Tuesday, May 5, 2015

It Came From The Cineplex: Avengers: Age Of Ultron

Avengers: Age Of Ultron was written and directed by Joss Whedon.

It is of course a sequel to 2012's The Avengers, but it's also a continuation of the events introduced in all of Marvel's Phase Two movies: Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians Of The Galaxy.

Several years ago Marvel Studios very carefully released a series of movies introducing several of their most popular characters. They then made history by taking these characters and teaming them up in The Avengers. It was an amazing feat, and something no studio had ever done before.

Unfortunately Age Of Ultron can't recreate the thrill of seeing those characters appear together onscreen for the first time. Instead it compensates by troweling on the action and making everything bigger.

There's an excess of just about everything in this film. The battles are bigger, the cast is bigger, they go to more locations, there're more story arcs— all with mixed results.

It's not a bad film, but by trying to juggle so many elements, it sometimes loses its way. Everything feels rushed as well— none of the story points get the time they deserve. Tony Stark decides to build "a suit of armor around the world" and BOOM! In less than five minutes Ultron is born, becomes sentient and begins his reign of terror.

The script also spends a bit too much time trying to set up future Marvel films. Thor for example seems much more concerned with the events of his upcoming third film than he does with this one. In fact he disappears halfway through, apparently going off on some side adventure we don't get to see before returning. 

With just a little more focus and room for the main storyline to breathe, the film could have been truly epic.

The first film was all about bringing the Avengers together, so of course this one does its best to tear them apart. By the end of the film Captain America and Black Widow are the only original members still on the team. I wouldn't worry too much about it though. Despite its air of change and finality, if the Disney bean counters decide they want the original team back together, it'll happen.

Once again Marvel Studios makes it look easy as they effortlessly expand their little shared cinematic universe. Meanwhile over at DC, their attempts to start up their own movie universe look like those old films of early flying contraptions trying to get off the ground.

At 141 minutes, this is the lengthiest Marvel movie to date, but it didn't seem overly long to me. In fact it breezed by. That's a good sign, when you don't notice a long movie's run time.

SUPER SPOILERS AHEAD!

The Plot:
In the European country of Sokovia (try finding that on a map, kids!), the Avengers infiltrate a secret HYDRA base led by Baron von Strucker. Strucker possesses Loki's scepter, and is using it to augment humans. He's managed to produce a set of super powered twins— Pietro Maximoff, who has super speed, and his sister Wanda, who can manipulate minds and project "magic" blasts. The Avengers overwhelm the HYDRA forces and capture the scepter.

Back at Avengers Tower, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner examine the gem that powers the scepter. Stark notes that the energy signature of the gem resembles that of a mind, and believes he can use it to complete his Ultron program— an initiative that will protect the entire world, eliminating the need for the Avengers. He uses the gem to jumpstart Ultron. Unknown to him, the program becomes sentient, seemingly destroys Stark's J.A.R.V.I.S. program and builds itself a body from discarded Iron Man armors. 

Ultron steals the scepter and flies to Sokovia, where he builds an army of robot drones. In Ultron's twisted mind, he plans to save the Earth by wiping out humanity. He recruits the Maximoff twins, promising them revenge against Tony Stark, who they hold responsible for their parents' deaths (don't ask).

Ultron and the Twins visit Ulysses Klaue in Johannesburg to obtain the rare metal vibranium, conveniently setting up the eventual Black Panther movie. The Avengers pursue Ultron, but Wanda uses her mental powers to incapacitate them, making them all have disturbing visions. Bruce Banner is particularly affected by these visions, transforming into the Hulk and trashing Johannesburg. Stark manages to subdue him with his Hulkbuster armor, generating a million action figure sales in the process.

The team flees to Hawkeye's secret farmhouse, where unknown to most of the team, he has a wife and kids. While there, Nick Fury (who everyone thought was dead) reappears, urging the Avengers to come up with a plan to stop Ultron.

