Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

A new age begins

‘There is only one path to peace,’ the villainous Ultron affirms, ‘ … the Avengers’ extinction.’ Sorry Ultron, but that seems unlikely as the contemporary superhero craze shows no sign of slowing down. For those who fail to remember, Marvel’s mega-hit, The Avengers grossed over $1.5 billion worldwide back in 2012, becoming Disney’s highest-grossing global and domestic release to date. With the success of the first film, the planned follow-up, Avengers: Age of Ultron brought with it a new set of challenges for returning writer-director Joss Whedon and the creative team at Marvel, as the events that transpired in Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed to hold a significant bearing on the character arcs and narrative possibilities explored in the second Avengers outing. ‘A lot has happened since the end of the first Avengers film,’ informs producer Kevin Feige. Having destroyed the majority of his gadgets, Tony Stark was last seen re-evaluating his life and role as Iron Man; Thor had gone back to Asgard, determined that he didn’t want to rule as king and then returned to Earth as a protector for mankind; while S.H.I.E.L.D. crumbled to the ground in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), after Steve Rogers discovered that the organization was being controlled by the evil Hydra. Bigger, louder and much more global, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a little scarier and a little darker than its predecessor, ultimately highlighting the notion that nothing lasts forever.

'That really spangled my stars!'
‘That really spangled my stars!’

The eleventh installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avengers: Age of Ultron takes place after the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). With S.H.I.E.L.D. now disbanded and scattered, the film opens with our globetrotting heroes — Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) — hot on the trail of Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann). In search of Loki’s Chitauri Scepter, the troop raid Strucker’s Hydra advanced robotics and human experimentation stronghold — located somewhere in the mountains of Eastern Europe. There, Stark has a grim vision of a dire future, where he finds himself standing over a field of bodies, including those of his superhero comrades. Stark notices a battle-damaged, broken Captain America shield, and is told that he will fail his mission to protect the Earth. In order to prevent the bleak prophesy from becoming a reality, Stark and Bruce Banner use Loki’s Scepter to finish and implement a dormant A.I. peacekeeping program — designed as a suit of armor around the world — with the hope of stopping potential intergalactic threats. Technical mumbo-jumbo aside, things don’t go exactly according to plan and the program takes on a life of its own, assuming command of Stark’s devices, his Iron Legion and the newly furbished Avengers Tower. Hence, Ultron is born, a program that, in its own distorted mind, views humanity as the enemy and sets about to bring forth its extinction. As the evil hi-tech Ultron emerges — and escapes through the Internet — uneasy alliances develop and Earth’s mightiest heroes are put to the ultimate test as the fate of the planet hangs in the balance of their actions.

Unlike its thrilling 2012 forerunner, this follow-up lacks the humor and liveliness that radiated throughout The Avengers and suffers from a confusing, bloated narrative, falling squarely into Marvel’s ‘second film syndrome.’ With the first cut of the picture apparently running for well over three hours, Age of Ultron feels severed and trimmed, jumping from one explosive set-piece to the next while leaving its big ideas half formed and important character motivations pretty vague. Bar a recurring gag revolving around ‘bad language’ and an amusing mini subplot about the weight of Thor’s hammer and his ‘worthiness’ to rule Asgard, the flick is pretty lifeless. Whedon’s usual witty dialogue and great character interplay is lost in the midst of gibberish tech-talk and an over use of CGI. Age of Ultron also attempts to delve deeper into the backstory of each of its main players — with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Captain America’s former flame, and Thor’s friend Heimdall (Idris Elba) appearing in flash-backs — however, these segments are short lived and don’t really amount to much bar setting up events for Marvel’s Phase Three. Thor eventually takes an unnecessary detour to some sort of Asgardian dream pool — which doesn’t further the film’s plot — foreshadowing events for the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok.

'... I've Got No Strings on Me!'
‘… I’ve Got No Strings on Me!’

Although the budget has definitely been amplified — a whopping nineteen visual effects companies are credited — the film’s action sequences feel repetitive and unnecessarily chaotic, busy and over-the-top; characters shoot laser beams from their heads and hands and level cities with ease, destroying robots as if they were made of cardboard. Within the action, Tony Stark gets to use his newest piece of technology, the Hulkbuster, in one of the picture’s biggest, most colossal sequences; a square-off between Stark and The Hulk, taking place on the fictional streets of Wakanda, Africa. This duke-out truly registers on the richter scale as the brawl is juxtaposed against the deep friendship concerning Tony and Banner — who now reside together. Despite the fact that the stakes are high, there is little tension thought out the film, as the majority of our heroes appear to be invincible. A far cry from 2013’s Man of Steel, the Avengers team are at least seen saving innocent lives and clearing cities before mass destruction ensues. Sadly, the majority of Age of Ultron lacks any genuine surprises, even the final assault, where the team face-off against Ultron and his army of sub-ultrons, shares close parallels to the Avengers’ battle against the Chitauri in New York.

In spite of these let downs, James Spader, from television’s The Blacklist (2013), does an incredible job as the new antagonist of the piece, the pulsing man-machine Ultron; one of the most famous and powerful foes that The Avengers have ever faced. While not as threatening as the trailers might suggest, Ultron makes for an interesting adversary — he is able to replicate himself and control technology with information constantly flowing into his mind — a threat that is both terrifying and relatable. With his intimidating, hypnotic pitch — and using his natural speaking voice — the talented Spader breathes legitimate life into the technological piece of scrap metal as his unique rendering of the villain captures the character’s humor, darkness and emotion. Depicted as a power-crazed Pinocchio of sorts — Ultron wants to become a ‘real boy,’ well that, and to destroy humanity too — Whedon ingeniously makes a correlation between Ultron and Disney’s animated 1940 classic, Pinocchio. Watch out for a clever nod to Ultron’s early comic days where he spent the majority of his first appearance disguised as the cloaked Crimson Cowl.

