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Would it be possible? How could even the superpower known as the mind of Joss Whedon top the superpower known as the mind of Joss Whedon?  The first Avengers movie in 2012 was a dynamo; a near-perfect blend of action, excellent performances and the whipsmart humour that’s been Whedon’s signature since his creation of modern pop culture classics, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.  The wry, witty script elevated the film beyond standard superhero fare, made the characters indelible and raised the bar on the expectations of Marvel Universe movies to come.  We saw that effect with Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier both surpassing their sires, and Guardians of the Galaxy, which brilliantly used humour to draw audiences into a world of lesser-known heroes.  In the midst of these other worthy entries, where would Avengers: Age of Ultron place in the pantheon set by its own predecessor?

To Infinity Stone and beyond….  Well, it is a Disney property, ne?  These fragments of power floating around the universe are all slowly coming together and making their way - on their own or assisted - toward earth.  The former Cosmic Cube - currently called the Tessaract - is one, and presently in the hands of stealthy nemesis of freedom, Hydra, who have all sorts of plans for it, before a handful of heroes ambushes the villains’ Sokovian fortress to get it back.  The Avengers have been training; their fighting teamwork is near-seamless as they take on hundreds of enemy troops.  What they don’t count on is the debut of some new faces.  Sadly, they can’t see those faces very well, because one moves so fast as to be a blur, if not completely invisible, and the other can do funny things to the mind to make her victims forget they ever saw her.  “The Twins” had been under wraps; deemed not quite ready for action, but the siblings champ at the bit to show what they can do.  Pietro neutralises Hawkeye’s whizzing arrows, while Wanda allows Iron Man, Tony Stark, to get just close enough to the Tessaract before scrambling his brains a bit, allowing the pair to flee while giving the girl insight to Stark’s next move.  “Peace in our time” has become Tony’s new mantra.  He is determined to secure the globe against the invaders he knows firsthand are out there, and his examination of the artificial intelligence possibilities endowed by the blue orb gives him the motivation to go about it.  By taking his virtual butler, J.A.R.V.I.S.’ programming, juicing it up with the Tessaract and inserting it into an Iron Man shell, Tony hopes to create a sort of über- J.A.R.V.I.S. with security potential.  A droid that can take on the space invaders that have put the earth so on edge.  The catch is that Tony - with the help of his fellow genius, the reluctant but fascinated Bruce Banner - doesn’t want to tell the rest of his crew, thereby pretty much chucking that whole “team” thing out the window.

After repeated failures, the Ultron program suddenly jolts to life (kinda like Frankenstein) as the team are celebrating their Sokovian victory.  The program only takes moments to absorb all the information about humanity and all of our less-than-humane moments via the internet.  Ultron’s security programming quite rightly decides we are a threat to ourselves, and as he is able to upgrade himself into a bigger, better Ultron, the sentient droid has decreed that we, too, shall evolve or die.  Using Daddy Stark’s tech and equipment against him, Ultron recruits the super siblings, heads back to that Eastern European fortress and begins the end of the world.  A shattered and tattered good guy team fed up with Ultron and fed up with each other must come to terms with how to get past their differences and mistrust to outthink the misguided android son of Tony Stark.

My faith was shaken.  After the initial giddiness of watching the Marvel comic logo speed across the screen, my mood dropped during an opening sequence that was surely meant to start audiences cheering.  We watch The Avengers, in total sync with each other, use their combat talents to plow through a forest full of Hydra agents.  Thor’s hammer’s a-flying.  Iron Man’s rays are repulsing.  Zing goes the string of Hawkeye’s bow.  Captain America has found a solution to that whole having to stop and fetch his vibranium shield after hurling it issue.  Black Widow’s stinging away.  Hulk is hulking out, seemingly with some intelligence and control, as opposed to the wild, rage-filled attacks on his nearest target.  Times are good.  However, the CGI is awful.  I could swear I saw strings during the wirework.  The opening is one of the most awkwardly CGI-looking things I’ve seen in a recent Marvel film.  There are moments that look jarringly fake, and not because they are only superhumanly possible; there’s something off about the camerawork, SFX and editing of that scene, which even includes a slow-motion group hero portrait in case you weren’t sure you should be cheering.  It’s sloppy.  My high began to turn into a narrowed side-eye as I began to suspect that all would not go as well for this chapter as I’d hoped.

The bad news, first.  There’s just something lesser overall about this movie compared to the first film.  It can’t get away from a comparison, either, because by now and through the insistence on weaving plotlines together, there’s way too much residual stuff in the other films of the recent Universe that needs to be seen in order for Age of Ultron to be fully understood.  The freshness and exuberance of the original is gone, and in its place is way too much of the humour, which is laced into practically every line of dialog, but unlike the 2012 movie, sometimes those lines fall flat.  Flowing effortlessly in the original, it feels forced and conspicuous here.  Another obvious bit of fanservice is the ton of cast cameos, which I will not spoil, but begins to feel gratuitous after the fourth nonessential, but amusing character turns up.

