Friday, May 1, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron — Upping the ante

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for intense action violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.1.15

Fans will be delighted, and it’s certain to make a fortune.

Writer/director Joss Whedon once again delivers a crowd-pleasing blend of thrills and snarky humor, along with enough quiet, character-driven moments to remind us that — in some cases, at least — we’re dealing with (to quote the Hulk) “puny humans” who, valiant spirit notwithstanding, wearily realize that they’re way outta their league.

During a welcome break from the fury of battle, the off-duty Avengers — from left, Bruce
Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.),
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) — try to determine what their
new robot adversary is up to.
And that, in a nutshell, is a fairly blatant problem with this second Marvel superhero mash-up. Avengers: Age of Ultron may have sidestepped the usual sophomore slump pitfalls, because Whedon is a highly skilled purveyor of action-oriented entertainment; this definitely isn’t a case of same old/same old.

But the sense of scale has climbed off the chart, and that is troublesome. By the time we reach this saga’s chaotic third act, we’re dealing with three new characters who appear able to level continents, not to mention an attack by hundreds of killer robots, urban renewal on a jaw-dropping scale, and a celestial, physics-defying scheme to plunge our entire planet into a new Ice Age.

It’s the familiar Superman problem, writ even larger: How do you concoct a threat sufficiently dire to give an invulnerable hero more than a moment’s pause? And once a threat of even greater magnitude does loom on the horizon, how can our champions endure?

Only by finding an even stronger ally, of course. And so forth, and so forth. Until we have to throw up our hands, admit that things have gotten totally silly, and go with the flow.

It’s a testament to Whedon’s considerable talent, that we are willing to go with that flow.

Credit his insistence on narrative subtext, not to mention note-perfect casting and performances that we’ve grown to love. Robert Downey Jr. remains the epitome of arrogant, condescending genius, although — as we’ve seen, in Iron Man’s most recent solocinematic outing — the emotional cracks are starting to show. Even so, he remains the master of the snide put-down, and his “public face” as Tony Stark has become difficult to endure.

In great contrast, Chris Evans stands tall as the icon of selfless virtue: a retro goodie-two-shoes whose Captain America would be jeered as a hopelessly old-fashioned throwback to so-called gentler times ... were it not for the utter sincerity with which Evans delivers even the corniest lines. We can’t help but smile, early on, when Captain American chides Iron Man about “language.” It’s a cute line, and it sets up an amusing running gag.

Chris Hemsworth radiates the regal bearing we’d expect of a Norse god, and his Thor similarly gets away with stilted “high speech” because Hemsworth retains the steely eyed gravity — and Shakespearean authority — that director Kenneth Branagh established in his first solo outing.

Mark Ruffalo, bless him, nails Bruce Banner’s tragic Jekyll/Hyde nature perfectly, as was the case when his Hulk was introduced in 2012’s first Avengers adventure. (Third time lucky, thank goodness, after lesser Bruce Banners attempted by Eric Bana and Edward Norton, in earlier films.) Ruffalo exudes unspoken paranoia like a clammy second skin, persuasively conveying the jumpy, lonely nature of a good man terrified by what might happen the next time he unleashes the rage-beast within.

Which brings us to the gracefully athletic and highly skilled — but decidedly “ordinary” — characters, Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint (Jeremy Renner), better known as former Russian assassin-turned-good gal Black Widow, and the bow-wielding master of a thousand trick arrows, Hawkeye. These two are the “Batman” characters, who must rely solely on cunning, swift reflexes and (well, yes, OK) some nifty high-tech weaponry.

I’m pleased to see how Whedon has greatly expanded both their roles here, particularly since Hawkeye was MIA for much of the first Avengers outing. We discover that he’s a guy with much to lose every time he suits up alongside his godlike companions — a truly nice touch, in Whedon’s script — which makes him that much more admirable. Renner makes a great Hawkeye, who in his own way proves to be even more of a team-builder than Evans’ Captain America.

Johansson is appropriately sultry as the coy, vampish Black Widow, although her third-act gymnastics stretch credibility rather far, even under these exaggerated conditions. Whedon also drops significant hints about Natasha’s back-story, which grants Johansson a few moments to display some acting chops. Natasha’s attraction to Bruce — a notion that horrifies him, although not for lack of reciprocated desire — is another nice touch.

But — very minor point — Johansson is saddled with way too much makeup during an early, celebratory party scene. She looks ludicrous, and I can’t imagine what All Concerned were thinking.

