Nutshell: More aptly titled The Avengers: Battle of Helm’s Deep, this nonstop action-packed thrillfest will get fans of bam-pow totally stoked, while others may wish they could take a breather every now and then. Would have liked more on Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, but getting to know Hawkeye, Black Widow and Bruce a bit better was a fine substitute. Grade: B+
It’s here! The new Avengers movie we’ve been waiting for ever since the post-credit scene during the original movie! Hooray? Absolutely. In Age of Ultron, Tony Stark decides to attempt to better his Artificial Intelligence work. “I see a suit of armor around the world…peace in our time.” But his creation — Ultron (voiced/motion-captured by James Spader) — has other ideas. Seems Ultron has decided that since the earth has “evolved” many times in its history, it’s time to do it again…but this time, without the pesky humans disturbing the peace. Meanwhile at HYDRA, our not-so-favorite band of Big Bads are working with
Mutants Inhumans “enhanced” humans, including a super-fast guy (Quicksilver, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his psychically powered twin sis (Scarlet Witch, Elizabeth Olsen). When Ultron tries to upgrade his hardware by replacing it with softer stuff (read: more android, less heavy metal), things start to really get interesting. Especially for Tony’s father-figure-cum-computer-program-butler JARVIS (voiced by Paul Bettany). Enter: Vision!
That’s an awful lot going on in one movie, and director Joss Whedon gets through all of it by having moviegoers strap in and try to keep up. Remember The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and how most of that film was the ass-kicking greatness that was Battle of Helm’s Deep? Same thing here. As Ultron is the second in the Avengers franchise, and Towers was the second in the LOTR trilogy, I find the parallel pleasing. Because I’m a nerd, and I dig both of these stories. Substitute robots for orcs, and you’ve got a movie filled with metal-mashing and all-out war. Cue the Matrix-esque slo-mo CGI!
The old gang is here, as are a few newbies that will surely be tapped as additions/replacements for the Avengers the MCU knows and loves. Yes, I said possible replacements; we all know RDJ will be bowing out…some time or another. And there are other scenes in Ultron that make it seem as if other characters may be bowing out entirely, or at least taking a breather. (No tears y’all; The Avengers have always had a rotating crop of heroes, many of whom return time and again.) And as in real life, the gang get along with a certain snarky joie de vivre that elevates even the most mundane “standing around waiting” bits and pieces.
The behind-the-scenes bits and pieces work well too, for the most part. Costuming is the usual superhero chic, thanks to the glorious Alexandra Byrne (Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers, and so very many Academy Awards). I kinda love the TRON spin Byrne puts on Black Widow’s typically all-black ensemble, and the re-imagining of Scarlet Witch (I always hated that face frame…) But the set design isn’t quite as detailed as MCU films have been in the past. In fact, it kinda feels like they dug up old bits and pieces and threw ‘em around to suggest the passage of time. No real on-set Easter Eggs (though spoiler — we do get to travel to a certain area in Africa, and a pretty lady from Cap’s past makes a cameo), so maybe that’s why I’m so moof-poofy. Where’s the equivalent of Cap’s shield? Okay fine; Whedon has said that he spent all of his time working on getting Ultron right, and was so focused on that, that any Egg-tasticness was forgotten. I understand, but I do miss ‘em.
Bee-tee-dub, fans who love playing “Spot The Product Placement” will have fun here: Iron man wearing Under Armour! Quicksilver sportin’ Adidas kicks! Bruce Banner listening to opera on Beats headphones! I’m sure there’s more, but why spoil the fun? Yes, it did pull me out of the moment time and again, but ‘tis the way of the cinema world nowadays.
The cinematography seems a bit soft-focus here too; gone are the crisp frames and detailed vistas. Instead, there are a lot of smoke and mirrors. Literally; the fight scenes are all but non-stop, so lots of smoke, ash and debris. However, even the opening scenes don’t feel as crisp as what has gone before. Cinematographer Ben Davis did killer work in Guardians of the Galaxy and Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, so this is probably a one-off. [NOTE: I saw an advance preview screening. Things may become sharper/less cloudy as the film officially opens in the States.] But that editing tho’. Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek keep things whip-smart, cutting from punch to impact, mob rule to interpersonal dynamics, and never hamstringing the story.
Our Gang delivers gloriously quirky-but-damaged performances, as per the usual. But there’s more backstory, and more one-on-one moments, which is catnip for long-time fans, and fun for newbies (though seriously; watch the MCU from the beginning. #protip) It’s so much fun to watch Tony and Bruce science together – “We’re mad scientists. Gotta own it.” – and seeing Black Widow calm the “big guy” down is d’aww worthy. We also get to dig deeper into Hawkey and what makes him tick, which made my archery-lovin’ self give a cheer.
The newbies do well too, though Olsen’s Scarlet Witch gets a more in-depth unveiling than does her twin. I’m betting part of that is thanks to the amazing job Bryan Singer and Evan Peters did with the character in X-Men: Days of Future Past. That “Time in a Bottle” scene blew me away, and if I were Whedon I wouldn’t try to top it; it’s still fresh in viewers’ minds, and it’s really too good to top. Not to say that Aaron Taylor-Johnson doesn’t deliver — I was prepared to be underwhelmed by his take on Quicksilver after seeing Future Past — but he does. Frosted tips and all.
And how does Spader fare as Ultron? Very well, thank you. I wish his voice was tweaked ever so slightly; I kept waiting for Raymond Reddington to make the scene. But his Ultron has the quippy personality of Stark, with an anger that makes him more driven to destruction. It plays well, and the motion capture/CGI combo brings him to life beautifully. As does the FX makeup and CGI (that cape can’t be that on fleek) for Bettany’s Vision.
Our better known B-list members are here too: Maria Hill, War Machine, Falcon. No, no Coulson. But you already knew that was coming. There’s also no Pepper, and no Jane…but they do make an appearance of sorts in the beginning of the film. In fact, the “party scene” near the start of the film is a hoot, and quite possibly my favorite of the film. Our Gang getting to let the hammer down (in Thor’s case, literally) is not only refreshing, it serves as a nice bonding moment before things go wobbly.
Some may say that Whedon hiccuped with this one, letting the story get bogged down by sub-plots. I say that the sub-plots are what makes the story — and it’s over-the-top climax — worth caring about. Age of Ultron may not be the strongest entry in the MCU, but I ain’t mad. Grab your popcorn and set your mind to mindless fun, and you’ll have yourself a ball.
P.S.: as per the usual, there is a mid-credits teaser scene. But there’s no post-credit giggle; how could they possibly top schwarma? But don’t worry, there’s a Stan Lee sighting. And it’s his best one yet. Excelsior!