It's been a while, but I'm back with another of my movie takes, this time on the film Avengers: Age of Ultron, based on the Marvel Comics superteam. As always, if you haven't seen the movie yet and you don't want it spoiled for you, then please step back from your computer or whatever electronic device you're reading this on and stop reading now. If, however, you're wise enough to know that movie reviews with spoilers are always more interesting than the ones without them...well...it's time to assemble...
After Joss Whedon's 2012 film The Avengers made over $1.5 billion in worldwide box office, the decision to greenlight a sequel must have taken all of 0.000000000001 picoseconds. Whedon returned as director, as did actor Robert Downey, Jr., even though his four-picture deal with Marvel expired after Iron Man 3.
The film opens in the Eastern European country of Sokovia, following up on events teased on ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a few days earlier. The Avengers raid a Hydra outpost led by Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, who has been experimenting on humans using the scepter Loki used in the first Avengers film. The raid is a bit dizzying, as Whedon spins the camera around to focus for split seconds on what every Avenger is doing. Inside the outpost, the Avengers encounter two of Strucker's experiments -- the twins named Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, better known to Marvel Comics fans as Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.
After Strucker is apprehended and Loki's scepter is claimed by Tony Stark, Science Bros Stark and Bruce Banner use the scepter to secretly complete Stark's new artificial intelligence global defense program, Ultron. And yes, comics fans, even though Ant-Man is the next Marvel Cinematic Universe release, original Ultron creator Hank Pym is nowhere t be found, just another diversion from the source material. Apparently having never seen any Terminator or Matrix films, the Science Bros can only stand back in horror as Ultron becomes sentient, takes out Stark's original artificial intelligence J.A.R.V.I.S., and provides the awkward record scratch as he interrupts the Avengers' Sokovia victory party with their bestest buds at Avengers Tower.
Escaping with the scepter (Does anyone ever lock this thing up?), Ultron holes up in Strucker's outpost to build himself a better body along with robot drones, because all the cool kids have drones these days. He also brings in the Maximoff twins, both of whom have a wee bit of a grudge against Tony Stark because their parents were killed by a Stark Industries weapon back in the day. After hooking up with arms dealer Ulysses Klaue in Wakanda (Hey, kids! Black Panther setup!) for some vibranium, Ultron and the twins encounter the Avengers, where the Scarlet Witch pretty much takes out the entire team with hallucinatory visions of their greatest fears and past failures, and sending the Hulk rampaging through Wakanda until Iron Man finally stops him with Hulkbuster armor.
And it's here in the film's Second Act, where things get a bit problematic. The Avengers pretty much spend the middle of the film broken and lost, while holing up in Hawkeye's off-the-grid farmhouse in the middle of nowhere with his previously unmentioned preggers wife Laura (Linda Cardellini) and two kids. (Surprise!) So, as Hawkeye fans realize they're never going to see Hawkeye with his comics wife (and later ex-wife) Mockingbird, Thor flies off to chat with his ol' buddy Dr. Erik Selvig about his apocalyptic vision, while everyone else mopes around the farmhouse and chops firewood. It's only when Nick Fury comes out of hiding to tell everyone basically to suck it up and stop Ultron that the film starts getting back on track.
As for Ultron, he's been busy going to Seoul, South Korea to recruit Banner's scientist friend Dr. Helen Cho to help him make the perfect artificial body using synthetic tissue, vibranium, and the scepter's gem. Unfortunately, Ultron seriously needs to upgrade his Time Warner internet option, because he keeps getting interrupted by the Scarlet Witch and all those meddling Avengers before he can fully upload his consciousness into the synthetic body.
At this point, anyone who isn't a diehard Marvel Comics fan probably becomes totes overwhelmed with geekness as J.A.R.V.I.S. (Nope, not dead, merely resting) uploads his consciousness into the synthetic body and Thor suddenly returns to activate the body with lightning. (Hey, it worked for Frankenstein's monster...) Thor explains that the gem from the scepter is actually the Mind Stone, one of six Infinity Stones that was part of his vision and pay off later in the third and fourth Avengers movies. Bottom line, J.A.R.V.I.S. is now everyone's favorite android superhero, The Vision.
With the Maximoff twins now on Team Good, the Avengers head back to Sokovia for a final showdown with Ultron. We get a Third Act Ticking Clock with Ultron's machine that sends a huge chunk of Sokovia skyward with the intention of dropping it back down on Earth to cause an extinction event similar to the asteroid that struck Earth long ago and killed the dinosaurs. So everybody is either fighting Ultron's drones, saving Sokovians trapped on the rapidly ascending chunk, or trying to stop Ultron himself, leaving Whedon to play his favorite card -- Unexpectedly Killing Off Somebody You Like. This time, however, he uses a little misdirection to make you think one character is going to be Whedoned, when actually it turns out to be someone else who gets Whedoned.