The pacing is unfortunate.  I don’t know what was going in Whedon’s writing process, but he strains to pack in all the threads.  Besides the big action set pieces, there’s all the background elements; introducing The Twins and Ultron, recovering the remnants of good guy base, S.H.I.E.L.D. after its destruction in The Winter Soldier, working out Wanda’s hypnotic hallucination sequences, and then supplying an emotional element with Hawkeye’s family and the most ill-fitting love story ever written, between Black Widow and Hulk.  This is one convoluted script.  The latter of these is especially painful because Whedon spends so much time trying to convince us how made for each other Bruce and Natasha are, and really, despite Mark Ruffalo’s indisputable charms, this film’s Bruce Banner is even more hesitant and mousy than the 2012 guy, who could at least get in a good one-liner from time to time.  The King Kong/Beauty and the Beast comparisons are obvious and the romance overall is clunky, tedious and momentum-killing.  Making up for Hawkeye’s overall lack of screen time in his two previous appearances (Thor and The Avengers) by giving him some cringe-inducing family time on the safehouse farm, was not fair compensation. (Though discovering that Captain America doesn’t need an axe to chop firewood was pretty neat).  By that same token, the moral ambiguities and existential doubts plaguing Captain America in the first Avengers and The Winter Soldier, are almost magically whisked away in order to get him up and fighting.  Ultron’s origins seem strangely rushed and a lot of the explanations about the various gems, stones, orbs, and other magical or extragalactic elements zoom by.

And then there is Ultron.  His comic book parentage has been given over to Tony Stark, instead of the yet-to-be-introduced, scientist Hank Pym {Ant Man}.  Ultron is a (micro) chip off the old block; sharing unexpected, and often megalomaniacal personality traits with his maker, and quoting Stark as needed to justify his mission.  Visually, when we first see him as a recycled member of Stark’s Iron Legion of J.A.R.V.I.S.-driven metal foot soldiers, it’s difficult for the audience to make out his details.  That does get much better until we see the final version of his evolution, and even then, his design isn’t all that impressive.  I was excited when James Spader, who I’ve long adored for his dry wit and backhanded delivery, was signed to voice Ultron.  What I didn’t expect was that I would not be able to stop remembering that this was James Spader voicing Ultron.  I never lost the actor in the character.  lt never truly becomes Ultron with any memorable inflection or signature, and that took me out of the moment several times, as it just felt like James Spader was reading the script, while the CGI android was moving onscreen.  Very unsettling.

Unsettling is also the word I’d use for the arrival of another character, whose identity I won’t spoil, but who is one of my favourites in the Marvel pantheon.  However, when the character is brought to life and embodied, instead of having the imposing, somber but cool appearance in the comics, the actor under the all-over body makeup and costume looks and sounds disconcertingly like The Great Gazoo from the Flintstones cartoon.

The good stuff, and there’s a bunch:  For all that I mentioned the cameos, they are fun until they pile up.  I won’t spoil, but there was such an obvious character that should have been seen, one felt a little like Pavlov’s dog waiting for the moment to come and it doesn’t.  The presence of Don Cheadle in anything just makes things better, so it goes with his appearance at The Avengers’ party and his inability to impress his colleagues with his own stories as War Machine, which knock the socks off mortal men.  Thor’s freaking hilarious this time around, full of Asgardian mirth and hubris.  His reaction to his teammates’ increasingly serious attempts to lift Mjolnir, the hammer destined only for Thor’s hand, are a hoot.  And to be a girl-type for a second; the moments when Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans – still owning all as Captain America – are side by side in the same frame should come with a warning.

The battle between a Hulk driven mad by Wanda’s mental suggestion and Iron Man in a squat, but mighty mecha suit is fierce and furious, and once again the Hulk is really scary.  Screaming with rage, destroying everything in his path in the African nation of Wakanda (foreshadowing, here we come) and nothing even the most brilliant man in the world can think of will stop him.

The big car chase after Ultron in Korea is CGI-tastic, but still fun.  There’s the great use of Seoul’s cinema-ready highways and bridges, woefully absent in western films, and when the race takes to the air, the bright landscape of the city frames the action excellently.

“The Twins” are great, particularly Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Pietro, AKA Quicksilver, whose cheeky confidence in speed over everything and fetching silver hair make him a memorable addition.  Elizabeth Olsen is tremulous and fragile as Wanda, and one wonders why exactly Hydra didn’t want them in the field, yet?  The bond between the two is very sweet, despite a somewhat hokey backstory.  Pity some behind-the-scenes movie company nonsense keeps the screenplay from referring to them properly as “Mutants,” making us instead hear them called “Enhanced” over and over.  I also side-eyed that she is never actually referred to as Scarlet Witch, nor are her powers called hexes.  Maybe in the next one?

Better than your average sequel, yet less sharp, fresh and energetic than I’d hoped, there’s still plenty to enjoy about Avengers: Age of Ultron that makes it well worth the tons of dosh it is certain to pull in this weekend and probably several more to come.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

May 1st, 2015

 

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Photos

Stills Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

 

 

 

 

 

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