Full Review: AVENGERS: AGE Of ULTRON…

Posted: June 11, 2015 in COMICS, FILM
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
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It’s surprisingly difficult to work out what I think of Age of Ultron. It’s a solid, entertaining movie, certainly… how could it not be?
I mean you literally couldn’t make a bad movie, given the material and resources they’re working with.

The strange thing about Avengers: Age of Ultron is that although I enjoyed it immensely while I was watching it, within a day of that I had completely forgotten so much of it. I was surprised by how little residual effect there was.

This could be regarded, in fact, as a symptom of modern big-budget cinema in general; these things come and go so quickly now and we’re then onto waiting for the next thing. The films themselves are beginning more and more to reflect that dynamic and mentality. And there is always ‘the next one’, even just in terms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, let-alone blockbuster cinema in general. It’s been going on for a long time now, of course, and I imagine it is having a detrimental effect on the capacity of individual movies to have power. Because I can guarantee that a lot of people watching Age of Ultron had half their attention taken up by looking for ‘easter eggs’, trying to spot clues about the upcoming Infinity War movies, etc, while the other half was being comfortably hypnotised by the pleasant anesthetic of flawless CGI and visual morphine.

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I was having this conversation with a friend and former professional film-reviewer a while ago (actually I think some of it made into our podcast on the Age of Ultron and Star Wars: Episode VII trailers). I am generally not a consumer of big blockbuster cinema in general and I generally have to have a high level of interest to even walk into a cinema. And yet even I know that, as far as special-effects and technical marvels go, most of these films are on the same level by now and there is therefore nothing revelatory to be experienced anymore in that regard. It’s not like seeing the Return of the Jedi space-battle for the first time or seeing the effects in The Matrix in 1999. Therefore what I’m looking for is character, some depth and meaning, and good storytelling. Age of Ultron provides a fair degree of all of that, but probably not as much as I would like.

Is Avengers: Age of Ultron forgettable? How is that possible, given the characters, the source material, and the creative forces? Or maybe it requires multiple viewings to really sink in. To be fair, I had a similar reaction to the first Avengers film too; I wasn’t overly bowled over on first viewing, but by the second time I was enjoying it a lot more. And I watched it for the third time a few weeks ago, just before watching Age of Ultron, and I was surprised to find that I actually loved it.

And this film is massively entertaining, of course. But it is also surprisingly forgettable. And again, I’m not sure this is entirely a problem with Age of Ultron more than it is a problem with modern, blockbuster cinema in general; that conveyor belt mentality that is churning out massive (and perhaps overblown, depending on your view) movies too quickly. We have far more product, but far less a sense of longevity or impact. I say all this, incidentally, as a fan of Avengers comics and someone who’s been grounded in the characters and the Avengers comic-book mythology since I was a kid.

 

But I’m not an immovable purist either and I don’t necessarily have a haughty attitude towards the film adaptations (at least not always); for example, the depiction of Bruce Banner we saw in the first Avengers movie was far more engaging and likeable than any version of the Hulk I’ve ever read in the comics, and by the same token I firmly believe the version of Thor and Iron Man we’ve had in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are superior to their counterparts in the comic-book source material. On the other hand, in terms of story and depth it is difficult for me, as someone who’s been reading what’s going on in Avengers comics in recent years, to be equally as impressed by the storytelling we get in a film like Age of Ultron.

One of the main issues I have with this movie is why it was made at all. That is to say, why Ultron was the basis of a whole movie when we’ve had Thanos being teased for what now seems like a small eternity. What we have with this Avengers sequel is a film that is more or less entirely self-contained and non-consequential, and which then teases the Thanos/Darth Sidious thing again at the end. I get that we’re building up to the Infinity War gradually, but with Thanos and the Cosmic side of things already having been further teased in Guardians of the Galaxy already, I tend to wonder why we didn’t just go straight into the Infinity War here or at least some kind of lead-in to those events (with the next GOTG film playing into it too, perhaps). The danger of building something up too much and for too long is that we end up with an anti-climaxe; and given how long we’ve been building up Thanos now, I tend to think we’re in danger of that happening.

