Friday, May 1, 2015

Movie Review - Avengers: Age of Ultron

I'm posting this quick n' dirty from my phone, so I apologize for any format issues. I'll clean it up later. I just wanted to go ahead and get it out there.

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I took the family to see Avengers: Age of Ultron last night and I have some thoughts on it. Right now I’m not sure if these thoughts will end up as notes for the Needless Things Podcast or if I might end up posting this. It all depends on how cohesive it ends up and if I hit my 1,000 word minimum.

Considering the density and overall awesomeness of the movie, I doubt the latter will be an issue.

This write-up is going to be chock-full of spoilers. If you just want a spoiler-free review, here it is:

Age of Ultron is a satisfying culmination of all that has occurred so far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If you’re a fan of the movies, there’s a lot of resolution here. Regular viewers of Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter will also be rewarded, as there are plenty of story threads from those shows that are continued and expanded upon. Additionally, AoU sets up the future of the MCU. I was amazed at the number of glimpses of the future we got and how well those teasers were worked into the storyline.

This time around each character gets their share of the spotlight, with particular attention paid to Hawkeye and Black Widow.

The pacing is insane. There isn’t even a second to be bored or wait for the next event. Because of this, I can’t wait to see it again. I feel like there was probably a lot that I missed.

The regular cast is fantastic and the new players are compelling. James Spader gets to have a lot more fun as Ultron than I thought he would. Quicksilver (the best live action Pietro, by the way) and Scarlet Witch are wonderful. Paul Bettany is brilliant and I think the Vision might be the coolest-looking superhero I’ve ever seen on screen.

This movie feels huge. All of the major players get involved. I thought it would be hard to top the first Avengers, but this one does it handily. Never before has so much incredible superhero action happened in the same place. This is where we get to see them really work as a team, and it’s one of the most rewarding cinematic experiences I’ve experienced. You must see this in the theater. And try your best to see it in one with good sound because there are some real ass-shaking moments that you want to experience fully.

Also, tons of Hulk being Hulk here.

Good? Good.

From here on out, be warned. There will be


I hope that was clear, but if not, this is where I’m going to talk about the specifics of the plot and ruin the shit out of some major surprises. If you haven’t seen Age of Ultron yet, stop now.

Okay. Here we go.

First off, I missed several minutes of the movie. The first opening minute and then a portion right after Ultron recruits Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. I don’t think I missed any plot points and I don’t feel like I was lost anywhere, but I did get the feeling that every minute of this movie was important (which I consider high praise), so I likely missed out on some character building. No worries because I’ll be seeing this again as soon as possible.

The opening of the movie is what we’ve been waiting for. As good as Avengerswas, it was just the beginning. We didn’t get to see the characters operating like a smoothly functioning team. That happens here – and throughout the rest of the movie – and it is so rewarding. It’s like the A-Team firing on all cylinders.

The last episode of Agents of SHIELD led directly into the opening scene. Coulson and his team determined the location of Loki’s scepter, which has been missing since the events of Winter Soldier. The Avengers were assembled and dispatched and that’s where we are – the scene from the trailers where they’re in the woods looking awesome.

Everything in the movie looks awesome. It’s gorgeous. I don’t want to get into technical terms because that’s not really what I do, but there wasn’t one effect or moment that took me out of the story. Well, there was one, but I’ll get to that.

Otherwise it was all amazing to behold. The Hulkbuster fight was awesome beyond my wildest dreams. Stark has a satellite in orbit that delivers armor to him. This is where the Hulkbuster armor – called “Veronica” in the movie for reasons that I don’t understand – comes from. It’s an awesome concept and a visually exciting effect. And the fight. The fight is incredible. It has an urgency and a presence to it that puts the Man of Steel Metropolis fight to shame.

Which brings me to the first observation I made after walking out of the theater – I wonder how different Age of Ultronwould have been without Man of Steel.

Much of the narrative of the movie feels like a response to the catastrophic destruction and loss of life depicted in the opening story of DC’s new cinematic universe. A constant concern for the Avengers is that they protect lives. Sure – there’s some destruction. But in every instance the Avengers are very specifically shown to be conscious of mitigating collateral damage. The drama in the climax of the movie hinges on the thousands of innocent lives that are being threatened by Ultron’s plan and how the Avengers will save them while still protecting the rest of the Earth’s population. Losses are unacceptable.

Speaking of Ultron, James Spader gets to do so much more than I was expecting. He doesn’t just deliver a bunch of menacing lines. Ultron is a fully fleshed out (so to speak) character. He has humor and anger and slyness. He’s not the Terminator or even the T-1000. He’s a villain with a personality and – most importantly – he’s not entirely wrong. The human race is messed up. We are a menace. Extermination may not be the answer, but Ultron does have a point about who the enemy is. And his hatred of Tony Stark is fantastic.

