Friday, May 1, 2015

Review: "Avengers: Age of Ultron"

Director: Joss Whedon
Runtime: 141 minutes

"This doesn't make any sense," remarks Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) during the climax of Avengers: Age of Ultron. But whether or not it makes sense shouldn't matter. What matters is whether or not enough of this is engaging at all. When Joss Whedon assembled the Avengers for the first time in 2012, he reinvigorated Marvel's cinematic universe. Yet now, at the end of Phase II of Marvel's master plan, Whedon has let quite a bit of wind out of the sails. 

Solo adventures for Captain America (Chris Evans) have been the most recent standalone films before both Avengers films. Yet after Captain America: The First Avenger, Marvel was looking a bit weary post-Iron Man. Going into Avengers 2, Whedon is picking up after last year's shockingly good Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which has understandably set expectations higher. And this time, earth's mightiest heroes merely sharing the screen just isn't enough. Rather than close out Phase II with a brilliant end, Age of Ultron comes across as an extended denouement. 

When Age of Ultron opens, we're witnessing the end of the insidious Hydra organization. Once the Avengers dismantle the group's last fortress in eastern Europe, they start looking forward to a world at something resembling peace. Eager to make this dream into a reality, Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) expands his Ultron program, a team of cyber soldiers designed to act as a shield for the planet, as well as an agent of peace on the ground. Things go south, however, when Stark's technological meddling creates genuine AI, which takes on the form of an android (James Spader) who claims the Ultron name for himself. With the corrupted AI on the loose, the next step is inevitable: the rise of the machines. Well, it would be inevitable if there was even an ounce of tension present on screen.

A good villain is a terrible thing to waste, but that's exactly what Age of Ultron does. Spader does a wonderful job of voicing (and providing motion capture work) Ultron, but the hulking metallic fiend registers only as powerful, but never threatening. Ultron's strength grows, but the danger he poses is stagnant. At every turn, the Avengers stop Ultron to some degree. Ultron never leaves our heroes broken. He simply runs away to plot his next move. With Ultron's seemingly limitless technological capabilities, the world's machinery should be turning on the Avengers. Instead, it most plays the neutral card, and Iron Man and co. go on their merry way chasing the demon robot across the globe.

The featherlight plotting wouldn't feel like such a weakness had Whedon been able to better sort out his cast. By now, Stark's snark is played out, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) have settled into solid supporting roles. Despite his bland, all-American boy scout attitude, Evans' Captain America has emerged as the most reliably engaging lead from the franchise. When paired with Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, it becomes all too clear who really deserves to be at the head of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

And then there's Renner's Hawkeye, who has always felt like the sixth wheel of the ensemble. Whedon tries to change that by taking us behind the character's mysterious black-ops facade, but what comes to light only makes him blander. Compare this with the frustratingly-brief peeks at Black Widow's upbringing, and Age of Ultron's priorities only seem more out of whack. As for super-powered twins Scarlett Witch and Quicksilver (Olsen and Aaron-Taylor Johnson), the former is wasted in a potentially cool role, while the latter barely holds a candle to Evan Peters' perfectly-utilized take on the same character in X-Men: Days of Future Past.

So even though the number of plates that Whedon has spinning is impressive, watching this act again is starting to grow old. Just when Marvel seemed ready to move forward, Age of Ultron falls back into old habits. Spending time with these characters still has its pleasures, but this super-sized super-hero flick is, sadly, as bland as many of the standalone films in the series that paved the way. It's a dandelion of a blockbuster; with just the tiniest breeze, it all scatters to the wind with little consequence or merit. 

Grade: C+

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