Film Review – Avengers: Age of Ultron
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Joss Whedon appears to be of two sides with Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). On one end, the writing and direction has a deeper focus on emotionality and character development. On the other, is the requirement placed by Marvel to provide a large-scale extravaganza while also setting the stage for bigger things down the line. It was a surprise that he was able to pull it all together in The Avengers (2012). For the most part he does it again, but somewhere between the lines I sensed him getting stretched out too thin. This was a big undertaking, with a lot of elements to juggle. It’s no surprise that Whedon stated in interviews that he plans to step away from the Marvel Cinematic Universe after his media obligations here – the toll must have been tremendous.
Fans should get exactly what they are expecting. There’s plenty of action, and our favorite Avengers: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) all return in fine form. One of the great joys of the first Avengers was seeing all of these characters come together, clash and eventually join forces. The challenge with this entry was to continue that camaraderie without making it stale.
Luckily, Whedon’s biggest strength is his writing. The screenplay gives nearly every character a chance to shine. There are a ton of funny quips and clever lines tossed around; we get a genuine repartee between the team. Some of the stronger scenes actually have nothing to do with action. I found myself drawn to the smaller character moments. There are plenty of instances where Whedon explores their back-stories, and how all events have lead up to the present. For those disappointed that Hawkeye did not play a larger role before, they’ll be happy to know he is the most drawn out here. The best sequences by far involve the relationship between Bruce Banner/Hulk and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow. Ruffalo gives Banner tangible fear trying to control the beast bubbling inside of him, and Johansson gives Black Widow a vulnerable side we have not yet seen. Their chemistry feels authentic, and I hope we get to see this expanded upon.
The plot deals with – of all things – hubris. In an attempt to bring peace and take pressure off of the Avengers, Tony Stark tries to kick-start an artificial intelligence program against better judgment. What starts off with good intentions turns dangerously wrong when the A.I. develops its own conscience in the form of Ultron (voiced by James Spader). Deriving a personality reminiscent of Stark himself, Ultron is both surprisingly funny and incredibly intimidating. He can spread his consciousness to multiple robot forms simultaneously, and his ability to hack into the Internet makes him a nearly unstoppable force. He makes for one of the better Marvel villains, contributing to the overall darker tone. The interesting thing about Ultron is that he is the twisted counterpoint to Tony Stark. Ultron also wants to bring peace to the world, but instead of protecting humanity from chaos, he believes humanity is the reason for chaos and must be dealt with. Yikes.
Whedon directs the action with a competent style. The action is choreographed and executed so that we can comprehend what is happening and where characters are in relation to one another. I never really thought of Whedon as a strong visual stylist, but he (along with Ben Davis’ cinematography and the work of the visual effects crew) inserts moments that stand out. Two unbroken shots – one taking place near the beginning and the other near the end – have a breathless kinetic energy, with Whedon incorporating slow motion just as the action hits a crescendo.
What causes Age of Ultron to stumble is through repetition. The problem is – while the direction, writing, and acting are all strong – a lot of what happens we’ve already seen. It never quite hits the high peaks the last film did (there’s no “Hulk…smash” moment), and a lot of the set pieces feel too familiar. A battle between Iron Man and the Hulk appears shoehorned in, and the climax has the Avengers once again fighting against a faceless army of baddies. If you’re looking for this to stay consistently good, then you’ll be satisfied. But if you’re looking for it to push the envelope and try something different, you may walk away wishing for more.
With Phase Two of the MCU coming to a close, we’ve now entered a curious time with this franchise. Increasingly, both the studio and the fan base are starting to focus more on “what’s next?” as opposed to “what’s now?” This works less as a standalone story and more like a stepping-stone. A lot of new faces, such as Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and particularly The Vision (Paul Bettany) are regulated to the periphery, with the clear intent of playing larger roles in later films. We’re already hearing rumors about Captain America: Civil War and the Avengers: Infinity War sequels, which haven’t even begun production. I had a lot of fun with this installment, I just wish it wasn’t so concerned with reminding us that there’s more to come in the years ahead.