Sunday, May 3, 2015

Movie Review: Avengers - Age of Ultron

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: The movie never succumbs to the weight of its extended cast and also avoids the temptation to go dark as it delivers another entertaining entry in the Marvel movie franchise.

By this point, there are probably at least a gozillion reviews of the latest Avengers movie on the internet (and it currently holds a 75% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes), but I thought I would go ahead and throw in my two cents as well, focusing on a few things that stood out to me.

As most people with even the slightest familiarity with the Marvel movies know, this is the second entry to team up multiple superheroes as the Avengers after the first film made over a billion dollars worldwide.  That one brought together Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Nick Fury, and SHIELD.  The sequel gives in to the typical trend among superhero movies to add even more characters with Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, Vision, Warbird, and the Falcon now jumping onboard the team.  But while this has typically lead to a bloatfest in the past with far too many superheroes to keep track of onscreen short of a scorecard in hand, director Joss Whedon finds the perfect balance with this expanded cast and it never becomes unwieldy.  Important to all of these characters working well together is the palpable chemistry that they demonstrate, with neither the major nor minor characters upstaging one another.  Some do get more beefed up parts, particularly those returning from the first film, but everybody holds their own with each making notable contributions to the film as a whole.  That's an amazing accomplishment, especially when you consider the star-powered egos involved, but perhaps this points to Whedon's talents as a director and ability to keep his extended cast happy and working well together.  Also important is the fact that Whedon manages to insert some short but poignant character development moments for the heroes like Black Widow and Hawkeye who have not had solo movies of there own (but who should have solo movies of their own).  Those sequences are not belabored, but they give us just enough insight to those characters to elevate them beyond cardboard, background padding to the cast.

And while the movie does expand the cast of heroes, it resists the temptation to add multiple villains to the second film (though with Ultron's ability keep multiplying himself, perhaps the creative team figured he could fill up the same space as several villains).  And we also get a first-rate voice and motion-capture performance from James Spader that helps elevate Ultron to more than just the cackling, one-dimensional villain so common in the comic book realm.  Focusing on the threat that Ultron presents alone, without too many side stories or non sequiturs, keeps this film on track and also allows it to make best use of its expanded cast.

Some of the early trailers for Avengers - Age of Ultron suggested it would veer toward the darker tone that the DC superheroes movies have preferred, and I felt that would be a mistep because the Marvel movies have succeeded by avoiding that murky, emo-ridden, grittiness.  But just a few minutes into this film proved it to stay the Marvel course with plenty of witty dialogue and good, fun superhero butt-kicking.  It still has that epic feel to it and there's a pretty good story carrying along the quips and comic mayhem, but the main goal here is to provide entertainment on a grand scale which it does without slipping into the Blockbuster Overload territory.  And its two hours and twenty minutes runs at a very brisk pace, never feeling drawn out nor getting off track (unlike DC's misguided dark reimagining of Superman in the slogfest that is Man of Steel).  Entertaining the audience remains the key focus, and this film does a first-rate job of that while also maneuvering past the mind-numbing CGI excesses that have become all to common in sci fi blockbusters these days.

After enjoying the first Avengers movie so much, I didn't believe that the sequel could top it, especially when you consider the expanded cast and the early indications that it would be going dark on us.  But having recently re-watched the first film and then seeing the sequel this weekend, I have to give the follow up the edge at this point.  Not by much, and they are both excellent sci fi / superhero movies, but I was pleasantly surprised by Age of Ultron and hope that they can continue to same level of quality with the upcoming Avengers movies (especially considering the fact the Joss Whedon is now bowing out).  And DC needs to take note with their upcoming attempts to build their own expanded movie franchise, toning down on the dark tendencies while amping up the entertainment value.

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