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|Avengers: Age of Ultron
by Brett Gallman
With â€śAge of Ultron,â€ť Joss Whedon further solidifies his place as the ideal candidate to oversee the daunting task of shepherding the Marvel Universe to the screen because he operates with a keen awareness of escalation: sensing that the world-breaking stakes of â€śThe Avengersâ€ť canâ€™t truly be heightened, he instead looks inwards towards his characters. â€śAge of Ultronâ€ť is simultaneously bigger and more intimate than its predecessor, and it works because Whedon realizes these characters have endured for decades with good reason. Heâ€™s a director who values the small panels as much as he does the huge splash pages.Given the rambunctious, action-packed opening sequence, itâ€™s easy to assume otherwise: we open with the Avengers cleaning up the scraps from various previous films in an effort to recover Lokiâ€™s scepter from Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), one of Hydraâ€™s last remaining heads. Holed up in a Sokovian castle, he dispatches an army of henchmen, including two super-powered meta-humans (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen) to fend off Earthâ€™s mightiest heroes during a rousing but familiar prologue crafted with dodgy CGI and a jittery camera that glides through beats much like panels on a page.
"A trade paperback committed to celluloid."
After nearly a decade, such displays begin to feel rote, perhaps even a bit mechanicalâ€”and then Whedon finds a way to weave these great little character moments throughout. Itâ€™s probably impossible to recapture the thrill of seeing these characters team up for the first time, but itâ€™s still kind of goddamn amazing that we have a movie where Thor (Chris Hemsworth) slams Mjolnir into Captain Americaâ€™s (Chris Evans) shield to wipe out a bunch of Hydra goons.
It turns out that this entire sequence is a fine prelude for â€śAge of Ultron,â€ť a film built on enormous action sequences but whose foundation is grounded by small character moments strewn throughout. Weâ€™re at a point where Marvelâ€™s house style has smothered these filmsâ€™ action set-pieces with a sense of pre-fabricated, mostly computer generated sameness, so itâ€™s up to each director to carve a niche or find their voice. The latter has never been a problem for Whedon, whose signature gift for gab elevated â€śThe Avengersâ€ť and does most of the heavy lifting here. Nearly every great moment in â€śAge of Ultronâ€ť owes to his willingness to engage these characters on an intimate level, be it through witty quips or ponderous dialogue.
Both are in steady supply in the immediate aftermath of the prologue, where Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is set to host a party at Avengers Tower but squeezes in some time to convince fellow science-bro Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to experiment on Lokiâ€™s scepter to create Ultron, an artificial intelligence to monitor the entire world and repel enemy threats before they can ever arrive. Haunted by visions of a future where his failures have resulted in his friendsâ€™ deaths, he desperately seeks to eliminate the possibility without consulting the rest of the team first. Seeds of discord are planted here as Whedon begins to explore what it means to be a heroâ€”but not before he takes a break and actually allows his heroes to party.
If thereâ€™s one sequence that aptly summarizes â€śAge of Ultronâ€ť (and possibly Whedonâ€™s entire career), itâ€™s this one: with the loose ends of one phase tied up and new ones beginning to untangle, he takes time to luxuriate in nearly every single notable character from the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far. Itâ€™s here that you realize that â€śAge of Ultronâ€ť distinguishes itself from its predecessor by going big in a different sort of way: if â€śThe Avengersâ€ť was a culmination, then this is a truly proper cross-over event, with minor characters and issues from previous films (like Anthony Mackieâ€™s Sam Wilsonâ€™s pursuit of The Winter Soldier) dropping in to give a peak at the larger universe. All thatâ€™s missing are editorâ€™s notes referring you to the previous film.
Beyond that, this party scene represents some fantastic character work that allows everyoneâ€™s personalities a moment to shine, from James Rhodesâ€™s (Don Cheadle) amusing insecurity about being overshadowed by the likes of Thor to Black Widow (Scarlett and Johansson) and Bannerâ€™s reluctance about exploring their obvious romantic chemistry. Itâ€™s pure Whedon: witty, yet affecting, and perhaps the closest weâ€™ll come to Howard Hawks dealing with superheroes (you have to wonder if Friday, Starkâ€™s replacement A.I., isnâ€™t a nod in his direction). Even if nothing ostensibly â€śhappens,â€ť here, itâ€™s immediately one of the great sequences in the MCU, particularly when everyone takes a shot at lifting Mjolnir, much to the chagrin of Thor (well, until Cap budges it, then Hemsworth--arguably the film's funniest secret weapon--shows some of his own insecurity with a hilarious show of false bravado). When you feel as if you could definitely watch a film where superheroes just hang out, the rest flows naturally.
