Monday, May 4, 2015

"The Avengers: Age of Ultron" (2015) Review

It’s pretty much the exact same thing as the first movie -- and that’s both a positive and a negative.


A movie like “Age of Ultron” is ultimately review-proof. The filmmakers behind it really had no intention of making great, socially-relevant art and what they did set out to do -- make a whole bunch of stuff explode while cartoon characters move through the air all cool-looking and stuff -- they did pretty darn well. Story-wise, there isn’t a whole lot to talk about here, which is precisely the point -- in lieu of human emotion, nuance and pathos, we instead get lengthy Xbox cutscene battles, periodically buttressed by really unsure, astoundingly unemotional attempts to depict the heroes and villains as anything other than color-coded breakfast cereal marshmallows. “Age of Ultron” is pretty much the archetypical description/condemnation of contemporary, big-budget Hollywood “Armageddon porn” Michael Keaton’s alter ego referenced in “Birdman,” and that’s simultaneously the film’s greatest strength and biggest shortcoming.

I’m not really sure if this one is better or worse than the original. Practically everything you can say about the first “Avengers” movie, you can likewise say about “Age of Ultron” -- the teaser trailers may have fooled you into thinking it’s a darker and grimmer affair, but it’s actually every bit as goofy and melodramatic and Joss Whedonny-as numero uno. If you loved part one, you’ll love part two, and if you thought the original was pure shit, well … odds are, you won’t be much of a fan of this one, either.

Taking its cue from the second “X-Men” game on the Sega Genesis (or at least that’s what I WANT to believe was their inspiration,) the film begins smackdab in the middle of an action sequence, sans any of those boring, pesky title cards to distract us from the  primary intent of the motion picture -- to arouse the part of our reptilian brains that really, really like to see things ripple in slow-motion while CGI monsters break shit real good.

The plot of "Age of Ultron," you may be wondering? Primarily,
to sell a lot of potato chips...
During a siege at the Hydra headquarters in Germany (or some made-up country that’s supposed to serve as a stand-in for the modern-day clusterfuck of ex-Soviet Baltic states in Eastern Europe), Captain America, Iron Man and Thor beat up a bajillion neo-Nazis before The Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver show up and start making everybody have hallucinations about mechanical dragon monsters (who are familiar-looking enough to probably prompt a lawsuit from the estate of H.R. Giger at some point) eating the Earth. Eventually, Tony Stark retrieves Hydra’s super advanced artificial intelligence software, and as would any reasonable sort, decides to merge it with his own computer programming for use as a global defense network.

Now, this may come as a complete shocker, but apparently, WinZip files put together by people trying to bring about the Fourth Reich may in fact contain malware. And in this case, it’s that especially nasty kind of malware that’s designed to cause spare android parts to become self-aware and start drawing up blueprints for a robo-apocalypse. Before long, Ultron -- the titular rouge A.I. -- decides to form its own physical body made out of the same make-belief super-metal Cap’s shield is made out of and start whacking off the arms of weapons dealers, all the while cutting these really whiny monologues that sound like the cowardly inversion of Iron Man’s super ego rambling at top speed. Of course, Ultron (voiced by James Spader, who I am convinced was high on Levaquin throughout his V.O. sessions) enlists the help of the Maximoff twins to best the Avengers in battle, primarily by commanding the Scarlet Witch to sprinkle her pink mind-control squiggles on people to make them reflect on their worst fears (as it turns out, Thor’s biggest fear is a shameless, clumsy segue into the next film in his own franchise.) After a tremendous battle scene (that in no way, shape or form is supposed to remind anyone of 9/11) featuring the Hulk and Iron Man in a costume designed solely to sell more double-priced action figures wraps up, the Avengers decide to jet out to western New York, where Hawkeye has a wife and kids and Black Widow reflects on her assassin training and being sterile and Captain America and Iron Man chop wood together competitively, but not really competitively. Then, the Hulk and Iron Man decide to fish JARVIS (the old, “good” A.I. program that all the while has been keeping Ultron from figuring out the nuclear launch codes) out of the dark web and place him inside the body of this synthetic android prototype because … uh, we need to market new Halloween costumes to the kiddos this autumn?

Following a guest appearance from Nick Fury, the Avengers decide to high-tail it back to East Europe, where Ultron and his army of metal dopplegangers are planning to literally jet propel a huge chunk of the country up into the stratosphere and send it hurdling towards the rest of the planet to trigger another ice age. Hey, as far as doomsday scenarios, you’ve at least got to give them an A-plus for originality on that one.

Naturally, this leads us to our half-hour long super-duper battle grand finale, where the Avengers (now joined by the Vision and the Maximoff twins, who decide to turn face after learning about Ultron’s nefarious scheme) take on approximately 456 million robot clones of Ultron, while SHIELD dirigibles attempt to fly all of the civilians off to safety. As far as climactic throwdowns go, it’s not bad; a bit more enjoyable than the “Battle of the Five Armies” in the last Tolkien flick, but still a far cry from the dénouement in “13 Assassins,” I believe.

