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REVIEW: Avengers: Age of Ultron

AoU_paintingAvengers: Age of Ultron, along with the upcoming Ant-Man, serves as the endcap to the second phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and it is a strange brew. The film is larger in scale, carrying an epic feel as the Avengers dart around the globe pursue and attempt to stop the villainous machinations of Ultron.  Aiding Ultron, and serving as recipients of his exposition, are Pietro and Wanda Maximoff – the twins Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).

Man of Steel fans will rejoice as a large majority of The Avengers time is spent rescuing innocent bystanders and performing other heroic acts of derring-do!  The movie excels in action and in further accentuating the character dynamics of the team.  Early in the film The Avengers are forced to face their past actions and fears of the future which quickly serves to “tear them apart – from the inside.”

Bypassing the typical gathering of the team montage, the film starts with a bang as the team engages in a raid that demonstrates their camaraderie and cohesion as a fighting unit, we also get a taste of the issues of identity and protection which serve as the primary themes of the film.  Throughout we see the characters battle with trying to figure out who they really are, what their actions have made them, and who they are capable of becoming if they work together.  How sweet!

Black Widow’s (Scarlet Johannsen) history as an assassin is touched upon, Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) past as an arms dealer comes around to bite the team in the buttocks, and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) being a rampaging rage monster capable of massive amounts of destruction is spectacularly put on display. It Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), however, who is shown to be the heart of the team and you are given ample reason to understand how he could have been able of establishing such a strong bond with The Black Widow.  He can be gruff but he cares.

Strangely, Captain America (Chris Evans), who was a big focus of the first film, gets shorter shrift this time out.  He is featured throughout but here he receives little in the way of character development in comparison to his teammates.  Similarly, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), receive little in the way of character development as he pops in and out of the film at random – just as he did in the first Avengers movie, with a detour to some sort of mystic pool and visions and blah blah blah show us more Hulk action! Thor’s vision seem weirdly out of place for Age of Ultron but appear to serve a purpose for the overarching MCU framework.

AoU_Hulk_vs_IronMan-1200x520The biggest shortcoming of Age of Ultron is Ultron (James Spader) himself.  Ultron is not your typical cold and calculating, world conquering killer robot, he actually is more humorous than expected, many times coming across as a super-intelligent child with slight Daddy issues.  Just as the protagonists, he also receives character work and this is what undermines him.

Ultron is a threat that lacks menace.

While being as charismatic as Loki, He doesn’t instill the fear of an unstoppable force like The Winter Soldier in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and never displays the raw, emotional brutality of Wilson Fisk from Daredevil.  You understand what he wants to accomplish and why he wants to do it, but there is no palpable tension or worry that the Avengers won’t be up to the task of stopping him.

Fans of the comic will be quite familiar with Ultron’s Daddy issues, but this is not taken full advantage of in this movie.  Ultron hates Tony Stark, but there is no face-off or scene that truly addresses Ultron, and even the twins, hatred of Stark.  It is just a plot string that is introduced and then left dangling.  In fact, several of Stark’s actions while called into question, really are seemingly brushed aside after some member of the team chastises him for his hubris, or as in the case of Ultron and the Maximoff twins, never resolved at all.

There was plenty of material that from the comics that could have been mined, and perhaps in that three hour version of the film that director Joss Whedon says may be released as the blu-ray version, we will get some additional material to make Ultron a more compelling villain, but it is not contained in this version of the movie.  If  played differently, and focused more on the Tony Stark/Ultron dynamic, Age of Ultron could have made for a terrific, grade-A Iron Man 4.  The twins could have then been transitioned into the main Avengers series instead of serving mainly as bit players in this movie.

The movie is filled – and I do mean FILLED – with action which flows fluidly from one set piece to the next, a stand-out being the entire Wakanda excursion which leads to the big Hulk vs Hulkbuster armor showdown.  The fights are nowhere near as visceral as in CA: TWS, but they do exceed previous summer blockbuster movie fare.  There are enough character nuggets sprinkled in to chew on and break-up the action while keeping the story moving at a good clip, only stumbling in a few places but never anything that truly derails the proceedings.

The last and best advice I can give you is to save your money by skipping the 3D screenings. If you can view the film on an IMAX screen go for it since the scale and spectacle are worth seeing on the biggest screen you can view it on, but the movie does not leverage the 3D in any meaningful fashion that makes it worth the extra expense.

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