Sunday, May 3, 2015

'Avengers: Age of Ultron': An Ambitious MCU Chapter

Spoilers ahead, as always...

So the other day I posted a brief "thoughts piece" on Avengers: Age of Ultron, it wasn't really a review. The thing with the film is, it's massive... It's big, and on second viewing last night, I really saw how ambitious it was, story-wise. I had seen something I completely missed in the first viewing, which was impacted by other things.

On second viewing, Avengers: Age of Ultron was a much stronger film than I had thought... And it's quite a risky installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole...

First off, Avengers: Age of Ultron keeps a key component that made the first team-up spectacle so good... It kept the character work. What made The Avengers, simple as it was in its narrative, so compelling was the roster. Even if you hadn’t seen the likes of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and The Hulk in their respective films, they were still very likable, they had personalities, they leapt off the screen. It is an epitome of escapist fun done right, loud and flashy but with substance, with characters you care about, and a strong script.

However, Avengers: Age of Ultron goes a different route. Gone is the simplicity of its predecessor, in comes an with at-times complex plot and a core that dives into fear, dark pasts, and what it means to be a hero. Very good development is made on our already-well established heroes, as a result there is much more depth to them.

For example, we see Bruce Banner outright reject his abilities, we see his fear of turning into the green giant. Emphasized by an intense rampage through an African city fueled by Scarlet Witch, Banner once again sees a reason why he has to be isolated, why he has to stay away. The romance between him and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow is more than just that, it’s a way for him to come to terms with his abilities. Romanoff, having such a dark past herself, more than makes for a good supportive voice for the troubled scientist. It’s all done with honesty, it’s not forced nor is it overdramatic. A subtle conversation held in Clint Barton’s safe house more than does the job... It’s oddly beautiful, it’s a very rare, deep, heartfelt moment in a blockbuster this large.

Sacrifice is another major idea explored here, and Stark is a centerpiece of that along with Banner. The development on Tony Stark is wholly satisfying. Scarlet Witch triggers his inner fears of letting The Avengers all die and letting the world be destroyed by alien forces. He’s done this in the past, especially in Iron Man 3 with his suits, he feels that he has to do whatever it takes to make things right... This completely extends to Ultron, who is not only such a strong villain because of his fearsome demeanor or James Spaders’ knock-out performance (Ultron is both frightening and a bit humorous), but because he is Stark in a way. A less empathetic, sociopathic Stark. Later on, it is realized that sometimes Stark’s actions may be the right thing, again... The sacrifices, same with Banner’s Hulk transformation at the end.

All of this is tied wonderfully with humor, another key component of The Avengers and the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. The jokes may be the source of jokes about the MCU’s supposed shortcomings, but for me, the MCU uses humor in ways that other big rock-em sock-em blockbusters don’t. The one-liners and quips fit the characters so well, it just adds to their personalities and makes them all the more likable. In this film, maybe the jokiness does go a bit too far, but 90% of the time the humor works.

What’s also great is that the film alternates between massive and intimate. For a $279 million-costing film, there are some scenes that look like they came out of an indie film. While most of The Avengers consists of Helicarrier scenes and the nearly hour-long battle of New York, this film spends a good chunk of time in a farmhouse. Clint Barton, Hawkeye of course, reveals to his gang that he has a wife and kids. A whole new dimension is added to the character, who we’ve seen very little of.

Let me talk about Hawkeye for a minute. He has only appeared in two MCU films prior to this film, a brief cameo in Thor and a scant 12 minutes in The Avengers. Hawkeye is mostly a minor character in the grand scheme of things in Avengers part uno, throughout the majority of that film he’s under Loki’s control. He’s still enjoyable in the film and makes a great last-minute addition to the team, and we know enough about him, but it was still not much. Here, he’s a full-blown lead. He has more of a personality this time around, and we really get to see his humorous side, as well as his real side when he comes home. In the film’s massive, almost Titanic-like final battle, he’s the one who risks his life to save a child in a rather epic moment.

