Review: “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

Marvel fans will assemble — heh, heh — at theaters this weekend for the hotly anticipated sequel to 2012’s “The Avengers.”  So the big question on everyone’s lips, metallic or otherwise: Can “Age of Ultron” live up to its predecessor?

Well…not quite.

But that’s okay.

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The film opens with the Avengers — Steve Rogers’s Captain America, Tony Stark’s Iron Man, Natasha Romanoff’s Black Widow, Bruce Banner’s Hulk, Clint Barton’s Hawkeye and Thor’s…uh…Thor — attempting to recover Loki’s scepter from a Hydra base in Europe.  There we’re introduced to the brother-sister pairing of super-fast Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and telekinetic Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), their powers the result of Hydra’s experiments.

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After recovering the scepter, Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce (Mark Ruffalo) use it to secretly develop an A.I. that will bolster a robotic defense system to supplant the Avengers.  Tony envisions a suit of armor around the world.  He calls it the Ultron program.  Once activated, Ultron (voiced by James Spader) decides to push his maker’s agenda to the nth degree:  the only way to save the planet is to eliminate the human race.

The first act of “Ultron” left me worried.  Despite the use of some CG-enhanced long takes, there’s very little sense of geography in the opening sequence.  The storytelling is more convoluted this time out.  (Seriously, my eyes went crossed writing those last couple paragraphs.)  We suffer through some pretty knotty exposition.  More than once, I found myself going Wait, who’s that?  Am I supposed to know this character?  Where’s so-and-so now?  Still, writer-director Joss Whedon weaves in some wonderful setup.  My favorite instance involves a pissing contest over Thor’s hammer.  Tony, Steve and Bruce try to lift it in an effort to prove themselves worthy.  The payoff to this is hugely satisfying and a great development at a critical juncture for our heroes.

The new additions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe are mostly strong.  This is the best Elizabeth Olsen has been since her acclaimed performance in “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”  Aaron Taylor-Johnson is sleepy as ever, but his screen time is short and lines of dialog even shorter.  Ultron is one of studio’s best villains, though the competition is admittedly light.  I enjoyed Spader’s dulcet tones as Ultron cracks wise – “I wanted to take this time to explain my evil plan” – though he does tend to prattle on.

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And yes, he’s involved in another destroy-the-world plot.  Think about successful sequels like “Skyfall” and “The Empire Strikes Back.”  No fights for world domination, no planet-destroying battle stations.  Just personal struggles that make the stakes that much higher.

But “Ultron” isn’t without those intimate dramas.  There’s an attraction between Natasha and Bruce.  Though it’s pretty standard path – unfortunately, as Black Widow is the series’ most prominent female — the forbidden love angle works.  With the monster that rages inside him, Bruce is reluctant to let anyone get too close.  We also learn about Pietro and Wanda’s troubled past, which complicates their relationship to the Avengers.

Like many second chapters – I’m looking at you again, “Empire” – this one’s darker than the first.  Literally.  Ben Davis’s cinematography brings shadows into the frame, which are a nice change of pace from the brightly lit and generally flat “Avengers.”  Even the action feels heavier this time what with the percussive editing…though it can get tedious.  Crash!  Bang!  Repeat.  One sequence that benefits from the strategy is the fight between Hulk and a souped-up Iron Man.  To borrow from another comic book movie, this is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.

The film isn’t all doom and gloom.  Whedon’s wit is as sharp as ever.  In one of the more comical scenes, Hawkeye embraces the absurdity that super hero movies traffic in: “We’re fighting a robot army, and I’ve got a bow and arrow.  None of this makes sense!”  Renner has a lot more to work with than he has in other Marvel outings.  Fans of Whedon’s “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” might see parallels to Xander.  I certainly did. Hawkeye is a normal person amidst Gods (and some with God-like egos).  It affords him an opportunity to see things the others can’t.

Despite not being as strong as “The Avengers,” “Age of Ultron” is a very successful sequel.  It expands on the universe, introduces new characters, develops old ones and, per usual with Marvel, sets up things to come.