This is where Civil War starts. While we see the team functioning and working together in totally awesome ways, we also see the split in ideals. Tony Stark is obsessed. Iron Man 3 (more on that in a minute) may have dealt with Tony recovering from the Battle of New York, but in AoU we find out that he hasn’t. He might have dealt with it internally, but he is a changed man. He has become obsessed with external threats to the Earth and we are seeing the beginnings of the tunnel vision that will presumably lead to the next Cap movie. Downey plays it so well, too. He’s as charming as ever, but there are moments of a sinister insidiousness. Glimpses of the villain within. His cajoling of Banner to help him first with Ultron and then with Vision are actually a bit disconcerting to see. I fucking loved it.

BAD THING #1 - What I did not love was the jump from Iron Man 3 to AoU and the lack of explanation as to how we got from Tony blowing up all of his suits and seemingly retiring to him just being part of the team and having (at least) three suits and the Iron Legion – his team of Iron Man drones. To me, at least, this was a pretty jarring progression of the narrative. We all knew he wasn’t really quitting, but I would like some story of how we got from there to here.

Part of why these interactions are so unsettling are Banner’s fear. He is a man that wants to avoid conflict. When the Hulk is needed he can oblige, but for the most part he doesn’t even want to be involved in arguments, let alone battles. You can see it in his interactions with Tony – he doesn’t necessarily agree with Tony a hundred percent, but he doesn’t want to fight about it. But as much as he succumbs to Stark’s manipulations, he does his best to resist Natasha Romanov’s advances. The two share some powerful scenes and some even more powerful pain.

While Banner is afraid of the monster he can become, Natasha fears what she may be. A good bit of her background was actually revealed through the narrative of the excellent Agent Carterminiseries. We saw the facility that trained her and some of the horrors she experienced. In  Age of Ultron that was elaborated on and personalized for Natasha. We find out that part of the process involves sterilizing agents to remove the possibility of attachment that bearing a child would bring. The is revealed in a heart-rending scene, coming as it does in the midst of a series of other scenes about Clint Barton’s family and how close they are with Natasha.

We get a lot more Hawkeye this time around. Clint Barton’s character is greatly expanded upon, as well as his role within the team. He is essentially revealed as the anchor or heart of the group. The others all rib him about not having powers.

Side Note: It’s driving me nuts right now that I cannot remember what people with powers are called in the MCU. There’s a specific term they’ve used in Agents of SHIELD and that they used in Age of Ultron when they first encounter the Maximoff twins. I want to say “Enhanced” or “empowered”, but I know those aren’t right. They’ve even used it in reference to the list that will presumably lead to the MCU version of the Superhuman Registration Act.

In Age of Ultron we find out that Barton has a wife and two daughters. Nobody but Nick Fury knows about them. It’s a pure, wonderful family situation where Clint’s wife – played by the lovely Linda Cardellini – understands and supports his life as an Avenger. She’s smart and helpful and a character unto herself. Seeing Clint interact with her enhances his character and invests us more fully in him. I was positive the Bartons were being introduced as a cheap drama generator and that someone from the clan would die, but that was not the case. Instead, we leave AoU with a deeper respect and understanding of a guy that we’ve barely gotten to know previously.

Thor is somewhat beyond the narrative of the movie. While he partakes in the action, is part of the team, and has plenty of jokes, his story is all about furthering the much larger Infinity Gems story. As well as, seemingly, leading into his own forthcoming movie, Ragnarok. In a way what he’s doing seems a little bigger and more important than everything else that’s going on in AoU, but I mean that in a totally good way. It’s a cool and interesting method for reminding us that there’s a lot more going on, and the proof of that comes during the credits – more on that in a bit.

Steve Rogers is also something of a man apart. He is the clear leader of the team and even has a wonderful moment with the twins where they are obeying his orders even though they’ve only recently seen the light. It perfectly illustrates the sheer charisma of Cap and why he’s the one everyone looks to. Rogers is a very much a man who is not comfortable with the world as it is now. There are far too many shades of grey for him, but he stays true to himself no matter what. This leads to one of the most impactful scenes in the movie and certainly a significant moment in the ongoing MCU narrative:

Stark has talked Banner into implanting Jarvis into the synthetic bio-organic body that Ultron had been planning to use. The key to animating this form was implanting the Mind Stone – the Infinity Gem in Loki’s scepter – in the body. Cap walks in and says “NOPE”, the Science Bros keep going anyway, and shit hits the fan. The whole team is fighting amongst themselves. I can’t remember who took whose side, but it all made complete sense in the way that it played out. I honestly haven’t been overly excited forCivil War because there’s just no way that a two hour movie centered around a dozen or so characters can capture that epic storyline. But here we got a glimpse of the potential and I have to say that it got me fired up. And also I am firmly on Cap’s side.

