Sunday, May 10, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Alternate Title:  Apotheosis

One sentence synopsis:     The Avengers struggle to contain and defeat a former project of Tony Stark's after it attains sentience and attempts to exterminate humanity.

Things Havoc liked:  It's... been a rough year to date.

I mean, it always is this time of year, as the Doldrums finishes its final, awful convulsions, and the gravitational waves of the first big blockbuster of the season clears everything else out like a tidal wave sucking all the water off of a beach. The last couple of weeks in particular have been a bunch of castoffs and throwaways, as no studio, not even an indie one, wanted their release date to be anywhere near Avengers 2. But all calms before a storm eventually end with the storm itself, and with Doldrums season now finally, mercifully behind us, it's time to consider Marvel's 11th movie in its endless parade of amazement, a movie with more to live up to than perhaps any film since the Star Wars Prequels, following up not only on the excellent Marvel films of last year, but its own direct prequel, 2012's masterpiece-grade showstopper, Avengers itself, and implicitly on the entire towering edifice that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You all know my position on Marvels' films. You know I'm a fan, you know I've loved them, but more importantly you know that I've always been nervous about their ability to produce ongoing quality as they move through this never-before-seen project. Particularly after Iron Man 3 and (to a lesser extent) Thor 2 showed that Marvel was capable of making non-amazing films, I have been sitting in mixed-anticipation and fear with every successive movie, expecting that each one in turn would be the one to finally snap the spine of this fantastic beast they had conjured up. I expected Winter Soldier to be lackluster, and it was anything but. I expected Guardians of the Galaxy to have no prayer of working, and it worked beyond my wildest dreams. So when I tell you that I expected that Avengers 2 would be unable to live up to the high water mark of its predecessor, it should not surprise you either that I doubted, or that I was wrong.

But... I don't think anyone was expecting just how wrong I was.

The Avengers, Age of Ultron, is a masterpiece, a doctoral thesis in how to make a superhero film, forged with wit and charm and bucket-loads of skill that boggle the mind to even conceive of. I described the original Avengers in such terms, raining praise down on Joss Whedon and his team of lunatics for having produced one of the finest movies I had ever seen, but having done so, I feel as though I've now painted myself into a corner when it comes to this film, as Age of Ultron manages, somehow, through methods inexplicable and possibly illegal, to be better than its predecessor, a matter of degrees certainly, but palpable nonetheless. I have not enjoyed a movie this much since I began writing these reviews, and if you have lingering doubts as to whether you should go and see it, let that statement sink into your minds.

The setup is familiar. The Avengers, each having had the chance to work through their own personal issues at greater length in individual movies (with the exception of The Hulk of course), are once more united to take on a more dangerous threat. Last time it was Loki, this time it's the proliferation of Loki's technology, the advanced, alien tech that has been allowing organizations like Hydra to make terrifying advances in weaponry and superhero production. And yet this threat is only the initial stopping point, as the movie centers itself around Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.'s) desire to find a more permanent solution to the perennial threats that are blanketing the world. After all, as he puts it, the end goal of the Avengers project is to disband and go home, having secured the world once and for all. Anyone who's seen the trailers knows how this project goes, but the strongest element of the movie remains the cast and the characters, all played by actors at the peak of their games, who have had in some cases as many as half a dozen movies to establish themselves. Everyone, from Downey's older and more brittle/mature Iron Man, to Evans' more decisive, undisputed leader Captain America, to Hemsworth's more serious, more aware-of-the-stakes, and more willing to trust Thor, to Ruffalo's more resigned, more accepting of his power/disability Hulk, everyone is at the absolute peak of their game, and the film wisely spends lots of time just letting them all hang out, interact, argue and debate, drink and celebrate together. To my surprise, this includes previously-shortchanged badass-normals Black Widow and Hawkeye, who finally get the promotion to A-list screentime they both deserve, and whose actors (Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner) prove themselves worthy of it. I've questioned Johansson's role as Black Widow in many films before, from Avengers 1 to Winter Soldier, but at long last she has finally nailed it, delivering a performance I effortlessly believed, one which fits in seamlessly to the rest of the cast, and which actually left me looking forward to her appearances. As to Hawkeye, Renner's patience with this character has finally been rewarded, as his role is massively souped up for this iteration, and as a big fan of Renner's, I could not be happier.

But movies like this need more than just their protagonists, and this is where Age of Ultron truly surprised me. I love James Spader, but I had no idea what they were going for with Ultron going in, and was not expecting what I got. Ultron is a dark reflection of Tony Stark, in every sense of the word, and while the trailers got the menace he exudes across perfectly well, it didn't get the rest of him, the snark, the dry wit, the self-awareness, and the boiling rage that comes when someone of immense capabilities and intellect is denied or frustrated by circumstance from making use of it the way he intends. It's not how I would have chosen to portray Ultron were I given the choice, but that only goes to show why I am not given the choice and why Joss Whedon was. His character fits perfectly into the self-referential, sharp, well-drawn world that the Avengers inhabit, and the movie wisely spends most of its time with him dealing with who he is as a character and why he acts as he does, rather than bog everything down with the hows and the pseudoscience. But if Ultron was a pleasant surprise, that's nothing compared to his two disciples, Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch, twin war orphans from a Bosnia analog played by Kick-Ass' Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Oldboy's Elizabeth Olsen (who weirdly-enough starred together as a married couple in last year's lackluster Godzilla remake). I had no hope for these two, based as they were on characters I don't like, shoehorned into the Avengers artificially (I felt), and portrayed by actors I've had mixed feelings on, coupled with the fact that another version of Quicksilver already appeared (awesomely) in last year's excellent X-men: Days of Future Past. And yet once again, it turns out I don't know what the hell I'm talking about, as these two are awesome, brilliantly set up and characterized, matched correctly with the Avengers themselves, given depth and background and character arcs and meaningful sequences with the various other characters on offer. I could not, for the life of me, envision these two working, and yet they did, somehow, as does everyone else from the cameos by series regulars like Anthony Mackie (Falcon), Don Cheadle (War Machine), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Hayley Atwell (Agent Carter), or Stellan SkarsgÄrd (Dr. Selvig), to other characters, the identities of whom would be spoilerish even to reveal.

