Friday, May 1, 2015

Reassembled: AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON


Avengers: Age of Ultron is noisy, colorful, brightly lit, mostly enjoyable comic book nonsense. It is, in other words, the latest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that mega-franchise of interlocking superhero series currently dominating a section of big budget filmmaking. This is only the second outing to bring together the now familiar team of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to battle a foe no single hero could take on alone. But because producer Kevin Fiege and MCU screenwriters have allowed a great deal of cross-pollination in the interim, it feels like the Avengers have never left. In fact, the latest picture begins with the team in the middle of a mission, hitting the ground running.

Shorn of the need to endlessly introduce itself, this sequel launches right into its action, letting the group snatch a MacGuffin from the claws of evil HYDRA before the opening title card even appears. We know these characters, how they relate to one another, what their individual problems are, and how their personalities clash. Now it’s just a matter of sitting back and letting the plot carry them away. And, oh, does writer-director Joss Whedon supply the plot. There is a constant churn of incident and spectacle, new introductions, returning side characters, exposition, cameos, and foreshadowing. The Avengers banter, then cross in and out of the main action with their own throughlines, though some naturally get a little buried in the mix. (Sorry, Thor.) It’s dense with nerdy detail, yet aerodynamically simple in plot, ceaselessly hurtling forward.

Their big concern this time around is an evil robot named Ultron (voiced with funny pomposity by James Spader). He was created by Iron Man to protect the world and prevent further damage from cosmic nastiness like we saw in the first Avengers. But let this be a lesson: don’t expose your experimental artificial intelligence to an Asgardian mind-control staff. That’s what turns the robot evil, charging up his mind so much he thinks the only way to save the world is to rid it of those pesky people messing it up. I mean, he has a point, but that solution wasn’t exactly what Iron Man had in mind. At least it’s not another interchangeable grump looking for a glowing crystal or giant laser, which describes every villain in the last half-dozen of these things. Whedon mixes up the formula by finding the heroes the cause of and solution to their outsized problems, struggling to save the world from themselves. The action involves saving civilians from the path of destruction instead of merely letting collateral damage interminably rain down, a welcome change.

To stop Ultron, and his army of other robots he’s making in a commandeered factory, the Avengers trot across the globe, finding large-scale action set-pieces at every turn, each one better then the last. The filmmakers provide token downtime for feelings and expressions thereof – rivalries, romances, and the like – but wastes little time picking up velocity again. There’s a raid on a HYDRA base, a rampage through an African metropolis, a multi-vehicle chase through downtown Seoul, and a fictional Eastern European city imperiled in a clever high-flying climax. Whedon fills the screen with elaborate, CGI-heavy chaos. Laser beams zigzag across the frame as debris falls, sparks fly, robots swarm, vehicles soar, background objects go boom, and superheroes flex their powers. It’s recognizable characters doing their familiar Whedon quipping shtick while boisterously effective – if occasionally incomprehensible – excitement erupts around them. The funniest line comes late in the climax when the least superpowered among them takes stock of his contribution, says, “This doesn’t make sense,” then heads out to do his part anyway.

There’s lots of smash-bang popcorn entertainment to be had here, the screen bursting with dazzling movement, the sound mix booming to match. It’s hard to keep up. There’s also not room for the eccentric character work that’s usually my lifeline in these sorts of things. We meet new characters (a speedy Aaron Taylor-Johnson and witchy Elizabeth Olsen, and Linda Cardellini in a sadly under-powered stock role of supportive wife). We glimpse familiar faces from other MCU productions (Samuel L. Jackson, Idris Elba, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Cobie Smulders). But no one gets much of a chance to make an impact. There's not a lot of acting beyond personality and posturing. We’re too busy bustling to the next conflict, the next explosion, the next dropped thread or portentous reference as promissory note for More Excitement in Future Installments.

The Avengers franchise has fully disappeared into itself. It is the beginning and ending of its entire worldview, able only to refer back to itself or look ahead for future story. It’s a hermetically sealed alternate universe in which no glimmer of the outside world – politics, culture, emotion – is allowed. It’s a frictionless experience, big excitement without a need to think about it beyond the literal visual stimulation and basic story beats. Whedon brings a smidgen of personality, the actors project charm, and the gears of industrial strength effects work their light and magic. The ultimate Hollywood blockbuster as empty calories, Age of Ultron is an exciting experience of sugar and fat, but completely devoid of anything more sustaining. 

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