I loved the Maximoffs. Going into the movie I was having trouble seeing how there would be time to introduce their backstory (they themselves were introduced in the post-credits scene ofThe Winter Soldier) in a satisfying manner, but they did it. Even without the supporting narrative from Agents of SHIELD that detailed Baron Strucker’s activities with Enhanced humans (or whatever they’re called). I liked Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver much more than Evan Peters. It’s more about the writing than the actor, but Quicksilver is a favorite of mine, mostly because of Peter David. This felt like a more authentic version and he certainly played a more important role in his story. Pietro is an arrogant snot full of deep feelings and convictions. Taylor-Johnson was that. Peters was a vacuous teenager that could run fast. While the use of his powers in Days of Future Past was fun, the character totally missed the mark.

BAD THING #2 – I do not like that Quicksilver died. Partially because I am a big fan of the character, but also because it didn’t really serve the plot. It felt like a cheap event that happened because Joss Whedon likes to kill people. Pietro dies saving Hawkeye, who was saving a kid. If Pietro hadn’t dies, we still get the point that he’s noble. If Pietro hadn’t died, he and Wanda still have nowhere to go after the battle and would join the Avengers. If Pietro hadn’t died, sure – Wanda wouldn’t have left her post, but there could have been another way for one of the Ultrons to activate the device.

Elizabeth Olsen was wonderful as the willful but damaged Wanda Maximoff. Her transition from misguided kid to Avenger should have been a tough thing to pull off, but even when she’s opposing the heroes she evokes a certain amount of sympathy. You’re ready to root for her. And it was a strong story point that as soon as she discovered Ultron’s deception (the Maximoffs were misled as to his eventual goal) she and Pietro bailed. There was no wishy-washiness or drawn out prevaricating; it was a turning point. Additionally, she sold the heck out of the magic. Olsen’s body language and motions looked great when combined with the excellent magic effects. There was nothing corny or forced about a character casting spells – something we really haven’t seen before in the MCU.

Side Note: And now we’re ready for Stephen Strange.

Vision was by far the coolest thing in an overwhelmingly cool movie. The way he was created was awesome, his actual birth was fantastic, and Paul Bettany’s portrayal was pure power. I loved the way he imprinted on Thor and generated a cape for himself. I have no particular attachment to Vision and I probably haven’t read more than a dozen comics with him in them, but seeing him flying around, shooting lasers out of his forehead and tearing Ultrons in half was awesome. And I loved that there was no real struggle – he was simply more powerful than Ultron. He was the ultimate weapon and he worked as advertised. There was no bullshit deception, he was just a badass.

Vision’s cape looks pretty CGI and weird. It bothered me until I thought about the fact that it is, quite literally, computer-generated. It isn’t going to look like Thor’s cape.

I went into Avengers: Age of Ultronthinking there was no way that it could deliver. Not in character development, not in scope, and not in effectively furthering the overall MCU narrative. It just seemed to be too far outside of what has been established and also to have too damned much going on just within itself. The number of characters and concepts that were going to have to be introduced in around two hours just seemed ridiculous. Like, Spider-Man 3times ten.

After the last movie I should have learned to stop doubting Joss Whedon. This one over delivered. Aside from the hole in Tony’s story and what I felt was an unnecessary death for Pietro, it was an awesome thing to behold. Everything was tight and fast-moving, but at no point did I feel left behind or like I was missing something (even though I did miss several minutes). We got two hours of super heroes doing super heroic things. The whole second half of the movie was based around the Avengers finding a way to preserve all life without sacrifice, seemingly a big middle finger to DC’s Man of Steel. And an effective one.

The line in the sand is drawn. Marvel has taken the stance that they are the bright, hopeful side of this comic book movie war. It will be interesting to see if DC and Warner Brothers continue down their dreary (but interesting; to me, anyway) path or if they lighten up future releases. It seems like they don’t have enough of a plan in place for anything to be certain, so it probably all hinges on Dawn of Justice. Which is, in a way, unfortunate. Because there’s no way a movie starring Batman and Superman doesn’t make a bajillion dollars.

I don’t want to close by talking DC in my Marvel movie review, so I’ll say this –Age of Ultron made me as happy as the first Avengers or Captain America. It gave me what I wanted and then some and I cannot wait to see it again. Possibly tonight. I know I didn't cover everything I wanrted to talk about, but I've got to save some for the podcast.

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