good intentions. Moreover, a formulaic approach is perfectly fine as long as we still get the occasional experiment — it’s so easy to forget how big a risk Guardians of the Galaxy was at the time; and the upcoming Ant-Man is a comical heist superhero film with Paul Rudd as an action star, making the action scenes smaller instead of bigger.

All good things must eventually end. Which is all the more reason to enjoy them while we can. And while Avengers: Age of Ultron may be flawed, it is definitely worth enjoying.

One of the greatest things about the first Avengers film — particularly about the climax — was in watching how Earth’s Mightiest Heroes fought beside each other. The whole climax sequence featured iconic group shots with creative assists and maneuvers, all captured with beautiful long shots and energetic camera movements. And all of that is present in the sequel’s very first scene. Even without the 3D option (I had been warned in advance to avoid it), film wastes no time recapturing the fun and excitement that made the first film such a hit in the first place.

The action scenes are similarly entertaining throughout, as the characters continue to find new and effective ways of destroying faceless baddies. There’s a highly experimental sort of feeling as the characters try out different combinations of powers and weapons on the fly. In particular, I don’t think there’s a single member on the team who didn’t do something or other with Mjolnir or Cap’s shield. Best of all (again, just like in the first film’s climax), the film puts a very heavy focus on limiting casualties. The Avengers are very clear in making civilian safety their priority, and the film is very clear about showing how their respect for innocent life is what makes them heroes.

Of course, the other big highlight from the previous movie was the argument in Banner’s lab on the Helicarrier. Pretty much everything good in that one scene was writ large through two and a half hours of screen time here. The Avengers have to question whether they’re heroes, humans, monsters, or something else entirely. They have to figure out who to trust and whether they can trust each other. They have to think about what they’re fighting for, whether their abilities and methods are the best for the task at hand, and whether the task is even worth attempting.

If I’m making it sound like this sequel merely rehashes a bunch of old arguments, then I’d like to introduce you to the Scarlet Witch.

In the comics, Wanda Maximoff (played here by Elizabeth Olsen) is a mutant with the ability to warp reality. She can simply alter probability to make things happen. Naturally, since the entire mutant stable is still on lease to Fox, and since the Scarlet Witch’s power set makes for a ridiculously overpowered character, some changes were made in adaptation.

In the film, Scarlet Witch is a HYDRA test subject with powerful telekinetic abilities that naturally come in handy during a fight. Far more importantly, she can read and control minds. This naturally means that she has access to the inner psyche of each and every Avenger. Thus Scarlet Witch is made into a key part of a greater goal for this movie: Forcing the superheroes to confront their inner demons.

This means that each individual character is given their own internal conflict that can’t be solved with punches and repulsor blasts. It also means several wonderful moments of character development, which was badly needed and beautifully delivered in the specific cases of Black Widow and Hawkeye. More to the point, the plot dredges up certain insecurities and secrets that the characters have worked very hard to keep hidden. Thus they have new reasons to argue and new reasons to distrust each other.

So let’s run down the list, shall we? Captain America’s arc doesn’t tell us anything new, but he’s been so thoroughly developed over the course of all these movies and he was always an open book to begin with. Hawkeye’s arc was very sweet and it showed the character in a surprising new light, which might explain some of the softer moments that Jeremy Renner didn’t quite seem to know how to perform.

(Side note: It perhaps bears mentioning that in the comics, Hawkeye was married to Bobbi “Mockingbird” Morse, played on television by Adrianne Palicki. Given how the love lives of these two characters has played out on the screen, I somehow find that rather amusing.)

Black Widow and Hulk are both developed very nicely, particularly as they’re now in some weird and complicated kind of relationship. It seems that while the Avengers have been hunting down HYDRA bases in search of Loki’s scepter, Romanoff has taken it upon herself to develop a method for safely getting Banner out of Hulk mode.

