Avengers: Age of Ultron

aaouI thought about using this review as an excuse to rank all of the MCU films. But since Ant-Man is technically the end of Phase 2, I’ll wait until July.

On to the review…

On the heels of one of the best super hero films ever, The Avengers, you can’t help but have high hopes. Unfortunately, with hopes this high, it’s usually going to be something of a disappointment. And, big and exciting as it was, Age of Ultron was still not everything I wanted.

For a spoiler free review, I’ll say that the action is stellar, and the performances are spot on. Some of the plotting and some of the character motivations left me cold. It’s a really good film, just not a great one.

Now, to the spoilers…

In the opening, wherein the Avengers are storming a castle in Eastern Europe to get Loki’s scepter (a nice callback to the first film), the heroes get sidelined by Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch (aka Elizabeth Olsen), and we get visions. But they’re not even all the same kinds of visions, which is annoying. One is a straight-up flashback. One is a fantasy flashback. One is, seemingly a vision of the future. And another is sort of a vision of the future, but it’s also so weird that it can’t be real. Right there, I’m annoyed with the movie. And I’m annoyed with Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (aka Robert Downey, Jr.) for believing his vision so totally.

I found the party scene at Avengers Tower to be amusing, but it also was filled with minor annoyances. The way Tony and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) reference their lady loves is clearly a way to keep those missing characters alive for the audience, while not paying the actresses in question (Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman) any salaries. Bounced me right out of the film. And why, in a room filled exclusively with established superhero characters from many previous films, is one random Korean chick sitting there? For the plot. That’s why.

Now we get to the titular Ultron. He’s born, almost by accident, and has a conversation with J.A.R.V.I.S., during which he decides to be evil. I didn’t buy that at all. There seemed to be no motivation for evil. He’s just evil so there can be a movie. Of course, his appearance at the party is quite exceptional. So, kudos there.

Next there’s a whole sequence in Africa that I don’t really remember very well, except that Andy Serkis is in it, in the flesh! He’s great. And Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) get’s all weirded out by Wanda, leaving him as a crazed Hulk, fighting Tony in his specially built Hulkbuster suit. Yeah, I don’t buy that all you have to do is up the Iron Man suit by one order of magnitude in power and you’re a match for the Hulk. But it looked cool, I guess.

After that sequence, we take a much needed breather at the home of this film’s real hero, Hawkeye, aka Clint Barton (aka Jeremy Renner). I am convinced that the marketing was designed to make me think Hawkeye would die. If that’s me being overly cynical, this sequence is definitely trying to telegraph Hawkeye’s death at the end of the film. This is one of the best misdirects in recent cinema.

Some other things in this farmhouse interlude kind of bug me. Thor running away without explanation. (And the following scene with Stellan Skarsgard was a huge waste of time, except as a preview of Ragnarok.) Tony and Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (aka Chris Evans) have a spat that’s a little too much of an on-the-nose preview of Civil War. Natasha Romanov, aka Black Widow (aka Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce have a little tete-a-tete that almost works. I almost buy that she’s into this guy. (It is entirely believable that any man would be into her.) I just wish this romance had been more than the fourth or fifth most important plot line in a huge film. It didn’t have enough time to breathe.

I liked the way they turned Wanda and her brother Pietro Maximoff, aka Quicksilver (aka Aaron Taylor-Johnson) into good guys. They had a legitimate beef with Tony (and, by extension, all of “the West”). But they didn’t want to nuke the planet. I appreciate that character shift. And the whole Seoul sequence is pretty boss. Though, I have to admit having Ultron carry Natasha away instead of just killing her doesn’t make a huge amount of sense. His explanation, that he didn’t have anyone to talk to? Okay, I guess. I would have preferred something a little better, though.

I do not know anything about the origin of The Vision in the comics, but this is where the film turns into a fantasy sundae with a tiny cherry of science-fiction on top. I can’t fault Paul Bettany, who plays it perfectly. But it’s just so weird. Still, the lead up to his birth is a great little sequence, with superheroes facing off the only way they can. And the way The Vision demonstrates his trustworthiness is a gasp moment that required the weight of history of a whole series of films to work. That is why the MCU is awesome.

I can’t fault anything in the finale (except maybe the hand-wave explanation of how they actually stopped the doomsday rock from killing everyone). It’s thrilling and well choreographed and has some excellent character beats. It also has the best line of the film. “The city is flying, we’re fighting a robot army, and I have a bow and arrow.” Oh, Hawkeye, you rule.

There’s also one small nitpick in the denouement I have to mention. Thor says that four of the Infinity Stones have shown up recently. I’m not sure how he would have knowledge of the Orb from Guardians of the Galaxy. I suppose he might have run back to Asgard at some point since The Dark World and hear about it there. Or maybe he has some kind of pan-galactic communication system I don’t know about. But it still rang false to me.

Considering the sheer scope of what Joss Whedon was doing with this film, I can’t say I’m truly disappointed. This could have been a colossal mess. In fact, it should have been. Very few of my nitpicks would be easy fixes. You can’t sidetrack a summer blockbuster for a romance subplot. You can’t hire actresses for one scene if it means millions of dollars added to the budget. You can’t easily explain the motivations of a newly born artificial intelligence in thirty seconds of screen time. And, in a complex movie series like this, you have to pay homage to the past while you lay the foundations for what’s to come. That he did that much is impressive. And that, after eleven films, they still haven’t had a real dud is impressive as well.

I’m looking at you, Ant-Man.

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