Monday, May 18, 2015

Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

A lot of things changed when the original Avengers hit theaters in 2012. Marvel’s ambitious plan of slowly building a ‘cinematic universe’ actually worked. Clubbed together, the mediocre Iron Man 2 and the Captain America and Thor films actually gave way to one of the most astonishing team ups in cinema history. The result made so much money every single major movie studio is now desperately trying to replicate the formula.

After the post Avengers films and the Guardians of the Galaxy world the Marvel universe is now so big it feels like an unstoppable expanding force. In fact it’s so big that the sequel to The Avengers, titled Age of Ultron has become a small, middling entry untoward a bigger goal. That is the undoing of this film, an extremely entertaining summer blockbuster of the year that still feels like a step back from the first movie.

If you’ve seen the first film or any of the trailers of this movie, you know the plot – Iron Man creates a highly intelligent Artificial Intelligence that somehow goes rogue and threatens to destroy the human race. The AI is called Ultron, and he’s voiced by James Spader in his trademark sardonic grunt. And that is the end of the plot. The remainder of the story only involves the Avengers teaming up, breaking up, and teaming again to thwart the villain. Flimsy and predictable? You bet.

The thing with Age of Ultron, apart from the flimsy plot, is that it drops the ball from the very first scene, by assembling all of the Avengers for a sequence that is as action packed as the finale of the original movie. The scale is set to such a rousing high in the first ten minutes, director Whedon has no choice but to attempt incorporating more special effects on bigger and grander scales. The only way to do this, is by making even more buildings crumble, causing more destruction, more pain to the heroes, and rendering all this with a darker palette. As people witnessed in Man of Steel, exploding buildings don’t necessarily add dramatic heft or much wow factor, you become desensitized to it after the fiftieth explosion.

Regardless of the Man of Steel Syndrome, the ensuing mayhem in Ultron is no doubt entertaining. There’s not a penny spared in creating some of the biggest action set pieces ever in cinema, and Whedon certainly deserves the praise for that. The money shot in the film is the one featuring Iron Man and The Hulk battling each other – every second of that sequence is snazzy enough to make a fan pass out due to excitement. By now the Avengers have learned how to fight as a team, and some of the stuntwork is like a tag team ballet dance of nut kicking, and it’s beautiful. What’s missing however, are those sweeping, crescendo like moments where an action scene culminates into something jaw dropping, like Banner saying he’s always angry, turning into the Hulk, punching an alien and leading up to the Avengers assemble in the first movie. Here it’s ‘smash boom bang wham bam thank you man I’m off to the next action scene hey look out behind you!’.

Age of Ultron, unfortunately, is a portal to the Infinity Wars movies, and thus has the task of introducing new characters into the universe. So apart from Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow and The Hulk, we get to meet half a dozen new superheroes, plus a few old friends and that’s where the film begins tearing apart at the seams. Juggling so many characters is where Whedon crumbles under the weight of his own ambition, and each character plays out as a factory-like contractual obligation of X amount of establishing dialogue and Y amount of stunt work. Characters enter the scenes, add something unsurprising to the film, and exit awkwardly, disappearing amidst the explosive chaos. It becomes frustrating after a point of time. The gap between the lack of characterization and the giant action is padded up by a painfully cheesy romantic track between two of the Avengers, and it ends up being an eyeroll. Whedon has publicly ridiculed stereotypical cinema women who keep falling for the hero for no reason, and that’s exactly what happens in this movie.

Some of the plot points are incoherent. There’s a sequence where Thor meets professor Selvig and goes to a lake and screams, for no clear reason. There’s a new all powerful gem stone in this film, but its power is hardly enough to beat Ultron, which is never explained why. The villain in question, Ultron is like every other Marvel universe supervillain – inconsequential. We’re shown that there is a great deal of simmering thought process in Ultron, yet we’re never told what his plans are and why he’s doing things. We’ve seen the story of AI gone wrong countless times, so one expects a fresh spin on the genre trope, but we don’t get any. Ultron is as generic as they come.

The lack of Ultron’s motivation is made up by an addition of Hawkeye’s story, compounded by some hilarious self aware takedowns. We know a guy with a bow and an arrow is no match for nuclear powered aliens dropping down from the sky, and Whedon finally does some fan service to that notion. While the Quicksilver in this movie isn’t as impressive as the one in Days of the Future Past, Scarlett Witch (played by Elizabeth Olsen) is an interesting character that, along with Vision (Paul Bettany) would be the major draws of the upcoming films.

The one thing that never disappoints about a Marvel film is the comedy. The salty humor is present in full form here, from Stark’s throwaway lines to Hulk’s screaming and pounding, it delivers wonderfully. The comedy makes it easy to just ignore the film’s gaffes, sit back, unload the tub of popcorn in your mouth and let the mayhem on the screen awash your eyes. The Avengers Infinity War movies are years away, but there’s a ton of gap fillers on the way. It’s up to Marvel to now deliver something unexpected, seeing as we already know the path. Perhaps the looming threat of Batman vs Superman will ensure socks being pulled up in the Marvel camp.

(First published in Firstpost)

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