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Good intentions wreak havoc when Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) unwittingly creates Ultron (James Spader), a terrifying A.I. monster who vows to achieve “world peace” via mass extinction. Now, Iron Man, Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) – alongside Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) – must reassemble to defeat Ultron and save mankind… if they can! (From Marvel’s official synopsis)

 Avengers: Age of Ultron
Following a comparatively disappointing theatrical release (only in modern Hollywood could more than a billion dollars profit be labled ‘disappointing’), Avengers: Age of Ultron has been aptly compared to another underwhelming entry in the Marvel canon, Iron Man 2. Both are direct follow ups to films that defied even elevated expectations to make substantial pop-culture impacts ( Age of Ultron was also following-up two phases worth of MCU sequels). Both films are fronted by filmmakers who earned creative leeway and overstuffed with distracting, mandated plot points meant to tie-in with future franchise entries. Both hectically introduce compelling villains that disappear for long stretches of the second act so that the heroes can fight among themselves and develop those expanded-universe narratives. Both have their share of high points that are usually overlooked in favour of their frustrating lows. The major difference is contextual – Iron Man 2 was confined by the expectations of establishing a formula, while Age of Ultron is struggles establishing new ways for that formula to grow.

For better and worse, Whedon’s choices make Age of Ultron the 2.5 hour equivalent to one of Marvel’s epic, multi-issue, multi-title crossover events. It seems exciting in theory, but doesn’t work in action. There are good ideas and exciting action gags that (arguably) excuse some of the bigger problems. Irredeemable issues arise from the attempts to connect Age of Ultron with future MCU pictures (Thor’s bath in the ‘Pond of Exposition,’ for example, or anything else the ongoing Infinity Stone MacGuffin-athon), but Whedon siphons a lot of those headaches into his version of Vision; that of the Mind Gem co-creating Ultron and becoming Vision’s power source. Not only is this the most exciting plot turn in the entire film – it’s a clever adaptation of the Vision character to fit the movie universe. In fact, Vision’s transition to the big screen may be the most creatively tailor-made since superhero movies started dominating the box office. When the original Avengers was released, we thought that it was Whedon’s ability to juggle an ensemble of superheroes that best served the developing Marvel blueprint, but now, considering the fragility of both Avengers films on a narrative level, I’m thinking that his ability to recontextualize old ideas is his greatest strength as a pop-culture storyteller. His ideas – not his quirky characterizations or cute dialogue – will be missed, now that he has departed the MCU (uninformed pet theory: Fox will approach Whedon to remake their X-Franchises in Bryan Singer’s absence).

 Avengers: Age of Ultron
Aside from the apparently studio-mandated trims to certain scenes (leaving gaping pits in the already fractured narrative flow), the big problems tend to belong to Whedon and his dramatic ambition alone. The most egregious is probably the treatment of Black Widow. At the center of the argument is the scene where Hulk’s soft-hearted alter ego, Bruce Banner, and Black Widow have a heart-to-heart outside of the bathroom at Hawkeye’s ranch. After clumsily exposing their feelings at each other, she compares herself to a monster, because she has been trained to murder people and because she can’t have children. This particularly male-centric view on what matters most to a woman’s self-worth (the ability to be a mother) is sort of jaw-dropping, but also an incredibly weak moment of characterization for Widow. Of course, Banner (who is a man and thus doesn’t define himself by his ability to father a child) doesn’t come off much better. The scene is supposed to represent a moment of humanity among characters that can’t afford to be vulnerable, but Whedon’s dramatic calibration is so far off that he’s pitting superheroes in an annoying pity-party contest where two beloved characters, portrayed by two top-of-their-game actors, are desperately fishing for compliments (‘I’m way grosser than you’/‘Not-uh, I’m the grossest one’).

On the other hand, I’m willing to extend the benefit of the doubt to this very badly conceived sequence, because it feeds into the film’s overriding theme of acquired parentage. Ultron resents his father-figure, Stark, like a emotionally disoriented adolescent. Stark and Banner regret their place as the villain’s all-too-willing parents. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are fueled by the death of their parents, which they blame on Tony, and adopt Ultron as a replacement father. Hawkeye turns out to have secret family with 1.5 children. Above it all, every member of the Avengers plays a part in the birth of Vision, from rescuing the body, to uploading Jarvis, preserving the Mind Gem, and supplying the godly electricity that gives him life (which is an amusing turn-around from the comics, where Ultron is the father-figure Vision rebels against). It’s certainly not the cleanest metaphorical motif, but, again, I admire the ambition.

