Friday, May 1, 2015

"No Strings Attached" –– My Avengers: Age of Ultron review

Remember when you saw the first Avengers movie, and you were just in awe of these larger-than-life, dynamic, and (most importantly) established characters all being epic together onscreen? Remember how great that felt?

Maybe it didn't feel so great for Loki ...

Flash forward two years to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which showed you how much MORE awesome these already-awesome characters could be. Remember that? Cap in the elevator? Opening up myriad cans of whup-@$$?

Going down?

Avengers: Age Of Ultron is more of that. MUCH more of that. It's a total escalation, in both scale and stakes. And it is very, very good.

Let's start with the pacing. The Avengers was a cinematic masterpiece, and I gave it a 5/5 rating when it came out because, let's face it, it was all my childhood dreams come true. And don't get me wrong, I still love it dearly, but some of its flaws are evident after subsequent watchings. First and foremost, the exposition in the first third of the movie was VERY clunky. It tried to get the ball rolling quickly with Loki's arrival and the Avengers being gathered, but the fun doesn't start until everyone's on the Helicarrier. Age of Ultron, on the other hand, doesn't have to set anything up. We know the characters. We know what their powers are. We know what their motivations are. The film starts off with the Avengers storming Baron von Strucker's castle because mad science, and that's all you need. It's great. And it establishes Hulk as the Avengers' "nuclear option," the guy you only bring in when it's absolutely necessary. 

Sometimes a car just needs kicking. 

The tone is definitely darker than that of the first film, but there is plenty of humor to offset it. The most surprising example of this is Ultron himself, who has even more one-liners than Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony Stark (even beating him to one). But a snarky villain is by no means a non-threatening villain, and it soon becomes clear that Tony's new peacekeeping A.I. is not going to play nicely with others. 

There are also plenty of Easter eggs to be found, some of which are obvious (vibranium, Wakanda, etc.) and some of which are not (when Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch meet Ultron for the first time, WHAT IS HE WEARING? Think about it ...). The movie is definitely a labor of love for longtime fans, and it's breathtaking to behold it all and let all the little details soak in. It certainly merits multiple viewings just for the sake of picking up on things you might have missed.  

Although there are some slow parts, they don't detract from the movie. The party at Tony's place (which has arguably the funniest Stan Lee cameo of them all) showcases the interpersonal developments between the characters, most notably the general sense of easygoing camaraderie amongst the team but also the budding romance between Black Widow and Bruce Banner (yeah, that one came outta left field). 

"I wanna get into those purple pants ..."

Don't let the slow moments fool you, though. There is a LOT going on in this movie, but rather than bog it down or degenerate into a mess like X-Men: The Last Stand, Whedon masterfully balances both plot points and characters, although there are a few rough jumps where it's obvious there was more material that got cut (I sincerely hope we get a director's cut DVD later). No stranger to large ensemble casts, Whedon gives everyone their due. He has a bit of fun at War Machine's expense, but we're laughing with him, not at him. Also, it's a relief to see Rhodey's dropped the Iron Patriot look, since in the comics the original Iron Patriot is THIS guy: 

Not gonna lie, though, I'd love to see him show up post-Civil War ... 

One of the biggest complaints the first movie got was the lack of focus on the two "normal" Avengers, Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye and Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow. The sequel remedies that, giving us a great look into Hawkeye's personal life (let's just say I won't be championing a Hawkeye/Mockingbird romance in the MCU anymore) and showing a Scarlet Witch-induced look into Black Widow's past (which leads to a heartbreaking confession to Banner). Hawkeye finally comes across like the cocky hothead he is in the comics, and gets his share of action scenes despite admitting he's just a guy with a bow and arrow. He also manages to get the drop on Scarlet Witch when she tries to mess with his head.

On the subject of ol' SW, let's talk about "the miracle twins." S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill puts it best when she explains their powers to a confused Captain America: "He's fast and she's weird." 

VERY weird. 

Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver definitely looks more like the comic version than Evan Peters' did in X-Men: Days of Future Past, and also has more of the moody, arrogant jerk vibe. Although Peters is the superior version overall in terms of effects and sheer entertainment value, Taylor-Johnson does a commendable job bringing the Avengers' version to life. His rivalry with Hawkeye is particularly amusing, and foreshadows a big moment later in the film. 

He didn't see that one coming. 