When Ultron is inevitably dealt with and the audience desperately needs a break from superhero chaos, The Old Order Changeth for the first (and probably not the last) time. The Hulk takes off in a Quinjet after being afraid to have a relationship with Black Widow, Hawkeye leaves to be with his wife and kids and because he's pretty much useless against guys like Ultron, Thor goes off to be in his third movie, and Iron Man leaves to do one last Marvel film with Captain America. Captain America, however, stays behind with Black Widow and four new Avengers -- The Vision, The Scarlet Witch, War Machine and The Falcon. This once again proves the importance of networking.
As expected, the film's huge cast give some great performances with a lot of fun and entertaining character moments. Here are some of the things that stood out:
IRON MAN/TONY STARK -- This movie was thought to be Robert Downey, Jr.'s last, until he signed on for Captain America: Civil War. For the first time, we get a good sense of Tony's dark side, the obsessed builder whose desire to innovate and create overrides any form of common sense. And with the hints of friction with Captain America here, Civil War promises to be very interesting for RDJ's character.
CAPTAIN AMERICA/STEVE ROGERS -- Chris Evans gets a nice showcase as Cap battles Ultron by himself on top of a speeding truck, but only gets a small dose of character development with his hallucination of finally getting that dance with Peggy Carter. It's okay though, Civil War is coming.
THOR ODINSON -- Whedon also downplays Chris Hemsworth's Thor, most likely realizing he can give more screen time to characters that don't have their own solo movies. His role here is pretty much to set up the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War two-parter, but he does get a fun scene at Avengers Tower where he dares the other Avengers to be worthy enough to lift his hammer Mjolnir off of a table. The one who is worthy may surprise you.
HULK/BRUCE BANNER -- Mark Ruffalo becomes the first actor to reprise Bruce Banner on film, this time given a potential relationship with Black Widow. Once again though, Ruffalo's Banner is too fearful to be someone's romantic interest and is relegated to playing Igor to Tony Stark's Doctor Frankenstein. At least the superbrawl between The Hulk and Iron Man as they trash Wakanda was entertaining.
BLACK WIDOW/NATASHA ROMANOFF -- After flirting with Iron Man, Hawkeye and Captain America, Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow seems ready to finally settle on Bruce Banner...but for all the wrong reasons. Through the Scarlet Witch's hallucinations, we learn that Natasha was sterilized by her superiors in the Red Room as part of her "graduation ceremony" that left her feeling like a monster, which is why she suddenly identifies with Banner. Thankfully, Whedon's unsettling attempt to broaden Black Widow's character isn't dwelled upon for too long, and Natasha gets a number of great fight sequences as well as some cool new electric Escrima sticks.
HAWKEYE/CLINT BARTON -- Jeremy Renner returns as Hawkeye, which is all you really need to know apart from the sudden introduction of Linda Cardellini as his wife, Laura Barton. Even though Hawkeye has only appeared in a Thor cameo and two Avengers films, he's more than ready to pack it in and, to be frankly honest, so are we.
QUICKSILVER/PIETRO MAXIMOFF -- Not to be confused with Evan Peters, Aaron Taylor-Johnson provides his own take on Quicksilver, which mostly consists of an Eastern European accent. He does have some fun moments with Hawkeye, who is annoyed to find someone way more faster than he is.
SCARLET WITCH/WANDA MAXIMOFF -- Elizabeth Olsen steps up to the plate, showing Wanda finding herself as a hero, in addition to becoming the second female Avenger. Unfortunately, she doesn't quite get the confrontation with Tony Stark that her character deserves, I found it quite interesting to have The Vision be the one who rescues her toward the film's end. 'Nuff said, comics fans?
THE VISION/J.A.R.V.I.S. -- After three Iron Man films and The Avengers, Paul Bettany finally gets to step out of the audio recording booth and become a superhero in his own right. Bettany is pretty much perfect as The Vision, blending his J.A.R.V.I.S. persona with more than a hint of the late, great Leonard Nimoy as Spock. The decision to leave The Vision's eyes human-looking instead of solid black as in the comics was a little odd, but maybe it'll grow on me.
