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.

Biggest Surprises and Discoveries of 2014

Last week’s post was a bit of a downer, so how ‘bout a positive spin on 2014? Here are some surprises and discoveries I had at the movies last year…

Mica Levi’s score for “Under the Skin”

It might be the most terrifying movie music since Kubrick borrowed the work of György Ligeti for “The Shining.”  The film’s about an alien entity (Scarlett Johansson) with nefarious intent.  Non-traditional scores are popular right now, and Levi’s atonal work fits the bill.  It would be a disservice to put her music into words, but, appropriately, there are stretches that sound like an insect barreling down a highway.  It’s difficult to imagine Jonathan Glazer’s nightmarish landscape sounding any other way.

Carrie Coon in “Gone Girl”

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Prior to David Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” I had never seen Carrie Coon on screen.  While certainly under duress — her brother (Ben Affleck) is being investigated for the disappearance of his wife — Coon might be the first “normal” person to inhabit a Fincher film.  His work is so often populated by misanthropes and nihilists, it’s rare to see someone so…personable.  And that’s not a backhanded compliment.  In a book-length interview for Cameron Crowe, Billy Wilder explains that one of the most difficult things for an actor to do is captivate while “being everyday.”

Jake Gyllenhaal in “Nightcrawler”

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Jake Gyllenhaal is a fine actor, but I’ve always been able to see the gears turning.  He often falls back on ticks and other actorly crutches to make a performance feel “real.”  In many ways, he’s using those tricks in “Nightcrawler,” but they’ve never been more shocking or unsettling.  He plays an amateur videographer who prowls Los Angeles at night, looking for auto accidents or home invasions that he can record and sell to local news stations.  Like an alien himself — speaking of “Under the Skin” — Gyllenhaal’s interactions feel rehearsed and calculated, as though he learned how to relate to others from a book or website.  It’s a startling performance, one that left me appreciating the actor like I haven’t before.

“The Lego Movie”

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I don’t think I was more cynical about any project in 2014 than “The Lego Movie.”  It was released in the first quarter of the year — typically a dumping ground for studios — and it was based on a toy.  But this film by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller reminded me that a good movie can come from anywhere.  Thematically deep and infectiously entertaining, it’s saturated with jokes, gags and pratfalls…and virtually all of them land.  And the voice cast is superb — it even includes some actors, Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson, who aren’t normally associated with comedy.

What were some of your biggest surprises and discoveries of 2014?  Comment below!