Avengers: Age Of Ultron
[Produced by Marvel Studios]
[Distributed by Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios]
Directed by Joss Whedon
Written by Joss Whedon
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Paul Bettany, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Don Cheadle, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba & Andy Serkis
Synopsis: When Tony Stark tries to jumpstart a dormant peacekeeping program, things go awry and it is up to the Avengers to stop the villainous Ultron from enacting his terrible plans.
For the next couple of weeks, Joss Whedon is either going to be the most frustrated or apathetic man on the planet, as he anxiously watches box office numbers tick in for the latest Marvel Studios juggernaut. It’s not easy following up on the third biggest film of all time – this could be the first film to make over a billion and still be considered a failure – and if you’ve seen Whedon in interviews lately, this is a very different (worn down) man to the hyperactive geek that eagerly presented the world with the first joining of these iconic characters three years ago. So much so, in fact, that you might be forgiven if you cause to worry about the quality of Avengers: Age Of Ultron.
Of course, you needn’t worry about that sort of thing, as Whedon has you (mostly) covered – although your mileage with Age Of Ultron will likely depend heavily on your general mileage with the swarm of comic book movies colliding into our faces in recent years. There’s no denying the sense of fatigue that can set over certain audience members, and in fairness this reviewer – despite being a staunch comic book fan – knows how it can feel as well.
Age Of Ultron wastes no time getting started, beginning immediately with an assault on Baron Von Strucker’s fortress in the fictional European nation of Sokovia. This was introduced to us briefly in the post credit scene of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and has also been teased consistently through the second season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Needless to say, the opening barrage of colour, noise, and death is extensive, if slightly disappointing. The Avengers are incredibly powerful, and they are in no real danger, so the scene feels empty in terms of threat, and instead becomes a competition to see who can dispatch Hydra soldiers in the coolest way possible. It becomes even more disappointing when you see that the soldiers have had an upgrade, and a lot of them are sporting Chitauri-like armour, which is only featured in a “blink and you’ll miss it way” as the various heroes smack them down like they’re swatting flies. Immediately noticeable as well is some surprisingly ropey CGI, something that you would not expect to see in a film of this calibre. Thankfully, it’s not too prevalent throughout the rest of the film, although there are noticeable moments where the quality dips, suggesting that Age Of Ultron could have benefited from another month in post production.
“You had to ask…”
Of course, the chemistry between the team here is leaps and bounds ahead of where it was at the end of the first film. Age Of Ultron does a great job at implying that they’ve been working together for quite some time, allowing them to develop more shared and controlled tactics and now they truly complement each other’s fighting styles. It’s implemented in a very natural way, something for fans of the series to pick up on as they watch it unfold before their very eyes, rather than having it over-explained in various scenes of exposition (“Remember that time when we did X,Y,Z? Well, now that’s why we do A,B,C!” etc.).
Similarly to the first film though, the best moments often come not when the team are fighting, but when they’re interacting with one another. As you would expect from Whedon, the jokes fly thick and fast, although the humour is noticeably more “comic-booky” than some of the populist stuff that was liberally smattered across the first movie. As such, an average viewer’s laughter count will depend on how much they love the characters in question, aside from a couple of clear standout moments (shout out to Hawkeye).
In terms of focus, Age Of Ultron is more balanced than its predecessor, choosing to spend an enhanced amount of time with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and the emotional plight of Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). These characters don’t have their own movies, and so this is a wise choice that allows the other members of the team to feel more fleshed out. It was no secret that Renner was upset at his role in the first movie – he spent the majority of it as a mindless zombie henchman – so Whedon works overtime here to enforce what long time comic fans already knew:, Hawkeye is an awesome character, even if he’s ‘just’ an archer.
“You know I totally support your avenging…”
Of course, most of you will be interested to hear how the new additions to the cast fare; namely the Sokovian ‘enhanced’ twins Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) & Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) Maximoff, Vision (Paul Bettany), and the main man himself, Ultron (James Spader). The twins make a welcome change to proceedings, specifically in the form of Wanda (
wisely for legal reasons, the film avoids using the twins’ Scarlet Witch & Quicksilver nom de plumes), in whom we finally have a super powered character that doesn’t carve their way through enemies by shooting or hitting them (mostly). Her mental manipulations make the first half of the film particularly engaging, and tease her substantial power effectively while also allowing the film to explore darker territory than we’re used to in the Marvel movies. While it is only a shorter segment of the film, there’s a surprising amount of thematic meat one can chew and reflect on if they’re inclined to do so.
Quicksilver is a character that has already been introduced in Fox’s X-Men universe, and has quickly become a firm favourite because of one particular scene. In Age Of Ultron, Whedon is far less interested in having his counterpart be a mere spectacle, and instead Pietro is a fully fleshed out character; one that actually gets tired and feels pain – both emotional and physical – rather than the invincible “cool” blur many people saw in Days Of Future Past. Age Of Ultron‘s version is unquestionably the better character, and only serves to highlight the dearth of quality in Fox’s long running botched comic series.