Ultron then continues his world tour, stopping in South Korea and forcing Dr. Hellen Cho to construct an indestructible body for him out of vibranium. He opens Loki's scepter and takes the Infinity Stone from inside it and places it on the body's forehead. As Ultron begins uploading his mind into the ersatz body, Wanda gets a glimpse of his evil plan. The Maximoffs then turn on Ultron, just as the Avengers arrive. They take the vibranium body, but Black Widow is captured by Ultron. The Maximoff's change sides and join the Avengers.

While studying the vibranium body, Stark realizes J.A.R.V.I.S. wasn't destroyed after all but has been hiding out inside the internet. He downloads him into the new vibranium body, and Thor charges it with lightning. The synthetic body comes to "life," calling itself the Vision.

Ultron uses the rest of his vibranium to build a machine that will lift Sokovia into the upper atmosphere, so he can dash it to the ground like a meteor and cause global extinction. The Avengers arrive and battle Ultron and his robotic army. Nick Fury arrives in a mothballed S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier to rescue the Sokovian citizens. Pietro dies in a hail of gunfire while saving Hawkeye. Wanda, driven mad with rage, destroys Ultron's body. 

The city begins to fall, but Iron Man and Thor shatter it into millions of pieces, preventing global catastrophe. The Vision confronts Ultron's damaged body and destroys him.

Banner flies off to parts unknown, fearing the Hulk will endanger Black Widow. Thor returns to Asgard to investigate his visions. Stark returns to Avengers Tower. Hawkeye retires to his farm. At a new Avengers base somewhere in New York, Captain America and Black Widow train a new team of Avengers, consisting of War Machine, Falcon, Vision and Wanda, aka the Scarlet Witch.

Thoughts:
• There was an Age Of Ultron storyline in the comics, but it was quite different and has nothing to do with this film's plot. 

• Both Ultron's and the Vision's movie origins are very different from their comic book beginnings.

In the comics, Ultron was created by Hank Pym, aka Ant-Man (who'll be showing up in his own movie later this summer). Pym built the robotic Ultron and based its brain patterns on his own. Ultron gradually became self-aware and developed an irrational hatred for his "father," clashing many times with the Avengers. Ultron continually upgraded himself, eventually coating his body with adamantium, the fictional indestructible metal that, due to legal technicalities, the X-Men films can use but the Marvel Studios movies can't.

The Vision was built by Ultron as a weapon against Hank Pym and the Avengers. He built him from the deactivated body of the original Human Torch (not the Torch who's a member of the Fantastic 4, but the Golden Age version, who was an android that could burst into flame). Ultron repurposed this android, bringing it to "life" by using the brain patterns of Wonder Man (a member of the Avengers). The Vision eventually went against his programming and became a valuable member of the Avengers. Convoluted!

• This happens a lot these days, but there were a lot of scenes in the various trailers that aren't in the actual movie, all involving Ultron. A few that jumped out at me:

In one of the trailers we get a glimpse of Ultron's hand being coated in some sort of molten metal, presumably the nigh-indestructible vibranium. No such thing happens in the actual film.

Ultron explains his plan to the twins, saying, "I was made to save the world. People would look to the sky and hope. I’ll take that from them first." Again, not in the film.

Ultron says, "I'm going to show you something beautiful... people screaming for mercy!"

When Ultron first appears at the Avengers' after party, he limps into the room and says, "You want to protect the world, but you don't want to change. You're all... puppets... tangled in... strings! Strings!" This scene is in the finished film, but in a much altered form.

And finally at the end of the trailer, Ultron turns to the camera to give us a good look at his metal mug, ominously intoning, "There are... no strings... on me." Not in the movie!

There may be other missing scenes, but these are the ones that immediately came to mind. Joss Whedon has stated that the original version of the film was around three hours long, so maybe we'll see these scenes restored in an extended cut on home video.

• The attack on the HYDRA base featured another Avengers "money shot" that looked like it came straight out of a comic panel. Which I'm sure was the intent.

• After all the buildup Baron Strucker had in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., I was expecting a bit more from him. He was in the film for five minutes or less before Ultron fragged him! What a waste of a character!

• It looks like Whedon decided to ignore most of the events of Iron Man 3 here. Given my less than favorable opinion of that cinematic opus, that can only be a good thing.

