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Friday, May 1, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

** SPOILERS ***

Peace In Our Time

The defining moment of Tony Stark's life wasn't when he was captured in the desert and built a crude Iron Man suit to escape. It was at the conclusion of Marvel's The Avengers when he flew a nuclear missile into the wormhole over New York City, glimpsed the horrific alien Chitauri force in outer space ready to invade Earth, and nearly lost his life. Since then, Stark has battled PTSD (as seen in Iron Man 3), and now his deepest fears take shape and are given murderous artificial life in Avengers: Age of Ultron, writer-director Joss Whedon's bigger, badder, denser, more aggressive, and thoroughly idiosyncratic follow up to the second biggest blockbuster of all-time. So psychologically damaged was Stark that his misguided dream (whereas before, his dream was merely to pleasure himself in any way he saw fit) has become "to build a suit of armor around the world" and usher in "peace in our time." "To end the fight... so [The Avengers] can all go home," as Stark tries to justify to Captain America. Instead, Stark's hubris invites catastrophe and gives birth to Ultron (a wicked James Spader), the killer robot to end all killer robots in the Marvel Universe. The Age of Ultron is just a few days from when Ultron comes to life to when he kicks the Avengers' asses and tries to destroy all life, but it's a few days the Avengers will never forget.

The Avengers are all back -- Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton/Hawkeye -- and then some. Age of Ultron flexes outward, making plenty of room for Samuel L. Jackson  as Nick Fury and Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill, both formerly of S.H.I.E.L.D., to return, as well as inviting guest stars Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/The Falcon and Don Cheadle as James Rhodes/War Machine to drop by. On the villainous front, Ultron recruits "the Twins": Aaron Taylor-Johnson as super speedster Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff/The Scarlet Witch, because, you know, Ultron needs someone to talk to about his nefarious schemes. (Of course, the more Ultron talks, the more the Maximoffs realize this thing they sided with is insane. Then again, the more Wanda and Pietro talk, the more we grimace at Olsen and Taylor-Johnson's affected Eastern European accents.) Meanwhile, talk Ultron does; this loquacious, eloquent evil robot is equal parts mad genius and undisciplined child stomping around a toy store breaking all the toys. In addition to destroying the world, Ultron also seeks to evolve himself, creating a humanity-sympathizing android called the Vision, which then gains the artificial intelligence of Stark's robo-butler J.A.R.V.I.S., played by Paul Bettany.

Joss Whedon has spoken at exasperated length to the press that Age of Ultron is the hardest thing he's ever done. To see the fruits of his toil and labor is to understand completely: Age of Ultron is an astonishing, all-encompassing juggling act, telling a gigantic superheroes vs. homicidal robot comic booky tale, while weaving in myriad clues to the forthcoming events in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The result makes Age of Ultron feel like it's bursting at the seams. Whedon opens Age of Ultron with the resolution to the year long saga of Hydra (#ItsAllConnected to TV's Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). The Avengers, at the apex of their teamwork (but at the nadir of CGI making their superpowered fighting look realistic) are riding high with maximum swagger after finally putting an end to the evil Hydra organization and retrieving Loki's lost scepter and the Infinity Stone contained within. As Scarlet Witch uses her mutant powers to give each Avenger "visions," Whedon drop hints of the upcoming Ragnarok Thor must face, makes a point of spotlighting the African nation of Wakanda to set up the Black Panther movie, and previews the galactic catastrophe awaiting the Avengers in their announced Infinity War sequels. Tony Stark's motives and judgment are repeatedly questioned and he's treated almost as a villain by his fellow Avengers, boding ill for when he will wage Civil War with Captain America next year.  Black Widow's traumatic past of growing up in Mother Russia's Home for Future Assassins and Captain America's lost dreams of a happy life with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) are also given their due. Age of Ultron requires an exhaustive, encyclopedic knowledge of past and future events of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and makes no apologies to non-True Believers.