Elizabeth Olsen's Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch is a pleasant surprise. I didn't expect to like her. I didn't particularly want to like her (I'm an X-Men fan, and if you've read "House of M" you'll understand my dislike). But she's perfect. She nails the darkness and rage of the character, but also the softer side, and you really feel for her by the end, at which point she is finally a full-fledged Avenger. Her powers are ill-defined, but no worse than her comic counterpart's. And the film very subtly teases her eventual romantic relationship with one of her new teammates.

Ummm ... not this one. 

Hulk has a good showing as well, and it's becoming more and more obvious that despite Banner's insistence to the contrary, Hulk isn't "the other guy," but basically just a 'roid-raging Banner. Most of his problems stem directly from that denial, and it's interesting to see that when Scarlet Witch messes about with everyone's minds and causes them to see their worst fears, Hulk's perspective is the only one we don't get to see. Hmmm ... perhaps his secret isn't just "I'm always angry," but "I'm always Banner." 

Cap, too, is in top form here. He's still wistful about his position as a "man out of time," dealing with the fact that the only people who "get" him are octogenarians, but he finally acknowledges his place is as an Avenger. His straight-laced nature gets some good laughs ("Language!"––the running joke that kept on giving), but it also reveals a telling point about Tony Stark, who says he doesn't trust anyone who doesn't have a dark side. Cap really is THAT good ... THAT honest ... THAT brave, and it kind of freaks Tony out, and causes him to undermine Cap's leadership ... twice. The first time it doesn't go so well (hello, Ultron). The second time, it actually works out for the best. 

Hello, Vision!

At long last, Paul Bettany goes from voicing J.A.R.V.I.S. to playing the full-fledged Vision, and he kicks copious amounts of butt. His phasing ability is downplayed (and not explained at all), but he does utilize it against some Ultron drones. Bettany plays Vision as a kind, innocent character––the stark (pun intended) contrast to both his fathers (Tony and Ultron ... it's complicated but not as controversial as it sounds). But even though he doesn't want to hurt anyone, he's more than willing to throw down if the situation calls for it, and his final confrontation with Ultron is surprisingly poignant. He proves himself as a worthy member of the Avengers (in more ways than one), and definitely leaves the audience wanting more. 

Tony Stark/Iron Man has his usual share of witty one-liners, but this film also sets the stage for his role in Captain America: Civil War. His hubris, coupled with his desperation to save everyone––to fix everything––on top of his guilt/martyr complex, are what lead to Ultron's creation, and also what will inevitably lead him to support the Superhuman Registration Act. Alas, I'm getting ahead of myself there (the act hasn't been brought up yet, but I'm sure Hulk and Tony's little romp in Wakanda will be cited as an example of why it's "necessary"). Bottom line: ever since the battle for New York, Tony has been less and less of a team player, and more and more of a maverick, which was one of his more endearing qualities at first but is now ... less so. Contrast that with Steve's rigid devotion to the team, and things are going to get ugly. 

"Who ya gonna call? HULKBUSTER!!"

Although James Spader's Ultron doesn't top Tom Hiddleston in terms of scene-stealing, mustache-twirling villainy, he's delightfully quirky in he's delightfully quirky in his own way, and I applaud Whedon for not having Spader behave (dare I say it?) robotically. Ultron knows absolutely nothing about humanity save what he's gleaned from the internet, which causes him to surprise, horrify and embarrass himself at times. The scene with Ulysses Klaw (played by the wonderful Andy Serkis, in a non-CGI role for once) is a particularly funny-yet-gruesome example of this (anybody who's familiar with Klaw saw it coming), and Ultron comes across both shocked and apologetic. And yet ... he still fully intends to exterminate all humanity. Like, literally, in the form of a ginormous cataclysm. 

"You make it sound like I'm the bad guy or something ..."

I'm trying my best not to spoil too much, but the rumors are true: not every Avenger makes it home after the final battle with Ultron, and not all that do choose to remain with the team. But this isn't the end for the Avengers (since we all know The Infinity War is nigh), and the film ends on a hopeful note. 

Maybe not shawarma hopeful, but hopeful. 

By the way, Whedon wasn't kidding. Although there IS a mid-credits scene, there is NOT a post-credits scene, so you don't have to sit through ALL the credits. If you want a hint as to what the mid-credits scene is, though ... 

Caption this. 

Final rating: 5/5. It builds on the strengths and learns from the mistakes of its predecessor. Even though it doesn't replicate the excitement of seeing the Avengers onscreen together for the first time, it's chock-full of plenty of "OMG" moments of its own, and it sets up hopefully more greatness to come.

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