 Avengers: Age of Ultron
There are already a number of smart editorials on the supposed feminist champion’s disappointing choices in regards to the closest thing the MCU has to a leading superpowered lady, so I’m loathe to dwell on the point, but I’m also eager to complain about Black Widow’s capture later in the film. I understand why she ends up in the villain’s clutches – it’s because someone on the team needs to know how to find the Ultron’s secret base (the adolescent villain is also emotionally vulnerable and wants someone to talk to). And it also makes sense that Widow would have the spy skills to contact the others. But, by that logic, she also has the spy skills to find the secret base or a way to sneak into it. Instead, the only female on the team loses the fight, is kidnapped (rather than killed), and then helplessly held in a literal prison, where she waits for her would-be boyfriend to save her. Again, it’s not only a matter of Whedon embracing regressive gender stereotyping – it’s also a matter of him wasting precious narrative space on one.

This illustrates one of the major handicaps in attempting intimate character portraits within the context of a team-up movie – there’s almost no room for personal development. Even if the Hulk/Widow subplot hadn’t been a disaster, it would’ve eaten up too much valuable plot time. For the first Avengers, the drama and novelty was wrapped up in whether or not the heroes could unite against a greater evil. Whedon only had to concoct an acceptable reason for the characters to get together, then let his imagination loose on ways for them to overcome the menace. In deference to the other movies in the MCU’s phase two – and basically every post- Empire Strikes Back sci-fi sequence ever made – Age of Ultron needs to stir up the relative light-heartedness of its predecessor with more complicated emotional states and moral ambiguity. These narrative devices tend to work for the ‘standalone’ MCU movies, because they’ve centered squarely on a single lead character. Black Widow makes a series-best appearance in The Winter Soldier, but it is still Captain America’s movie and he has plenty of room to emote and grow in the two-plus hour runtime.

 Avengers: Age of Ultron
In contrast, Age of Ultron is an Avengers movie and, as such, tries to do the same thing with every Avenger, including two (Hawkeye and Hulk) that haven’t been seen throughout the entire second phase (post-credit gag aside) and one that played a supporting role in a different movie (Black Widow). It also devotes time to the origin story of three new villains and a new Avenger (Vision). Oh, and two of the villains (Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch) become Avengers. The best of the X-Men movies also tend to be sloppy mish-mashes, but have taken steps to solving the crowding problem by focusing on specific mutants. The MCU’s model and Whedon’s own compulsions require him to treat every single Avenger as a lead. The bulkiness of these extended characterizations is all the more discouraging, because Scarlet Witch’s nightmare-inducing powers are such an inventive and visually interesting storytelling shorthand. All of that efficiency is undone with clumsy running commentary.

Whedon’s action direction has never been great. Throughout Serenity and both of the Avengers, he tends to stage sloppy, fiddling combat between strong, comic book-friendly poses. Good-looking still frames don’t work in motion. However, against all odds, I do think Age of Ultron overcomes the greatest hurdle in the MCU canon – a compelling final battle. It’s easy to be fatigued by destruction by the time the climax rolls around and millions of robots start jumping around, breaking concrete – and one could accuse Whedon of unloading a few too many convenient plot devices and clichéd, unnecessary mid-battle speeches (Hawkeye’s down-to-earth chat with Scarlet Witch, for another example) – but there’s a proper sense of awe to much of the digital effects mayhem, as well as striking images (Thor, Iron Man, and Vision blasting Ultron is the best shot in the entire film) and some of the best jokes in the movie (Ultron’s frustrated ‘for the love of God’ when Hulk breaks into his escape ship). I’m also a sucker for the anti- Man of Steel-ness of it all, even if the statement is awfully heavy-handed. The final death toll of an entire city being lifted from the ground and exploded is probably six or seven people, which is, admittedly, very silly.

 Avengers: Age of Ultron

Video


Age of Ultron was shot using a number of digital HD camera systems, including Arri Alexa, Red Epic, Canon EOS, and pocket-sized options, like GoPro and Blackmagic. It was post-converted to 3D for theatrical distribution, but I’m reviewing the 2D, 2.40:1, 1080p Blu-ray release. I’m not the biggest fan of Whedon and cinematographer Ben Davis photographic choices here. I understand that darker story themes often lead to darker physical imagery, but, with few obvious exceptions (the South African scenes, for example), Age of Ultron is so dimly lit and heavily shaded by cobalt lighting that it’s sort of ugly. This transfer displays all of the blue darkness with the proper consistency and is sharp enough that the reflective surfaces and pin-point highlights aren’t lost in the gloom. That said, I do think it’s darker than the version I saw in theaters. It’s not a Godzilla-level grading problem, but the footage that appears in the extras seems more in line with my memories. Some details are crushed, while others are made stronger, thanks to the harder black lines that make up the textures. The limited colour palette – more blues, oranges, reds, and occasionally greens – is cleanly blended with smooth gradations. Compression noise is not a major issue, but there are ups and downs in terms of digital grain and slight blocking in the warmer hues.

