Sunday, May 17, 2015

Review - Avengers: Age of Ultron

Like the return of the swallows to Capistrano or the swarming of the Monarchs from Mexico, the arrival of spring each year is announced with almost natural periodicity by the flocking of moviegoers to the new episode of Marvel Studios' comic book superhero spectacular! Studio head Kevin Feige could probably set his own watch to the volume of ticket receipts pouring in, having masterminded the most lucrative business model in the industry; An interconnected series of lean, lighthearted action films that play to the people's love of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), the mighty Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and an ever growing cast of other costumed do-gooders.

All signs would suggest that the fandom's appetite to see Earth's mightiest heroes teaming up again would be as insatiable as it was the first time they hit the big screen together in 2012's box office champ The Avengers. Writer-director Joss Whedon returns for this hotly anticipated sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and wastes no time in giving the public what it wants, kicking off the super-squad's newest adventure with that 'money shot' you've already seen a hundred times in the trailers and TV ads:
Cribbing from the 'Lubezki Playbook of Long Tracking Shots' – though without Chivo's artful grasp of light and colour – the camera bounces frenetically from one Avenger to another in a single take, as they siege an enemy fortress, before abruptly slowing down so we can all admire how perfectly they've fit themselves into the shot's closing frame.

This image is at once memorable and iconic (which is something of a godsend in a franchise that has lacked visual signature), but also represents everything that is problematic with Age of Ultron: The bulk of its attention is divided amongst its individual characters, and what relatively little time is paid to the team as a whole becomes cluttered and chaotic. All this before we even get to meet our titular villain du jour.

Ultron is an A.I. program designed by Tony Stark to be humanity's unwavering protector, as well as a retirement plan for him and his superhero friends. But as the Avengers revel in their latest victory – this party scene is a wonderfully observed group character piece and, incidentally, the film's finest sequence – Ultron becomes sentient and develops a more hostile mission. Oh, Tony. Have you learned nothing from 2001: A Space Odyssey?

Of course, Whedon's script is less concerned with delving into the fascinating quandaries and scientific ethics of artificial intelligence than it is in watching our heroes stress and strain under the attack of an intangible threat. Ultron's robotic body may be crushed and blasted and shredded and crushed again (it's manufactured enough of them to do this all day), but its malicious code exists everywhere a computer goes online.
In a nutshell, Ultron's glitchy interpretation of “peace in our time” entails eradicating the planet of its most non-peaceful beings. That'd be us. It's something of a wasted opportunity really, since James Spader and ILM's animators do such terrific work in bringing presence to an imposing nemesis, but one whose motivations are ultimately as vague and confusing as most other Marvel badguys to precede it.

To preoccupy the Avengers while it compiles and executes its mass extinction directive, Ultron conscripts the aid of a pair of not-quite villains; Mystical mind-gamer Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and her brother Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) whose super speed would've been more impressive if they'd given him a scene in a kitchen at the Pentagon... but they didn't, so, m'eh.

Not that the heroes haven't got their own bench players to call upon, including Nick Fury (Sam Jackson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and a strange new ally known as The Vision (Paul Bettany)... Not even gonna try to explain that one, as I don't come close to understanding what his character is all about.
Perhaps it's a telling sign of overexertion on the studio's part. It may have been taken for granted that Whedon performed a rather large miracle in pulling off the first Avengers film as an organic ensemble piece which gave every individual due attention without pulling focus from the team dynamic. This time, our gaze is splintered by up to a half dozen or more subplots at once, diluting the far richer group interaction moments that Whedon does so very well.

This is especially true in the lengthy climax, in which the trope about every Marvel movie ending with some enormous object hovering perilously overhead reaches new heights of self-parody. It's unclear whether this is one of Whedon's camera winks or the byproduct of boardroom meddling or some Frankenstein hybrid of both, but at this rate it seems as if they won't try anything new until the Avengers have saved Earth from being crushed by an even larger planet!

To Whedon's credit, he is savvy enough with action/mayhem to keep this city-sized mountain of a climax from crumbling to pieces before it's even off the ground, but fatigue does set in before the thing is done. It's all just too much lightning – and bullets, and arrows, and energy blasts, and Vibranium shields, and green fists – for him to bottle a second time.

There's still a whole lot of fun to be had in this movie. And like a television series you can feel creeping into decline, it'll still take a lot worse to dissuade viewers from tuning in to the next episode. But as the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues expanding in every which direction at the speed of light, adding multiple new characters and plot threads and teases with each installment,
they might be starting to bite off a bit more than their audience can chew.

**1/2 out of ****

1 comment:

  1. Exact same star rating; a marginal recommendation.

    I would also suggest you check out the new 'Mad Max' when you get a chance...