In that sense, this film seems like a kind of holding action while we wait for other things. There’s nothing wrong with a self-contained movie, however; and Age of Ultron delivers much of what was great in the first Avengers film. You’ve got first-rate action sequences, top-draw effects, terrific character dynamics and interplay, plenty of humour and gags, and some interesting, engaging ideas, even some fairly engaging philosophical and moral arguments. Which is everything you want.

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The existing ensemble are as entertaining as we’d expect, of course, the groundwork already having been done elsewhere. Robert Downey Jnr’s Tony Stark is beginning to wear off a little, but is still a highly watchable character even at the worst of times. Thor, Cap, Romanov and especially Banner are all also entertaining, as you’d expect; the great character work done in the first film makes that a no-brainer here. They’re probably not *as* interesting at this point as they were before, however.

This movie also introduces a handful more characters, which proves to be a mixed bag. I’ll get to the Vision in a moment, but first I want to deal with the Maximoff siblings, Wanda and Pietro. Because here was one of the major problems with the movie; for me anyway, as a comic-book fan, though for the average cinema-goer the problem probably wouldn’t register. The first problem is Quicksilver. This was always going to be a problem; specifically that we’re in a situation where we already saw the same character introduced last year in the X-Men franchise, and now we’re seeing a completely different version of the same character being introduced into the Avengers franchise (albeit only for a brief flash – he won’t be showing up again). So you might argue, ‘well, there’s these issues with Marvel and Fox and ownership, etc’.

So what’s the way around that? Simple: don’t do Quicksilver. X-Men did it first, so leave it alone – Fox got first dibs. It doesn’t help AoU‘s cause that X-Men: Days of Future Past did Quicksilver a lot better, albeit very differently.

As a result, in this movie Peter Maximoff is just a very unremarkable, unimportant character, as evidenced by the way he is ultimately written out in unspectacular fashion. The other, related problem is that, as both a comic-book die-hard and an X-Men adherent in particular, it rankles more than a little to have Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch appear and have absolutely no reference to their father being Magneto. Again, I know this is a Marvel/Fox issue, but nevertheless it sucks to introduce these characters and yet omit such an enormous aspect of their mythologies. As far as I can tell, they aren’t even referred to as Mutants in this film, but as ‘enhanced’ or something like that, with the implication that they have a completely different origin/identity in this film lore than in the source material. For that matter, I’m pretty sure they’re not referred to as ‘Quicksilver’ or ‘Scarlet Witch’ at all. It all leaves a slightly bitter taste in the mouth. What was the solution? Probably to have just left them out of the story.

They weren’t essential to the story anyway and there are plenty of other as-yet unused characters from the Avengers mythology that could’ve been brought in. We know that Carol Danvers and the Black Panther are being held back for their solo movies, but there were still other options; Wasp, Jessica Drew, Mockingbird, for example.

Apparently, an appearance by Captain Marvel was seriously on the cards for this movie, but scrapped on the grounds that it would’ve been arbitrary and lacking the backstory that is obviously being worked on for the Captain Marvel movie to be released in 2018; I’m informed that the scene near the end where Wanda flies in to Avengers Tower was originally supposed to be Carol Danvers but the shots were simply reused for Wanda instead.

And, for that matter, Hank Pym. Ant-Man could’ve easily been factored in to this movie, with the Ant Man movie itself maybe pulled forward to be released a couple for months earlier and acting as a prelude of sorts to Age of Ultron. That actually would’ve made things more exciting in terms of building up to Age of Ultron, come to think of it. And actually, given Hank Pym’s existing connection to the whole Ultron mythology in the source material, this could’ve made a lot of sense and been done in a meaningful way.

Instead, we’ve just had a huge affair with Age of Ultron and then we’re going to get a completely unrelated Ant Man movie in a couple of months time.

I’m not saying, by the way, that I prefer Ant Man to Wanda or Pietro in general; just that using Wanda and Pietro was problematic and there were other things that might’ve made more sense and worked better. Am I the only one who wonders why there’s an Ant Man solo movie due out imminently, featuring the character who is most associated with Ultron in the comics mythology, and we’ve just a had a massive movie *about* Ultron… and yet the two haven’t been made to cross over or link up at all?

Pietro here, as I said, was pretty pointless and disposable. Wanda Maximoff fares a lot better. She was always going to be an interesting and visually engaging character, given her nature and her powers, and that proves to be the case in Age of Ultron. Elizabeth Olson works more or less okay in the role and the character is an interesting presence, even if a little goofy in places. Given further characterization, however, she would be a good addition to the mix in subsequent films, even if there’s a lot wrong with the way she’s been introduced and some of the key surrounding issues.

