There’s a kind of inevitability that fills the air when talking about Marvel movies in any sort of critical light. It’s the knowledge that regardless of whether critics love or hate a new Marvel film, audiences will still show up in droves on opening day and many are likely return for repeat viewings. These movies are just meant to be big and fun, right? Why bother seriously weighing in? As of this review, Avengers: Age of Ultron has earned nearly a quarter of a billion dollars overseas and is poised to perform just as well on this side of the pond.
That general attitude and financial reality can make reviewing a film like Avengers: Age of Ultron feel almost redundant. Weighing in one way or the other won’t change the billion dollar facts, but when a Marvel movie fails to check one of those all important boxes — big and fun — then it is absolutely worth noting.
There’s no question that Avengers: Age of Ultron is big. It’s a globe-trotting adventure that sees Earth’s mightiest heroes — Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye and the Hulk — dealing with huge stakes (quite literally city-sized in the film’s third act) and acting as world police in the absence of the once ever-present S.H.I.E.L.D. The action kicks into high gear when, in an effort to make everyone’s lives a little easier, science bros Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) decide to create an Earth-defending artificial intelligence (as you do) and inadvertently unleash the super evil A.I. known as Ultron (a hyper-smarmy James Spader). Naturally, Ultron decides the best path forward is to destroy mankind and, in true comic book fashion, Stark’s potentially extinction level error in judgement causes much friction among the team at a time when the planet needs them the most. Backing Ultron up are two superpowered, totally-not-mutant twins, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who provide more than a match for our titular heroes. It’s a great setup, but unfortunately the resulting film is, at best, okay.
It seems a real shame that anyone should come away from a $250 million superhero blockbuster saying that it was simply “okay” — particularly one packed with some of the most entertaining big screen characters in recent memory. But that was how I felt leaving Age of Ultron. The fun — the sense of awe that you should feel seeing this ragtag team of super agents, super men and demigods in action — is lost somewhere after the third or fourth studio-mandated set piece. We’re talking Michael Bay-sian levels of municipal destruction and computer generated mayhem here. It’s well-executed mayhem, for the most part, but it gets a little stale after the 857th faceless Hydra goon or automaton is taken out in an explosion of concrete and steel. At some points the screen is so filled with… stuff — people, robots, debris, energy blasts — that it is nearly impossible to focus on one thing or even tell what’s happening.
If Marvel’s recent efforts like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Iron Man 3 can offer any lessons to Age of Ultron, it’s that sometimes less is more with these characters. The individual Avengers work best not when they’re effortlessly saving the day with space hammers, super strength, or repulsor blasts, but when they’re on the ropes. Winter Soldier took away Cap’s safety net and Iron Man 3 robbed Stark of his armour; the biggest conflict in Age of Ultron isn’t killer robots, but whether the team will kiss and makeup — and that resolution is never in doubt. Outside of that, the film powers up its superteam at every opportunity, constantly giving already ridiculously overpowered heroes new allies and ammo to fight Ultron. Why bother raising the bar endlessly if there’s never any question that your heroes will come out on top?
Unexpectedly, it’s in the quiet moments between missions that Age of Ultron works best. Getting to see the team hang out and interact while not under enemy fire is a real highlight of the film, and something that was really lacking in the first Avengers. Writer/director Joss Whedon’s trademark dialogue really sings in these scenes, with the best material going to the increasingly couply Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner, and Hawkeye’s superhero tutelage of the twins. Even here though, it doesn’t all work. There are several lengthy flashback/hallucination scenes that go on for far too long and a strange subplot involving Thor and Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) that feels like a completely unnecessary diversion. Paul Bettany’s The Vision is certainly a welcome addition to the team, but his origin is a muddy, convoluted affair that really drags down the middle part of the film.
So is it worth your time and all the hype? Yes, if you’re invested in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe at all, then Age of Ultron is an essential piece of the ever-growing puzzle, and yet another chance to see ‘Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’ together in action. When the movie is fun, it’s very fun, but those moments are few and mostly get lost amongst a barrage of lifeless CG set pieces. Cap caps, Iron Man throws out quips and micro-missiles with equal ease, Thor hammers and hams it up, Hawkeye complains a lot, Black Widow kicks butt, and the Hulk hulks out. It’s what you want to see the Avengers doing, but if you thought you were feeling superhero fatigue before Age of Ultron, you’ll definitely be feeling the strain afterward.
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