WRITTEN REVIEW – Marvel Avengers: The Age Of Ultron (2015)

Marvel Avengers: The Age of Ultron
Directed by: Joss Whedon
Written by: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson & James Spader
Music: Brian Tyler & Danny Elfman
Certificate: 12A
Release Date: April 23rd 2015

Right now, we are 11 movies into what has been called the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Comprising of movies from 5 separate franchises (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Guardians of the Galaxy and more on the way…) working together in one cohesive universe. Comic books have been working with this style of interconnected continuity for several decades but that type of story-telling is starting to become the new norm for blockbuster movies thanks to the path that Marvel Studios has paved.

Acting as a sequel to at least 4 movies (‘Marvel Avengers Assemble‘, ‘Iron Man 3‘, ‘Thor: The Dark World‘ and ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘), ‘Marvel Avengers: The Age of Ultron‘ is the penultimate movie of Phase 2 which ends with ‘Ant-Man‘ later this year. With director/writer Joss Whedon returning to the franchise and with 6 movies to set-up before Earth’s Mightiest Heroes return, as well as a cast of around a dozen heroes and plot-threads, can this movie possibly work? Can lightning strike twice for this sub-franchise? Of course it can. This superhero team have the god of thunder on their side…
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The movie opens with the Avengers, comprised of Tony Stark (Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers (Evans), Natasha Romanoff (Johansson), Thor (Hemsworth), Bruce Banner (Ruffalo) and Clint Barton (Renner) cleaning up the last few Hydra forces who have been conducting human experiments with Loki’s sceptre. Utilising the technology within the sceptre, Tony activates his Ultron defence programme in order to try and defend the world as he fears the Avengers alone will not be enough to stop all future threats. But Ultron (Spader) soon gains sentience and deduces that the only way to save the world is the extinction of humanity.

While the above synopsis is the set-up for the main thrust of the story in ‘Marvel Avengers: The Age of Ultron‘, there is an awful lot going on in this movie with literally a dozen super-powered characters to focus on. The fact that the movie is as enjoyable as it is, is a testament to how great a story-teller Joss Whedon is. The fact that the movie actually still WORKS is pretty much a miracle.

A question I’m getting asked by a lot of casual movie-goers is “Do I need to have seen all 10 previous films?” and the answer is no. As long as you’ve watched ‘Marvel Avengers Assemble‘ then you should be good to go for this sequel, although there are many references to previous movies (mostly to ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘) that will help enrich your viewing experience if you’ve been keeping up to date with these movies. But as long as you have a basic understanding of these characters then you’ll easily be able to keep up and a very well assembled opening action scene helps to demonstrate these characters skill-sets as well as their place within the team.
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What will probably surprise most audience members about this movie is just how efficient and tightly crafted it is in terms of how it tells its story. As an action movie there are a lot of set-pieces, but the literal ACTIONS of these characters and how they work off each other and what they all do help to enforce their characters and their attitudes. Yes, the dialogue is stellar (and we’ll get to that later) but many of the moments that I remember from this film are the quieter scenes. Some scenes without dialogue. The unspoken moments filled to the brim with emotion and character progression. It’s this superb and efficient approach to story-telling that makes Marvel Cinematic Universe movies as good as they are, but it’s often what people seem to miss when talking about them because they’re not expecting that type of form.

“It’s just a superhero movie” people will say. Well this “superhero” movie has more going on thematically in singular scenes than some movies have in their entire running time (such as ‘Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)‘ off the top of my head).

The cast of characters that have been pulled from over 70 years of comic book history all serve a purpose within the story with the focus being on Tony Stark’s Iron Man as an early encounter with the Wanda Maximoff (the Scarlet Witch – the result of a Hydra experiment who can influence a person’s mind) causes him to doubt his ability to protect the earth and defend his team members from an ‘Marvel Avengers Assemble‘-type invasion again. It’s this push that convinces him to pursue the Ultron project and he father’s Ultron in order to protect the world as either another Avenger or even as a replacement for the team.

Obviously, that doesn’t quite happen as Ultron goes rogue and decides the best way to protect the world is to wipe out humanity.age of ultron 7You’d think that would result in a one-note, humourless villain but James Spader’s Ultron is dripping with charm as well as menace. Whether it’s the result of him being a Tony Stark creation or his exposure to the internet, he’s picked up his father’s wry sense of humour and as he comes to grips with his new form and interacts more and more with humanity he becomes more intelligent as well as sardonic. There’s a lot of humour to this character and I think it’s an interesting approach since Ultron is easily the most formidable threat the Avengers have faced on-screen so far, but he’s also the funniest and (strangely enough) the most human and down-to-earth. Just what drives Ultron and some of the actions he takes are things I could create entire videos or articles on (and I won’t cover it in this review due to the relatively spoiler-free nature of these write-ups) but I think that Ultron will go down as one of the most enjoyable comic book movie villains in history and the fact that he continues to evolve and change over the course of the movie in terms of his armour and power-set helps to create a villain that is forever evolving with the needs of the story.