'Nobody puts Lizzie Olsen in an office!'
‘Nobody puts Lizzie Olsen in an office!’

Fortunately, more background is given to characters without their own franchises, infusing some much-needed humanity into a film predominantly about Gods and monsters. Sharpshooter and marksman Hawkeye gets some ‘cool’ new tech and has a little more to do this time around, and Jeremy Renner, The Bourne Legacy (2012), does a great job exploring Clint Barton’s more flawed human side. Throughout this brief character progression, viewers find out why Hawkeye is a little distant from the rest of the gang and visit Barton’s secret woodsy home, where we meet his wife, Laura (Linda Cardellini) and children. A surprising romantic character arc concerning Banner — the savage man-beast — and Romanoff — the woman who knows how to tame him — develops after Romanoff discovers common ground between herself and the scientist with an uncontrollable rage problem. This human connection is equally heartwarming as it is tragic, yet these profound moments are at a premium. Additionally, audiences get to see what Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) — now working for Tony Stark — has been up to since S.H.I.E.L.D.’s collapse while Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) appearance raises more questions than answers as he comes to the crew’s aid with a Helicarrier near the feature’s end. Lastly, Tony Stark’s long-time buddy, Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) gets to crack some jokes and kick serious butt, once again, as War Machine.

With the entire returning cast pretty comfortable in their respective roles, it’s best to look a little closer at the hefty list of newcomers, most notably Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kick-Ass (2010), and the beautiful Elizabeth Olsen, Godzilla (2014), who play the genetically engendered mutant orphaned twins Pietro Maximoff / Quicksilver and Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch, characters that possess powers we’ve not yet seen in an Avengers flick. Able to run as fast as the speed of sound, Quicksilver acts as somewhat of a fatherly figure and overprotective brother, always looking out for his sister, Wanda — ‘it’s kind of us against the world,’ Olsen states about the pair. Having been convinced by Whedon himself to take on the role of the speedster, Aaron Taylor-Johnson — in his third comic-book film after Kick-Ass (2010) and Kick-Ass 2 (2013) — does the best he can as the hot-tempered Pietro, who’s clad with sporty, long-sleeve, cycle gear and speaks with a silly fictional Eastern European accent. Washing away the bad taste of Bryan Singer’s arrogant and unrealistic take on Quicksilver, the super-speeding mutant seen in the unpleasant X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), this new big-screen rendering of the character is much more accurate and plausible.

'Who you gonna call ... Hulkbuster!'
‘Who you gonna call … Hulkbuster!’

Thankfully it’s Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff, Quicksilver’s damaged sister, who truly saves the day. Skilled to harness magic and proficient in hypnosis and telekinesis, Wanda and her brother are initially allies with Ultron, playing head-games with the majority of the Avengers until switching sides. Nailing both the mental and physical demands of the role — perfecting numerous hand gestures and movements that could possibly suggest energy manipulation whilst getting into the character’s unstable psyche, having drawn inspiration from her relationship with her older brother and twin sisters to prepare for the part — Olsen steals all her scenes as the sultry Scarlet Witch and makes for a solid addition to the crew and franchise. It’s just a shame that her relatively ‘bland’ costume doesn’t resemble the classic Scarlet Witch design nor does it feature the famous red headgear. This is especially disappointing given that two of the characters in Age of Ultron zoom around the globe dressed in ludicrous amour and capes, while Black Widow shows off her cleavage at every possible opportunity.

Rounding out the newcomers is Paul Bettany, A Beautiful Mind (2001), doubling as both the voice of Stark’s A.I. assistant Jarvis and new ally The Vision, a pure artificial life form who harnesses ‘The Soul Gem’ and gracefully enters the scene just in time to aid the Avengers in defeating Ultron. Immediately commanding viewer’s attention, The Vision is an omnipotent yet totally naïve force and makes for an intriguing new inclusion to the series; he is born as a super-smart adult, but bears childlike features, newly discovering himself and the world around him. Introduced late in the game, The Vision, who generates some of the film’s biggest laughs, gets limited time to grow; hopefully he’ll be explored further in future installments. Andy Serkis, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) — who isn’t playing a motion-capture character — pops-up briefly as Ulysses Klaue, a black-market arms dealer, smuggler and gangster, operating out of South Africa; a former acquaintance of Stark’s from his weapons-dealing days. Finally, Avengers co-creator Stan Lee crops us in a boring by-the-numbers cameo whereas Thanos (Josh Brolin) and the Infinity Gauntlet, make an appearance in an out-of-context mid-credit scene; but don’t wait around for a post credit surprise this time. There’s nada.

The 'Credible' Hulk
The ‘Credible’ Hulk

Described by director Joss Whedon as, ‘more personal and more painful,’ Avengers: Age of Ultron is, in essence, about change and loss, with the feature’s final scene hinting at the notion that this may be the last time audiences see the current squad of Avengers together in action, as a new team is more-or-less assembled for the next outing. Furthermore, the widening split between the Cap and Stark lays the groundwork for Captain America: Civil War, and viewers get a sense of which Avenger will be on which side. Boasting a massive budget and shot in a number of different locations around the world — including South Africa, England, Italy and Korea — giving the flick several distinct looks, textures and moods, Age of Ultron is a vibrant and energetic visual romp but fails to recapture the charm and majesty of its 2012 ancestor. Marvel fanboys will no doubt get a kick out of seeing their favorite heroes back on the big screen — everyone gets their moment to shine — but an over indulgence of effects and an overly complicated narrative swallow the super-sized sequel’s well-meaning heart. Bigger isn’t always necessarily better they say.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

Avengers: Age of Ultron is released through Marvel Studios