Monday, May 4, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron (**)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Joss Whedon


Before the latest Avengers movie, I was privy to a half-hour's worth of previews that presented an entire generation's worth of superheroes for audiences to enjoy. There's the upcoming Ant-Man which has a trailer that seems to prove the film's own mediocre premise (super small heroes don't exactly gravitate toward the big screen); then there was the latest Fantastic Four movie which is a franchise that we already know can produce sub-standard material because we saw two movies fail less than a decade ago; then of course Zack Snyder's Batman v. Superman which not only undermines what Christopher Nolan just accomplished with his Dark Knight movies (we just got finished with Batman three years ago!) but gives us an opportunity to begin a new DC-led saga with multiple strands leading to a Marvel-esque supermovie where all these strands stand to meet. The only non-superhero movies previewed were the theme park-inspired Tomorrowland where George Clooney is running from robots, and Pixels, where it isn't enough that Adam Sandler and crew are fighting a villain, but the villains are actually 1980's video games. It was a belligerent bukkake of Hollywood franchise movie excess, a forceful reminder that movie studios consider nearly everything that isn't based on some previous popular entity as niche. Story comes second to selling toys.

The whole exercise left me with a bad taste in my mouth even before Age of Ultron even started. The first Avengers movie was an example of how this can be done correctly. It took a collection of talented actors and allowed them to rule the scenes; it understood that characters make a movie special, and allowed these superheroes to show off that character. It was a true film. It was similar to the first Iron Man film. Go back and watch that movie some time. It's refreshing to see now what it was before it became the first building block. It didn't carry the burden of being a stepping stone to more. It was only interested in telling its story. Of course, nobody thought they would make an Iron Man movie without planning for sequels, but it didn't have the blunt, monolithic feel that these movies have now. Age of Ultron has an awareness of that feel, and it runs subliminally below the surface of every scene. In a lot of ways, this feels like the Empire Strikes Back of its saga; a vision of heroism through its darkest timeline. But Ultron doesn't have the guts to be as fatalistic as Empire, and there in lies the ultimate problem with these films. To enjoy these movies now means an admission that we don't need stakes to create drama. The fate of our heroes never seem that endangered because they're too important to the bottom line. Only one of the Avengers is truly immortal, but we know there isn't an instance in which we're really going to see any of them die.

The superteam is already in action from the tip as they charge into an Eastern European weapons base where Loki's powerful scepter is being held. The base is run by Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), a cowardly scientist who has also been running dangerous medical experiments on impoverished people to create what seems to be his own clan of X-men. The Avengers escape with scepter, but not before they're introduced to Strucker's only two successful creations: a pair of Russian twins, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). Pietro can run faster than your average bullet, while Wanda has exorbitant telepathic abilities. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), aka Iron Man, is able to fly out with the scepter in tow, but by then Wanda - aka Scarlet Witch - has already incepted him with powerful images of the rest of the Avengers crew dying because of something he caused. She also afflicts Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), a mega-hulking Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). The only one who manages to escape with his mind is Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), but he also has a piece of his torso blasted off. When the Avengers return to their own base, they've accomplished their goal, but they're hardly victorious.

Back in New York, possessing the power of the scepter, Stark begins cooking grand plans of using it to manufacture an artificial intelligence so powerful it will be able to protect the world - it will allow the Avengers to walk into the sunset, and put the human race's mind at ease. His plan is bold and tricky, and it backfires quickly. As the A.I. gets stronger, it quickly destroys Stark's silky-voiced operating system Jarvis (Paul Bettany) and creates itself as Ultron (the equally silky-voiced James Spader), a cyborg so intelligent and strong, no sole Avenger can defeat it. Ultron introduces himself to the Avengers rather impolitely before escaping with the scepter, and his unveiling is the inciting incident of much infighting between the supposed benevolent crew. Thor and Captain America are upset with what Stark and Banner created, while Stark can't understand why they can't properly understand his motives. Meanwhile, Ultron is able to find the technology to not only make himself more intelligent and more strong, but to allow himself to reproduce. Ultron is no longer a singular entity, but entire race of robotic specimens threatening the human race, and with help from the maleficent Maximoff twins, this easily presents the toughest challenge the Avengers have had to face yet.