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The other big character introduced is of course The Vision. Now I’m a big fan of the Vision, who has always been one of my favorite characters in the comic books. And having seen images of the character prior to the movie coming out, I was a little worried. However, the Vision we get in this movie is pretty spot-on for the most part. I feel like the ‘look’ is a little off, but even so, in terms of tone, character and presence, this is as good an interpretation of the character as I could’ve hoped we’d get. Paul Bettany, who I wouldn’t have thought would be a great fit, actually does a really good job capturing Vision’s vibe and presence, and I was generally happy with how the character has been portrayed here.

We could take or leave some of the pointless cameos. I don’t know that there was any point in Rhodes or Sam Wilson/Falcon showing up just to – and forgive me for saying it – but just to cynically fill the ‘Black quota’ and keep it from seeming like a movie about white guys (which is what it seemed like). Fury and Maria Hill are of course a necessary presence and are good to see show up. The whole side issue of Hawkeye’s secret wife and kid was something I feel we could’ve done without too. It seemed to serve no real purpose other than to bring a touch more mainstream Hollywoodism to the mix (hell, someone’s got to be the doting family man, right?). Those scenes were just a distraction, trying too hard to insert a random emotional dimension that wasn’t really needed.

Having a romance emerge between Natasha and Dr Banner is also questionable.

I can sort of understand, given perhaps a faint hint of a dynamic in the first movie, why it was thought of. It’s not even the fact that it has no basis in the source material that bothers me, as these films need to be free to pursue their own canon and whatever works best in the film mythology; but the Romanov/Banner thing just feels awkward here. It feels unnatural and forced and not something that grows out of the true narrative. Both this and the Hawkeye/family thing feel like forced afterthoughts shoe-horned in to speak to the lowest common denominator. There’s also an underlying sexism question here, which is surprising for a film guided by someone like Joss Whedon; but it does feel terribly trite to have the only female character in the ensemble be unable to go a movie-and-a-half without falling in love with one of the male characters, particularly when it’s a character who’s supposed to be as thick-skinned and hard-ass as the Black Widow.

It feels very much like this element was written in for Scarlett Johansson and not for Natasha Romanov; and that sort of sucks. There’s still plans for a Black Widow solo movie, as I understand it; I hope they follow a more interesting path than this.

One of the things that did work fairly well on a character level, however, was that various inner visions the characters are haunted by, induced by the witchery of the Scarlet Witch. Though nothing spectacular, it gives us some insight and colouring into the characters’ psyches and this was particularly interesting in regard to Natasha and her past (perhaps hinting a little at what a Black Widow solo movie might be like).

Ultron itself is a mixed bag. I like that Ultron has ‘personality’, albeit a damaged, fragmented personality, with underlying Tony Starkisms evident throughout.

That could’ve been awkward, but actually it gives something more interesting and layered to things beyond the cliched Bad Robot thing. There’s a depth to him, a layer of offbeat humour and flawed philosophy that makes him a lot more watchable than a cliched AI villain would’ve been. I remember watching the Ultron story played out in the Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes animated series a while ago; and while the story was very good (as all the stories were in that fantastic series), the one thing they couldn’t really do was give much ‘life’ to Ultron, as the medium didn’t really allow it to work with its limited episode lengths. Here, however, we’re able to explore a more textured Ultron, with his damaged, fragmented psyche, and that helped the movie a lot.

What was missing, however, was a meaningful confrontation between Ultron and Tony Stark; and I don’t mean a physical confrontation, but a philosophical one. We get something of the sort very briefly with Vision at the end, but this film needed Stark to truly face his Frankenstein’s monster and deal with Ultron on a more moral/philosophical level, even if for just one scene. Instead we get lots of half-baked Tony Stark ideas and thoughts (the whole “peace in our time” thing, for example, which I didn’t care for) and lots of random Ultron thoughts here and there, but the two don’t really come together to deal with each other at any stage.

