Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Sequels are yesterday’s news. Another year places another Marvel film onto the studio’s presumably massive chess board, where a mere trilogy is an out of date concept. Interweaving characters and narrative threads is no new storytelling technique, but Marvel Studios has certainly capitalized on the most profitable method for telling its cinematic tales. With The Avengers in 2012 being its first successful culmination, Marvel has upped the ante for the return outing in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The follow up outing is very much in tune with its predecessor in many respects (both positive and not so positive), but ultimately represents more of a transitory stage rather than a peak.

Following a mission to recover an Asgardian scepter from Hydra forces in Europe (yes, it helps to have seen all the previous films), all that Earth’s Mightiest Heroes want to do is just kick back and take a breather. Conflict will erupt somewhere on Earth no matter what, and the group is becoming increasingly aware of their limitations. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) sees a way out for all of them with an artificial intelligence program he calls Ultron. A sentient robotic force protecting the Earth is what Stark has the best intentions of developing, but naturally, unintended consequences arise. Once Ultron (James Spader) gains consciousness, it immediately interprets its mission as eliminating humanity, not saving it. As Ultron gathers his resources to execute his master plan, The Avengers are faced with a physical and moral test that may very well splinter them apart.

With his first Avengers film, writer/director Joss Whedon was tasked with taking several characters from disparate backgrounds and getting them to work as a cohesive whole. On paper, it should not make sense to have a cryogenically frozen soldier fighting alongside a raging green monster, much less a Norse god. And yet, Whedon was able to use each character’s unique assets or flaws to his advantage and see how they all bounced off each other in a group dynamic. In Age of Ultron, he expands that synergy further with new characters, which carry pros and cons when fitting into the overall narrative. Specifically, a pair of Eastern European twins (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen) with supernatural powers become complicit in Ultron’s scheme. Their abilities with speed and mind control are superficially exciting, but as characters they remain underdeveloped.

In fact, because there are so many players in this film, it’s hard to portray growth in any individual. Whedon does his best to pepper in minor beats for some characters, but his focus is how the team as a whole changes. His cast is certainly as game as its ever been, zipping and zinging Whedon’s dialogue at every turn. There is certainly plenty of eye roll worthy talk of “world domination” recycled from every action film ever made, but there are also repetitions, setups and payoffs that Whedon especially values. As for Ultron himself, James Spader does delectable voice and motion capture work to bring the imposing robovillain to life, but occasionally his speeches and cadences are too self aware and witty to make him a complete threat.

This certainly would not be a Marvel installment without a helping of action and boy does Whedon go for it, providing a minimum of four set pieces, each of which would serve as climaxes for any other summer venture. Whedon’s sense of visual storytelling might not quite be as astute as his writing, but he’s improving in Age of Ultron. Spatial geography is so critical in action films with large ensembles, and thankfully, confusion is minimal about who is where and what they’re attempting to accomplish. CGI assisted long takes are a major factor in accomplishing this along with pacing. There are a couple of lifts directly from other action films, and Whedon is also not above stereotypically glamorizing his ensemble in slow motion, but the joy of watching them fight as a unit supersedes these flaws.

Ultimately, there is some question behind the wisdom of how Marvel is structuring this overall narrative jigsaw puzzle. There are dozens of setups from film to film and it is no different here. Age of Ultron ends on something of an anticlimactic note, or perhaps one of anticipation. As a business model, Marvel certainly wants audiences to come back for more, but when will it be willing to arrive at catharsis?

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~ by romancinema on May 2, 2015.

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