And to the best of my knowledge, precisely none of this was ever so much as hinted at in the past three years of movies and TV shows. From where I’ve been sitting, it looked like SHIELD had been doing a fine job of hunting down HYDRA without any help from the Avengers. Furthermore, the start of this new Romanoff/Banner relationship seemed like a rather crucial thing to overlook. Why does Banner even have another love interest when Betty Ross is still around somewhere? Are we trying to pretend that Liv Tyler’s turn in the MCU never happened? Not that I’d object mind you, but… I’m sorry, I’ve been off the subject for long enough.

The point is that Banner and Romanoff both see themselves as monsters in disguise. The Hulk may be a giant green force of pure destruction, but Romanoff had been raised and trained from an early age (possibly against her will) to be an assassin. These are both people who want on some level to live normal peaceful lives, even though normalcy was never an option and destruction is what they do best. There’s a surprising amount of chemistry between these two characters, which makes it so easy to overlook the truncated nature of their romance arc.

Incidentally, Scarlett Johansson turns in some fine work and her reported on-set pregnancy didn’t seem to slow her down one bit. Sadly, however, I found Mark Ruffalo’s performance somewhat underwhelming. His work as the Hulk was phenomenal: Ruffalo and the VFX team did a fantastic job of letting us see the emotions that power the Hulk’s relentless destruction. But I don’t know what happened as Banner. There were so many scenes in which Ruffalo couldn’t seem to match the energy of his costars. In other scenes, his line deliveries just fell flat. Though maybe that’s just me.

Then we have Thor’s arc, which is where the pressures of the greater MCU are most keenly felt. Though there are a few shades of fear that Thor’s character flaws will somehow lead Asgard to ruin (the next Thor film is called “Ragnarok,” after all), Thor’s biggest moments involve setting up the Infinity Stones for the next big Avengers event.

On the one hand, this is stuff we already know. There’s nothing here about the Infinity Stones that we didn’t already learn in Guardians of the Galaxy. On the other hand, Guardians of the Galaxy was several million light years removed from the Avengers, who had to get this same information sooner than later.

Furthermore, because the next couple of Avengers films will deal so heavily with the Infinity Stones, it was crucial to set that up here in the second film. That comes with making sure that each franchise is capable of standing on its own, so that anyone who’s only seen the Avengers movies (for example) will still be able to keep up without any firsthand knowledge of the greater MCU. As much as I absolutely respect that approach, there simply had to be a better way of conveying all this information without resorting to some flimsy prophetic vision deus ex machina.

Last but not least is Tony Stark, who of course gets the lion’s share of character development and internal drama. In this case, it’s Tony who goes behind the group’s back, using HYDRA research to craft a highly sophisticated AI with the goal of protecting the world so the Avengers are no longer needed. It’s a surprisingly natural extension of Tony’s crippling dependence on Jarvis and his strategy of building more suits of armor to fight evil in a superpowered age.

Things get even more interesting when Tony’s AI experiments yield Ultron, voiced and mo-capped by James Spader. Ultron strongly believes in the supremacy of machines, and he also operates under the logic that humans are a hopelessly stupid and corrupt species that must be saved from itself. So he’s basically a dark mirror of Tony, expressing viewpoints that strongly resemble those of the former arms dealer, taken to their sinister conclusions. The film even calls out Tony as Ultron’s pseudo-father, questioning how much of Ultron’s motives and methods were inherited.

Ultron is great fun to watch, in large part because of how James Spader’s dry wit meshes with Joss Whedon’s trademark banter. Scarlet Witch and her twin brother Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, here reuniting with his Godzilla co-star) start out as his villainous partners, but they’re really more like wild cards. They grew up in a war-torn country, so they really don’t want to see any more death and destruction than necessary. On the other hand, their homeland was torn apart with Stark Industries tech. So they could go either way.

It’s already been stated that this Quicksilver never gets a scene anywhere near as memorable as his counterpart in X-Men: Days of Future Past. That’s absolutely true, but it’s also an unfair comparison. In DOFP, for better or worse, Quicksilver’s involvement was only limited to one particular scene before the movie unceremoniously dispensed with him. In this film, Quicksilver is present in some capacity from start to finish and he’s pretty much always sharing the screen with a half-dozen demigods. This is perhaps why Pietro Maximoff’s development here felt very thinly spread. It sucks that his twin sister got so much more screen time and development while he was only ever treated as disposable.

