Scott F. Evans
2012’s The Avengers was the ultimate comic book movie. It was colorful, and breezy. It knew exactly what it was and told a rollicking, unpretentious story. This time around, Avengers: Age of Ultron brings us more of the same, but in slightly more grown up fashion.
Joss Whedon returns as writer and director, and it’s clear that he has matured as a filmmaker. One of the main complaints of The Avengers was that it looked like a big budget TV show. Not here. Age of Ultron looks like cinema. It won’t dazzle you with camera acrobatics or beautiful vistas, but there’s a visual depth here that was definitely missing from its predecessor. Maybe that richness can be attributed to cinematographer Ben Davis, who brings a darker palette to the film. The picture’s visuals perfectly match Whedon’s heavier story. The sequel has much more emotional resonance than the first one, with characters dealing with varying levels of love and loss. Still, Whedon is careful not to lay it on too thick. He gives us just enough weight so that the film won’t be dismissed as a piece of fluff, but delivers the fun and thrills audiences expect from big summer blockbusters. His dialogue is snappy as ever, with handfuls of great one-liners that takes us right to the edge but never fall into self-awareness. And he has toned down the cuteness of his dialogue. The snark and whimsy is still here, but his characters sound less like teenage girls and more like adults.
All of the players from the original are back, and even though they have eight films among them, every once of them clocks in for this movie. Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth and Evans, Scarlett Johanssen, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, and Samuel L. Jackson all do solid work. Downey Jr. nearly stole The Avengers, but Renner is the standout this time around. Hawkeye was almost an afterthought in the first film, spending much of the film under the control of Loki. In Age of Ultron, Hawkeye gets to be an actual character, an integral part of the team, and gets to deliver the best self-aware line of the film. Johanssen’s Black Widow and Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk get some nice tender moments that illustrate how the franchise is growing up. There are also a couple of extended cameos that will delight fans, and seem to be a direct response to the original’s diversity problem. It’s a small step… but it is a step.
Newcomers to the franchise really get to shine in this movie. Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson play the super powered twins Wanda and Pietro Maximoff. Johnson’s Pietro is the Marvel Studios rendition of the same character previously introduced in last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. Unlike that film, this version doesn’t feel shoehorned in as an effects gimmick. Pietro plays an important role in Age of Ultron. He’s essential to the plot here. In Days of Future Past, the character could have been easily cut and it wouldn’t have affected the film at all. Johnson is good in a part that requires audiences both like and dislike the character from scene to scene. Olsen is terrific, bringing equal amounts of pathos and menace to the part.
Paul Bettany debuts as Vision. In the previous Marvel films, Bettany was the voice of JARVIS. Here he plays a newly constructed synthetic. Bettany brings an almost childlike humanity and a bit of sadness to the small role. Like the Guardians of the Galaxy, the introduction of the Vision pushes the Marvel universe further into the fantastic. Also like Guardians, the Vision works. Whedon wisely chooses to play the character in balance between triviality and magnitude. He’s introduced, gets a couple good lines and character moments, and we move on.
The main villain is the titular Ultron, voiced by the incomparable James Spader. The actor brings a grandness to the supervillain, embodying him with an awkward pompousness that should be contradictory, but oddly succeeds. Whedon gives the character great dialogue, and Spader relishes every word.
Like most modern blockbusters, Avengers: Age of Ultron ends up being about twenty minutes too long. It sags in the middle and some of the plot points get lost in the confusion to set up the inevitable sequel. But Marvel’s strengths are in character and casting. The slow or expository bits are driven by strong acting from charismatic performers, so it doesn’t feel like such a slog to get through. Age of Ultron (and all of the Marvel films for that matter) is the near perfect representation of what a popcorn film should be. The filmmakers put significant time and thought into story and character, instead of just dazzling (but empty) F/X and action scenes. You don’t have to “shut off your brain” to enjoy it.
RATING: Do I need to even say it? THEATER!