ULTRON -- The decision to cast James Spader as Ultron makes sense on paper, especially when that paper is scripted by Joss Whedon, but I'm not sure the decision entirely works. Spader's droll delivery, honed so well on the ABC series Boston Legal, provides considerable menace at times, but he doesn't feel like Ultron somehow. It could be the odd-looking CGI face, not nearly as scary as the comics version, or perhaps the minimal interaction between Ultron and his creator, Tony Stark.
WAR MACHINE/JAMES "RHODEY" RHODES -- Don Cheadle's Rhodey turns up as the Avengers victory party, realizing his jokes aren't cool enough for the A-crowd and having a fun scene trying to help Tony lift Mjolnir. Thankfully, he returns for the final battle, giving War Machine fans a thrill and cementing himself as Tony's replacement as an Avenger.
THE FALCON/SAM WILSON -- Anthony Mackie gets even less to do than Cheadle, but even though he tells his pal Captain America that he doesn't need to be an Avenger, he ends up becoming an Avenger...without even suiting up for the final battle.
MARIA HILL -- Continuing to serve as the liason between the Avengers films and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Cobie Smulders' Maria Hill serves as the new Pepper Potts now that Gwyneth Paltrow is no longer under contract and she gets to help bring the Helicarrier back into play. Not bad.
PEGGY CARTER CAMEO -- Hayley Atwell reprises Peggy, the first love of Steve Rogers but sadly, the scene of finally seeing Steve and Peggy dance is only a hallucination. And it reminds us that we're still waiting to find out if Agent Carter will be picked up for a second season, dammit.
HEIMDALL CAMEO -- Idris Elba turns up in Thor's vision, blinded for some reason that may or may not be explained in Thor: Ragnarok or the Avengers: Infinity War films. Anyone else disappointed that Heimdall didn't become Thor's Avengers replacement?
ERIK SELVIG -- Back once again as Selvig, Stellan Skarsgård mercifully gets to keep his pants on and doesn't end up mind controlled again. His sole purpose here seems to be to get Thor in a mystical pool where Thor can experience his vision once again to get more Infinity War info.
BARON WOLFGANG VON STRUCKER -- Thomas Kretschmann's Baron Strucker isn't quite the Hydra Big Bad we hoped to see. All he really does is introduce the twins and get killed off by Ultron. Disappointing.
KLAW/ULYSSES KLAUE -- Andy Serkis must have been ecstatic to play a character that didn't require a mo-cap suit. It was very reassuring to see Ultron take Klaue's arm, presumably setting up the character's return with his sonic emitter hand in the upcoming Black Panther movie.
NICK FURY -- Following the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it would've been understandable if Samuel L. Jackson was done with Nick Fury, but apparently, he's not. Fury has both his eyepatch and his Helicarrier again, so I'll be very surprised if we don't see him in Captain America: Civil War.
OBLIGATORY STAN LEE CAMEO -- Stan "The Man" turns up at the Avengers victory party, playing one of Captain America's old World War II veteran buddies that foolishly drinks some Asgardian booze Thor keeps in a fun flask. You can't help but laugh as Drunk Stan mangles "Excelsior!"
THANOS CAMEO -- Josh Brolin turns up in the mid-closing credits sequence to set up Thanos a little more for the Avengers: Infinity War films as he dons an Infinity Gauntlet and grumbles about getting the Infinity Stones himself. Okay, we've had two Avengers teases and a Guardians of the Galaxy tease, let's get ready to rumble already!
All in all, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a worthy follow-up to The Avengers even though it doesn't reach the level of the first film. There are just too many characters stuffed into the movie to do any of them any real justice, but Joss Whedon tries to get everyone at least a moment or two to shine. Whedon's trademark dialogue is evident once again, and his attempts to bring Black Widow and the Scarlet Witch to the forefront are appreciated, but it seems the increasing scope of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a bit much for him as a director. Now that Winter Soldier directors Anthony and Joe Russo are taking over for the Avengers: Infinity War films, I can't wait to see what they bring to the big table in three years...
And for those who may be wondering, here's the updated list of my Top 20 Comic Book Films:
1. Superman (1978)
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
3. The Avengers (2012)
4. Man of Steel (2013)
5. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
6. Spider-Man (2002)
7. Batman Begins (2005)
8. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
9. Iron Man (2008)
10. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
11. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
12. Watchmen (2009)
13. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
14. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
15. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
16. X-Men: First Class (2011)
17: The Wolverine (2013)
18. X2: X-Men United (2003)
19. X-Men (2000)
20. Thor (2011)
Your friendly neighborhood movie reviewer,