What also might’ve worked would’ve been a Stark/Vision conversation somewhere near the end, dealing with some of the deeper AI issues on that philosophical level. Instead it feels like Stark fumbles his way through the film, setting off apocalypses at whim, making arbitrary decisions, making wisecracks and lobbing out one-liners, while never really dealing with any of what he’s done on a meaningful level. And then at the end, when all is done and dusted, everyone bumps fists and goes home happy, and we – or me, at least – are left feeling like a significant chunk of the narrative has been left on a cutting-room floor somewhere.

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Having said that, I do like that Stark is central to the whole thing and that he’s the problem, the reason for the crisis. That’s very grounded in the comics lore. And having everyone else recognise that he’s the problem creates some good tension, which is part of what worked so well in the first Avengers movie too.

There are some great jokes and gags throughout the film, as is standard by now. That always enlivens things a lot, prevents things from getting dull or from taking it self too seriously. But I think one of the underlying problems with this movie is that doesn’t seem to find its tone. There are bits that are really lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek and that’s fine, and there are whole portions that are trying to be very serious and have real gravity, but unlike in the first Avengers movie, the two approaches feel like they interfere with each other a lot more in Age of Ultron. As a result, the stuff that should presumably have a lot more gravity is lacking the sense of urgency.

It never really feels like the end of the world or like the major ‘extinction’ event we’re told it is (it was much better accomplished both in the Age of Ultron comic-book source material and in the animated series).

Part of that might be due to the climatic sequence being set in a fictional Eastern European location where everything feels small-scaled and the danger really feels localised; this is in contrast to the attack on New York in the first Avengers movie. But I understand why having the action center on a different, foreign location might’ve seemed like a good idea, to give things a more global and less America-centric context; and also I’d be the first person complaining about how New York is always the focal point of every single superhero movie or disaster scene. So it’s a double-edged sword, I guess. The bigger problem might’ve just been the pacing.

There are also a whole bunch of details and add-ons that went over my head or that just seemed really arbitrary. My memory of large chunks of the movie is so bad at this point that I can’t even remember all of these; but one of the major ones was Thor and the mirror pool. I mean he was presumably on Asgard, but I have no idea what was going on there; it was just a really weird, random interlude with insufficient explanation. I’m also not sure some of the science or pseudo-science involving how Ultron came into being in the first place necessarily holds up very well.

I’m aware that this is possibly coming across as a very negative review of the film; which is maybe a little unbalanced. I don’t think this was a bad movie at all. As I said at the start, I really enjoyed it on the basic, visceral (and admittedly the fan-boy) level. But there are negatives and there were issues that needed to be brought up in an honest review.

The action is, it goes without saying, technically superb; literally from the opening scene onward. The opening action sequence CGI-fest is visually terrific and a dynamic way to open the film; certainly when you’re in the cinema anyway. I tend to think it’ll lose all its potency on repeated viewings, however, as is it just an absolute CGI fest without much substance. Unlike say the opening to Saving Private Ryan, there’s no real meaning to any of the action. Ok, so comparing it to a sequence about the Normandy landings isn’t exactly fair. A fairer comparison would be the opening sequences to last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, which also had a big action/CGI sequence. But that sequence, featuring Blink, Sunspot, Kitty Pryde, etc, was highly emotive, much more cinematically refined and, it turned out, more meaningful to the central narrative of the film. By comparison, this opening sequence of AoU really is just a mindless action-fest, albeit a pretty one. It also is entirely in keeping with comic-book visual sensibilities and dynamics, which makes it feel like something of a homage to its source material, so it does score on that level.

Suddenly just dealing with Baron Strucker is a bit odd too; though the Agents of SHIELD TV series plays into some of this stuff too, so it kind of works on that expanded level, I guess. Maybe I’m just wistful for Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull and would prefer to see him brought back instead. Speaking of Agents of SHIELD, I couldn’t help but think some direct crossover here between the TV and film franchises might’ve been interesting, maybe with a Coulson cameo or something. Although maybe that would’ve just felt tokenistic or contrived.

But a lot of what we’re seeing feels like action for action’s sake. Great CGI and flawless technical execution, but largely devoid of heart or purpose. That, as I said, could be just as much a broader comment on modern big-budget cinema and not just an issue with Age of Ultron. And most of it really is designed for the cinema experience, whereas I don’t imagine I would personally be gleefully rewatching a lot of this action down the line. The other issue of course is that the level of technical capabilities and CGI in these sorts of things is already established and just par-for-course by now; there’s not much in this film, effects wise, that wasn’t already done just as well in the first film, such as in the Chitauri attack on New York.

