We live in a wonderful time; a time when we can watch the superheroes we read about in comics and watched very rarely in movies, mostly animated, come to life and share time on the big screen in a huge cinematic event. Joss Whedon and the whole team at Marvel have been toiling away for the past few years to make the otherwise more obscure Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and Thor household names, and it has been three years since they united on screen for the first time ever. Now, after another round of solo movies – some surprisingly good (The Winter Soldier) and some surprisingly bad (Iron Man 3) – the Avengers are back in action to take down an enemy that they, at least their poster-kid, created. And while Age of Ultron maintains that undeniable popcorn-quality entertainment that the franchise is famous for, it does not live up to its predecessor and in fact falters on several counts that make it not the most satisfying of sequels. If Avengers was that delicious dish you watched being prepared and served hot, Age of Ultron is the same dish served the next day with a couple of new sides, but keeps you searching for more. One thing’s for sure: the best part of the film is Hawkeye. (To those jaws that have dropped, I will address this later on in this review.)
Age of Ultron does not wait for exposition or a prelude of any sort to set up the backdrop, but rather takes off from exactly where The Winter Soldier left off, with Baron Von Strucker helming the present-day operations of HYDRA and in his possession, the twins Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. While Avengers had the audiences waiting with baited breath until three-fourths into the film to finally see the Avengers ‘assemble’, this one pulls off the team formation roughly two minutes into the film, with that glory shot of the team leaping into action that we saw in the trailers. One could say that what made the first Avengers special was the team being formed and that the magic is over. That clearly isn’t true, as the character-dipping and chemistry is better than ever in this one, with the heroes seeming more and more like they are actually involved in these crazy inter-galactic events as a team that bickers half the time, and parties the other half. But there is some merit to this argument that the mere fact that the team has been assembled makes the sequel short of surprises and awestruck moments, and this is only driven home further by having the team appear in photograph-formation before any substantial conversation has even ensued.
One thing that Marvel did do wrong this time around, as I expected, was the amount of brilliant footage revealed in pre-release teases, a ghost that haunts the franchise since the first one. The fight between the Hulkbuster and the Hulk, which should have blown audiences away seeing it for the first time on the big screen, diminished the excitement in anyone who had visited YouTube a week before. Another big surprise that did not deserve to be ruined was the sarcastic wit of James Spader’s Ultron, which I saw in the Ultron vs. Iron Man fight preview released two weeks before the worldwide premiere. This is a trend that needs to change, not only in Marvel but in Hollywood as a whole, especially after that mind-numbing trailer of Terminator: Genisys that threw up all over itself. Exactly the same sentiment that resounded in our minds when Ironman fell through the wormhole in Avengers was reflected in most scenes in Age of Ultron, that sentiment being ‘Oh, this is when that happens. Sure looks cool to watch again though.’ And that’s just it, the audience is definitely rewarded with gorgeous imagery and seamlessly choreographed action, enough to make you forget the more flimsy plot and logical fallacies.
Talking about plot, there was something off about the film for the first half – a sense of bleakness and all-around lack of joy, which isn’t fitting of an Avengers film. The colours and sound were subdued and for a large part, the general wide-takes and movements of the camera failed to adjust to the scenes involved. This was felt throughout in the action too, though excellently choreographed, being a tad too shaky and scattered about, which makes it hard to enjoy the moment to its fullest extent. Indeed, in stark contrast to the first one, the fight scenes are displayed in a more rushed and scattered manner, with the focus shifting around too much, making the whole situation hard to follow at times. I must admit though, there was enough fodder for superhero fans everywhere, the heightened chemistry in the team taking the humorous quips and fights to another level. Stepping back and looking at the two films, it’s baffling the character arcs the heroes have come through. Back in 2012, Captain America and Hawkeye were the least interesting of the team and were accepted by most audience as merely obligatory to source material. I mean seriously, what role does an archer have in a guard which includes a Norse thunder-god, a green rage-monster, and the most brilliant tech-designer in the world who also flies around in a titanium suit shooting missiles in his free time? That and so much more was explored in this sequel which does what seemed impossible to the average movie-goer and what was most anticipated by the comic-lover: it makes Hawkeye a.k.a Clint Barton cool. Now I refuse to go into any details, but let’s just say that it takes the fact that Clint is the most grounded member of the team and capitalizes on the humour and humanity of the situation.