”You didn’t see that coming?”
Vision is a late entry to the proceedings, but a welcome one, as he’s gorgeously rendered in a mixture of full body make-up and CGI, and portrayed superbly by Paul Bettany, who finally gets a chance to portray his sardonic AI butler in the (relative) flesh.
Standing head and shoulders above the rest though (figuratively and literally) is none other than James Spader. Even though Ultron is a towering 10 foot tall robot, he’s an impressively human creation. Ultron is not a terminator; he’s an AI that wants to exterminate humanity, unaware that he himself is a lot more human than he would ever care to admit.
Spader’s motion capture work is sublime, with the killing machine perfectly emulating many of the mannerisms that have become synonymous with the actor, and despite his reduced runtime he works hard to ensure that Ultron is imbued with pathos and nuance before the credits roll. Some of the best lines actually come from Ultron, and despite his (surprisingly) genuinely creative end-of-the-world scheme, you still end up feeling a wave of sympathy for the character. In fact, some of the greater themes present in the movie come from considering the implications of Ultron’s character. He operates flawlessly both on a “cool” surface level, and with a mature and introspective undercurrent – something that more scrupulous viewers can engage with fully.
“You wanna protect the world, but you don’t want it to change.”
Of course, this wouldn’t be a Marvel Studios movie without copious amounts of cameos, set-up and lead-ins to future installments in the franchise, and this tradition continues with Age Of Ultron. There’s set up for Black Panther, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War (there’s a lot of wars in comic books – who knew?), all of which most discerning comic book fans should pick up on pretty easily, and unlike in some earlier films, the set-up doesn’t bog down the story too much – however there is a pervasive feeling that Age Of Ultron is more of an awkward “middle film”; a stopgap before the truly big stuff to come, rather than a powerful climax.
As good as the separate elements of the film are, the whole is a little less satisfying – marred by moments of shoddy CGI, some confusingly poorly shot fight scenes (a step down from some of the previous Marvel films), and some baffling editing choices, Age Of Ultron can be a slightly frustrating experience, as well as a wholly entertaining one. Whedon’s original cut of the film was closer to three hours, which means there’s at least thirty five minutes of material that has been excised, and as a result there are some definite holes present. At times, characters disappear for large swathes of the film, only to reappear at the exact moment they’re needed with very little explanation of where they’ve been or why they’ve come back. Clearly, there were scenes to complement these forays into various sub plots, but they have been cut, and as a result it makes the film seem messier and more contrived than it should, which is a poor price to pay just to make the film shorter.
“Right, don’t mention puny Banner…”
Musically, Brian Tyler (a Marvel mainstay at this point) returns and composes a soundtrack that is appropriate, if not entirely memorable. Much like his other work with Marvel, the music fills up the space, and enhances certain scenes, but they’re nowhere near iconic enough to be remembered. Famous composer Danny Elfman is also on hand to add some extra oomph to proceedings which he does with aplomb, but again, there’s not a whole lot here that’s going to last through the ages.
All in all then, Avengers: Age Of Ultron will undoubtedly be a commercial success, but Joss Whedon’s Marvel universe swansong is too flawed to be met with the same critical fervor as Marvel’s last two movies (or perhaps even his first). It’s unlikely that this will reflect massively in the box office numbers (it’s already had the biggest international opening ever), though time will tell. For what it’s worth, Age Of Ultron is at times an exhilarating ride, blemished by a few technical problems, and a number of dropped, abandoned, or just plain ignored plot threads, and character arcs that leave the whole film feeling inconsistent and poorly paced in places. Of course, what pulls it through are the great new players in the universe, and the always electric chemistry the rest of the cast shares, with the moments outside of battle being just as, if not more entertaining, than the cacophony of inconsistently executed battle scenes. There’s no doubt that comic book fans will adore this film in varying measure, but it remains to be seen whether Age Of Ultron will have enough to drag casual viewers back for multiple viewings, now that the initial appeal of these characters being united on screen has long since faded.
Because Ultron was described as 8-9 feet tall, James Spader had to wear an antennae-like contraption made out of a thick piece of wire with two red balls attached to the top that went up his entire back and 3 feet above his head. This was done so that the actors that shared scenes with him would be able to have a reference point for where his eyes would be; the two red balls represented the placement of Ultron’s eyes. Elizabeth Olsen stated that this was actually distracting because Spader would be giving an intense performance and out of instinct she would look at him rather than the balls representing his eyes. Much to everyone’s amusement, whenever this happened, Aaron Taylor-Johnson would yell, “Red balls! Look at his balls, Lizzie!” at her in order to get her to look in the right direction!