...and chocolate milk...
And after Ultron is bested (following a really plastic exchange between he and the Vision), we get a set-up for the next seven or eight Marvel Cinematic Universe flicks, as Captain America forms an all new Avengers core -- of which, strangely enough, he’s the sole Caucasian male representative -- while Iron Man drives off into the sunset. Oh yeah, and Thor goes off to the Norse Dimension or wherever the fuck he goes off to, and Black Widow is all mopey because her new boyfriend Bruce Banner took off in a fighter jet and has gone completely off the radar (although they think he may be somewhere out in Fiji, which probably means he’s going to be in the next “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie, somehow.) And yes, we conclude with a mid-credit teaser for “The Avengers 3,” featuring a certain purple Skrull looking mother-fucker sliding on a certain jewel encrusted glove and threatening to finish what Loki and Ultron couldn’t.

Since I haven’t been watching every form of Marvel branded media out there (all of the movies and TV shows are tied into the same universe, which the suits at Disney have this mapped out canonically all the way until the 2020s), I’m not quite sure if I got all of the in-jokes and throwaway references. The humor in the film, however, is very much your typical “Buffy” snappy banter, which to me at least, seems really hammy and outmoded at this point. Granted, it’s preferable to the self-righteous, holier than thou pseudo-philosophical “seriousness” of the D.C. movies, but not exactly by that wide of a margin.

The acting this time around seems particularly wooden, even more so than in the first movie. Even Robert Downey Jr. seems to be sick of the same-old, same-old, turning in a performance so watered-down it almost drips off onto your shoes. The rest of the cast play their roles with a seemingly intentional blankness, going back and forth about alien invasions and a grey goo holocaust with the same amount of smug disenchantment you’d expect from jaded salary men shooting the shit at the water cooler. Rather than display trepidation at the prospect of human extinction, they approach it with palpable ennui -- then again, that sort of mass death pop fantasy has been such a tired hallmark of the superhero film genre that perhaps it does make sense for the characters to greet existential threats with such glib disinterest.

The attempts to “humanize” the characters falter pretty bad. By introducing the hitherto unmentioned family of non-super-powered Hawkeye, it seems like the filmmakers were at least trying to turn him into some sort of relatable everyman, but frankly, he’s just not charismatic enough to be endearing. The same can be said of the painfully forced love story subplot between Black Widow and the Hulk, which comes off as an out-of-left-field plot mechanic just thrown in there to appeal to the post-post- “Twilight” tween demographics. They are definitely teasing a pre- “Civil War” rift between Captain America and Iron Man, but nothing really comes out of it; at the end of this movie, they just seem like two dudes who have made amends over a “Madden” game that got out of hand.

Definitely the biggest fault with the movie, however, is the villain. Ultron does not really come across as menacing or entertaining, instead being presented as your standard, flamboyant, over-talkative Joss Whedon bad guy. At my screening, the audience had pretty much zero reaction to the character, not once recoiling from his vileness or laughing at his madcap logorrhea. In hindsight, the character probably would’ve worked better as a completely disembodied antagonist -- think, a living, breathing computer virus that was making everything go “Maximum Overdrive” and shit.

...and whatever the hell this is supposed to be.
The Avengers newcomers are pretty bland, too. This version of Quicksilver is nowhere near as
entertaining as the “X-Men” version that eats Twinkies and practically has the sands of time power from “Prince of Persia,” nor is the Scarlet Witch  really that interesting (although you have to give the producers props for picking the other, other Olsen twin to play a half-starved waif that wears too much eyeliner.) The Vision -- essentially, Robin Williams' character from “Bicentennial Man” with an Infinity Gem lodged between his eyes -- is easily the most intriguing of the new franchise additions, but his naïve, overly philosophical nature does tend to get laborious after awhile.

As for the positives, the action sequences, as expected, are really goddamn excellent, with the aforementioned Hulk/Iron Man slugfest in Africa standing out as the highlight of the entire film. There’s another pretty good sequence in South Korea, and the opening and concluding set pieces are really, really well-shot, too. The pacing is a little weird, and there are some slow spots with the Scarlet Witch-induced flashbacks and all that shit at Hawkeye’s house, but by and large, the movie never really hits a snag at any point. As a cumulative offering, I’d say it’s at least as good a stupid, cornball popcorn action movie as the last “Hobbit” flick and the shockingly not-that-sucky Michael Bay Ninja Turtles movie, if not a considerably better one than the lackluster Andrew Garfield Spider-flicks and the final film in the Nolan Bat-Trilogy.

At the end of the day, “Age of Ultron” is a follow-up to the first movie in sort of the same way a McRibwich is kind of a sequel to a Big Mac. I mean, yeah, it tastes a little different and you are getting a different wrapper, but ultimately, you’re pretty much getting the exact same kind of high-fat, high-sodium, artery clogging foodstuff on the same greasy pair of buns as you got the first time around.

Granted, its nowhere close to being on the same level as superlative, modern-ish action films “The Raid” or the “Elite Squad” movies, nor is it of the same caliber as the absolute best comic book flicks, such as the second Raimi “Spider-Man,” Burton’s first “Batman” and the first two -- and to this very day, only good -- “Superman” movies. That said, for everything it is and isn’t, it’s a juvenile, infantilized, hyper-over-produced, mass-marketed feature-length toy commercial that’s just slightly above average for juvenile, infantilized, hyper-over-produced, mass-marketed feature-length toy commercials. It’s loud and stupid and vapidly stylish and obsessed with aesthetics, but at least it’s pretty good at being all four, which is something you really can’t say for most of its genre contemporaries.

My Score:


Two and a Half Tofu Dogs out of Four

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