IN A NUTSHELL
In a move clearly designed to give him more time to climb aboard Pepper Potts and / or lapse back into alcoholism, wealthy industrialist Tony Stark A.K.A. Iron-Man (Robert Downey Jr.) builds an A.I.-powered robot named Ultron (voiced by James Spader) to take over as earth's primary guardian. Unfortunately as soon as Ultron takes one look at the internet, the sentient android comes to the logical and forgivable conclusion that all of humanity should be wiped out. Naturally the Avengers assemble to stop him but two secret H.Y.D.R.A. experiments may end up tearing the team apart from the inside.
IN THE WHEELHOUSE
Given the tally of box office receipts thus far, I think it's safe to say that EVERYONE ON THE FREAKIN' PLANET is predisposed to watching this movie. Seriously, though, if you like your action with a side-order of brains, actors who elevate goofy material by their sheer presence and character *slash* story arcs that permanently shake up a fictional universe, than Age of Ultron is just what the Doctor ordered.
- Writer / director / god amongst men Joss Whedon had a lot of ground to over this time out. He had to deliver some meaningful character moments for all six of his primary leads. He had to introduce Quicksilver, Scarlett Witch and Vision. He had to bring back a slew of supporting characters such as Maria Hill, Sam Wilson a.k.a. The Falcon, James Rhodes a.k.a. War Machine, Peggy Carter, Heimdall, Erik Selvig and Nick Fury. He had to address the current struggle against H.Y.D.R.A. and bring Loki's scepter back into play. He had to give us an origin story for Ultron. But perhaps the most challenging thing of all: he had to till and sow the plot field for the third Captain America movie and the future Infinity War. As someone who's actually written for comic books, knows Marvel lore inside and out and is a huge stickler for continuity and decent storytelling, Whedon is perhaps the best possible candidate to pull this off and he actually acquits himself remarkably well.
- Just like in Captain America: Winter Soldier, some very interesting questions are raised about relevant real-word topics such as preemptive war and the dangers of rogue A.I. Seriously, I love that a movie featuring an archer, a Russian spy, an armored industrialist, a walking American flag and a giant green rage monster also includes deep thoughts that make you go "Hmmmmmm." Pity that there's isn't enough time to give these heady topics the time and respect they deserve but at least it inspired some thought-provoking, pithy dialogue such as this choice exchange between Captain America and Iron-Man:
Isn't that the mission? Isn't that the 'why we fight'? So we get to go home?
Every time someone times to stop a war before it starts, innocent people die. Every time.
- Although he's still a far cry from Guillermo del Toro or even, dare I say it, a Zack Snyder, Whedon is getting better as an action director. The opening assault on Baron Strucker's outpost, the Hulk-versus-"Hulkbuster" scrap and the extremely "comic-booky" climax are all super-fun to watch. Wisely Whedon hits the pause button every once and awhile to let the audience soak in all of the awesome.
- No surprise here but the script is rife with Joss Whedon's trademark humorous sides, funny quips, manic banter and creative twistings of the English language. Witness the hilarious recurring interplay between the heroes concerning the liftability of Mjölnir, Iron Man's mid-fight lullaby mantra to the Hulk, Natasha's verbal back-lash against Laura's "traitorous" womb, Nick Fury's comment about Ulton's sudden proliferation, Tony's secret door fetish, Thor's back-peddling to Bruce about "the screams of his victims" and oh so many more. Honestly, I wanna re-watch Age of Ultron just to hear all of the lines I laughed through.
- Robert Downey Jr. continues to surprise as our favorite one-percenter-with-a-conscience Tony Stark. Via a combination of raw charisma, inhuman intelligence and supreme confidence, Downey actually manages to make cocky and egotistical kinda sexy. Now some might gripe that the hard lessons Tony learned about teamwork in the previous film have since been "unlearned" but I don't agree. The man is still freakishly brilliant and unaccustomed to restrictions placed on him by lesser intellects, which is pretty much everyone else on the planet. He knows that if he tables the Ultron program in committee with the rest of the Avengers they'll just dismiss it out of turn. Downey manages to strike a pretty good balance between regret and resolve but considering just how much havoc Ultron ends up wreaking I'd like to have seen him be a tad more contrite. If not for the fact that Joss Whedon is pretty militant about replicating scripted dialogue on camera I'd say that Ar Dee Jay pulled a fast one and ad-libbed 90% of his lines, so natural is his delivery.