Iron Man 3 established that Tony Stark's armor can now be remotely controlled— in fact he's not even in his suit during that film's exciting plane rescue scene. This was a massive misfire in my opinion— if Tony's home on the couch while controlling an empty suit, there's no way to generate any tension or suspense for the character ever again.

The film also seemingly wrapped up Tony's storyline for good, as he hung up his superhero hat, removed the shrapnel from his chest and even destroyed his entire armory of Iron Man suits!

Apparently Whedon chose to pretend those things never happened (which is what I do), because Tony's back inside a new armor for the entire film. Good.

• At the after party, Sam Wilson tells Cap he didn't mind being left out of the action, as the "missing person" case he's working on is keeping him busy. No doubt the missing person in question is Bucky Barnes, aka The Winter Soldier.

• I really enjoyed the "Hammer Lifting" scene at the after party. It was sort of like an extended version of the Schwarma Party from the first movie, and gave us a much-needed glimpse into the characters' personalities. And Thor's face when Captain America moved the hammer slightly was priceless!

• As of this film, Mark Ruffalo has officially played the movie version of Bruce Banner longer than any other actor.

• Hawkeye got a raw deal in The Avengers, spending most of the film as the mind-controlled puppet of Loki. Age Of Ultron does its best to make up for his diminished part in the first film, giving him an expanded role and even a family of his own (!).

• Scarlett Johansson was pregnant during filming, a fact which was hidden by three very convincing stunt doubles and CGI to erase her "condition."

• Speaking of Black Widow, I'm not a fan of her seemingly out-of-nowhere romance with Bruce Banner. Yes, she's the one who originally recruited him for the team and they shared a moment or two in the first film, but their new relationship feels sort of... tacked on. As if they needed something for the characters to do between battles and thought, "Eh, how about we make 'em a couple?"

• There were a lot of cameos in this film: James Rhodes aka War Machine, Sam Wilson aka Falcon, Peggy Carter, Dr. Selvig, Heimdall, and Maria Hill all showed up. Sadly there was no Pepper Potts this time, and Jane Foster still hasn't showed up in an Avengers film.

I wonder how they get all these actors to willingly show up for these little cameos? Do they just throw money at them until they agree, or is working at Marvel so much fun that the actors are happy to do it?

• Marvel movies have always had a problem with their villains— they just never seem like that much of a threat (I'm lookin' at you, Ronan The Accuser). I was hoping Ultron would finally break that streak. 

So did he? Eh. I guess so. His plan was to wipe out all life on Earth, and he came close to doing so, but... he wasn't quite as evil as I was hoping. Maybe it's just me.

• I'm still not completely sold on Ultron's voice. When I read the comics as a kid, I "heard" Ultron speak with a harsh, metallic voice, not with James Spader's smug, honeyed tones. Would it have killed them to have filtered his voice a little to make it sound a bit more like a robot?

On the other hand, there is a precedent for such a thing. HAL 9000, the murderous computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey spoke with a calm, droning human-sounding voice as well.

• When Ultron first appears to the Twins, he's got a red cloth draped over his head. This may be a shoutout to The Crimson Cowl, a disguise Ultron used in an early comic appearance.

• Are you wondering why Ultron suddenly felt the need to pay a visit to Ulysses Klaue, which seemingly did little to advance the plot? Well, that was most likely setup for the upcoming Black Panther movie. Klaue, or Klaw, as he's known in the comics, is the Panther's arch enemy. He replaced his missing hand with some sort of sonic blaster weapon.

• Color me surprised to find out that Hawkeye has a home and family. And color me even more surprised that he wasn't killed off at some point. As soon as his family popped up, I thought, "Uh-oh, Hawkeye's a goner." I was reminded of The Walking Dead, where every time a character info dumps their back story, they're immediately killed off. Fortunately that wasn't the case here.

• Before the film came out I was wondering just how they'd depict Scarlet Witch's power. In the comics she has the ability to generate "hex bolts" that alter probability. If someone points a gun at her, she changes the odds that it'll misfire from a million to one down to one to one. This was usually accompanied by several paragraphs of her explaining how her power worked every single time she'd use it. 

