Sunday, May 3, 2015
Avengers: Age of Ultron begins in media res, with the usually fractious superheroes seemingly having evolved into a well-oiled, super-powered machine as demonstrated by a coordinated attack on HYDRA and its new leader Baron Von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann). Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is beating whole flocks of HYDRA soldiers with one swing of his hammer, Mjolnir. Captain America (Chris Evans) uses his motorcycle the way a gymnast would a balance beam, pushing off into acrobatic flips and bowling his enemies over before meeting the cycle again further down the line. The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, or a CGI version of him) simply barrels through the bad guys like a runaway train while the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) follows close behind, prepared to execute a secret "lullaby" protocol that mysteriously calms the green behemoth in nearly an instant. All of this unfolds while Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) is at his most detached, ordering his new Iron Legion of robots to do most of the dirty work while he flies overhead, trying his best to break through an invisible force field surrounding Strucker's castle.
Two unknown variables are introduced into this already chaotic scene: Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) Maximoff, "enhanced" twins already known to Marvel Comics readers as the reality-warping Scarlet Witch and the speedster Quicksilver, the result of Strucker's twisted experiments on the local Sokovian townspeople. They make short work of the least powerful Avenger, the SHIELD archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Think those are the only comic book characters Age of Ultron trots out for fanboys? Think again... we haven't even gotten to titular baddie Ultron (James Spader), SHIELD chiefs Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), future Black Panther villain Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) or a secret android Tony Stark and Ultron both hope to have up their respective sleeves. At two-and-a-half hours, Age of Ultron still feels like an overstuffed way station in the Marvel series, a pause that resets the board, phasing out characters played by actors whose contracts are due to expire in favor of new superheroes soon to be introduced.
Within its first fifteen minutes, Age of Ultron buttons up the HYDRA storyline that has wended its way through TV's Avengers spinoff, Agents of SHIELD, since last year's Captain America sequel. It also begins to lay the groundwork for Black Panther, the next Captain America and Thor sequels, and of course, the next installment of the Avengers series itself. Peel all of the extraneous, external Marvel plot-lines away and what you have is a rather thin story about one of Stark's robotic creations running away from him and launching a global conquest. Director Joss Whedon continues to play to his strengths, illuminating the most underserved Avengers with the brightest spotlight. Hulk and Black Widow get a star-crossed romance while Hawkeye gets a deeper personal life than some of the other heroes. However, an overreliance on close-ups whenever the movie is quiet for more than a second reveals that the movie's best director(s) is whoever was in charge of the second unit work; Age of Ultron's stunt sequences keep the excitement level high while maintaining a visual geography that flies against the confusing style action films have been trending toward of late. But much of the din and pyrotechnics are meant to distract us from the fact that there isn't much to Age of Ultron at all.
Marvel doesn't have to look very far to see what may undermine any potential satisfaction discerning moviegoers may hope to derive from Age of Ultron. After viewing its intimate, neo-noir epic Daredevil on Netflix nearly one month ago, even comic fans might find it hard to get back into the sort of accelerated head space necessary to enjoy Age of Ultron. Daredevil is a return to the kind of classic storytelling that may initially strike one as conventional, but pays off huge dividends at its conclusion. Instead of aiming to resolve and introduce storylines from previous and future chapters in the Marvel film series or scattering its focus among a dozen characters, Daredevil keeps its plot simple and straight, uts performances high-caliber, and its attention concentrated on just two characters and the players who support their narratives. Sure, it may not be fair to compare a 13-hour serial to a feature-length summer blockbuster. Yet 13 hours is about what it would take to adequately wade through all of the elements brought into play by Age of Ultron because two-and-a-half hours just doesn't cut it.