REVIEW: 'Avengers: Age of Ultron'


You’ve probably heard the phrase “turn off your brain” in reference to certain types of movies. Most often, people roll it out during the summer blockbuster season, as a quick way of saying that the movie in question doesn’t make a lot of sense when you look at it closely, but that it can be a lot of fun if you’re just looking for some uncomplicated entertainment.

And when it comes to the movies made by Marvel Studios, turning off your brain is kind of essential. After all, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a film where the climactic set piece involves the better part of an Eastern European city being lifted into space with rockets, with the intention of turning it into a meteorite that will annihilate Earth. Oh, and that’s while a team of superheroes does battle in the streets of the flying city with waves of super-smart killer robots. So, yeah, the threshold for someone’s suspension of disbelief ought to be pretty high.

Of course, for anyone familiar with Marvel’s movies, none of this will come as a surprise. Marvel fans probably don’t need to be told whether or not to see the new Avengers film. It’s almost a given that they’re going to join the millions of people seeing the film this weekend, and they’ll likely end up seeing it a few more times after that. Heck, I may be one of them. In the reviewing business, there’s another term for that phenomenon: that the movie is “critic-proof”: no matter what the reviewers say, the movie will attract huge crowds, and break all kinds of box-office records (if it hasn’t already).

That being said, it’s no fun to simply label Avengers: Age of Ultron as a fan-pleasing superhero film and leave it at that.  What does the film get right, and what does it get wrong? When we eventually look back at the history of Marvel Cinematic Universe, what role will Age of Ultron play in the grander story – not just that of Tony, Steve, Natasha, Thor, Bruce and Clint, but in the story of how superhero movies have ruled the box office in the past ten years?

The villainous Ultron (voiced by James Spader) seeks to 'cleanse' the world of the human race.

For those who haven’t been obsessively following every trailer and plot synopsis, the film picks up roughly where Captain America: The Winter Soldier left off. The Avengers’ usual government handler, S.H.I.E.L.D., is in tatters, and the Avengers are now trying to mop up the remnants of the evil organization, Hydra. In an attempt to help the Avengers retire from their duties, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) builds an A.I. he calls Ultron, which is designed to protect the Earth. Instead, Ultron (voiced by James Spader) malfunctions and goes insane, committing himself to killing the Avengers and destroying the human race. Just another day at the Avengers office, it seems.

While the Age of Ultron never feels like a step down for Marvel, it does feel like the studio is coasting on the strength of its other films – a quality that can be felt in a lot of the so-called “Phase 2” movies in the Marvel series. One of the problems with Marvel telling such a heavily serialized story (over the course of twenty or so movies, some of which won’t come out for several years), is that many of the movies in the middle of the arc feel less like movies and more like insanely long TV episodes. They often lack a definitive beginning, middle and end, leaving you with a feeling like we’re just picking up the story after the last mega-expensive effects bonanza we saw a few months ago.

That might not sound like a big problem, but the more it happens, the more exclusionary the Marvel movies become. If you don’t know (or remember) all the intricate plot details from earlier installments, the individual Marvel films end up more like fan service than anything else – flashy delivery vehicles for scenes with favourite characters that Marvel geeks will quote and dissect and argue over all year.

It means there’s less and less room for any lasting themes, beyond the “importance of teamwork”. Writer/director Joss Whedon takes a few stabs at some more meaningful discussion: mostly over Stark’s scientific over-reach by creating Ultron, or about how short-sighted we humans usually seem to be, but Whedon’s always quick to cut to another super-fight or a dry one-liner, just in case we were getting bored by the substantive conversations.

Black Widow and Hulk are two of the characters who benefit from extra character development.

Of course, to a dedicated fan, this likely makes me sound like a grumpy film snob, and I hope that’s not the case. Bear in mind: for all the qualms I have about the structure of the Marvel film series, I still got caught up in the action scenes with everyone else, and laughed along with the jokes - some of my favourites being the “Go to sleep, go to sleep” line from the Hulkbuster fight, and Hawkeye’s scenes in the final battle. It’s also never a bad thing to watch actors like Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson and Chris Hemsworth, who are so comfortable in their characters by now that they are among the key factors keeping the thorny Marvel plotlines from descending into total gibberish.

And even though Whedon’s script is light on themes and heavy on action, his wisest move is to focus his character development moments on the three Avengers who needed it the most: Black Widow (Johansson), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). We learn enough about Black Widow in Age of Ultron to begin truly sympathizing with her, and the revelations about Hawkeye almost form the emotional heart of the movie – and a hint at how it could have become truly great.

From that perspective, it’s not enough to call Age of Ultron a mindless action film. I’d find it hard to believe that a series of movies as successful as Marvel’s could achieve that kind of fan following if there wasn’t some substance or cleverness about them. And while I often find Marvel’s story structure a bit alienating, it will take a lot more mistakes to keep me from watching another – let’s see what they can assemble next. Avengers: Age of Ultron gets three stars out of four.

Three Stars

What did you think of the latest Marvel film – the eleventh in the series? Were your hopes and dreams realized? Or is superhero fatigue setting in yet? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!