And what of the film itself, absent the characters (which is a difficult thing to evaluate, admittedly)? Triumph. The action is superb, the cinematography glowing, the soundtrack (by Danny Elfman!) unobtrusive and properly triumphant or dour when it needs to be. Whedon's command of dialog and of writing in general was what recommended him for this film series in the first place after all, and it has not deserted him, as practically every line is note-perfect no matter who is saying what. Avengers had, among its very few flaws, the problem of some lines feeling rather artificial or forced, as though the characters were uttering them to set up a joke as opposed to because it made sense for them to say it at the time. Not here. The in-jokes and asides are side-splittingly funny without ever being pushy, the references to previous films, and even to the wider universe of television shows and Netflix original series are richly applied, but none of them get in the way for those uninitiated. Even plot tropes that I always groan to see, the "heroes must battle one another for arbitrary reasons" or "the team is broken up by evil mind control" routines, are done with skill and poise, turning the former into a more-or-less open slap at Man of Steel's disregard for civilian body counts, and the latter into an opportunity for the characters to explore their own natures further when confronted with truths and fears they did not wish to discover, rather than the customary, laborious "wait for the characters to figure out what the audience already knows" sequence that it usually becomes in other movies. The pacing of the film is blisteringly fast, but it generally doesn't feel rushed at all, as the movie knows what is and is not important, and ruthlessly trims away the latter in favor of the former throughout its entire run-time, letting the useless exposition drop whenever it can and pausing instead to let the characters breathe in between action sequences of breathtaking complexity. If filmmaking, as Shirley Clarke used to say, consists of a series of simple choices, then this film surely is what happens when a director, cast, and crew unerringly make all the right ones. It is, without hyperbole, as near to perfection as I think I have ever seen.

Things Havoc disliked: Near to perfection and perfection itself are not the same thing, of course, and if one wishes to dive into it, there are issues I can bring up. A couple of shots, particularly early on, are clearly trailer-shots, designed for no other reason than the fact that the marketing department needed something equivalent to Avengers 1's famous 'circling the wagons' shot at the outset of the climactic battle. In a lesser film, that wouldn't even be noticeable, but this is a movie which goes out of its way to make everything work organically, and so something included for such reasons manages to stand out.

There is also a cost at inflating the cast and giving each of them screentime enough to establishing themselves, and the casualty this time around, sadly, is Thor. Not that Thor is sidelined in this movie, far from it, he gets his quota of character moments, banter, and action time just like everyone else, but there are some sequences featuring him that clearly were intended to be longer set-pieces, that had to get truncated just to make the movie fit. This truncation isn't done poorly by any stretch, but its' visible, and those who regard Thor as their favorite Avenger will consequently be forced to wait for the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok to get their proper fill of everyone's favorite Thundergod (to say nothing of Loki).

Final thoughts:   Age of Ultron, Marvel's final answer to the flood of imitations that are going to be let loose upon us next year by studios such as Sony, Universal, and Warner Brothers, is an emphatic, stamped-metal, full stop to the question of how unique their cinematic universe actually is. It is the Godfather, Part II to Avengers' Godfather, and I anticipate the same level of debates among film aficionados as to which one is actually the best as one finds for those films. From what I can tell online, the consensus among the nerd community is that, while a great film in its own right, it is not the equal of its predecessor. With respect, however, to both the original film, and the learned opinions of my colleagues concerning it, I must disagree. Avengers 1 was a fantastic film, a masterpiece in its own right, but Age of Ultron is one of the best films I have ever seen, and half the reason this review has taken as long as it did to produce is because I wanted to take the time to reflect on my own opinion and ensure that I was speaking with proper judgment and experience, and not in the first rush of excitement at having finally been liberated from the Doldrums From Hell. Having had the better part of a week to think it over however, I can only report what I truly believe. Avengers: Age of Ultron is a rapturously-good film, likely the best Superhero movie I have ever witnessed, and a sure-fire contender for the best film of the year if not the decade. I do not allow myself to indulge in panegyric hagiography for films, even great films, that cross my path, specifically because I wish to have some credibility to expend when a movie that is truly special comes along. And for three years now, I have been waiting for one worthy of the praise I have yearned so desperately to deliver, wondering more than once if I had become cynical or jaded or seen so many bad films that I was no longer capable of appreciating an achievement like this when it was presented to me, wondering where I would ever turn to find a movie that could fill me with nothing but gushing, torrential praise, a movie that would leave me singing hymnals to the grace of those who had seen fit to produce it.

I should have known. For this is the work of Marvel, and it is glorious in our eyes. Go forth and bear witness, and ye shall know what it is to experience joy.

Final Score:  9.5/10

Next Time: A pause for breath.  And possibly for zombies.

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