AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON Review [No Spoilers Allowed]
by Kevin J. Johnson
Avengers: Age of Ultron is the 11th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the megasequel to the 2012 megablockbuster that united its starring roster. The cast, headlined by Robert Downey, Jr., returns as the titular team and writer-director Joss Whedon wastes no time in giving audiences what they want from the jump. Whedon somehow has made a film that not only ties together all of the ten previous MCU films, but a direct sequel that plays clearly even if you’ve just watched The Avengers and nothing else. Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson make their Marvel debuts as Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, aka The Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, with James Spader portraying the cybernetic big bad Ultron and Paul Bettany making his first onscreen appearance as The Vision.
Joss Whedon came in under the (mainstream) radar in 2012, having only directed a cinematic spinoff from his beloved show Firefly, though geeks knew he was true/real*. He revealed himself to be a masterful conductor of superheroics and balancing large A-list ensembles with heart, wit and enough spotlights to illuminate all of New York City. With Age of Ultron, Whedon ups the ante with the inclusion of the Maximoff twins, forcing the heroes to deal with past traumas and current doubts. Tony Stark takes it upon himself to build what he hopes to be the next and final stage of the Avengers Initiative in Ultron, but it goes spectacularly wrong.
James Spader takes the longtime archenemy and infuses him with a methodical serpentine cadence, punctuated with bursts of inflamed madness and passion. Whedon and Spader have fashioned a machine with more personality and individuality than most heroes in film, and dare I say, they’ve turned a classic comic book villain into a classic movie monster. In my humble opinion, Ultron is the best MCU villain since Loki (which isn’t saying much considering MCU villains but still). In this regard, with a heaping amount of ILM digital effects and motion capture, Ultron is a triumph.
The Avengers team itself is stronger than ever, having done the work of establishing the crew and getting the chance to shine in individual blockbusters on their own. Whedon spreads the love to those without their own films, highlighting Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) and the best Bruce Banner since Bill Bixby, Mark Ruffalo. The presence of additional superpowered people force each member of the team to reevaluate their place in the world, and whether they are protectors or flat-out threats. Some of the joys of watching Age of Ultron are the moments where we have the cast just interacting with one another, heroes with viewpoints different enough to make the Avengers burst at the seams and moralities strong enough to hold it (barely) together.
This is the key masterstroke of Marvel Studios and Kevin Feige. Any other studio pre-2008 (the first Iron Man) would have diluted the core of these characters and their inherent weirdness, and thusly would have diluted the team dynamic of the Avengers and the thematic propellant of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Feige, Whedon and co. zeroed in on character building as world-building, which is what have made them successful where others have failed. Avengers: Age of Ultron is the culmination of all the MCU is, a living breathing comic book brought to life, unabashed, unashamed and unapologetically awesome.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is a better film than The Avengers, in fact it’s the best film that Marvel Studios has made to date. It is also the weirdest film and the darkest film that Marvel Studios has made to date, daring to ask its audiences and its heroes what makes a hero tick, and what makes them (and by extension, ourselves) worth rooting for. It’s not as fun as the previous Avengers or even last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Instead, Age of Ultron layers its pyrotechnics and setpieces with damaging, scarring consequence. If The Avengers was a rollercoaster, Age of Ultron is the tunnel ride in the Wonka Factory.
Shoutouts and accolades to DP Ben Davis, fresh off of the aforementioned Guardians, and the Marvel Creative Art Team headlined by Ryan Meinerding and Charlie Wen, giving the MCU a visual cohesion and maintaining an evolution throughout each of the films and their characters. Brian Tyler (Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World) returns to the Marvel slate as composer with a muscular assist from Danny Elfman, adapting Alan Silvestri’s Avengers themes the same way Christopher Young (Hell-Raiser) adapted Elfman’s themes for Spider-Man 3.
The world can be a troubled, trying place as we’ve been reminded recently. And though we go to the movies as a way of escape and transport to other places, even mainstream blockbuster cinema can discuss relevant topics of morality, family, global responsibility and existentialism. The fact that Avengers: Age of Ultron is able to do all of this couched in a megabudget action film is a tribute to not only Whedon, Feige and the Marvel Studios team, but to all those writers, artists and editors in the comic book industry who have been doing this for decades, waiting for the rest of pop culture to catch up.
This film earns my highest rating: IMAX.