This sense of superflous action-fest orgasm peaks with the Iron Man/Hulk fight sequence halfway through the movie, which although flawlessly executed on a technical level, is devoid of any real feeling or thoughtfulness and goes on for way too long. A scene like that, complete with super-mega-Godzilla-Iron-Man, is a perfect example of indulgent, overdone action/FX just for the sake of it. It’s like the stage in porn where it just becomes so excessive and over-the-top that you’re left just staring vacuously at an essentially vacuous situation. Um, not that I watch a lot of porn or anything.

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Much of the rest of the action deviates into this area too, though none of it as much as that Iron Man/Hulk fight. The sense of urgency and meaning in the climatic Sokovia battle sequence evaporated for me quite quickly, except for one or two scattered moments. The most interesting element about those scenes was probably Wanda Maximoff, as she brought something new to the set-up.

There was actually one moment in particular amid this climatic sequence that did make quite a strong impression, though it was essentially the old-school fan-boy in me reacting: it’s the moment where all the characters are gathered (um, sorry, I mean assembled) in that interior and launch into that final superhero team-up attack. The way that scene looks, with every character in frame and attacking outwards, each using their unique power, is something right out of a thousand Marvel comic-books. It’s a child-like kick I got out of it, admittedly; but of all the Marvel Comics derived films I’ve seen in these passed fifteen years or so since X-Men started it all, this one visual moment more than any other seems to capture that vibe of some of the comics I read when I was younger (particularly when The Vision shoots his beam-shooting thing). I’m astonished that shot wasn’t in one of the trailers.

This film’s ending is a little anti-climatic, but to be honest I’m not sure where you go after you just averted an apocalypse. I did sort of like the idea of the hotch-potch of ‘new’ Avengers gathering at the end, with the implication that they’re about to be either trained or that they’re going to be the Avengers now. It’s not the most impressive of all possible Avengers line-ups, if I’m honest; Vision and Wanda are fine, of course, but I still think Rhodes and Wilson are highly pedestrian fixtures. I get, however, that we’re simply making do at this stage; and that a few years down the line this ‘assembly’ will probably include Carol Danvers, the Black Panther, possibly Hank Pym, and maybe a few others. That’s actually pretty exciting actually, depending on what casting decisions are made in the next few years; add that list to the existing roster and we’ve got a lot of fun to be had.

We also of course get the obligatory Thanos reveal, infinity gauntlet included. I’ve just recently been re-reading some of the old Infinity Gauntlet, Infinity War and Infinity Crusade stuff from when I was a kid, and I’m genuinely excited to see what sort of adaptation of The Infinity War we end up with in a couple of years time. I can’t fathom this story being done without Adam Warlock, so I’m assuming Warlock is coming in in Avengers: Infinity War, Part 1 (or possibly in Guardians of the Galaxy 2). It’s going to be very interesting to see how all this is approached.

As for Age of Ultron, it is essentially a highly enjoyable cinema experience, with some terrific sequences and great moments, and in some places a degree of thematic depth; it falls short, however, of the overall quality I was expecting and is even disjointed and slightly awkward in large parts, feeling like a rushed, haphazard job. I hope this problem is remedied and then we don’t get a botched job of The Infinity War.

There’s a fair bit that could have been done better in this movie; at the same time, however, as simple superhero-centered cinema and action/adventure, it is as spectacular and as engrossing as we would expect. It is possible that I’m just seeking too much from these films. Wouldn’t be the first time.

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Comments
  1. […] Source: The Burning Blogger of Bedlam It’s surprisingly difficult to work out what I think of Age of Ultron. It’s a solid, entertaining movie, certainly… how could it not be? I mean you literally couldn’t make a bad movie, given the material and resources they’re working with. The strange thing about Avengers: Age of Ultron isRead more… […]

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  2. […] Battle of New York but the Battle of Sokovia is close and feels like there’s more at stake. ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ does have a lot more action all while still keeping it’s humor so you got to love it. Ultron […]

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  3. […] can’t say right now if I liked ‘Age of Ultron’ more than ‘The Avengers’ but it really doesn’t matter to me because it was […]

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