More pleasingly, when not blowing things up or having the Avengers smack things down, Whedon hones in on what makes each Avenger tick, lending special TLC to the characters currently without their own cinematic franchises. Renner's Clint Barton receives ample screen time, wisecracks, and reveals a heretofore unknown happy home life with his wife (Linda Cardinelli) and young children. An unlikely but unexpectedly touching romance blooms between Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner (her whispering "I adore you" before pushing Banner off a cliff to make him Hulk out is the weirdly sweetest moment in the movie). Whedon even goes the extra mile to explain just why Natalie Portman as Thor's love Jane Foster and Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark's better half Pepper Potts are absent this time around, while carrying out a drunk Stan Lee making his traditional cameo. Finally, Thanos (Josh Brolin), perhaps aware the Internet has been mocking him mercilessly for managing to obtain zero Infinity Stones after a dozen Marvel movies, finally dons the dreaded Infinity Gauntlet in the traditional mid-credits tag. Through it all, during the many quiet moments, the patented Whedon Wit is at the height of its powers, delivering snark and running gags about Captain America's disdain for foul language and the logistics of being "worthy" to lift Thor's hammer. Whedon's character work deepens the conflicts and relationships between the characters themselves as well as between the audience and these characters we've come to love.

Two years since Man of Steel, Whedon and the Marvel braintrust seem well-aware of the cacophonous complaints levied at their Distinguished Competition about the horrific destruction of Metropolis and the repeated ad nauseam accusations that Superman didn't save enough innocent people. In response, Age of Ultron is a chest-thumping treatise how How Superheroes Save People. In the crowd-pleasing centerpiece action spectacle where Iron Man, clad in his gigantic Hulkbuster armor, grapples with the rampaging Hulk, Whedon pointedly makes sure that everyone in their seats is aware the buildings they smash into and demolish have no innocent people in them. After musing about meteors and extinction-level events, Ultron's ultimate scheme (visuals borrowed from a different Superman movie, Superman Returns) involves using vibranium (the indestructible metal Captain America's shield was forged from) to rocket the fictional Eastern European city of Sokovia into the stratosphere and then drop it onto the Earth to create a deep impact that would wipe out all human life. With thousands of people trapped on an ascendant rock surrounded by hundreds of Ultron replicants, the Avengers assemble and beat the living crap out of all of those robots while again pointedly making sure no one (who isn't an Avenger for a few minutes) dies. Amidst the astounding superpowered action, the Avengers go out of their way to rescue every innocent person in Sokovia, with a big assist from Fury, Hill, and a S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier they happened to have lying around, which is a welcome sight indeed.

Being all things to all Marvel movies, Age of Ultron is also a darker, more somber middle act in a grander saga, and one of transition to boot. Avengers comics tradition has always been about the fluidity of team membership, and as any Marvel fanboy would expect, the Avengers roster going into Age of Ultron is not the same coming out. By the time the smoke clears and all of the Ultrons are dismantled, the emotional and psychological toll of the ordeal sees a mass exodus of no less than four of the original six Avengers: Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and Hawkeye all disassemble and disappear (they are joined in real life by Whedon, making his grand exit as well). Captain America's New Avengers aren't the household names the originals have become, but they aren't exactly slouches either: Black Widow thankfully remains and they are joined by "some hitters": War Machine, The Falcon, The Vision, and The Scarlet Witch. Their fates will be guided by directors Joe and Anthony Russo, who made Captain America: The Winter Soldier arguably the best of the Marvel movies, and will helm Avengers: Infinity War Parts I and II. If the New Avengers can't save the world, they'll damn sure Avenge it, with the help of a certain friendly neighborhood wall-crawler before long. But until then, the Avengers, Marvel, and Joss Whedon can be proud that they have wrapped the world in a suit of armor made of money. Here's hoping Joss Whedon enjoys the quiet of life without the Avengers and finds well-earned peace in his time.

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