Where the movie stands on the idea of artificial intelligence is also very interesting, particularly with the third act inclusion of the Vision, played by J.A.R.V.I.S. voice actor Paul Bettany. I think mentioning anything with him would be considered a spoiler but his verbal digressions with Ultron are some of the best moments of the film. Going back to Ultron for a moment, in his first scene with the Avengers he says “I know you mean well…” and I think it’s interesting to have a villain who knows he’ll be the villain yet still whole-heartedly believes that he is doing the right thing. Incidentally, James Spader’s voice and motion-captured performance is incredibly good. The emotion in Ultron’s robotic face, the air of elegance he has surrounding him as well as the moments where Ultron can get very petty and childish creates a villain unlike anything we’ve seen for a long time.

While many can compare this movie to ‘Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back‘ in that it’s a darker movie than its predecessor, it’s never oppressively dark. Yes, it’s juggling around some weighty themes and the movie goes to some pretty dark places but ‘Marvel Avengers: The Age of Ultron‘ is just so…much darn fun.
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There are enough belly-laughs before the title screen shows up in this movie then there are in entire comedies. Almost all of the comedy hits bullseye with lots of slapstick, understated sight-gags, brilliant ad-libbed moments from an impeccable ensemble cast who are firing on all cylinders and while there’s nothing here that tops the “Puny god” moment from the first film (which got a standing ovation from my screening) there’s just so much to love and enjoy about this movie.

The biggest laugh from me came from when Tony Stark attempts to lift Thor’s enchanted hammer, Mjolnir, and says that if he lifts the hammer and gets to rule Asgard that he’ll be reinstituting “Prima nocta”. Though I seemed to be the only one in my screening who found that funny, I’m assuming that’s because I was the only one there who actually knew what “Prime nocta” is and why Tony Stark would be all over it. But the second biggest laugh came from Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye when he has an opportunity to take out Pietro Maximoff. I’ll leave it at that.

Marvel Avengers: The Age of Ultron‘ is a movie that runs on optimism and hope. While teenage boys were flipping out about Batman’s “Tell me, do you bleed?” line in the trailer for ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice‘, we get a movie where one of the opening scenes has the Avengers getting drunk at an epic party in Avengers Tower. It’s a movie where a lot of focus is put on saving the lives of innocent civilians. Where the priority for Captain America in one scene isn’t to stop Ultron, but to get people out of harm’s way. Where Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff have a romance that may seem to come out of nowhere, but the more time you spend with them the more it makes sense as these two have a lot in common and want to put their terrible pasts behind them for a future that they’re both optimistic about.
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But the movie has a lot of humour, a lot of light touches and a smattering of jaw-dropping action set-pieces that are fist-pumpingly amazing but there’s always a sense of dread. There’s always the sense that things could go very wrong. That the stakes are real and that there are real life and death consequences. The “Veronica” suit fight (a.k.a. The Hulkbuster) is such an example. People may think they’ve seen a lot of the fight from the trailers but you ain’t seen NOTHING yet. It’s such an incredibly well put together action scene on a technical level, with laugh-out-loud moments nearly every step of the way but the consequences are real. The Hulk is a real force of destruction in that scene, Tony Stark has to try and put down one of his best friends but the madder the Hulk gets the stronger he gets and the more people get put in harms way.

It’s a sequence that can have audience members cheering one moment, then the next realise that the sequence is actually pretty grim and there are going to be devastating repercussions at play here.

Oh my god. How does this movie even work!?

Seriously, I’m trying to wrack my brain over how Joss Whedon has managed to pull off this tonal balance. But I feel like a big part of that has to do with stripping the Avengers of their bravado and exposing them as the flawed characters that they are. The Scarlet Witch’s inclusion in the franchise allows the characters to face their darkest fears which results in a crushing defeat for the team requiring them to re-group and lay low in order to get their troubles straightened out at a safe house. This is a 20 minute digression in which there’s no action or effects but it allows for some much needed breathing room from the relentless action as well as giving the non-superpowered characters an emotional centre in the movie.
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Hawkeye in particular seems to be the emotional focal-point of the movie and those who thought he wasn’t well served in the last movie will be glad to know that he’s one of the best things about this one. Also, the way his arc utilises the Maximoff twins is very smartly handled and I look forward to seeing where the twins stand in this MCU in Phase 3 and beyond.

I’m not sure if ‘Marvel Avengers: The Age of Ultron‘ is a better movie than ‘Marvel Avengers Assemble‘. It’s a more imperfect film than its predecessor as there are quite a few nit-picks that I can list off, but because the movie has a lot more ambition and has a lot more going on thematically with a lot more characters to balance then it seems like a fair trade-off. But for the record here are some spoiler-free nit-picks.