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Lists: Top 10 Most Anticipated Films of 2015 (Part 1 of 2)

I’m a few prestige titles short of an informed perspective on this past year in cinema, so I thought I’d jump ahead!  Here are the titles I’m most looking forward to in 2015…

10.) “Tomorrowland”

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Release Date: May 22nd

What governs my interest in a project are the people involved.  A two-minute trailer can make anything look good, and a plot synopsis can’t encapsulate the creative decisions that bring a story to the screen.  With that in mind, my #10 is a mixed bag.  “Tomorrowland” is an original, big-budget science fiction film directed by Brad Bird.  From “The Iron Giant” to “The Incredibles” to “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocal,” this guy is one of the best pop filmmakers working today.  Sadly, screenwriter Damon Lindelof is not.  Influenced by frequent collaborator, JJ Abrams, Lindelof is a fan of the mystery box.  His “boxes,” while interestingly packaged, are often empty.  The disappointment of “Prometheus” and the final season of “Lost” still stings.  Given Bird’s track record and the intriguing teaser — No, I don’t ignore advertising altogether — I’m holding out for a good time at the movies!

9.) “Silence”

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Release Date:  Fall

Exhibit B in the case for directors generating excitement.  “Silence” has been a long-time passion project for Martin Scorsese.  It’s about two Jesuit priests persecuted in 17th century Japan.  Conceptually, I’m not particularly interested.  It sounds like a standard dreary prestige film, but Scorsese seals the deal.  Andrew Garfield and Liam Neeson are attached, and though I would prefer the original pairing of Daniel Day-Lewis and Benicio del Toro, Scorsese continues to adapt and produce great work.  I was a big fan of his last two movies, “Hugo, which was uncharacteristically family friendly, and “The Wolf of Wall Street” (definitely not for children).  I’m excited for him to finally bring his vision of this story to the screen.

8.) Untitled Cold War Thriller

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Release Date:  October 16th

Here’s another great collection of talent!  This untitled Cold War thriller is directed by Steven Spielberg, stars Tom Hanks and is written by Joel and Ethan Coen.  Based on a true story, it’s about an attorney sent to negotiate the release of an American pilot captured by the Soviet Union.  I’m especially intrigued to see what comes of the collaboration between Spielberg and the Coens.  The former wears his heart on his sleeve, while the latter tend to be cold and aloof.  It’ll be interesting to see how that shakes out.  Hanks’s involvement with Spielberg is always a plus – well almost always…”The Terminal” doesn’t do anything for me.  But let’s be honest, when Spielberg is in thriller mode, hold onto your butts!

7.) “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

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Release Date: May 1st

I’m getting a little weary of super hero movies, especially Marvel’s.  Still, there’s no denying the event-ness that surrounds “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”  As a fan of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” I was excited by Joss Whedon’s involvement with the first Avengers movie, and he didn’t let me down.  As far as the sequel, if the trailer is any indication, he’s taking the “Empire Strikes Back” approach.  This will be the darker and moodier chapter, which is fine by me.  Dark Whedon is my favorite Whedon.  (Buffy’s “The Body,” anyone?)  I’m confident he’ll be able to take these characters in new directions and bring a more personal dimension to their struggle.  Let’s face it, you can only endanger the world so often before that stops being exciting.  Maybe the film’s sentient robot antagonist, Ultron, will bring the Marvel-verse what it sorely needs: a strong villain.

6.) “That’s What I’m Talking About”

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Release Date: TBD

With 2013’s “Before Midnight” and this year’s “Boyhood,” writer-director Richard Linklater is on a god damn hot streak.  (Spoiler alert:  “Boyhood” is a serious contender for my film of the year.)  “That’s What I’m Talking About” promises to be a spiritual sequel to Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused.”  Set in the 1980’s, it follows several college baseball players.  I’m a sucker for a good coming-of-age story.  Though they might be a dime a dozen, I really feel that few get them quite like Linklater.  Whether he’s working with a limited cast (“Before Sunrise”) or a large ensemble (“Dazed and Confused”), he’s so respectful of his characters. They come across as real flesh and blood human beings…full of happiness and sadness, drama and comedy.

Stay tuned next week for my top five most anticipated movies of 2015!