Directed by: Joss Whedon || Produced by: Kevin Feige
Screenplay by: Joss Whedon || Starring (hold your breath…): Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgard, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Linda Cardellini, Thomas Kretschmann, Andy Serkis, Claudia Kim
Music by: Brian Tyler, Danny Elfman || Cinematography by: Ben Davis || Edited by: Jeffrey Ford, Lisa Lassek || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 141 minutes
One of the most anticipated films in Marvel’s cinematic canon since…the original Avengers (2012) has quickly become one of the franchise’s most divisive projects yet. While it’s unlikely fan banter over this movie will rival the sheer civil war-esque split over Man of Steel (2013) and DC’s own burgeoning cinematic universe, the general consensus of Joss Whedon’s followup to his first Marvel home-run is that it pales in comparison the original Avengers and even some of the better MCU standalones like Iron Man (2008), The Winter Soldier (2014), and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). It’s a consensus with which I agree.
The aforementioned are mostly predictable disappointments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe style as a whole (though the whole reason many are disappointed or underwhelmed by Age of Ultron is that the first Avengers bucked that trend). Marvel has always favored franchise development, interconnection, and ubiquity over the quality of its individual projects. The MCU has sacrificed or glossed over the development of most of its canon for the sake of canonical consistency, something which pleases hardcore comic book fans (or is something they’re willing to easily overlook), something which displeases non-comic book fan cinephiles like myself, and something that general audiences couldn’t care less about. In the end, this Marvel juggernaut is about providing unforgettable spectacle and putting asses in seats.
The real problems I have with Age of Ultron (AoU) are its basic direction and pacing, things that were also superior in the original Avengers and the MCU’s aforementioned three best standalones. AoU opens with a blast of action right away and champions the cartoony, tension-free, silly CGI-spectacle the franchise is best known for. While it’s cool to see our heroes working together as a team (again), this extended sequence has no stakes and features our heroes dispatching enemies so easily and effortlessly that there’s no reason at all for me to care. The following action-scenes are better illustrated and at least provide some opposition for the Avengers in the form of Ultron (James Spader) and
Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), but all of AoU’s setpieces lack both the buildup and sheer scale of even the 2012 feature’s lesser battles.
We all understand that Whedon had a near-impossible task writing an Avengers sequel that was even more expansive than the original and bridged to further MCU films (trust us, Marvel fans, we get it). Again, that’s my complaint with Kevin Feige’s mission to push the franchise over the movies themselves, but let’s let that qualm go for a bit. However, when you have so many main characters (4-6 depending on how you count), plus a major villain, plus two substantial minor villains, plus a multitude of secondary supporting characters, plus various cameos from MCU sidekicks, plus a non-insignificant number of extended cameos for characters of future importance to the Marvel canon and/or foreign audience-pandering… when you add all that up, the pacing either needs to be incredibly efficient or somebody’s gotta go, or both. This is where the film really falters for me, more so than the lackluster mini-arcs of the four main superheros and the cartoony action.
If you value this movie’s narrative coherency over a juggarnaut corporation’s media-takeover, these complaints are totally valid, and kneejerk fanboy/girl justifications fall flat. There is absolutely no reason for characters played by Don Cheadle, Cobie Smulders, Andy Serkis, Claudia Kim, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgard, and Thomas Kretschmann to be in this movie. Sure, individually their lines and screentime are negligible, but they mount up quickly and only pay off if you’ve seen every fucking film in the MCU. Hell, I’ve seen every film in the MCU and I didn’t give two shits about seeing any of them! All these characters are doing here are setting up future films we haven’t seen yet and will have to pay more money to understand their impact. They add nothing of weight that pays off in this film.
To that end, much of the story feels like it’s just treading water despite having a plethora of characters who don’t go anywhere. Numerous non-action scenes like the Avengers/Stark Tower party and the Hawkeye “safehouse” drag on forever for no reason other than to fire off repetitive Whedon-jokes that become increasingly tiresome the more they’re driven into the ground. The first Avengers felt tightly scripted and relied on strict cause-and-effect logic. This movie meanders from one setpiece to the next to allow the maximum number of lame jokes and cameos possible.