In the film she controls minds and simply tosses destructive "magic" energy bombs, which I think works out much better visually.

• Despite the fact that Marvel Studios doesn't own the movie rights to the X-Men, due to a legal loophole they're allowed to use the character of Quicksilver in the Avengers films.

Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch's storyline here mirrors the one in the comics. They started out as adversaries of the Avengers before changing sides and joining the team (which seemed to happen a lot in Avengers comics). Just be glad Joss Whedon didn't go with the Ultimates Universe version of the siblings, who have a disturbing incestuous relationship (!).

Of the two Quicksilvers, I'm gonna have to award the top prize to the X-Men: Days Of Future Past version. He was far more interesting than the bland speedster we saw here. That said, the Avengers version definitely looked better than the X-Men Quicksilver (who wore a silvery disco jacket with goggles).

Oddly enough the two Quicksilvers, Evan Peters and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, worked together before in Kick Ass.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen (Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch) also played husband and wife in last year's Godzilla remake. Apparently they're contractually obligated to appear in every film together from now on.

• Speaking of Quicksilver, I was definitely not expecting him to die. And once he did, I fully expected Scarlet Witch to use her magic to bring him back to life.

• The Hulk vs. Hulkbuster fight was awesome, but sadly not quite as awesome as I thought it would be. Maybe I let my pre-viewing imagination run away with me and was expecting too much.

I very much liked the inclusion of the hovering drone that contains the components of the Hulkbuster armor, and can supply it with spare parts as needed. Makes much more sense than the armor in Iron Man 3, which could somehow fly to any point on Earth (in seconds!) to get to Tony's location.

The Hulkbuster fight takes place in Johannesburg, South Africa. Jo-burg has been showing up a lot in sci-fi lately. Most recently in Chappie.

By the way, the Hulkbuster armor apparently needs a lot of power to function. There are three arc reactors in the front, and four on the back. Plus the one in the Iron Man suit inside it!

The Hulkbuster armor raises a few questions— namely why does it exist in the first place? 
Why does Tony Stark have a suit of armor that exists for the sole purpose of delivering a beat-down to the Hulk? Is it just a precautionary measure? Or did he design it to destroy the Hulk altogether? 

Did Bruce Banner know about the armor beforehand? If not, it seems like something that might drive a wedge between the two friends. "Sorry I made a suit of armor that could kill you bro, and then neglected to tell you about it."

UPDATE: After seeing the film a second time, it appears that Bruce is aware of the Hulkbuster armor after all. In fact he has a line about "helping design Veronica." I guess I missed that the first time around.

I wonder if Tony has a Thorbuster armor as well? That was a thing in the comics at one point. Does he have anti-armors for each Avenger?

• So far in every Marvel movie featuring Tony Stark, someone has always grabbed him by the throat. It happens again here, as Thor loses his cool and tries to wring Tony's neck. That makes five times someone's tried to choke him.

• All through the film we're shown that Ultron's consciousness can "inhabit" any of his drone army bodies. This makes him tough to kill— if you destroy his body and he just pops up in another. 

Later he forces Dr. Cho to build him a fancy new vibranium body (that eventually becomes the Vision). I don't get the point of this. His current multi-body system is pretty unbeatable— so why risk that by inhabiting a single form (even if it is made from vibranium)? 

• So the Vision can lift & toss Thor's hammer because he's a machine and not a person, and the whole "worthy/not worthy" thing doesn't apply to him. Whew! Good thing Ultron didn't get that particular memo, or things could have gone quite differently for our team!

• The Vision has the yellow Mind Gem in the middle of his forehead, which he uses to project an energy beam against Ultron. The Vision had a yellow forehead stone that fired a beam in the comics, but it wasn't one of the Infinity Gems.

Also in the comics, the Vision's main power was his ability to alter his density. He could become intangible, allowing him to walk through walls, or super dense, making him impervious to injury.

I didn't see him display this particular power in the film, but others say they saw him stick his hand inside several of Ultron's various drones to destroy them. There was so much going on in those battle scenes that I can't say one way or another. A good excuse to see the film again!

