Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

No one says "SKRAWWK!" quite like James Spader.
What I found to be one the most remarkable aspects of this summer’s big Marvel movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron, was just how responsive to criticism of, commentary on and reaction to its previous installment, 2012's The Avengers.

The characters with little or nothing to do in the first film, particularly when compared to the Iron Man, Captain America and Thor characters (i.e. the ones with their own movie franchises), all got significantly more to do in this outing, up to and including more action scenes and more dramatic “acting” scenes (Often, I should add, to the detriment of this film).

There are more Avengers in general—five new ones, total—and, almost as if in direct response to commentary regarding how white and male The Avengers are, these new heroes and the supporting cast has a great deal more people of color and people without penises among them.

And it seems like some pains were taken to make sure everyone’s favorite characters from throughout the Marvel Studios super-franchise make at least cameos, so many, in fact, that it’s surprising, even somewhat disappointing, that Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts don’t get cameos.

That pair of characters are mentioned, however, in what is probably the film’s very best scene, a climax to the film that comes way, way too early: Within the first half-hour or so, I’d imagine.

That scene is a sort of after-party for The Avengers’ last mission against Hydra to recover Loki’s spear, a powerful Asgardian artifact (with an Infinity Gem/Stone lodged in it, naturally). It follows the opening scene, in which the Avengers who assembled by the end of their previous film take on the forces of Hydra and invade their castle, the six superheroes functioning together like a well-oiled machine, even successfully surviving an attack by Hydra’s secret weapons, twin super-humans Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch (both raised with a healthy hatred of Tony Stark, whose weapons killed their family and pretty much made lives miserable for their country at large).

With that mission completed, our heroes put on plain clothes and basically just hang out in Stark Tower, drinking and chatting. It’s a bit like the shawarma scene, but longer, funnier, better-dressed and more satisfying. Anthony Mackie's Sam Wilson/The Falcon and Don CHeadle's James Rhodey/War Machine from the Captain America and Iron Man sequels are there, Cobie Smulder’s Maria Hill is there, and so is a Claudia Kim, paying Dr. Helen Cho, an Asian doctor with a small but noteworthy role (her presence also allows for the ticking off of two diversity boxes and, hey, opening up the possibility of Amadeus Cho in a furture Hulk movie, if they ever make another Hulk movie. I imagine they will someday, before they get to making a Man-Wolf or Speedball movie, anyway*).

It feels like a wrap party for “phase one” or “phase two” (or whatever cycle of Marvel Studios’ long, long-term planning they’re on), although in-film it’s essentially a wrap part for the Avengers’ mission, which has been on-going since the events of their last film (and without the benefit of SHIELD since the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I guess).

There the characters all take turns trying to life Thor’s magic hammer, with various levels of un-success—there’s a fine moment where Captain America budges it, and Thor looks worried—and then the plot of this film actually begins, when an Ultron-possessed piece of Iron Man armor stumbles into the room and attacks them (an action scene in which I really rather missed the costumes quite suddenly, as I couldn’t tell Captain America from Hawkeye during it; in fact, it was dark enough that everyone sort of blended together. Black Widow was the one in the dress; I know that).

It wouldn't be quite accurate to say that it's all downhill from there, as there were some fun surprises to follow, and it's at least interesting to see the ways in which the new characters–Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, The Vision, Ultron–get translated to the big screen (Perhaps especially so in the case of Quicksilver, as we've already seen how another actor played him, and how another film studio designed him, and how another director used him).

Stark has been working on an elaborate retirement plan for himself and his fellow Avengers (no mention is made of how exactly he went from giving up being Iron Man at the end of Iron Man 3 to being back in business here), in the form of a project he calls "Ultron," some sort of massive artificial intelligence that can work all his suits for him and protect the world in his stead. It doesn't work out, of course, as Ultron and the Jarvis AI get in a fight, and Ultron seemingly eats him and gains sentience and...Okay, it all get really complicated for a "Robot wants to kill all the humans" plot, really.

Ultron wants to hurt the Avengers' positive PR before actually destroying them (and all human life), and he also wants a new and better, human-ish body, so he plans on having Dr. Cho build him The Vision to inhabit or...whatever. Meanwhile, he recruits Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch to help him fight the Avengers. Big action set-pieces follow: The Avengers vs. Ultron and the Maximoffs (Days of Future Past did much better by super-speed, although there's at least a funny bit wherein Quicksilver tries to snatch Thor's hammer out of mid-air at super-speed), Iron Man in his "Hulkbuster" armor vs. The Hulk, Everyone Vs. Ultron at the climax.

It's a lot, even without considering the additional world-building ("Wakanda" is mentioned repeatedly, Andy Serkis shows up as Klaw, Thor has some dumb sub-plot that involves continuing the years-long set up for Infinity War) and the introduction of The Vision (played by Paul Bettany and looking fairly terrible, but probably less terrible than I would have imagined...I don't think the character design is any damn good at all, so other than the all-white Vision, I'm not sure how he could look good in live-action).

But then the film has to respond to discussion of the first film, so Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye gets a random, dumb backstory (similar to that of Ultimate Hawkeye, as opposed to Regular Hawkeye), the only positives of which are that it leads to another coupla plain clothes hang-out scenes, and we get to add Linda Cardellini into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Black Widow is randomly in love with Bruce Banner all of a sudden (apparently they fell in love between movies?), but he doesn't want to be with her because, as he explains in the most excruttiating part of the film, he can't have kids...? (Certainly the thing about being a big, giant super-monster when he gets mad rates above his fertility, doesn't it?).