Once Ultron awakens and instigates the plot by twisting his mission into a mandate to destroy humanity, Whedon still refuses to lose sight of these characters. Even when theyâ€™re globe-hopping to Wakanda and engaging their latest foe during another large-scale action sequence, itâ€™s driven by their greatest fears thanks to Wanda Maximoffâ€™s (Olsen) mental manipulation. Even though the stakes rise to the same earth-shattering levels as previous films, it feels more urgent here because Whedon directs the turmoil inward, much in the same way â€śEmpire Strikes Backâ€ť does.
Our heroes find themselves scattered, broken, and even at each otherâ€™s throats at various points, and this is the sort of conflict that drives the film. As cool as it might be to see Stark suit up in the Hulkbuster and take down a rampaging Hulk, itâ€™s also a bummer because watching it is a reminder that the Avengers are sometimes their own worst enemy. Even Loki would be impressed by how Ultron manipulates this bunch into practically levelling a Wakandan city (though it should be noted that Whedon goes out of his way to minimize civilian casualties).
In most movies, this calamitous stuff would be the highlights: how many action movies treat its exposition and dialogue as bridges from one set-piece to the next? Here, itâ€™s just the opposite: save for those moments that take advantage of Whedonâ€™s trademark character work, the action feels almost perfunctory. I often couldnâ€™t find myself waiting to see these characters hang out again. Whedon obliges by allowing each character to thrive, especially those who have been short-changed or relegated as sidekicks in previous films. With five solo films between them, Captain America and Iron Man are known commodities serving as pillars here while Whedon explores other, underserved characters.
â€śAge of Ultronâ€ť particularly feels like an apology to Jeremy Rennerâ€™s Hawkeye; the ultimate 6th wheel in â€śThe Avengers,â€ť he emerges here as the teamâ€™s heart. Without shying away from the fact that heâ€™s just a guy with a bunch of arrows standing among gods and superheroes, the film grounds itself through his humanity. His personal stakesâ€”a wife and children heâ€™s kept off the gridâ€”feel more palatable than the threat of complete annihilation. So, too, does the tension that emerges as the team becomes further fractured by Starkâ€™s ambitions and the super-powered twinsâ€™ waffling allegiances. Given the nature of these things, the ending is never quite in doubt: we know that Ultron will be defeated and that the Earth will be preserved. Less predictable is what shapeâ€”moral and physicalâ€”The Avengers will be left in, and â€śAge of Ultronâ€ť features plenty of tremors hinting at further upheaval.
Before its credits even roll, itâ€™s already fundamentally altered the MCU by taking it into strange territory. If â€śAge of Ultronâ€ť canâ€™t go bigger, it certainly can go weirder, and, considering the last Marvel movie featured a talking tree and a raccoon, thatâ€™s really saying something. Ultron himself is an oddball, less megalomaniac and more petulant teenager (at one point, he even throws a tantrum when he has his internet taken away). James Spader voices him with an insecure, sarcastic smarm that directly reflects his creator, and many of his monologues feel like the ramblings of a computer program gone awry, constantly grappling with logic and his surrogate daddy issues.
While Ultron is the latest mirror of our cultural technophobia, he particularly represents a growing fear that heroic intentionsâ€”no matter how good they may beâ€”can spawn monsters. Even though Whedon toys with the specifics of his creation, heâ€™s a classic Marvel characterâ€”one that calls attention to our heroâ€™s foibles while engaging them on a philosophical levelâ€”adapted rather perfectly.
The same can be said for Vision (Paul Bettany, finally given a body after voicing Jarvis for the past 7 years), Ultronâ€™s synthetic analogue. By far one of the strangest characters in the Marvel stable, heâ€™s translated to the screen with his otherworldly weirdness intact. Bettany plays him less like an android and more like a distant alien sage, and Whedon lets him completely loose in the sandbox. Iâ€™m not sure I could have ever expected a movie where Vision casually swoops into the proceedings, laser beams and all. With this being Whedonâ€™s last stint in the â€śAvengersâ€ť directorâ€™s chair, it feels as though heâ€™s playing with house money and deploying so much oddness to overcome the sense of familiarity.