(Side note: In case you’re wondering why we have two cinematic versions of Quicksilver, it’s a long story. To sum up, Fox can only use Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch if they’re not connected with any Avengers, and Marvel can only use them if they’re not connected with any mutants.)

Rounding out our central superpowered cast is the Vision, played by Paul Bettany. It’s tough to discuss the character in detail, since so much of his character is tied up in plot details and he doesn’t arrive until relatively late in the game. Suffice to say that his origin is indeed tied to Jarvis (as the casting would imply) and Ultron plays a huge part in his creation (as anyone remotely familiar with the comics would already know). Vision never really has a reason for his more sympathetic view toward humanity, and his powers (as with Ultron’s, come to think of it) simply manifest when they do without any explanation. It seems the filmmakers put all of that precious exposition time toward justifying the stupid name instead.

With all of that said, I appreciate Vision because he works very elegantly as the opposing viewpoint for Ultron. In many ways, that makes him the heart and moral voice of the film. There’s also the fact that the movie did a fantastic job of translating the character’s goofy appearance to the screen, providing some neat nonverbal cues for why Vision’s outfit came out the way it did. That said, as with Scarlet Witch, Vision is so insanely overpowered in the comics that I wish there might have been a few clearer boundaries on what he can and cannot do.

As for the supporting cast, Nick Fury, Maria Hill, and War Machine all get a few lines in and they even get to play active roles in the climax. Falcon, Dr. Selvig, Heimdall, and Peggy Carter each get a glorified cameo. Pepper and Jane only get passing mentions. Baron Strucker comes and goes in a way that I found very disappointing, given all the build-up for that character. Linda Cardellini makes a brief yet memorable appearance, but I don’t dare spoil who she’s playing. Julie Delpy is in there, but you’ll miss her completely if you blink at the wrong time. Andy Serkis gets a cameo as Ulysses Klaw, most likely to set the character up for an appearance against perennial nemesis Black Panther.

(Side note: Considering that Klaw made his debut against the Fantastic Four, I suppose we should all be thankful that Fox isn’t holding him hostage as well.)

Overall, Whedon does a surprisingly good job of blending all these disparate parts into a single cohesive whole. It also helps, of course, that so much of Whedon’s comedic timing and skill with dialogue is on display. Unfortunately, when Whedon drops the ball, it lands with a heavy THUD that echoes through the whole movie. There’s so much plot to get to that so many points are either glossed over or left open as Helicarrier-sized plot holes. This will reportedly be the first film in Marvel’s canon to get an extended DVD release, and I have little doubt that the extra half-hour will benefit the film greatly.

(Side note: My colleagues had warned me that there wasn’t an end-credits stinger, so I didn’t stick around to check for one. There is a mid-credits stinger, however, but it’s thoroughly useless.)

Avengers: Age of Ultron is not as good as its predecessor. But that’s not exactly saying much, seeing how The Avengers is still the greatest superhero film ever made. It’s still a very worthy sequel, with plenty of jaw-dropping action scenes among all the compelling character drama. Even so, there’s a very real sense that the MCU superfranchise is starting to grow too big and unwieldy for its own good. It’s getting increasingly hard to serve the needs of so many past and future storylines while simultaneously delivering a good stand-alone story. There was a time when Iron Man 2 was considered the weakest and most crowded of Marvel’s films, but now I fear that it may be the shape of things to come.

Whedon will be handing the reins over to the Russo Brothers for Avengers: The Infinity War — Parts I & II, and that really is best for everyone involved. Whedon is clearly starting to chafe under the machine he’s been part of for the past several years, and I have no doubt that the next Avengers movie will require at least two movies’ worth of screen time to pay off everything that will happen by 2019. It’s a strange and wonderful time to be a geek, no?

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