The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Avengers: Age of Ultron

The problem with superhero movies is that the first chapters are easy, the latter ones more difficult. Origin stories come with plots that are already mapped out, and which inherently provide a lot of drama. Once the basics have been covered, though, it can be hard to come up with new directions for the characters to go. The best ones find a way, the others falter. For a while, it seemed that Marvel had found a path around this problem, via the creation of its Marvel Cinematic Universe, in which all the disparate films would be tied together into a large, pre-planned whole. But that idea isn't working out as well as it could, as evidenced by Avengers: Age of Ultron. The movie is sufficiently fun to be worth a look for superhero fans, although it's kept from greatness by the very nature of the MCU.

All the Avengers are back: Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). They discover a piece of artificial intelligence technology following a raid on a Hydra compound. Tony Stark wants to meld it with his own program, J.A.R.V.I.S., to create the ultimate global defense system – one that he thinks will keep the world completely safe and render the need for Avengers obsolete. Bruce Banner reluctantly helps him develop it, without the knowledge of the other team members. The end result is Ultron, which absorbs the wrong information or misinterprets it; either way, it takes physical form, with the intention to destroy humanity. Ultron works in conjunction with two genetically mutated twins, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), who possess, respectively, speed power and an ability to mess with people's minds.

Avengers: Age of Ultron introduces a very interesting villain for our heroes to fight. Ultron, menacingly voiced by James Spader, is the ultimate nihilist. He assesses the world, finds it deeply flawed, and feels the only way to fix it is to first obliterate it. That's a nice contrast to the Avengers, who are, of course, positioned to be the saviors of that world. With his intense strength and hostile outlook, Ultron is a formidable foe. The movie does a fairly good job showing that he is the complete opposite of them – their collective worst fear come to life. Whereas a lot of comic book-based movies want to bring in multiple villains for the sequel(s), Age of Ultron is smart to stick to one really solid bad guy.

Watching the Avengers take him on provides the kind of excitement a viewer would expect. Writer/director Joss Whedon concocts several very inventive action sequences that deliver on their promise. One finds Tony Stark in an oversized Iron Man suit fighting a temporarily-crazed Hulk. The big finale is equally entertaining, as it shows everyone collaboratively using their individual skills to take on Ultron and the army he has amassed. (Seeing everyone doing their thing simultaneously is the major draw of the Avengers in any form.) These scenes are stylishly shot to create a fun, appropriately comic booky vibe. Whedon also injects an abundance of effective character-based humor throughout.

Those strengths aside, it's glaringly obvious that Age of Ultron is not nearly as good as the first Avengers adventure. The real flaw in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that a movie like this can't just be about itself; it has to be about all the Marvel movies that have come before, as well as all the ones already planned to come in the future. Age of Ultron keeps halting itself to bring in supporting characters from previous films for often-pointless cameos. It also spends some time setting the seeds for the upcoming Civil War picture, which opens in a year. Potentially touching subplots involving Hawkeye's family life and a Black Widow/Hulk romance get short shrift because the film has to keep getting back to the business of setting the stage for “Phase 3” of the MCU. Marvel's need to map out a whole world – and stick to it – may be starting to suck the very life out of these stories, if Ultron is any indication. There's little room for surprise or quirkiness anymore. It's all a really elaborate game of connect-the-dots.

The actors remain a pleasure to watch, each of them cheerfully embracing their costumed alter egos. (The casting is one of the things Marvel has gotten most right.) And, for those of us who grew up with and love these characters, there's always something appealing about seeing them together, joined in a high-stakes adventure. Avengers: Age of Ultron isn't bad, it just signifies that there may be trouble ahead in the MCU. The company needs to focus on making each individual picture as strong as it can be, rather than worrying about how everything will lead to everything else.

( out of four)

Avengers: Age of Ultron is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments. The running time is 2 hours and 21 minutes.

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