- Equally on-point is Chris Evans as Steve "Captain America" Rogers. As a pissed-off kid I always used to lean more towards violent, morally-ambiguous antiheroes like Batman, Lobo and Wolverine but as an informed adult I'm much more keen on genuine heroes like Cap. That's not to say that he's preachy or blindly patriotic, quite the opposite. Events depicted in the first Avengers and Winter Soldier in particular have really gotten Cap's knickers in a knot RE: authority overreach and granting limitless powers for the powerful. Thanks to Evans and the MCU writers the proselytizing and propagandizing Captain America of yore to gone, replaced by a relevant sounding board for biting social commentary. Whedon is particularly adept at writing for the character; the running gag about Cap's reflexive anti-"bad language" reflex action is nicely juxtaposed against his incessant shit-disturberery. Yes, the guy has Conservative roots but they have nothing to do with the paranoia masquerading as news on Fox. Whedon also knows that super-hero movies should ultimately be for kids and it's great that there's at least one Avenger who'll do everything he can to keep innocent people safe. It's a reassuring message that kids can't hear often enough.
- Of all the major characters, I'd say that Chris Hemsworth's Thor probably gets the shortest shift this time out. By all accounts an entire subplot involving Thor had to be jettisoned when Whedon's first cut of the film clocked in at a whopping one-hundred and ninety-five minutes! About the only solo screen time Thor gets is a completely out-of-left-field sequence in which he seeks out Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) to take a dip in a scrying pool to flesh out a vision inspired by Scarlet Witch. Despite this clunky, inexplicable scene, Hemsworth is his usual swaggering, beaming, charming, god-like self. In addition to providing some valuable intel concerning Loki's staff and its ties to the Infinity Stones, Thor also shares some choice dialogue with this fellow Avengers, including a "my girlfriend is better than your girlfriend" throw-down with Tony Stark and a great exchange with James Rhodes over a relatively-underwhelming War Machine story.
- Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow also continues to impress. Thanks to the catch-all script convenience of the aforementioned Scarlet Witch whammy, we get some harrowing insight into Widow's early K.G.B. training. Supposedly there's sort of controversy swirling around how Whedon handled her character this time out but on the drive back home from the theater both me and the wife were wracking our brains trying to figure out what all the fuss was all about. Is it because she gets captured at one point? Maybe, but it's not like she's acts like some sort of helpless waif that needs to be rescued. In fact, Widow brilliantly manages to parlay her imprisonment into a win for the team. There's only one other possible gripe with a shade of legitimacy but I'll cover that in the CON section down below. Suffice to say that I think that Widow is just as stalwart, self-assured, smart and kick-ass as ever and Johansson has officially trumped any preconceived notions I've ever held about casting this character.
- Which brings me to Bruce Banner a.k.a. Ol' Jade Jaws, as played by Mark Ruffalo. Despite the fact that his emerald alter ego was instrumental in saving New York City last time out, Banner is still quite gun shy and, hey, who can blame him? Having the Hulk on a super team is like having Gordon Ramsay working at Subway; he's constantly going to be surrounded by shit that pisses him off and when he finally snaps, it's gonna be ugly. Ruffalo's "walking on eggshells" approach is pitch-perfect and the Hulk's unexpected dénouement makes perfect sense to me, especially in light of the character's comic book predilections. Even though I was kinda irked by how easily Bruce rolls over for Tony, it does speak volumes about Stark's charisma and persuasiveness. All told I genuinely enjoyed yet another nuanced performance by Ruffalo and particularly enjoyed any scenes he shared with Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr.
