Sunday, May 3, 2015

Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
Joss Whedon has been a formative presence in pop culture for nearly 20 years and his work, whether in television ("Buffy, the Vampire Slayer") or film ("The Cabin in the Woods," which he co-wrote), tends to combine genre elements with fully developed characters and cheeky humor.

So, it's a shame that "Avengers: Age of Ultron" isn't quite up to snuff. It's not a bad film and as far as summer blockbusters go, it's certainly better than many. But it's lacking a certain je ne sais quoi. The special effects are good enough, it's fast paced and heavily plotted, but it almost feels as if the hearts of those involved aren't quite in it.

To be fair, "Age of Ultron" is one-half mediocre movie and one-half pretty decent one. It's the first half that lags, not because it's not filled with wall-to-wall action as the second half is, but rather it feels so muted that the film gives the impression of a contract obligated in which no one appears to be having much of a good time.

The film boasts a particularly impressive cast: Jeremy Renner, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Stellan Skarsgard, Mark Ruffalo, Don Cheadle, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron-Taylor Johnson, Paul Bettany, Anthony Mackie, Julie Delpy, Linda Cardellini, Idris Elba and the voice of James Spader.

And yet, all these wonderful actors are given little with which to work during the film's first half, other than some expository dialogue and an opening action sequence that is the most fake-looking in the entire movie.

The picture picks up a little after we are introduced to two twins - played by Olsen and Johnson - who have a grudge against the Avengers, Tony Stark (Downey) especially, and the sequences in which Olsen's character causes our heroes to suffer twisted dreams are among the film's best.

The movie's prime villain, however, is Ultron (Spader's voice), a machine constructed by Stark that is meant to be a world peacekeeper, but ends up deciding that the only way to save the human race is to destroy it. Unfortunately, Ultron's decision begins to make sense less and less as the film goes on and his modus operandi is, to put it kindly, a little lacking.

But the messier elements of the film are soon overwhelmed by the onslaught of action sequences, most of which are deftly handled and pretty fun. And the camaraderie we'd expect in a Whedon production begins to kick in and each Avenger is given at least one good scene. I particularly liked Hawkeye's (Renner) constant attempts to one-up Olsen and Johnson and Renner's character also gets some nice moments with his wife (Cardellini), who might have the best line in the movie when she tells him, "I totally support your avenging."

In the end, "Avengers: Age of Ultron" is a big, expensive product. At times, it's a pretty good one and, at others, a little bit of a drag. It's not as good as the first "Avengers" movie, which I liked but didn't love, and in terms of its rank in the world of comic book movies, it comes nowhere close to Christopher Nolan's Batman movies. I can't wholeheartedly recommend it, but when it comes to summer tentpole films, trust me when I say you could do much worse.

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