Film Review #2: Avengers: Age of Ultron (★★)

avengers-age-of-ultronThe summer movie season is upon us and right out the gate is the studio that’ll hold our souls for the next 25 years….Marvel. I’m a casual Marvel fan. They’ve had some great movies, some okay movies, and some terrible movies (Iron Man 2…and maybe 3 anyone?) Rewatching Avengers recently, for the first time since it hit Blu-ray, I realized it didn’t hold up nearly as well. Unfortunately, Avengers: Age of Ultron falls even further than the first one, giving us glimmers of amazement before dousing it in a heavy amount of carnage, deus ex machina’s, and Elizabeth Olsen talking more like Kaitlin Olson in The Heat.

The Avengers take on artificially intelligent robot Ultron (voiced by James Spader), created by Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) as a “suit of armor around the world.” Armed with “the twins” (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Ultron sees world peace as only achievable through the extermination of humanity.

Before I discuss the film’s failings, let’s explore how the movie trumps the original Avengers. Since the origins of the big characters are out of the way, the script and Marvel, give us fans what we want…stories about the people who just showed up in the first one, ie Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). This trio’s received short shrift over the years and instead of giving us their origins, the movie gives us characterization based on their current path in life. This avoids turgid pauses for exposition and genuinely leaves us wanting more. (You have NO IDEA how badly I want a Black Widow movie starring creepy Julie Delpy.)

Johansson and Ruffalo are the film’s heart and soul, having a chemistry that’s both electric and adorable. These are two tortured souls at odds with both their inner desires and societal expectations. They’re more alike than they’re given credit for. Johansson, talking like she’s prepping for the Coens Hail Ceasar, and Ruffalo act like they’re living in a 1940s film noir, complete with missed opportunities at love and some saucy double entendres. It’s amazing how a simple line about joining one in the show left the audience gasping. “But, it’s a Disney movie!”

Renner is also entertaining in the few scenes he shares with Linda Cardellini playing his wife, but it lacks the sexiness of Johannson and Ruffalo’s segments. If anything, Renner is the more self-aware member of the group, acknowledging his failures as a member of the Avengers team (his use of a bow and arrow “makes no sense), as well as how he spent the entire last movie under mind control.

The emphasis on the new members, while great, leaves the old guard looking superfluous. Chris Hemsworth as Thor, more than anyone, feels like he’s prepping for his next movie and nothing more. The problem with these world building movies is the belief that everything pays off in a future movie, but with a bloated runtime and a cadre of characters with their own movies in the next couple years, there’s a ton of buildup that, hopefully, people will remember in five or so years. Thor’s tale involves a dream sequence, a trip to an underground cave – for our abs shot – and that’s it. If this was supposed to move his story forward, it moved barely an inch.

Watching this only days after Ex Machina makes the concept of artificial intelligence as evinced here just avengers-ultron-trailer-10222014-185722silly…sillier than it is for a comic book film, at least. It doesn’t help that Ultron is a woefully undermotivated villain. Spader’s voice work is great. He captures the same type of sarcastic humor Downey Jr. rocks – and the movie reminds you constantly that they’re two peas in a pod because they’re creator/creation – but that’s about it. We’re briefly introduced to the concept of the Ultron project, the aforementioned suit of armor that Tony Stark believes will bring “peace in our time.” Ultron creates himself and bursts in to ruin the Avengers fun, so from the beginning he’s evil. However, he acts as if he was rejected by Stark. At key moments in the film, he talks about how he’s not bright and shiny, and how Stark doesn’t appreciate him….but Stark never interacted with him. Unless there were scenes that were cut – and director Joss Whedon has acknowledged the first cut was three hours and thirty minutes – Ultron has no reason to feel abused because he was prepped to destroy from the get-go.

Speaking of “peace in our time,” I have to wonder if this was supposed to be set in 1983 as there’s far too much Cold War imagery. The twins are from an Eastern European town called Sokovia (and talk like 1980s Bulgarians), where everything is shot with a gray filter and looks like the Berlin Wall hasn’t fallen. There’s also an added emphasis on the fears of technology being decimated, leading to a joke where the team has to go “old-school” and look at paper files. This isn’t necessarily a slight against the film, but it leaves a dated quality to things, particularly considering the twins are meant to be current adversaries. Speaking of, Olsen and Taylor-Johnson are great, but it’s evident that Olsen is the one catered to more, for obvious reasons. If anything, they led to some fun “twincest” jokes in the theater.

I mention jokes, both on and off-screen, as Whedon’s script is very joke heavy, more so than it seemed in The Avengers. There aren’t as many pop culture references – I did enjoy one aimed at those who’ve read Eugene O’Neill – but nearly every heavy action scene, and there are several, comes with at least a dozen jokes. Nothing ever seems too traumatic or affecting, because someone says something stupid or references Captain America (Chris Evans) saying “language,” and that supposedly makes it all better. By the time the climax arrives, there’s no genuine fear anything bad will happen because Tony Stark will say “yay!” and make us titter.

Oh, and let’s talk about that climax. I can’t recall the movie that featured a giant landmass being pulled out the ground and threatening millions (I originally thought it was Superman Returns but that doesn’t sound right), but the movie returns us to Sokovia, again, a small town that apparently holds millions…I’m assuming it’s right next to Arendelle. The climax takes at least 35 minutes of the movie and goes on forever, mostly because Ultron is “killed” at least ten times and returns in the world’s worst game of movie masturbation. By the time a character dies because little Timmy/Johnny/whoever is left behind, you’re just counting off the stock action movie cliches the movie is relying on. By the end, Ultron’s defeat feels like nothing more than the script realizing it’s backed into a corner, everyone’s taken their chance at killing him, and someone needs to to get us to that mid-credits sequence.

I didn’t hate this. I enjoyed the Black Widow/Hulk moments, Jeremy Renner, Olsen and Tayl0r-Johnson, as well as the rising action within the first hour. Avengers: Age of Ultron is the popcorn movie of the summer for good reason, because once the popcorn’s gone, you’re left wondering why you’re far from satisfied.

You can also read Clayton’s take on the film here.