Why in the hell are we burning valuable screentime on Andy Serkis and no-name Claudia Kim and moving the film to South Korea for no reason at all? Well, there is in fact a reason! Because we have to setup Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue and Wakanda for the future Black Panther movie and pander to lucrative Korean markets, that’s why.
Now I don’t want to advocate that I hated this movie or even vehemently disliked it. I found it disappointing, especially compared to the previous Avengers. I would be negligent not to point out the things that I liked. The performances by all the principle Avengers are very good, and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is surprisingly the best of the whole cast. He has the best lines and his character is given some necessary depth and fun reversals. Clearly Whedon felt bad for glossing over his character in the previous film, and he made up for that in spades here.
Finally, while the final battle pales in comparison to the New York-finale of the 2012 film, it’s satisfying overall and features the best camerawork of the movie. I still wish Ultron himself was more threatening and unstoppable than he ended up being, and Paul Bettany’s Vision is a bit of a deux ex machina, but the gigantic onslaught has good sense of scale and coherent geography. I like how our heroes take some time to save the civilians rather than focus solely on endless explosions and destruction. It’s more sensible than Man of Steel’s finale and much of Pacific Rim’s (2013) rampage.
Where I get stuck in terms of confused enjoyment of AoU and much of the greater Marvel spectacle as a whole is that these films rarely tell tightly knit, effective stories with clear arcs, nor do they provide much in the way of creative, interesting action. They generally boast good performances, consistent comedy, and strong visuals, but at the end of the day they can be reduced to a colorful mishmash of “stuff” that explodes on screen with no rhyme or reason, featuring the same recycled MacGuffin over and over again and a plethora of minor characters no one in their right mind would ever care about.
To that end, the MCU’s financial success does not occur in a vacuum. It affects (often negatively) the rest of the global film market and all other films that aren’t superhero-oriented, so claiming that all this superhero hype and complaining is overblown because there are only a handful of superhero films released in cinemas per year doesn’t really fly with me. There’s only one new Transformers (2007, 2009, 2011, 2014) every few years, people, but trust me, that series’ overwhelming financial success is sending shockwaves throughout the rest of the industry. Don’t fucking tell me these movies don’t affect me if I don’t see them.
In the end, Age of Ultron, much like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), is a good compass for determining what type of cinephile or movie-fan you are. If you’re the type of person who requires logical cause-and-effect sequences for a story to unfold, who cares about sensible character development that can be explained and contained within a single film , you won’t enjoy this movie much. If you’re the kind of fan who relies on heavy duty CGI-spectacle and/or childhood nostalgia to fuel your appreciation of a bigger cinematic picture and overarching canonical universe, you will get a lot out of this movie. It’s almost a litmus test for determining where one’s artistic sensibilities lie.
Where I have more respect for something like Interstellar is that at least a film like that takes chances with its huge budget and mainstream director-appeal; it tries to do something relatively new or different, where as AoU, I feel, is just more of the same. It’s repetitive, it’s ho-hum, and I’ve seen it all before, including in the previous Avengers movie, but wrapped within a tighter script, better developed characters, and more coherent action.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Though I’m not sure they adhere to the laws of Newtonian physics or any physical universe I’ve ever heard of, the FX are colorful and epic. The finale is a good mix of shoot ’em ups, robot-bashing, and good ole-fashioned superhero rescues. The MCU continues to rely on its overwhelmingly likable cast and character banter to carry its stories, and I suppose in that respect, it succeeds.
— However… if you thought the original Avengers was overcrowded, you ain’t seen nothing yet. This film’s cast is so cramped and overflowing for no good reason that almost nobody has time to shine. Virtually no character has a substantial arc within this singular story, and the story is so poorly paced that none of the major set-pieces hit like they could or should.
Also, remember the tense, grounded fist-fights and shootouts between Captain American and the Winter Soldier? Remember how easy it was to project oneself into that story and feel the weight of every punch and gunshot? Well, prepare for a cartoony, over-the-top cheese-fest with little bits of live-action sprinkled throughout. Whedon’s snarky humor grows tiresome the fifth or sixth time we cover how Rogers doesn’t like bad language.
—> ON THE FENCE
? Fine, I’ll do it myself!