 Avengers: Age of Ultron

Audio


Age of Ultron comes fitted with a very noisy, incredibly aggressive DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 sound. Obvious, the big battle scenes are the most extreme examples of the mix’s capabilities. The classic noises – ringing of Cap’s shield, the hum-buzz of Iron Man’s blasts, the thp-thp-woosh of Thor’s hammer, the rumble of Hulk’s roars, the zip of Hawkeye’s bow, and the…um, I guess Black Widow doesn’t really have a trademark sound – are all matched and augmented with a new selection of sci-fi sound effects. There are also a whole lot of explosions to rock the LFE. Even the less violent scenes distribute neat noise throughout the stereo and surround channels, and the dialogue is good and clear. The majority of the film’s score is supplied by Marvel workhorse composer Brian Tyler, who did decent things for Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. In addition, the film reuses original Avengers composer Alan Silvestri’s major themes, but they have been reworked by none other than Danny Elfman, who lends decades of superhero score expertise to ‘hybrid’ versions of various motifs. I’ll admit that none of the MCU themes, except maybe Silvestri’s Captain America title score, have been memorable enough for me to really recognize the value of Elfman’s contributions.

Of course, the ultimate shortcoming of the entire film is that neither Stark nor Ultron ever stops to listen to either David Bowie’s “Messiah Machine” or Yes’ “Messiah Machine.”

 Avengers: Age of Ultron

Extras


  • Commentary with writer/director Joss Whedon – Whedon sounds exhausted and has an annoying tendency to alternate between patting himself on the back and feeling sorry for himself, but he also fills the space with loads of information. There’s certainly no part of his process left uncovered. He’s sure to spread the credit/blame, though, by mentioning all of the cast and crew responsible for first and second unit shooting. I assume that this track was recorded before the film’s release and the subsequent critical reactions (he is enormously proud of the rancid Hulk/Widow bathroom talk). Seeing that he happily accepts responsibility for most of the film’s problems and that there’s almost zero sign of the frustration that bled through more recent interviews, I would happily download an alternate, more updated track.
  • Featurettes:
    • From the Inside Out: Making of Avengers: Age of Ultron (20:50, HD) – This fun, but fluffy look at the 18 month production/post-production process with cast & crew interviews and behind-the-scenes footage. The subject matter covers set design/construction, casting, performance capture processes, designing the new characters, the world-wide locations, and the Vision make-up/special effects processes.
    • The Infinite Six (7:30, HD) – A valiant attempt at breaking down the developing story of the Infinity Stones in the MCU via clips, Marvel think-tank interviews, and images from the original comic books.
    • Global Adventure (3:00, HD) – Another look at the locations, which the film shot (I believe this appeared on television during Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D.)
  • Four deleted/extended scenes with optional commentary from Whedon (12:00, HD) – None of these scenes (very few, considering the original cut was somewhere around three hours and 15 minutes long) fix the film’s structural problems, but there are a few narrative holes filled. Somehow, Thor’s cave adventure makes even less sense when extended.
  • Gag reel (3:40, HD)

The digital version, via Disney Movies Anywhere, also includes a Connecting the Universe featurette.  

 Avengers: Age of Ultron

Overall


I could probably say more about Age of Ultron’s strong performances (Spader is so good) or mention that I wasn’t actually bothered by Nick Fury’s 11th hour rescue, but neither discussion would change the fact that it’s a failure that occasionally aspires to greatness (as Vision himself says, ‘there is grace in its failings’). It might look better in retrospect by the time we get to the next Avengers movie. At the very least, I assume it will act as an abject lesson on the limits of a MCU ensemble superhero movie. This Blu-ray looks and sounds as good as you’d expect. The extras are shorter than I’d like (there was a lot of deleted footage that probably should’ve been included here), but the director’s commentary is solid (if not occasionally embarrassing).

 Avengers: Age of Ultron

 Avengers: Age of Ultron
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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