Monday, June 1, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron Movie Review

Does it really matter what anyone thinks of a movie like Avengers: Age of Ultron? These kinds of movies don’t live and die by either critical or popular opinion. They are guaranteed to rake in huge revenue not only at the box office, but through merchandising tie-ins. The hype and excitement, the feeling of its being a cultural event THE movie you must see this summer (or early spring as it opened in early May) ensure that hordes of people will go to see it. And those multitudes have been programmed from decades of action-packed, effects-laden event movies to believe that all they have to do is stimulate the physical senses. As long as lots of stuff blows up, implodes, collapses, cracks, breaks, splinters, and crunches accompanied, of course, by appropriately deafening sound effects, then the movie has accomplished its primary goal.

It should be alarming that I can take that opening paragraph and use it for a review of virtually any action blockbuster of the last twenty years. But everyone will be quick to point out how Age of Ultron has good dialogue. It has wit and banter. Yes, the writing didn’t make me wince as it is known to do in, say, The Transformers movies. But I don’t see a lot of substantive difference between the action style in the two series of films. Age of Ultron opens with a rollicking action sequence in a snowy forest in some made-up Eastern European country where the Avengers – all of them – area attacking a secret Hydra base to retrieve Loki’s scepter from some Nazi villain named Strucker, who seemed somewhat familiar and was maybe featured in one of the Captain America movies. But the Marvel Cinematic Universe is becoming so crowded and overblown, and so sprawling that I can’t keep track of what happened when and to whom.

This is not to say that Joss Whedon’s story and screenplay doesn’t make the attempt at achieving more thematically than your average summer popcorn film. For a film that has a core Avengers team consisting of the already exhausting roster of snarky Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.); stalwart Captain America (Chris Evans); hulking Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo); dashing Thor (Chris Hemsworth); deadly sexy Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson); and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), it does a pretty good job of giving each hero his own personal story arc. Not to mention the mission centers on the necessity of the team working together. The villain, the artificial intelligence creation Ultron, splinters the group to make them fall apart. Whedon even manages to squeeze in a blossoming romance between Natasha and Bruce and all the problems that come with that. The Hulk represents the rage that resides dormant in all of us and the potential disaster waiting to happen as a result. Where could they go to hide from that, he asks.

And that’s without even getting to the other eminently recognizable actors who are sometime Avengers members including Don Cheadle as War Machine; Anthony Mackie as Falcon; and Paul Bettany as Vision, the newest iteration of the computer assistant Jarvis. And if you wanted to continue the laundry list of famous names and faces who appear, Samuel L. Jackson is back as Nick Fury. So is Cobie Smulders, Idris Elba, and Stellan Skarsgaard (both briefly). Additionally there’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen as the twins whose bodies were experimented on Mengele-style to create Quicksilver (who is identical in name and powers to one of the X-Men) and War Witch, whose vaguely defined powers include hypnosis, mind-reading, and harnessing magic red smoke that seems to be able to destroy anything. Oh, and look for Andy Serkis and Julie Delpy in minor roles. Jesus, the casting budget alone must be more than the entire budget of a mid-range studio film.

I appreciate the effort Whedon makes at slowing the action down occasionally to focus on quite moments of development and camaraderie. Whether it’s the revelry of a party, the one upmanship of trying to lift Thor’s hammer, or Natasha wooing Bruce, or the surprise that Hawkeye has a wife and kids tucked away in a secret bucolic farmhouse where the team has some much-needed respite. Anyone complaining that these moments kill the pacing and detract from the action should be ignored. Their ADHD-addled brains can’t handle anything that requires more than thirty seconds of focus.

In spite of some positive moments, Whedon failed in the creation of a suitable villain. For an A.I. creation that doesn’t require a physical presence, who can wreak havoc in the Internet the world over, Ultron (voiced by James Spader channeling an evil Tony Stark) is awfully limited in his capabilities. He blathers on about destroying humanity in order to help the evolution of the next great thing on earth (his mission as created by Stark and Banner is “Peace on Earth” and don’t think Whedon wasn’t recalling the Doomsday Machine from Dr. Strangelove as the intended protector of humanity whose very protocols of protection were what caused the problems in the first place). But Ultron is strangely hindered by corporeal existence. One of his big plans is to harvest enough of a fictional super strong metal to make himself a super-stronger body. Why? He’s an entity without form. No one bothered to consider how you could make that work on screen.

Beyond that, what’s left is two hours of almost non-stop action and CGI, filmed in impossible ways. Because anything and everything can be achieved in visual effects, the rule now is to just do it. So you get camera movements that make no sense, movements of physical characters that don’t adhere to the physical laws of the universe. It’s chaos. And smack in the middle of everything is a protracted street brawl between a raging Hulk and a super-sized Iron Man. This action sequence is pointless except for the studio to show off its toys and it stops the movie dead. And it’s just boring. Like most of the other fights and battles, it’s dull because it’s two virtually indestructible beings going at it. There are essentially no limits or vulnerabilities to Hulk, Thor, and Iron Man, and almost none for Captain America. So where’s the drama and the danger in their fight? Yeah, a lot of the movie looks cool and sometimes I was amused by things they said. But really, who cares?

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