Age of Ultron does not spend as much time as the first installment with the people the Avengers are, though it does go out of its way to give the much-maligned Hawkeye a more substantial backstory. This includes an entire family, equipped with a secluded farm house, a pregnant wife (Linda Cardellini) and a couple of kids. A romantic subplot between Black Widow and Banner doesn't present much other than intrigue. Mark Ruffalo was just nominated for his second Oscar for playing a part so wonderfully subdued in Foxcatcher, but The Hulk isn't a character that allows for subtlety - and all the nuance that Ruffalo was able to introduce in the first Avengers seems to have vanished here. That Joss Whedon wasn't able to come up with anything more for Johansson to do except pine after a male costar is disappointing, especially for someone renowned for his female characters. But this is less of a Whedon project than the first one. Compared to Age of Ultron, The Avengers almost feels like an auteur film. This latest installment is much more beholden to the series as a whole, sapping it of its uniqueness. It's too tightly bound to its track, headed for a collision with Guardians of the Galaxy film in what will probably be the fanboy moment of the century. This film didn't need to be directed by Whedon, it's humor - such a strong part of the first film - feels forced here; like it's a burden on the movie's more serious nature.

The self-awareness of the Avengers films that I mentioned earlier is often its best asset; its ability to laugh at its own ludicrousness always made it feel more modest than say Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy and even Sam Raimi's boyish Spider-Man films. But the way Age of Ultron often calls to mind 'world peace' felt troubling to me, because the film believes in peace via weaponization, building a utopia through chaos (and that comes almost exactly from a line by Tony Stark himself). There are few heroic epiphanies in the Marvel Universe that don't come beside Bing! Bang! Pow! and Ultron has more onomatopoeia than the other films combined. In a time where weaponization is having more and more consequences in society, I couldn't help but think of it during this film. New York City wasn't built in a day, but it sure seems to have rebounded quite nicely after the major destruction in the first film. Age of Ultron goes after Eastern Europe and the African Coast, nameless victims piling up off screen while individual children are heroically rescued on it. By the end, Age of Ultron becomes like all the others, a set-up for the long, laborious showdown. It's usually in a warehouse or a shipyard, but these films have a more ambitious square mileage in mind. A cynic may say these movies are coming closer to snuff films. There's more death in Age of Ultron than the entire series of Game of Thrones.

I'm sounding grouchy, I know. There's nothing more uncool right now that balling your fist and yelling at the superheroes at the screen. Even as I was watching Age of Ultron, I could feel my opinion being warped by the trailers that preceded it; by the arrogance of these films to think they know what we'll want to watch years in advance. This was the prophecy that Birdman foretold, a litany of hero movies with less and less substance with each tale. Age of Ultron isn't nearly as bad as all those upcoming films looked. It has moments of excitement and a legitimately talented cast. Whedon's handprints aren't as firm on this as the first one, but he's still a competent visual storyteller, and not the aesthetic megalomaniac that someone like Zack Snyder is. That said, Ultron didn't bring anything new to the table, and it's Spader-voiced villain never really felt all that unstoppable because, well... none of these villains ever are. Even Star Wars let Vader win a few rounds. The introduction of Vision, the mega-cyborg reincarnation of Jarvus (they let Paul Bettany join in on the live-action fun!) was interesting except that it only confirms the inevitability of it all. If the Avengers weren't enough, they now have a super-robot in their corner. Age of Ultron will begat more Avengers films, with no end in sight. The masses are still hungry, it seems, but I fear we'll still be getting bigger and bigger servings once we're all full.

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