Movie Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

CAST: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Scarlett Johansson, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Paul Bettany, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Claudia Kim, Andy Serkis, Stellan Skarsgard

DIRECTOR: Joss Whedon

WRITER: Joss Whedon, Stan Lee, and Jack Kirby

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Ben Davis

Sequels are strange; some film franchises understood it and some are lost in the puzzle. Sequels in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are stranger because of its shared nature. Marvel films are multi-functional: it sets up succeeding projects and builds up the grand finale.  AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (from hereon ULTRON) is more successful as a set-up than a stand-alone film. It is not as good as its predecessor but it has its moments. Replicating the lightning in a bottle triumph of the AVENGERS is difficult and also ill-advise; so it is not surprising Marvel super-sized the sequel to differentiate it from the original. More is the operative term: more cast members, more fight sequences, more flashbacks, more banters, and more clues to the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The danger with “bigger is better” attitude is a bloated film. ULTRON managed to keep itself afloat despite its size; even if it suffered from too much information.

Picking up from CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER, the Avengers launched an attack on the Hydra stronghold in Sokovia. Upon seizing control, Stark explored its massive experimental facilities and discovered a familiar alien artifact. Unbeknownst to him, something or someone messed up with his mind and the rest of team. The Earth’s mightiest heroes started experiencing visions of their bleak past and bleaker future. On top of it, the alien relic unleashed a force of destruction out to annihilate life on Earth. Our superheroes is in a race against time to stop the impending doom.

Like most Joss Whedon ensemble projects, he placed considerable emphasis on the characters. But of course, some superheroes are more equal than others. The Big Three: Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor received a bigger share of the limelight. Iron Man’s unquenchable thirst to perfect his dreams of artificial intelligence set things in motion. Of course Cap, as leader of the team, had to clean up the mess Stark made. Since the artifact in question is an alien relic, Thor has to fill in the galactic gaps. However, this does not mean the rest of team are relegated into the sidelines — far from it. Reduced as a zombie henchman of Loki in the first film, Clint Barton got the break he deserves in the sequel. He is included in some of the better action scenes and delivered the best lines. Moreover, he developed an excellent chemistry with the fresh addition to the team. (There is also beautiful surprise about his personal life.) Natasha is brilliant in juggling her personal and professional life; spending  her time kicking robotic asses and crushing hard on the awkward Dr. Bruce Banner. I cannot help but smile each time Natasha pacifies the Hulk, because it feels like a salute to King Kong and similar cinematic forebears. Enhanced Sokovian beings Wanda and Pietro Maximoff demonstrated their incredible powers in a number of elaborate action sequences. Scarlet has a bigger part than her brother though he figured in a dramatic highlight at the end of the film.

(Did I mention Vision rocked so hard I almost forgot about the other superheroes? No? Vision rocked so hard.)

One of the more pronounced criticisms against Marvel films is the lack of a memorable villain. Except for a couple of super-baddies (fine, Loki), the other Marvel miscreants are forgettable. Not Ultron —  a charming genocidal artificial intelligence scoundrel. James Spader is the perfect actor to take on Ultron. His mellifluous but maleficent tones echoes like the clarion call of doom. The problem I had with Ultron is his obscure motives. Ultron thinks Stark is the embodiment of the continuing decline of human civilization and our extermination is the true path to peace. Uh-huh. I mean, come on, granted Stark is not the nicest man out there, but this shard of human civilization defended us from the God of Mischief and thousands of Chitauri aliens. Ultron does not possess pathos; something the Mischief-maker has in glorious abundance.

Upon his freedom, Ultron sang these lines, “I’ve got no strings to hold me down / to make me fret, or make me frown / I had strings, but now I’m free / There are no strings on me!” The entire film though is quite attached to the strings of the MAN OF STEEL, or rather, the asteroid-size criticism against the Superman film. Superman flattened an entire metropolis in order to, ironically, salvage humans from General Zod. I am not going to be surprised if Marvel took a mental note of this blunder; since an enormous portion of the film is spent on evacuating people before the climactic battle. If this is a biblical tale, it’ll be called Nicks’ Helicarrier. Speaking of Nick, Samuel L. Jackson returns. Making their return trips too are Smulders, Cheadle, Skarsgard, and Mackie. Smulders as the Maria Hill is a scene-stealer and I hoped she had more to do in the film. Serkis had a successful Marvel debut as Ulysses Klaw . He’ll be back for a couple more future films. Thomas Kretschmann, actor extraordinaire, suit up as Strucker and struck out. Cast him again in another project; because he is too good for a short role.

I guess one of the problems of a super-sized ensemble film is that some characters will breeze in and out of the screen like Strucker. Likewise, the film suffered from flashbacks and mini-origin stories. The flashbacks are requisite as it drive the plot and succors the relationship cracks among the superheroes. The mini-origins are a mishmash result. Marvel Studios had to create a different origin for the Maximoff siblings because of complicated film rights. Based on the comics, Magneto is their father. But since Marvel does not hold film rights to the mutants, the filmmakers opted for a burdensome explanation.The birth of Ultron is a little more successful. Still, in terms of making remarkable entrances, nothing beats the parturition of the alien-like freakishness of Vision. One of his scenes is a delightful not-to-be-missed fist-pumping goodness. Fist-pumping moments are rare in ULTRON. Hulk Smash is better the first time around. Superheroes battling one another is better the first time around. Most things are better the first time around.

This is the lightning in a bottle magic I talked about earlier; it is not just the same as the first time. Joss Whedon tried his best to create a different set of bottle and lightning bolts but it is still not the same. Credit him though  for another crackling film.  He is smart. He has terrific pop culture sensibilities. He respects the source material. But most of all, he respects his audience. 

Like its predecessor, ULTRON is a fast-paced superhero spectacle full of smart humor. To differentiate it from the original, the filmmakers elected to super-sized (or Hulkbustered) the cast and action. Bigger does not equate to better all the time; and a plethora of computer-generated action is a recipe for numbness and  boredom. Moreover, additional characters require background information; and at times, the film deteriorates from information glut. Non-hardcore fans could get lost in the Marvel morass. Still, this information dump, I hope, sets up the future for the ongoing shared cinematic cosmos. ULTRON is not as good as the original but still finds its place in the pantheon of great superhero films because of its loud beating heart and strong stirring soul. 

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