Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Fighting for Fun – Avengers: Age of Ultron

Note: This review contains spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron.

During the climactic battle of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America (Chris Evans) tells his team, “If you’re hurt, hurt them back. If you’re killed… walk it off.” It’s a snarky quip that encapsulates the whole film: gone is the comic energy that glowed at the heart of The Avengers (2012), but that doesn’t stop director/geek deity Joss Whedon from doing his damnedest to keep the franchise limping along, and fighting to be fun through to its last overstuffed, brooding gasp. Whether or not it’s a fight that he and his ever-inflating cast actually win… is a matter of opinion.

Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours, Ultron is much more taxing on the senses than its predecessor, especially since – in addition to the core ensemble including Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Natasha Romanov/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) – it adds even more characters, such as colourful arms dealer Ulysses Klaue, played by the wonderful Andy Serkis, and the Maximoff twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), better known as Quicksilver (played very differently by Evan Peters in X-Men: Days of Future Past) and Scarlet Witch. But we could hardly have another meeting of the Marvel Elite without extending invitations to the supporting stars, could we? So Samuel L. Jackson pokes his head out as Nick Fury, Cobie Smulders resurfaces as Maria Hill, Idris Elba represents the titans of Asgard, Anthony Mackie and Don Cheadle swoop through as Falcon and War Machine, respectively, and bumbling physicist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) briefly bumbles about. Even Hayley Atwell’s superlative Peggy Carter makes an appearance! Balancing a cast this massive is a feat of death-defying daring, one which, understandably, seems to have exhausted the normally-ebullient Whedon. Even his trademark snappy dialogue shows signs of fatigue.

There’s hardly a moment to stop and notice it, though – we’ve got an action movie to get through, remember? The plot revolves around Tony Stark having decided, without consulting the Avengers, to develop an artificial intelligence that he sees as “a suit of armour around the world.” His human frame, so fragile without his miraculous Iron Man suit – not to mention his equally fragile ego – makes his mortality very clear to him, so he works to create a world in which the Avengers are no longer needed. His initial attempt ends in disaster when the AI surfaces as Ultron (James Spader), an imposing robot consciousness who, according to another character, can’t tell the difference between saving the world and ending it. Ultron becomes a serious threat as he starts replicating his body and – this produced an audible chuckle – “invading the internet.” He enlists the help of the Maximoff twins, who quickly learn that their interests are not well represented by this homicidal robotic maniac. Many, many, many action scenes ensue.

There’s quite a bit more than just action to Ultron, however, which is part of why the film is simultaneously so impressive and so tiring. Much is made of a burgeoning romance between Banner and Romanov, and their scenes together ring with realistic tension at the impossibility of such a relationship (although the air is somewhat let out of the balloon when their final separation is represented in the unintentionally-comical shot of the massive Hulk hunched in a tiny jet cockpit, flying away from his chance at love). In fact, the performances are stellar across the board, including pseudo-newcomer Paul Bettany, who had previously appeared as Iron Man’s helpful (if put-upon) AI butler JARVIS, whose voice is finally given form as The Vision – perhaps the most arresting-looking character the Marvel canon has yet to offer. The spectacular makeup and visual effects used to create him do not diminish the strength of his quietly passionate performance in the slightest. The rest of the cast is given their due, as well, each having at least one “moment” in which to shine.

Unfortunately, the villain leaves much to be desired: although Spader’s Ultron is appropriately petulant and intimidating, nothing about his creation or motivation makes any goddamn sense at all. We are never told how his personality is developed, how his body is constructed, or what reason he has for coming into existence filled with homicidal rage. His actions are not the actions of a sane entity, which was undoubtedly the point, but maybe Whedon did too good of a job – Ultron’s insane not in the frightening, coldly-calculating, Hannibal Lecter way, but in the “nothing he does makes any sense” way. It’s a shame, because Whedon’s worked very hard to make sure that, at least within this comic book world’s fractured logic, his characters act appropriately, and things are explained at least to a bare minimum level. Apart from Ultron himself, all the pieces are in place here. The only thing that seems to be missing is the joy. Shouldn’t a superhero movie be, I dunno... fun?

Perhaps this was intended as the “dark middle chapter” in the series, like an The Empire Strikes Back or a Godfather: Part II. The film touches on genuinely heavy stuff – the flashbacks to Romanov’s torturous transformation from an innocent girl into an instrument of death, or the Maximoff twins voluntarily signing up for genetic experimentation spring to mind – and it’s handled well, but does that sort of thing belong in the same movie as a lightning god and a big green monster? To Whedon’s credit, he tries really hard to fill the runtime with as much character as action, by showing the Avengers as a continually fractured unit – as much a freakshow as a force for good. But all this brooding, while good for character motivation, is really just a vacuum that sucks the life out of what should be a rollicking good time. The requisite Whedonesque snips of pithy back-and-forth repartee feel forced, as though the characters are quipping through their teeth. Maybe Captain America: The Winter Soldier had a broader impact than I predicted. Every joke in Ultron feels like the last one that person will ever make. (This is true of pretty much the whole film, except for two moments that revolve around Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor, which can only be lifted by those judged “worthy”: one in which the team is jokingly taking turns trying to lift the hammer and a priceless expression drifts across the Asgardian’s face upon seeing goody-two-shoes Captain America actually able to nudge it from its rest, and a later scene in which Vision unexpectedly – and effortlessly – hoists it to the stunned silence of the entire team. This kind of excellent setup and payoff is rare in Ultron, but deeply welcome.)

Speaking of finality, the film strongly telegraphs the demise of Hawkeye, giving him more devoted screen time and an adorable family to emote with. Introducing his pregnant wife and tiny children really just gives him something to lose, so it seems Whedon is really pushing to knock him off the roster. Perhaps – and this is what I prefer to think – that was the director’s intent all along, but somewhere along the way a studio exec must have caught wind of it and put their foot down. That’s one fewer character to exploit for vast merchandising potential, are you crazy?! (I can’t be too hard on Marvel, and by extension Disney, because they’re not as lazy as their competitors. It’s genuinely impressive to see the effort Marvel puts into making the MCU a cohesive universe; Vision looks out over the glittering lights of Manhattan and I can imagine his gaze passing over Hell’s Kitchen, where Daredevil is busy engaging in very violent fisticuffs on a much smaller budget.)

And that’s the deepest impression left by Ultron – that buried beneath the endless concessions and compromises Whedon must have had to make, there lies a beautifully-polished superhero ensemble film, with genuine pathos and wit to spare. But pile on the CGI-heavy action sequences, which become so extravagant as to approach the overstimulating excess of much worse films, and spend time reintroducing old characters who don’t necessarily need to be there, and those compromises begin to overwhelm the overall experience. Ultron has a divided heart. It’s torn, like a person being drawn and quartered, between trying to satisfy all comers, trying to top its predecessor, and trying to remain coherent despite it all. That Whedon takes an extra step and tries to make it excellent as well makes the film worthy of admiration, if not as enjoyable to watch as I had hoped. Don’t disdain Ultron as you would its lesser kin: it’s a portrait of a small-time director thrust into the limelight, whose first priority is to make a good movie, and who encountered many obstacles on that path. Whedon’s resume is a laundry list of fantastic work interrupted by studio meddling – Ultron is simply the latest and loudest example.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism. 

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