Friday, May 15, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron / *** (PG-13)

Tony Stark/Iron Man: Robert Downey, Jr.
Thor: Chris Hemsworth
Steve Rogers/Captain America: Chris Evans
Bruce Banner/Hulk: Mark Ruffalo
Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow: Scarlett Johansson
Clint Barton/Hawkeye: Jeremy Renner
Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver: Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch: Elizabeth Olsen
Ultron (voice): James Spader
J.A.R.V.I.S./Vision: Paul Bettany
Nick Fury: Samuel L. Jackson

Walt Disney and Marvel Studios present a film written & directed by Joss Whedon. Based on the Marvel Comis characters created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby. Running time: 141 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments).


These words typically associated with comic books could easily fill in for the sound effects in the opening sequence of “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, the second film in the “Avengers” franchise and eleventh overall in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, these and similar words could fill the soundtrack of almost the entire nearly 2 ½ hour running time of the movie. It is wall to wall to ceiling to floor action. It even has a little bit of the science fiction themes and soap operatic elements that sold so many of the children of the 80s on comic book culture.

For those who are doing their best to consume everything MCU they possibly can, the plot picks up the moment where this past week’s TV episode of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” left off. I was disappointed not to see at least a brief cameo by Agent Coulson, however. For those of you who just want to kick off your summer with a balls-out smash blockbuster action spectacular, don’t worry, you don’t need to have seen one second of the television show to understand and enjoy what’s happening on the big screen.

“Age of Ultron” takes two gasping breaths along its action packed progression. The first is to establish a plot based on Tony Stark’s growing fears about being able to protect the Earth from the same type of alien menace the Avengers faced down in New York in their first film. In the time between films he has already created an army of an automated Iron Man-style police force. They are deployed in the opening action sequence as crowd control and protection as the Avengers mount an assault on a Hydra base in Eastern Europe where they believe a high level Hydra operative is running experiments to create super-powered humans. Two of these experimentees are the Russian twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, who exhibit powers unlike any the Avengers have encountered in humans. Hers involve the ability to enter and manipulate people’s minds. His is that of super speed.

After their encounter, during which the entire team is taken out of commission by Wanda’s power, Stark is still under its influence and more convinced than ever that he must invent some sort of artificial intelligence to protect the people of Earth from threats of which people are not even capable of conceiving. Using the staff that Loki wielded in the first film he sets his already existing A.I., J.A.R.V.I.S., on cracking a code to an ultimate A.I. In doing so he invents possibly the greatest threat the Avengers have ever faced in Ultron, a robot based on his Iron Army design filled with the new intelligence that hijacked J.A.R.V.I.S. during its activation process. Ultron misinterprets Stark’s desire to protect the Earth as a directive to eliminate the human threat once and for all.

The second breath is delivered in two doses. One is the revelation that Black Widow and Bruce Banner harbor romantic feelings for each other. The second dose is a surprise about Hawkeye’s personal life. Both of these are designed to reflect the unpredictability of being a member of the team. They all hold secrets from each other, sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of distrust. It all comes down to the fact that while superheroics are complicated, they only become more so when operating as part of a team.

Despite these hiatuses from the action—they are brief—it is clear that action is the main course of this meal. Writer/director Joss Whedon is known for writing wonderful group dynamics. He fills his screenplay with buddy-style jokes, like a group challenge to see who—if anyone—can lift Thor’s hammer. It is said that only one worthy of it can lift it. Captain America at least moves it a little. One of the highlights of Whedon’s first “Avengers” was its witty take on superhero action. There’s less of that this time around, because jokes just take too much time to set up. Too much of that would slow down the action.

Whedon certainly shows incredible growth as an action director. His sequences are well choreographed and executed. There is never any of the confusion of space and time that often infects over-edited action sequences of most modern action films. However, there may just be a little too much action. All the other elements of Whedon’s writing strengths—the humor and the relationships—are run over by the near total saturation of action throughout the movie. There are some deep questions to be explored with Stark’s fears about protecting the planet and the choices he makes to develop such a powerful artificial intelligence, but they are treated as inconsequential in respect to the physical threat Ultron poses to the planet.

Despite my concerns with the lack of development of the film’s science fiction thematic elements, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is nearly exactly what a comic book superhero team adventure should be. Each character is given their own iconic moments. The audience is wowed by the special effects. And, the plot is filled with surprises and revelations. Whedon will give up the Avengers reigns after this installment. I hope whoever they get to replace him has his gift for the group dynamic, which is what makes even this amount of action so utterly watchable. 

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