Avengers Age of Ultron – The most successful superhero movie of all time gets a super-sized sequel with surprising amounts of soul.
Three years after saving New York from an alien catastrophe, Marvel’s superhero ensemble once again find the weight of the world — or, for the very least, an airborne chunk of Eastern Europe — thrust upon their mighty shoulders in Avengers Age of Ultron, a super-sized spandex soap opera that’s heavy on disastrous action but surprisingly light on its feet, and rich in the human-scale emotion that can cut even an infuriating Hulk down to size.
Having gotten over the hump of assembling his six main characters in 2012’s The Avengers, returning writer-director Joss Whedon brings a looser, more inventive and stylish touch to this meticulous follow-up, which sees our now S.H.I.E.L.D.-less defenders dealing with a man-made enemy more deadly than any alien life form. Jump-starting the summer film season on May 1, “Age” may well cool its heels in theaters until the dog days of August, where it stands a very good position at overpassing the previous movie’s $1.5 billion worldwide haul.
For all its box office muscle (making it the third-highest domestic and global grosser of all time, behind Avatar and Titanic), The Avengers was barely the most glittering gem in the MCU, perhaps more memorable for its snappy bickering between caped crusaders than for its two gargantuan, pummeling action bits (one on a modern aircraft carrier, the other on the streets of Manhattan), which appeared haphazardly stitched together by Whedon and his editors, as if they were being paid by the cut.
That film greatly lacked the more intimate, character-building moments that had differentiate the first Iron Man and Captain America journeys from the superhero herd. But it did have two aces up its vibranium sleeve in the name of Tom Hiddleston’s twisted Loki (sinking his teeth into each of Whedon’s faux-Shakespearean lines as if they were ripe, juicy fruits) and Mark Ruffalo’s existentially conflicted Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk, ill at ease in his own body whether green or white.
Having apparently resolved that one failed Earthly invasion is enough for one millennium, Loki is nowhere to be seen in Age of Ultron, but even lacking his caustic wit, the new film is a sleeker, faster, funnier piece of work — the kind of sequel (like Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan, Superman II and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom prior to it) that shrugs off the self-seriousness of its predecessor and entirely embraces its inner Saturday-morning serial. Instead of putting all his eggs in one apocalyptic basket, Whedon this time hopscotches the world from Europe to Africa to Asia and back, setting exuberant mini-cliffhangers as he goes. And if we must once again watch the world end — or come perilously close — Age of Ultron at least gives us a more compelling (and plausible) destroyer than yet another galactic supervillain hellbent on domination. Particularly, it gives us that most destructive of all universal forces: man’s very own best purposes.
Before all that, this second chapter plunks us down in the wintry republic of Sokovia, where Captain America (Chris Evans) and the gang raid a mountaintop Hydra base to retrieve Loki’s chaotic scepter from the hands of Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann, last seen up to no good in the post-credits teaser from last year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier). It’s there that the team first meets two new, genetically enhanced enemies: the twins Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), he of blinding speed and she of blazing psychic abilities — including the power to infect others with surreal and terrifying waking dreams rooted in their deepest fears. These nifty phantasmagorias allow Whedon to flex his visual imagination in ways that the first Avengers never hinted at (think A Nightmare on Marvel Street). But a bigger threat to the Avengers lies in plain sight much close to home. Its name is Ultron, and it begins life as a kind of ghost in the Stark Industries machine: an artificially intelligent “global peacekeeping initiative” designed to serve as “a suit of armor around the world.” Iron Man, meet Iron Dome.
As such brainchildren are wont to do in the annals of sci-fi (in which man usually suffers for playing God), Ultron enters sentience with some huge daddy issues and the temperament of a hormonal kid, ready to bite (off) the hand that fed him and then some. When the character of Ultron first appeared in the Avengers comics circa 1968, he was the Frankenstein-like creation not of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) but of Ant-Man’s Hank Pym.
But for the character’s film debut, Whedon has made him over into a sort of power-mad Pinocchio (complete with a few sly nods to the 1940 Disney animated classic) who needs zero help from a fairy godmother to lance his strings, creating a makeshift suit of Stark Industries armor, and raise a whole drone army in his own image. (Like father, like son, indeed.) The film’s visual-effects experts (a whopping 19 studios are credited) have a grand old time with Ultron’s herky-jerky movements, but James Spader has an even grander one voicing the machine-man’s self-aggrandizing sentiments — a diabolical purr that sounds like HAL 9000 reborn as a Vegas lounge lizard.
With no doubt, what Ultron desires most of all is to become a real live boy — well, that and to turn a large chunk of Sokovia into a meteorite to be hurled back at the Earth like a fast ball down the middle. But even as billions of lives hang on the line, Age of Ultron takes (welcome) time out to show us what our Avengers do when they aren’t busy with saving the world. In the case of Banner and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), that makes for a nicely hesitant romance between savage man-beast and the woman (with no shortage of her own emotional baggage) who knows how to soothe him.
Ruffalo and Johansson have great chemistry together, and they become the tender heart of a film that also makes an unexpected reveal about the personal life of Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton/Hawkeye, and frequently reminds us that, while sticks and (infinity) stones may hardly harm these Marvel mainstays, their psyches have suffered their fair share of heavy blows. (Taking his cue from those reviews that compared the first Avengers to a comic book Rio Bravo, Whedon has also amped up the Hawksian vibe here, including some amusing macho posturing having to do with Thor’s mighty hammer.)
When the film does return to symphony-of-destruction mode, it remains engaging precisely as Whedon has given us reasons to care — at least a tiny bit — about the all the whirring and smashing and booming and crashing. It helps that the actors at this point wear these roles as comfortably as second skins — an enviable model that those forthcoming superhero alliances, Fantastic Four and Justice League, can only dream of following. (Even Downey, whose smirking sarcasm had already begun to wear thin by the time of Iron Man 3, is kept relatively in check here, despite his top billing.)
And while Whedon still misses the innately gifted image-making of his evident role model, Steven Spielberg (or of his fanboy contemporary, J.J. Abrams), he keeps the film’s heavy machinery in constant, fluid motion. If this is what the apotheosis of branded, major-studio entertainment has become in 2015, we could be doing much more terrible. Unlike its titular character, Age of Ultron most certainly has soul.
Working for the first time with British d.p. Ben Davis (Guardians of the Galaxy), Whedon thinks the movie out in more cinematic terms than the previous entry, with some complex tracking scenes that last for upwards of a whole minute. Dueling composers Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman have provided a surfeit of speaker-rattling action music, though the most memorable passages remain those recycled bits of Alan Silvestri’s brassy Avengers fanfare.
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