Indeed, the team dynamics of the Avengers in this film triggered a different sensibility than the first – when in the first all of us were won over by Stark’s smart-alecky lines and Hulk’s incredible smashing of aliens, this time around it feels a lot more like the Captain and Hawkeye are playing level-headed babysitters to a bunch of quarrelling, uncontrollable babies. Steve handing out experienced romantic wisdom to Dr. Banner and Hawkeye handing it to all of them, especially Stark, only makes this team of unlikely heroes far more endearing to watch share a room. One can also see the puppeteers over at Marvel turning heads against Ironman, making him the creator of the sadistic cybernetic intelligence Ultron and the deliverer of chuckles and lines that get on your nerves more than they did before. The most rewarding thing to see was the character development that Captain America went through during the events of Avengers and Winter Soldiers not get forgotten but imbibed in his persona, transforming him into the guy we want to follow trustfully into battle. This is shown particularly well when Scarlet Witch (no, I haven’t forgotten about the twins and ahem, the newest addition to the team) plays with the Avengers’ minds to incapacitate them in the battle against Ultron. While Thor seems the most rattled by his vision, the Captain is merely pensive about his need for a war to battle in, that the serum in First Avenger did more to him than physically transform him; as a man out of his own time, it made his very mental existence dependant on battle, which is also why he chooses to stay back in the end at S.H.I.E.L.D to train the new recruits. One relationship that I quite disliked in tone but loved the payoff of was that between Dr. Bruce Banner and Black Widow. The strained romance between the two, with the worry of his Hulk-monster weighing down on Banner makes for an interesting duo, Widow herself a monster in her eyes. What I disliked were the advances of Agent Romanoff on Banner, her flirtations being nothing short of cringe-worthy. This is the driving relationship in the team, which coupled with the Witch-induced destruction questioning the danger that Hulk poses. It’s an extremely intriguing route to take, but needs to be better played out. It would also make your viewing experience much more rewarding to keep in mind that Hawkeye is the most disposable character in the team going in. And well, this is a far darker follow-up to Avengers.
What bothered me a little about the movie is Thor, and how he is sidelined to comic relief for the most part and when not so, as a convenience to the plot in order to set up Infinity War. After he receives his vision from Scarlet Witch, what he does came completely off left field and make quite no sense, as he finds a secret mythical pool (MACGUFFIN!), a dip in which inexplicably lets him read out of Marvel’s plan and be suddenly aware of the infinity stones and the gauntlet and such. While his one-liners and the whole running gag with his hammer does incite many laughs, it seemed for the most part that his character had been paid no attention. But well, it’s bound to happen I guess, when you’re managing so many in so little screen time. Addressing the new members, I cannot start without mentioning the accents that the twins spout – that first ‘You didn’t see that coming?’ from Quicksilver garnered laughs for just that. Aaron Taylor had a lot to live up to, after Evan Peters’ splendid performance in X Men: Days of Future Past, and as expected, he doesn’t deliver, rendering an okay performance that doesn’t display anything creative. Elizabeth Olsen, on the other hand manages to pry into the Witch’s burdened persona and portray it well enough. What I feel many will have conflicting opinions on is Vision, who plays a rather important piece in this puzzle. While I really like Paul Bettany as the Vision, his look didn’t translate as well to screen as I thought it would; and although his view on life and existence have a lot of potential and make him ultimately interesting, most of it is unexplained and rather feels rushed.
‘Rushed’ would pretty much be a recurring theme throughout this film, as the pace is off; taking far too much time with certain things and rushing past and in the process, sidelining crucial details. I for one, felt that the origin of Ultron was the very definition of this fault, with him matter-of-factedly inserted into conversation. The audience is expected to already understand the thought-process of Tony in creating Ultron, and this where it gets scrambled too: from one side it looks as though it is Tony’s vision that sets him on the track to building Ultron, but at the same time Banner and he talk about it as though they had been working on it for ages. While many may find this inconsequential, it did take away from the film, primarily since Marvel has yet to introduce a villain charismatic and interesting enough by himself and not surrounded by a million CGI-fuelled Transformers rejects. Ultron could have been the perfect vessel for this idea, and with James Spader I hoped that they did clinch this one, but with all the things going on, added to the rather rushed and unexplained philosophy the cybernetic intelligence possesses, Ultron didn’t quite hit the right note. The little time that he got to display it, Spader showed us exactly what makes Ultron different: his sarcastic wry wit and scary self-awareness making him a joy to listen to. This is seen especially in the scene where the Avengers confront Ultron and he goes on seemingly to rattle off his plan, as most villains do, but immediately switches around to blowing Stark away with his beams. What makes him such a curious character is the way he shifts attention in the audience’s eyes from being a controlling commander to being an inexperienced child – a megalomaniac – who goes about believing what he thinks is right. A perfect opportunity for this Universe otherwise filled with evil-laughing purple aliens and zero-faceted blue aliens; but they failed to drive it to the win.
Age of Ultron does not elevate the Marvel Universe to new heights, nor does it show brilliant vision or design; but what it does do is tell us that they still have it, although the excitement is less this time around. The jokes are still there, the images look good, and you are always promised an entertaining time that may not excite deeper or more intellectual sensation than the first one. It is a most unsurprising and expected successor to the goliath in 2012 that blew minds everywhere, yet it is a worthy companion piece. And that would probably be my ultimate qualm with this film: the movies of this studio have lost all identity of themselves, and rather now serve as episodes in a franchise ironically dancing to ‘strings’ unlike the antagonist in Age of Ultron. With a darker shade than its predecessors, and a mellower atmosphere after the events of Avengers, this movie has its moments, far apart and concentrated toward the end as they are. It stumbles around a bit in the beginning to find its pace, but once it does it does not lose it. It ends also on a much bleaker tone, not really concluding anything and leaving all our heroes to explore their roles in the upcoming War. This film is pure entertainment; minus the excitement of seeing the Avengers assemble for the first time: it will not leave you bored or turned off Marvel, but if you ask me, the first Avengers remains untopped.