So, to the story:

During a prologue of sorts, the Avengers tackle a heavily guarded fortress protected by soldiers of the evil Nazi offshoot Hydra, all operating under the strict orders of Baron Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann). Hydra has obtained the powerful scepter snatched from Thor’s twisted half-brother Loki, the primary villain in the Avengers’ previous outing; after a battle royale, our heroes manage to recover this Asgardian weapon.

Naturally, Tony wants to study it; with Bruce’s initially reluctant but eventually eager help, an attempt is made to graft the scepter’s inner “intelligence” into an artificial frame. Tony hopes to create an ultimate peacekeeper: a being better able to protect Earth from the increasingly powerful adversaries that inevitably come calling.

But Tony’s reckless nature always overpowers his minimal dollop of common sense, and — correctly deducing that his comrades would frown on such activities — pointedly fails to tell anybody else what he and Bruce are up to.

Sadly, their efforts succeed. Enter Ultron (voiced with grim glee by James Spader), a soulless machine entity that injects itself into the world-wide web, and then into an ever-expanding series of super-strong robots. If one is destroyed, Ultron’s consciousness simply flits, via the ether, into another waiting body.

No surprise, then, that Tony Stark loses the love from the rest of the gang.

The first Avengers film, in part, concerned the difficult task of building a team from a collection of such disparate, self-involved individuals. Having done that, this time Whedon focuses on the even harder challenge involved with keeping such a team together.

The Marvel Comics universe was built on this sort of realistic interpersonal squabbling, back in the 1960s; while Superman, Batman and their Justice League colleagues all seemed to get along peachy-keen in the DC Comics realm, the Avengers were forever sniping at each other.

It worked back then, and it works here.

Tony, all but ostracized after having betrayed everybody’s trust, struggles to decide whether he — and Iron Man — even need the others. Bruce and Natasha wonder if the world would be much better off without their dual, badly damaged psyches. And so forth.

Meanwhile, Ultron has orchestrated the theft of massive quantities of vibranium, the “strongest metal on Earth” that was used, in part, to create Captain America’s indestructible shield. The robotic monster’s soulless approach to “peace in our time” — the credo under which Tony hoped to create it — has just become even more dire.

As this saga’s primary Big Bad, Ultron is quite malevolent, given to acts both capricious and horrific. There’s an intriguing sense that it doesn’t fully understand human beings, which prompts occasionally arch asides. All that notwithstanding, Ultron isn’t wholly satisfying as an evil mastermind; its robotic face lacks the nasty expressiveness that Tom Hiddleston brought to his wonderful portrayal of Loki. Ultron’s snarky one-liners simply don’t have the same bite.

The already massive cast is augmented by two “experiments” from Strucker’s lab: the fleet-footed Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, recognized from the Kick-Ass franchise), able to run at superhuman speed; and his twin sister Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), a telekinetic/telepath who can “mess with your mind.” Both are formidable adversaries and intriguing “young blood” additions to the mix ... but neither Taylor-Johnson nor Olsen quite manages the necessary Eastern European accent.

Continuity fans will appreciate the-gang’s-all-here appearances by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Agent Hill (Cobie Smulders), Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Asgard’s Heimdall (Idris Elba), Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and even Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell).

Paul Bettany, until now only heard as the voice of Tony Stark’s computer assistant, Jarvis, earns an unusually expanded role. Andy Serkis pops up as an arms dealer — an apt description, given what happens to him — and Linda Cardellini, late of television’s E.R. and Mad Men, pops up in a welcome new role.

And, yes, Marvel “big kahuna” Stan Lee makes his usual cameo.

The production work and special effects are sensational, as always, and Whedon is adept at choreographing even the craziest battles in creative ways that don’t become boring. Even when a few skirmishes go on ... and on ... and on.

But one does wonder about all the devastated real estate and demolished infrastructure. Who pays for the necessary restoration? Somehow, I can’t imagine that even Tony is that rich.

Nit-picky nonsense, of course. Savvy viewers enter this realm hoping for no more than a great ride; anything else is a bonus. Whedon delivers that ride, along with some much-appreciated character angst.

Given the final scene, however, we can’t help wondering if cinematic life is about to imitate comic book life ... because, on the printed page, the Avengers’ roster changed constantly.

That answer will have to wait until 2018, and the arrival of Avengers: Infinity War.

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