The film feels less like a comedy than its predecessor, which is too bad, but luckily James Spader's Ultron is a sarcastic robot, and he and the relatively quick-witted Vision provide most of the laughs, probably even more than Robert Downey Jr.'s Stark, who spends far too much time in his armor and being serious. As good as Spader is at voicing the title robot, I didn't much care for the design. He has eyeball and lips, and thus looks something like a smaller-scale Decepticon from the live-action Transformers films, rather than the jack o' lantern faced metal man of the comics (his first appearance does resemble that of the comics, as do drones he uses later; it's a nice demonstration of how effective the comics design is, versus the more realistic, emotive design of Ultron Prime, I guess you could call him).

As for Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch, when she first uses her powers against The Avengers, she appears as some kind of ill-defined horror movie villain, creepily moving around them and giving them weird nightmares that allow for presentations of their origin stories (in the case of Black Widow) or cameos of actors playing characters from throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe (in the case of Cap and Thor). Later, she just uses hex-bolts, which appears to be nothing but Olsen doing tai chi in front of a green screen, with special effects artists adding red energy bolts in later. She has a bizarre accent that reminded me of Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle, but my friend likened it more to that of The Count on Sesame Street (why she has to have an accent at all, given that it's just a made-up country she and her brother hail from, is beyond me; why they didn't cast someone with an accent is also beyond me; I think I'd prefer Asia Argento to Olsen, but hey, it's probably too late to tinker with the casting of a movie that oughta be out on DVD in time for Christmas, huh?).

The climactic battle, in a crumbling city being lifted high above the Earth in order to become a projectile capable of an extinction-level impact, is kind of all over the place, paying a little too much attention to Renner's Hawkeye and his relationship with the Maximoffs and re-casting Iron Man in the exact same role he had at the end of the first film, but there is a fantastic few seconds in which The Avengers assemble around Ultron Prime and all attack him at once; I've heard these moments described as a comic book splash page come to life, and that's a pretty good description. It's one of two moments–the other is the group shot in the trailer–that feels particularly comic book-y, as opposed to comic book movie-esque.

The long-ish denouement, which involves Stark seemingly going into retirement (again), Thor flying off to keep doing infinity shit (again), Hulk running away sadly and Black Widow also having a sad because her forced, random relationship with him didn't work out, does lead-up to a pretty swell conclusion, which I am now going to spoil (It's been months; I assume if you wanted to see the film you already have).

The week before I went to see it, I remember watching the latest trailer online and thinking how weird it was that they were adding three new Avengers–Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and The Vision–and that they were simply adding two more white people (and a red-faced android with the voice of a British guy), while War Machine and Falcon are right there.

Well, the film ends with an all-new Avengers line-up. Captain America and Black Widow are leading the new team of The Scarlet Witch, The Vision, The Falcon and War Machine. Sure, they don't actually assemble until the end, but the new Avengers line-up is one white dude, two white ladies, two black dudes and the British-voiced robot man. That's a pretty damn diverse line-up, compared to the one we started with, right?

I'm not sure how much we'll see of all these guys–I'm assuming this will be the line-up in Captain America: Civil War and any time Avengers guest-stars are needed in other Marvel movies between now and Infinity War**–but I was pretty excited by the idea of Cap and Widow's kooky quartet.

And in that regard, Age of Ultron was like your average Marvel Studios movie. There's a lot to like, there's a lot to dislike, there's a lot that's just interesting to consider from the perspective of a comics fan (what creative choices they make in terms of characters, costumes, powers and so on), but the endings never feel like endings, just suggestions of other, later, hopefully better movies to follow.

In that regard, the Marvel Studios films have been able to mimic the experience of reading comics. Not only have they created an elaborate shared setting, but they also reflect the serial nature of comics: The end of one is just a segue to the beginning of the next.

*I fully expect a third Hulk movie, a Man-Wolf movie–"Like John Carter, but with a werewolf!"–and a Speedball movie before they get around to making a Wonder Woman or Carol Danvers movie.

**Actually, we've already seen one of them show up in Ant-Man.


Robert Jazo said...

It seems like the Natasha/Bruce scene on the farm could have used a little work. I think Bruce was trying to say there was no chance with him of a normal life (which in his mind includes kids) and Natasha was trying to say that a normal life was closed for her because of her past. However, it came off clunky in the movie, and Natasha saying "I'm a monster too" after saying she had been sterilized gave the impression to some people that being incapable of having children was what made her think she was a monster. Personally, I took her comment to be about her past making her a monster (i.e., the red in her ledger), but it could have been made clearer.

Evan Dawson-Baglien said...

@Robert Jazo

I interpreted it as Natasha trying to convince Bruce he wasn't a monster. I thought the subtext of what she was saying to him was:

"You think one reason you are a monster is because you can't have children. But I can't have children either, and you obviously don't think I'm a monster. So obviously being unable to have children doesn't make you a monster, so don't think of yourself as one."

In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy this is known as the "Double Standard Technique." You apply the irrational standards the patient is judging himself with to other people, to illuminate how irrational they are.

Robert Jazo said...

@Evan Dawson-Baglien - I really like that interpretation as it makes sense that someone with Natasha's training would use that technique. I still think the scene was clunky, but it may be that the dialog was cut down for time as Joss Whedon has continually pointed to the scenes on the farm as being a point of contention between him and Marvel Studios, with Marvel wanting them removed completely.