We also get subtle hints at what will go down in next summer’s Captain America: Civil War. Tony and Steve have an argument over Tony’s actions and the creation of Ultron, it comes to blows when Tony once again makes questionable decisions that ultimately leads to the creation of The Vision.

Out of the six leads, Thor still kind of gets the shaft in the film, as he leaves the gang for a good amount of time. While important to the story, he’s away for so long, he’s not even in the film’s thrilling South Korea-set setpiece. Luckily we get to see his fears and what will possibly go down in his next solo outing, Thor: Ragnarok. We even get a nice Eric Selvig cameo. However, this set-up stuff is very subtle and it’s all weaved into the packed story.

The Scarlet Witch visions are easily some of the most exciting sequences in the whole film, as they plunge the film into some surreal and sometimes unsettling waters. We see Black Widow being trained to be an assassin by a group that’s very ruthless. Captain America is in a warped post-war 1940s setting with Peggy Carter, Thor sees strange and terrible things in a fiery, almost apocalyptic Asgard. Tony’s vision of everyone dead and impending doom in the film’s opening sequence is cold and blunt. In one sequence, everyone is struck by Scarlet Witch while Tony takes on Ultron. This leaves Hawkeye to once again get some time to shine.

Speaking of which, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver respectively, are great new additions to the team. Though they start off as baddies that have a good reason to be against The Avengers, they have very cool powers and are both played well by Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron-Taylor Johnson. They’re certainly doing far better than they did in Godzilla, as that film’s script had forgettable human characters - it would be hard to not be bland with them. (I still love it though, for what it does right, it does really right.) Here they have more fun and the attempted accents, cheesy as they can sometimes be, aren’t too distracting.

Avengers: Age of Ultron keeps the fun of its predecessor while diving into a bigger pool, it’s definitely bigger but it’s also riskier than the first film. The narrative is very strong and above your usual escapist funfest (not that good escapist funfests are a bad thing), and it even throws in surprises and goes in cool directions. I love that the film did some globe-hopping, as we go to Africa, South Korea, a location somewhere in the American countryside, and the fictional Eastern European country Sokovia.

The action, while not the best that Marvel has to offer (the cinematography and staging sometimes felt a bit flat, for me), works and does its job. During the final battle you can feel the struggle of beating Ultron’s bots, this isn’t the first film’s battle where they took down the Chituari with less frustration. We get a lot of suspense when Ultron’s plan little by little comes to fruition, and it attempts to top the alien invasion of New York. Though at the same time, it feels very ground-level and small. Also, the whole theme of putting people first is emphasized once again.

It introduces new characters well and brings back familiar faces, it was great to see War Machine finally get his due and fight alongside The Avengers, though we could’ve seen more action with him to be honest. The Vision is also awesome, and even though he’s a third act newcomer, his abilities are very cool and he’s the ultimate antithesis to Ultron. His wordy, almost philosophical encounter with the last of Ultron’s bots is both beautiful and humorous.

Like most of the MCU installments, it’s a fine mix of action, thrills, laughs, and strong character development. It’s just admirable how deeper it goes and how it tries to tie weighty ideas with a story that has such a huge scope. Is it perfect? No. Is it the best MCU installment? No. Is it better than The Avengers? No.

For all its simplicity, The Avengers has a superior structure. The pacing is very even in that film, which is ironically a minute or so longer than this film. This film’s pacing is a bit off the map, and at times it can stall quite a bit. At other times it’s not as fun as its predecessor, though the energetic comic book-y opening and the last chunk of the final battle are, I think, on the level of the first film’s thrills and the best setpieces of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It feels oddly lethargic in places, and also... The color scheme is not very appealing, it’s the ugly muddy mix of desaturared colors that I just don’t care for at all. Sure this story is darker and more dramatic, but it could still be the colorful film that its predecessor is. The bits of red, and the visions, and whatnot are nice, but that’s about it.

Despite some structural and pacing issues, among some other things, Avengers: Age of Ultron is one of Marvel’s most ambitious films to date, an effort that reaches high and mostly gets there. A knock-out in many ways... Phase 3 is going to be quite the string of films, big time...

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