- Then there's Clint Barton a.k.a. Hawkguy as portrayed by Jeremy Renner. If anything, Age of Ultron serves as Joss Whedon's apologetic love letter to the character since Hawkeye spent the lion's share of that first film under Loki's hypnotic thrall. Now if this was a completely uninspired script, Clint and Natasha would be an item but thankfully Whedon is on hand to serve up the unexpected. So color me genuinely surprised when it's revealed that Hawkeye enjoys a pretty normal life of domestic bliss, embracing a more recent incarnation of the character's folklore. Now, I'm perfectly content with this since it makes the dude even more blue collar and gives Whedon a chance to drop a bunch of godlike titans into what amounts to a kitchen party. Hawkeye also delivers some of the best dialogue of the film, including a half-muttered response to a show-boating Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and words of encouragement to a shell-shocked Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). His pep talk with her embodies precisely why I believe that Whedon is the absolute best candidate to helm a traditional comic book movie. Via a few economic lines, Renner sums up the ludicrous spectacle of cinematic childhood wish fulfillment. Someone really needs to get Matt Fraction on the horn and get a solo Hawkeye movie into production post-haste.
- Since Joss Whedon is physically incapable of writing a boring villain, I'll just say that Ultron is not boring. It also helps that James Spader does a phenomenal job voicing the character. I just wish they'd made some different stylistic choices with him, which I hope to elaborate on in the CONS section down below.
- These movies are now so unrepentantly over-the-top epic that formally A-list characters and actors have been relegated to walk-on status. Considering the caliber of talent inhabiting these supporting roles this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Samuel L. Jackson makes a welcome return as the incongruously-comforting, calming and reassuring Nick Fury. Given that he's still technically in exile over the whole H.Y.D.R.A. debacle it makes sense that his presence is fleeting but Jackson is so strong that his appearance feels like a tease. Also, I don't know if this was brilliant foresight or not but the previously-unseen Paul Bettany, who's been the voice of Tony Stark's automated butler J.A.R.V.I.S. since day one, turns out to be a great choice as The Vision. He's the android incarnate; stoic, fascinating to look at and listen to and, in all Ultron's own words, "unbelievably naïve". This back-handed compliment gives Bettany the perfect opportunity to respond "Well, I was born yesterday". He's a great choice and I can't wait to see more of the character in future entries. In addition to tantalizing dollops of these great actors, we also get the mesmerizing Cobie Smulders back as Maria Hill, the so-good-he's-overkill Don Cheadle as James "Rhodey" Rhodes / War Machine, a brief but rousing appearance by Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson a.k.a. The Falcon and the speculative introduction of Andy Serkis as arms dealer and possible future Avengers foil Ulysses Klaue.
- As if this star-studded extravaganza didn't already top-heavy with interesting characters and great actors, we also get Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver. Comic book nerds like your truly already know that the siblings are actually mutants but because Fox has a choke hold on that particular term, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff are depicted here as H.Y.D.R.A.-augmented humans. But, since no one actually comes out and says that they aren't mutants, I'd like to think that these two inherited their freaky-ass powers from their uber-powerful pops and H.Y.D.R.A. just kinda tweaked their abilities and brainwashed 'em a little bit. Both are perfectly capable in their respective roles and use their tragic scripted origins to good effect. In the "Battle of the Quicksilvers" between Evan Peters in X-Men: Days of Future Past and Aaron Taylor-Johnson I have to give the Duke to the former. Admittedly it isn't a completely fair fight since Singer had a lot more time to illustrate his version's speed freak powers and Tweak-from-South Park personality. Aaron Taylor-Johnson does make the most of his fleeting screen time, however, serving up equal measures of bravado and bitterness. Elizabeth Olsen is also pretty durned good, even if her faux-Eastern Bloc accent wavers in and out of existence from time to time. She does a pretty remarkable job segueing from vengeful to sneaky to jilted to anguished and finally settling on ROYALLY PISSED OFF. As previously mentioned she shares arguably the best scene in the movie with Jeremy Renner. When Scarlett Witch is unexpectedly thrown into a completely surreal pitched battle between the Avengers and a horde of Xeroxed Ultrons she understandably goes a bit "deer in headlights" until Hawkeye shakes her out of her funk. An inferior script would have her hexing Ultron's drones like a pro but instead Josh Whedon uses this as a perfect opportunity to polish the patina on Scarlet Witch's character, giving Olsen a chance to shine in the process.
