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In, 2012 Marvel Studios’ “The Avengers” presented audiences with what was then the culmination of storylines, concepts and characters first introduced in 2008’s excellent “Iron Man”, and continued in “The Incredible Hulk”, “Iron Man 2”, “Thor”, and “Captain America”. As spearheaded by Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, “Avengers”' notion of a shared universe made for a blockbuster hit with mainstream moviegoers and comic book fans alike, resulting in the third-highest grossing movie of all time. Directed by genre favorite Joss Whedon, “Avengers” was everything that naysayers (and the majority of Hollywood studios) had long maintained movies based on comics could never, ever be: colorful, interconnected, faithful to the source material, and – above all – FUN.
Three years, four films (“Thor: The Dark World”, “Iron Man 3”, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, “Guardians of the Galaxy”), and three TV shows (“Agents of SHIELD”, “Agent Carter”, “Daredevil”) later, we have “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, which once again features our heroes joining forces to face a combined threat. The only question is, have returning director Joss Whedon and his collaborators once again captured lightning in a bottle for one of the year’s most anticipated movies?
The film opens in one of those fictional post-Soviet European nations that Hollywood loves to put on screen whenever they need to wreck a place that isn’t New York, Paris or San Francisco. The Avengers – Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), and Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johanssen) – are introduced mid-mission, taking on HYDRA forces to recover Loki’s mind-controlling scepter from the first movie.
Unbeknownst to the team, the scepter has been utilized by HYDRA head honcho Baron Von Strucker in genetic experiments to unlock super powers in human test subjects. The results of those experiments are the twin Maximoff siblings, Pietro and Wanda, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen (amusingly, the two played husband and wife in last year’s “Godzilla” reboot). Possessed of fluctuating accents and a personal grudge against former unapologetic arms manufacturer Stark, the Maximoffs prove themselves a duo to be reckoned with.
Following the successful recovery of the scepter, the team celebrates back at Stark Tower in New York City, which is now decorated with a giant “A”, in open defiance of every super villain in the world (or off it). Before the first bottle of champagne is served (along with heaping helpings of fan service), however, Stark decides to use the scepter to create the perfect artificial intelligence program, Ultron. With the reluctant assistance of fellow super genius Banner, Stark goes all out in his pursuit of creating what he hopes will be “a suit of armor” to protect the world. Naturally, as decades of science fiction have taught us, there is no good to be had in granting machines sentience, and isn’t long before the world at large learns to rue the results of Stark’s hubris.
Of the cast, Downey Jr. has his snarky billionaire playboy philanthropist persona of Iron Man/Tony Stark down to a science, just as Evans’ portrayal of man-out-of-time Captain America/Steve Rogers has grown to be the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s moral center. Ruffalo as Hulk/Bruce Bannner builds on the balancing act of barely-restrained rage and intelligence he introduced in 2012, while Jeremy Renner has far more to do here as the team’s (relative) everyman than he did as a mind-controlled puppet in the previous outing. In fact, the only performer whose performance could be construed as being inconsistent with what’s been previously established (especially after what we learned of her in last year’s superlative “Winter Soldier”) would be Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff. Let’s just say that her romantic subplot and personal issues probably looked a lot better on paper than they do on the screen.
As the titular villain, James Spader is the personification of perfect casting. Having built a career on playing characters whose refined malevolence is belied by veneers of smooth geniality, and a voice tailor-made for caustic one-liners, Spader plays the role of Tony Stark’s misbegotten creation to the hilt. While nowhere near as charming as previous antagonist Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Spader’s Ultron (and his army of robot duplicates) ultimately represents a credible threat to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, his every movement and line of dialogue dripping with the disdain he possesses for his creator.
Of the newcomers, Taylor-Johnson and Olsen leave little impression beyond their powers (and questionable inflections), while it can reasonably be argued that Paul Bettany as Vision has been preparing for the role since he first took on the voice of Stark’s computer assistant JARVIS back in 2008. Throw in cameo appearances by nearly every character’s supporting character to date (with the notable exceptions of Natalie Portman and Gwyneth Paltrow as Thor and Stark’s significant others, respectively), and you have a film bursting with characters fighting for screen time.
And therein lies the rub: “Age of Ultron” is as tonally inconsistent and narratively convoluted as the first “Avengers” was tightly plotted (as far as these things go) and accessible as possible. Where one didn’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of nearly every single Marvel movie before “The Avengers”, “Ultron” is even more overstuffed than 2010’s disastrous “Iron Man 2”, even committing many of the same mistakes.
Introducing numerous characters the audience is given neither time nor reason to care about (the Maximoffs kind of scrape by, but the Korean doctor played by Kim Soo Hyun in order to justify shooting portions of the film in Seoul barely even qualifies a plot contrivance)?
Character motivations that come out of nowhere in the name of “plot” (Why does Banner keep helping Stark?!)?
Shamelessly setting up future films with ham-fisted exposition (Iron Man and Cap butting heads? “Civil War”! The African nation of Wakanda? “Black Panther”! The Infinity Stones? “Avengers 3” and “4”! Thor’s visions of impending Ragnarok? “Thor 3”!)?
Check, check, and check. This isn’t a movie, this is a marketing manifesto.
The first “Avengers” movie succeeded by treating its characters and situations with equal measures of respect, irreverence, and wit. “Ultron”, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, fluctuating wildly from (spectacular) computer-generated action showpieces to (groan-worthy) dialogue exchanges better left to second-rate sitcoms. Even the usually-dependable Whedon snark goes overboard here, with heroes and villains alike all getting in their token witticisms to the point that everybody sounds like Tony Stark. Clearly, someone forgot that there is a fine line between "witty" and "precious."
From a narrative standpoint, very little of what happens onscreen seems to have any consequences; we are never really given anything close to the actual ramifications of Stark’s (or even Banner’s) actions, as their motivations barely come anywhere close to reason (or sanity). Blaming everything on Wanda Maximoff’s mind-altering powers is the easy answer, but because her abilities are so ill-defined in the film we are presented with, it’s kind of hard to say how much of this is actually her fault.
Perhaps the film’s biggest flaw is how it fails on nearly level to engage the viewer. When New York was being decimated in “Avengers”, audiences were on the edges of their seats with every beat the mayhem took, building to the crescendo that was a masterful (stitched together) tracking shot that showed every member of the team getting their time in the sun (i.e., generally being awesome). It was impressive, not just for the visual effects on display, but because we cared about what was going on. In “Ultron”, when every other shot is a money shot, it’s just not possible to have anything approaching that level of emotional engagement. This falls into the same category of disaster porn as the last three “Transformers” flicks, where everything looks amazing and undoubtedly took countless man hours to accomplish, but you have trouble recalling just what the heck it was you just saw.
As one of maybe six people who actually kinda sorta liked the Whedon-penned “Alien: Resurrection”, this writer never thought he would see the day that the man hit Michael Bay levels of inanity.
How the mighty have fallen. — BM, GMA News
"Avengers: Age of Ultron" is now showing in Metro Manila cinemas.