– The closure of Tony Stark’s character arc from ‘Iron Man 3‘ is abandoned and not addressed.

– Thor’s 2nd act digression feels tacked on (clips from the trailers that aren’t in the movie would indicate that quite a bit of it was edited out).

– The female characters from other MCU films (Pepper Potts, Jane Foster and Betty Ross) are nowhere to be seen with Betty not even getting a mention despite Bruce Banner’s romance with Natasha being a large aspect of the film.

– Natasha, despite being an incredibly strong female character, becomes a damsel in distress at one point which felt very counter-intuitive. (EDIT: Disregard this criticism. Upon reflection this complaint doesn’t hold much water. During the movie pretty much every character is incapacitated or in some form of distress and needs saving. Black Widow is not made an exception of. In fact, in the first action scene Hawkeye is incapacitated and needs rescuing)

– Hulk seems oddly absent in the final battle.

– The return of J.A.R.V.I.S. doesn’t make much sense.

– Tony Stark’s relationship with Ultron doesn’t really get much of a pay-off.

– The Maximoff Twin’s Eastern-European accents. They’re pretty bad.

– The “Needs of the many” dilemma the team face towards the end gets resolved a little too easily. I understand that this is a movie fuelled on optimism, but I expected more of a clash of ideals and some more debating before the deus ex machina resolution turned up.

– As brilliant as the final action sequence is, it does repeat the climax of the last movie in that the Avengers must fight wave after wave of disposable drones. It looks like we will have to wait until ‘Avengers: Infinity War‘ until Earth’s Mightiest Heroes have to fight against a superior, singular opponent.

There’s also a couple more that are spoiler-related but there’s nothing there that I would consider anything close to a deal-breaker. And the fact that there is so much movie magic in this 141 minute movie supersedes any minor quibbles that I have.
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Performances are solid across the board, as is to be expected with all of these actors. Newcomers Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen are solid, terrible accents aside, but Olsen gets the more interesting character with the more unique power-set. Robert Downey Jr. is still the star and nails the dramatic heavy-lifting he has to do as well as the snark that is to be expected. Chris Evans just reeks of charm and his character is just so gosh-darn endearing, it’s entertaining to see Chris Hemsworth get out of his Thor-gear into more casual clothing and see his character change from when he’s on the battlefield to when he’s in the company of friends. Mark Ruffalo is adorably humble and his demure attitude is a great counter-balance to the team, Jeremy Renner gets more to do and he’s able to carry the emotional centre of the film. Scarlett Johansson continues to impress as Black Widow and the more we see this character on screen the more interesting she becomes and we learn even more about her past. Her romance with Bruce Banner may come out of nowhere at first, but the two have terrific chemistry and the more time you spend with them the more it begins to make sense.

Production-wise, we’re treated to the brilliant production values that we’ve come to expect from a Disney/Marvel property. The cinematography is well thought out, the camera-work is dynamic and immensely impressive as well as giving us imaginative transitions. The motion capture work is state-of-the-art with Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk and James Spader’s Ultron being incredibly emotive and managing to capture humanity in the faces of these fantastical comic book creations. The movie is littered with awesome hero-shots that look like they were ripped straight out of an Avengers comic book cover with excellent framing. The editing, lighting, sets, costumes etc. are all top-notch and the worldwide scale of events is commendable. This FEELS like a huge movie in its geographical scope and despite the near-constant globe-hopping, the numerous plot-threads and the massive cast this 141 minute movie does not feel long. It rockets forward at a breakneck pace, yet doesn’t feel rushed and it never drags.

As with the previous Avengers movie, the weakest part of the production is the music by Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman. It’s not a bad score, but the only stand-out moments are when Alan Silvestri’s Avengers motif kicks in during heroic moments. ‘The Incredible Hulk‘ score from 2008 by Craig Armstrong is still the gold-standard for this genre and this score really doesn’t have anything that sticks out.
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Marvel Avengers: The Age of Ultron‘ is a tour de force blockbuster. It has so much sub-text brimming under the surface of its witty, smart and delicately constructed script but still remembers to be an incredibly good time with huge laughs around every corner and adrenaline-raising action set-pieces. There’s never a dull moment in the movie and even the set-ups for future movies don’t feel extraneous or distracting. The cast are on top form, the production values are top of the line, the action is intense and enjoyable while still finding room for pathos and frequent flashes of darkness with one of the best comic book villains in recent memory with the fascinating and magnetic Ultron.

Yes, there are a few nit-picks and some problems with the film. But with so much greatness in here and so much ambition and so much under the surface I can completely forgive it for those minor flaws. And it would feel utterly disingenuous for me to give me this movie any other score…

…I give ‘Marvel Avengers: The Age of Ultron‘ 5 stars out of 5.

Oh yeah and stay through the credits.

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Posted In: 2015 Reviews Current Reviews Reviews

Author: Trilbee

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Posted: 25th Apr 15