• Tony says the Avengers have had a long and tiring day, "Like Eugene O'Neill long." Wondering what the hell that meant? He's referring to O'Neill's play Long Day's Journey Into Night.


• After J.A.R.V.I.S is dismantled, Tony Stark needs a new virtual assistant. He sorts through what appears to be a pile of advanced thumb drives and grabs one labeled "F.R.I.D.A.Y." This new interface has a female voice with a slight Irish accent. I'm assuming this was a nod to "Girl Friday," which generally means "an indispensable assistant?"

Also, one of the drives in the pile is labeled "Jocasta." In the comics, Ultron created a robot called Jocasta as his bride (!).

• Wondering how Nick Fury managed to get ahold of the salvaged S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier he used to rescue the Sokovian citizens? Me too. Supposedly all the helicarriers were destroyed by HYDRA in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. So where'd this one come from?

Well, if you're a regular viewer of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. you know— Agent Coulson, the current Director of the resurrected S.H.I.E.L.D., has been restoring the helicarrier in a secret underground base for months.

I have mixed feelings about this revelation. On the one hand, the interconnectivity of the movies and the TV series reminds me of the comics, and the fun I used to have seeing heroes pop up in one another's books. 

On the other hand, I shouldn't have to watch a TV show to find out what the hell's going on in a movie I paid good money to see.

• I get the feeling that Age Of Ultron is giving a big middle finger to DC's execrable Man Of Steel. In that film, Hopeman, er, I mean Superman and Zod fought over Metropolis, completely and utterly destroying the city. 

Their battle looked like a thousand 9/11s as millions of innocents were killed. Then when it's over, instead of looking for survivors, Superman actually takes the time to kiss Lois in full view of the few pitiful souls digging themselves from the rubble. It would have been far better for all concerned if Superman never came to Earth at all.

In this film the Avengers bend over backwards to save every last Sokovian citizen, even sacrificing one of their own to save a child.

Surely all this wasn't just an accident. It almost feels like Marvel's taunting DC's puny efforts at making a decent superhero film.

• Hawkeye gives Wanda a pep talk about doing the right thing or fighting the good fight or something. He says he's just a guy with a bow and arrow fighting a bunch of murder-bots.

That's probably not something that Whedon should be pointing out about a character who is arguably the weakest member of the team.

• I guess it's supposed to be ironic that Quicksilver, the fastest member of the team, dies from something as relatively slow as a gunshot.

• At the end of the film we see a new Avengers base in upstate New York. Wouldn't that have been a great opportunity for Agent Coulson (and other Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. cast members) to pop up? Jesus, as far as I know the Avengers still don't know he's alive. Is he ever going to tell them?

Supposedly Joss Whedon wasn't happy that Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. resurrected Coulson after he killed off the character, and is choosing to ignore that development.

• As the film ends, we see Captain America and Black Widow training new members War Machine, Falcon and Scarlet Witch. Glad to see Falcon appears to have an actual costume this time, replacing his old t-shirt and camo pants from Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

In the final scene, Cap comes this close to saying "Avengers Assemble!" the rally cry used ad infinitum in the comics. Unfortunately the credits cut him off before he can finish. I guess they're saving the actual utterance of the line for the third film.

• And finally, since this is a Marvel movie, there's a mid-credits sequence. This time we see Thanos getting fed up with his minions' incompetence and deciding to retrieve the Infinity Gems himself, setting up the eventual Infinity War storyline.

So far we've seen four of the six Infinity Gems. They are:

The Tesseract  from Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers, which contained the blue Space Gem. 

Loki's scepter from The Avengers, which contained the yellow Mind Gem (which now resides in the Vision's forehead).

The Aether from Thor: The Dark World was another form of the red Reality Gem.

The Orb from Guardians Of The Galaxy, which contained the purple Power Gem.

That leaves the Soul and Time Gems left to find. Once Thanos possesses all six Infinity Gems, and we all know he eventually will, he'll pretty much be God.

Avengers: Age Of Ultron is a worthy followup that comes close, but doesn't quite surpass the original film. With a little more focus it could have been truly awe-inspiring. I give it a B+.

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