REVIEW: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Has Joss Whedon delivered another classic superhero team-up or is this a case of diminishing returns? Cal finds out. 

The culmination of Marvel’s Phase Two, and of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in general thus far, 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron is definitely a bigger movie than 2012’s The Avengers, but not necessarily better. Returning as writer-director for this go-round is God of Geekdom Joss Whedon, who crafts an intriguing twist on the Frankenstein story with shades of Pinocchio. Although Age of Ultron delivers all the requisite large-scale action sequences that we’ve come to expect from a $250 million blockbuster, it’s a bit on the dull side, and not nearly as much fun as the 2012 mega-hit which preceded it.

To lighten the load for the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), with the input of Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), develops an intricate A.I. program named Ultron (James Spader) intended to form the basis for a peacekeeping initiative. However, Ultron is born with a distorted view of humans, ignoring his creator in favour of pursuing his own mission to bring about mankind’s extinction. Thus, Stark, Banner and their assorted pals – including Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) – assemble for a seemingly unwinnable fight against Ultron and his two gifted henchmen, twins Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).

As with the original Avengers, Whedon came to the picture with plenty of baggage to deal with after the unexpectedly crazy events of Phase Two. After all, S.H.I.E.L.D. has dissolved, Stark’s future at the end of Iron Man 3 seemed uncertain, and Thor has a lot on his plate, to say nothing of the other Avengers. There’s almost an entire motion picture’s worth of baggage, but Whedon wisely opts to skip the aftermath of Phase Two and dive directly into the meat and potatoes of this story. Age of Ultron finds the superheroes working cooperatively as a team, proudly calling themselves The Avengers and living in their own HQ bankrolled by Stark. Naturally, this status quo is not destined to last, and the ending paves the way for the impending Phase Three, with Thor’s next solo effort directly set-up, and with more characters being inducted into the team.

There are plenty of colourful action sequences throughout, but Whedon again aims to produce a more substantial experience than something like Transformers. At about the midway point, the proceedings slow down as the heroes gather themselves following a particularly harrowing engagement. With Stark, Rogers and Thor all headlining their own solo films, Age of Ultron is mostly concerned with Barton, Banner and Romanoff. Jeremy Renner publically expressed his dissatisfaction with the handling of Hawkeye in The Avengers, and Whedon visibly took notice, hence this second instalment delves into Barton’s personal life and relationships. However, Age of Ultron lacks the emotional heft that elevated its predecessor – there is a fatality here like Agent Coulson’s temporary death, but it’s not as affecting. Moreover, it’s inherently jarring to witness the Avengers taking on Ultron when he is Stark’s creation. Thus, while the Avengers are necessary to eliminate the maniacal A.I. program, they are cleaning up a mess that’s wholly their fault. At the very least, Whedon could have done something interesting with this, perhaps setting up more conflict between the teammates that will lead into Captain America: Civil War, but such moralistic debates are eschewed.

2012’s The Avengers was a joyous victory lap for the folks at Marvel, with Whedon infusing the original picture with a sense of pure ecstasy. Ultron, on the other hand, is a grimmer beast, with a dark tone closer to Man of Steel than the first Avengers. Ultron’s lack of remorse and humanity in his bid to bring about mankind’s extinction makes this an inherently darker story, but it’s a bit drab and leaden as a consequence, in need of the spark of danger and urgency which characterised Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Tension is mostly lacking in the big action set-pieces too, which are enjoyable but never thoroughly involving or edge-of-your-seat. Perhaps the biggest issue with the climax is that there’s no nail-biting urgency or ticking clock. Too much time is spent watching civilians being evacuated that’s frankly too on-the-nose, as if Whedon was conscious to avoid the same criticisms surrounding Man of Steel. It just feels like Ultron is actually letting the Avengers evacuate everyone and foil his plot to wipe out mankind, when he should be upping the ante and making it far more difficult for the Avengers to save the world.

Whedon’s defining trait, of course, is witty bantering, and he delivers again with Age of Ultron, serving up plenty of laughs amid the spectacle. Stark remains a one-liner machine, and there’s a particularly fun party sequence not long into the movie which spotlights the Avengers mingling with other supporting players from the MCU (though Natalie Portman’s Jane and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper are noticeably absent). There is a tremendous ensemble of characters here, but Whedon manages to give them all a proper place in the story and action scenes. Leading the ensemble is the perpetually-reliable Downey Jr., who’s growing older but nevertheless remains a flamboyant, amusing, charismatic Tony Stark, and one cannot help but ponder how drab the MCU will be when he inevitably departs. The likes of Evans, Hemsworth, and Renner are fine, but it’s Ruffalo who shines here, given more to do and more depth to his character. As Banner’s love interest of sorts, Johansson also takes advantage of her larger place in the story. As for the newcomers, Taylor-Johnson and Olsen (yes, they played husband/wife in Godzilla and brother/sister here) both excel, but it’s Spader who will have everyone talking. Ultron is an insanely sinister villain, voiced to perfection by the veteran actor. Whereas Loki was charming and conniving, Ultron is an outright menace, a mechanical madman with no sense of humanity or remorse. He’s a relentless Terminator-like cyborg who can transfer his consciousness to another body at the drop of a hat, and has access to the internet and all of Stark’s files.

Age of Ultron remains a tour de force of blockbuster filmmaking from a technical perspective, with Whedon gripping us from the outset – the movie opens with a masterful tracking shot that re-introduces us to the main players, travelling from one Avenger to the next in the middle of combat. The dreaded shaky-cam syndrome does not rear its ugly head; Whedon relies on skillful choreography and precise framing, letting us watch and enjoy the action on display. On top of this, digital effects remain top-notch – the motion capture Hulk is especially astounding. This is easily the most real, lifelike Incredible Hulk we have ever seen on-screen, with detailed skin texture and movement that makes him seem alive and tangible. Age of Ultron carries a different aesthetic to its predecessor, mostly staying out of the United States for scenes in South Africa, Korea and other countries, not to mention the cinematography is darker in comparison to the vibrant, colourful look of its forerunner. The production’s digital photography never looks quite right, however – fantasy and comic book films of old were lensed on celluloid, which afforded a beautiful cinematic texture. Digital photography, on the other hand, looks too glossy, which in turn makes it look less real.

Alan Silvestri’s memorable Avengers theme does pop up once or twice, but for the most part, Brian Tyler’s original compositions are insanely generic and forgettable; they do not amplify the visuals in any considerable way, nor do they even entirely suit the picture at times, which is disappointing considering Tyler’s superlative contributions to Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World.

Age of Ultron is not as exhilarating or as involving as this reviewer had hoped for, and there are a few nitpicky things here and there that may have biased armchair critics chattering, but on the whole it’s an entertaining blockbuster and a solid enough continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It has big action scenes that unfussy viewers will enjoy, and this is a review-proof movie anyway. As per usual, be sure to stick around for a mid-credits teaser of things to come (nothing at the end of the credits), which will probably make you feel depressed that the next Avengers film is three years away (and you’ll need to wait an additional year on top of that for Part Two).

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