None of the big moments in â€śAge of Ultronâ€ť reach the height of those in â€śThe Avengers,â€ť if only because the novelty has worn off. Rather than chase that dragon, Whedon has instead crafted a weirder, more elusive dragon: â€śAge of Ultronâ€ť is not as immediately satisfying as its predecessor, but it does open the door a richer, more daring universe that is soon to be populated by a Sorcerer Supreme and a Wakandan king with magical powers.
Speaking of â€śUltronâ€ť like itâ€™s a cog in what has become a well-oiled machine feels like a disservice that effectively reduces it to advertising for whatâ€™s the come, but Marvelâ€™s model has to be reckoned with or at least confronted. At this point, â€śAge of Ultronâ€ť canâ€™t possibly stand aloneâ€”how could it when itâ€™s effectively the tenth film in a franchise? Its eyes naturally dart backwards and forwards as it addresses its present concerns, so some natural unwieldiness arises during its brief digressions to lay the foundation for the next cosmos-shattering event a few years from now. Whedon admirably doesnâ€™t allow this to overwhelm the proceedings, but viewers remain just cognizant enough that â€śAge of Ultronâ€ťâ€”sprawling and massive though it may beâ€”is but a piece in a puzzle that wonâ€™t be complete until 2019.
I donâ€™t know if thatâ€™s necessarily a bad thing. Certainly, â€śIron Man 2â€ť revealed the worst possible scenario when this approach collapses under its own weight, but comic books have thrived on it for decades now. Few overarching storylines are ever self-contained, as creators reserve at least one panel to hint at the horizon. Massive, universe-shaking events often feed right into each other, making the medium something of a perpetual motion machine (that DCâ€™s most notable version of this is called â€śInfinite Crisisâ€ť is apt). Adapting this method for the screen is arguably the most comic-booky thing imaginable, and, though it isnâ€™t the first of its type (Universalâ€™s stable of monsters crossed over with each other a good 70 years ago), none have been as intricately plotted as this one.
If â€śAge of Ultronâ€ť doesnâ€™t feel like a complete story, it still only seems fair to meet it halfway and engage it on these terms: rather than recoil from this massive serial approach, itâ€™s more rewarding to embrace it. One of the most dramatic and intriguing threads hereâ€”the growing gulf between Tony Stark and Steve Rogersâ€”wonâ€™t be fully paid off until next year. When they part on good terms here, itâ€™s shaded with a hint of bittersweet irony because we know what looms. Does this mean a good chunk of â€śAge of Ultronâ€ť functions as a teaser trailer for â€śCaptain America: Civil War?â€ť Perhaps, but both this and the obligatory mid-credits Easter egg are completely in the spirit of the final pages in a comic book hyping the next issue's adventure.
â€śAge of Ultronâ€ť proves the model is sustainable, so long as Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige continues to allow his directors to work within his sandbox. In Whedon especially, he found a director who nimbly worked within what has grown into an old Hollywood producer system, and hoping the Russo Brothers can make for suitable replacements is the most pressing concern moving forwardâ€”itâ€™s hard to consider â€śAge of Ultronâ€ť a victory lap when the race isnâ€™t over.
I wonder if that isnâ€™t part of the appeal, though: clearly, these films have resonated and left a cultural footprint in a way few comic enthusiasts could have ever imagined fifteen years ago. Maybe itâ€™s their recurrence as cinematic comfort food that resounds, and perhaps that means these films must be boilerplate productions on some level as they roll off of an assembly line.
This doesnâ€™t mean it canâ€™t be a well-crafted boilerplate, though, especially when their characters are as well-drawn as they are here. â€śAge of Ultronâ€ť doesnâ€™t soar because itâ€™s perfected a formulaâ€”it does so because its director realizes its most important ingredients are the true draw. The specifics of its splash pages might fade, but Iâ€™ll never forget that Joss Whedon basically gifted us something that can be considered a Hawkeye movie.Speaking of escalation, I'm not quite sure anyone will top that--but I do know that I look forward to the attempt. That's part of the fun, even if it means we have to consider "Age of Ultron" as a piece of marketing and a movie all at once. It excels at both since "Civil War" is shaping up to be one of the most intriguing Marvel Universe films yet. I can practically see the back-page advertisement for it in my mind.
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originally posted: 05/03/15 22:23:24
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