- Even though he's convincingly animated and well-voiced by James Spader I didn't care for this particular take on Ultron. Notwithstanding the fact that Hank Pym isn't his daddy for simplicity's sake, I was genuinely irked by how human he was. Given Ultron's complete and total contempt for earth's meat-bag inhabitants, you think that he'd act in direct opposition to us, but nope, this evil sentient robot trades barbs, one-liners and quips with our heroes like Spider-Man. I kinda wish Whedon went with something a lot more mechanical, cold and scary, like a warped incarnation of the sort of superior A.I. that Ray Kurzweil has been inadvertently warning us all about. Ultron's fully-articulated mechanical face was also supremely distracting and I couldn't help but think how much cooler and creepier it would have been if they'd just gone with a fixed Darth Vader-style faceplate on a Terminator exoskeleton body.
- I'm also pretty cheesed off that Ultron just kinda comes out of no-where. Sure, we had a few omens in Iron Man 3 but nothing to properly introduce the villain's origins. He just kinda stumbles onscreen within fifteen minutes and starts kicking ass. Sorry, but some kinda back story or build up really would have been appreciated here.
- The close-up, hyper-kinetic oil tanker rumble strays uncomfortably close to Michael Bay territory.
- For the life of me I can't fathom why Bruce Banner thinks that a relationship with Natasha Romanov is verboten just because he can't give her the same Norman Rockwell-style future that Clint Barton unexpectedly enjoys. She's an ass-kicking secret agent for Chrissakes, do you really think that her ideal future consists of soiled diapers, soccer games and parent-teacher meetings? For such an otherwise smartly-written script, this is a pretty idiotic assumption. Hey, Bruce, maybe all she just wants to do is just hang out, get some frozen yogurt and bone you senseless? Isn't that enough?
- Considering the events in the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Captain America: Winter Soldier I have no idea how Nick Fury pulled that Helicarrier outta his ass. I'm sure it's probably explained somewhere, but as it happens in Age of Ultron it feels w-a-a-a-a-a-a-y too deus ex machina.
- Compared to the first film, Whedon obviously had a lot more plates spinning in the air this time out. After watching Age of Ultron, I was left with the distinct impression that all Joss really wanted to do was tell a simple, cautionary tale about the hubris of genius intellect and the dangers inherent in blindly pursuing artificial intelligence without considering the ramifications. But since the Marvel Cinematic Universe has gotten so gosh darn top-heavy, he just couldn't do it. A quick word of caution to Kevin Feige: linking movies together like issues from two different comic book titles might seem like a good idea on paper, but left unchecked you could end up with mediocre groupthink products like Spider-Man 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand. About the only human being on earth who could possibly reconcile this is Joss Whedon, a dude who's written for comics, simultaneously produced two serial television shows set in the same universe and consistently exhibits a Rain Man-like aptitude for juggling advanced continuity. I firmly believe that if this movie had been in anyone else's hands it probably would have been a hot mess. Now that he's been driven from the series I sincerely hope that the whole thing doesn't collapse under the obligatory weight of interdependence.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It's pretty clear to me that Joss Whedon was struggling a lot more this time out. The clarion-clear plot at the heart of that first Avengers movie has been complicated by a slavish dedication to past lore and stories that have yet to be told. By all accounts, Whedon lost a lot of sleep over this and that's why I'm tilting things firmly in his favor. When his original vision for the film inevitably comes to home video I'm confident that we'll get a richer, more coherent and satisfying story and he'll be soundly vindicated.
Whatever you think of the movie in its current form it should still be recognized as a unique achievement in his own right. Whereas the first Avengers was one of the first movies to capture the sheer, unmitigated, child-like glee of comic books and Captain America: Winter Soldier perfectly embodies the brain and social conscience of a graphic novel, Age of Ultron is the first film to successfully juggle the oft-convoluted concurrent story lines and lore found in your favorite three- color classics.
I'd say see Age of Ultron for the fun of it and then give it silent praise for the sheer audacity of the attempt.