Avengers: Age of Ultron Review
Director/writer Joss Whedon returned to the comic book movie arena with his follow-up to the phenomenally successful Avengers Assemble, which unleashed the full might of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on audiences and finished off what’s known as Phase 1. This second Avengers team-up is the almost-but-not-quite capper to Phase 2 of Marvel’s grand plan, coming off the back of Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the surprise hit Guardians of the Galaxy, but it takes its cue from the first Avengers by throwing us headlong into the team’s search for Loki’s powerful sceptre across Hydra's last European strongholds.
Captain America, Hulk, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow & Thor have united once again to recover the troublesome artefact, but after one of their number becomes a casualty Iron Man/Tony Stark decides to revive a plan that he's had on the back-burner: to create an artificial intelligence for his robot drones that will protect the Earth from another intergalactic attack and allow him and everyone else to step back from the front lines. Using the unique properties of the captured sceptre Stark brings his ‘Ultron’ creation to life (unbeknownst to anyone else but Hulk/Dr. Banner), yet instead of creating "a suit of armour around the world” he spawns a metallic monster who sees only one way to protect humanity, to destroy it before it destroys itself - only Stark may have created bigger problems down the road by going behind his team-mates' backs. Thus the Age of Ultron is set in motion and the Avengers will never be the same again.
It's fair to say that Whedon’s sequel received a chillier reception both critically and commercially than his almost universally loved Avengers Assemble, I say “almost” because the first movie left me quite unmoved. Even though there were five MCU films which preceded it (some of which I greatly enjoyed, especially Cap 1) the story lurched ahead so quickly that I felt like I’d walked in halfway through or missed another set-up film entirely. This I felt particularly keenly with Hawkeye getting turned into a puppet for Loki only 10 minutes in, I didn’t understand why I had to feel sympathy for his predicament because I’d been given next to nothing about the character to go on. I also didn’t much care for having Loki as the villain again so soon after Thor because his antics were already starting to wear thin, and the parallels of the New York alien invasion finale with the Chicago battle in Transformers: Dark of the Moon left me with the distinct feeling I’d seen it all before. But with Age of Ultron all my previous misgivings were addressed, although it seems to be precisely because it’s not a cookie-cutter sequel that it’s alienated some of the folks who loved the first film. Whedon is genuinely interested in advancing these characters and like all good second instalments it takes our heroes to a much darker place, resulting in lots of talky bits that no-one else seems to like but me and a few others.
Age of Ultron is intentionally a much more personal film than its predecessor. It retains that uniquely snarky Whedon brand of dry wit but it does away with the lighter, jauntier feel of the previous Avengers flick; where that one celebrated them coming together in spite of their differences, this one laments their individual failings. Thanks to the mind-bending powers of Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (one of Hydra's experiments, orphaned along with her twin brother Pietro by Stark's weapons of war) some of them are shown troubling visions; Stark is gripped by the fear that without his intervention mankind is doomed, while Cap reflects on the life he never had with Peggy. Natasha Romanoff/Widow’s dehumanising treatment at the hands of the Russian state machine is brought to light and her nascent relationship with Banner is shut down by the man himself, who can’t live the existence of a normal joe thanks to his, ah, anger management issues. Thor is disturbed by the recent emergence of several of the Infinity Stones (six cosmic gems which could threaten existence itself if collected together) and he fears that he's blind as to their ultimate purpose. That just leaves Hawkeye, whose secret life (handily kept off of SHIELD’s books) reveals him to be the glue which binds the whole team together. He’s not a God or a hyper-rich playboy or a super-soldier, he's just a man striving to protect his wife & kids, and that hammers home the message to the rest of the Avengers when they start to question their place in the world; that is why they fight.
There’s quite a bit of gloomy introspection in Age of Ultron but Whedon never lost sight of the fact that he was making a $250 million dollar blockbuster so it’s not all angsty soul searching. His trademark humour is very much in evidence right from the first couple of minutes and there are some brilliantly timed gags sprinkled throughout (I’ve laughed less at movies which are claimed to be comedies), but he also brings the action in spades. The ambitious opening scene – which calls back to the unbroken shot that follows all the Avengers in the Battle of New York – isn’t entirely successful because of the rubbery CG, but from there on out the movie delivers some superlative set pieces. There’s the magnificent sequence where a crazed Hulk – also having been spooked by Scarlet Witch, I dread to think what his nightmares are – smashes up an unnamed African city and Stark has to employ the gigantic ‘Hulkbuster’ armour in order to bring his rampaging friend under control, it’s comic book nirvana watching these two titans going toe-to-toe. Then there’s the exciting street chase through Seoul as Cap, Widow and Hawkeye try and stop Ultron from uploading himself into a more powerful android body, and the movie is topped off with a bruising finale set in the skies above Eastern Europe as Ultron plots to bring the house down (and a lot more besides) with his own Extinction Level Event.
Ultron himself is played by James Spader, providing both the voice and the motion-capture performance for this mechanical psychopath. Ultron may not carry as much raw menace as some people would prefer from a villain, what with his oddball quips and asides that convey his somewhat whimsical view of the world, but for me he’s an irreverent delight tinged with that chilling sense of malice that Spader is able to do so very, very well. It could even be argued that he's not strictly the villain of the piece anyway (Whedon mentions this in his audio commentary) and with that in mind it brings a different angle; even if Ultron is eventually vanquished, the damage has been done to the team by some of its own members. Ultron's fellow newcomers Scarlet Witch and Pietro/Quicksilver bring something quirky and new to the MCU, with her hex powers and his super-speed adding more of a fantastical bent to proceedings. (Just don’t call them mutants and you’ll be fine.) Elizabeth Olsen is excellent as the telekinetic tearaway while Aaron Taylor-Johnson doesn’t get an awful lot to do as the silver-haired speedster, but they both make their mark. Paul Bettany finally gets his turn in front of camera, morphing from the voice of Jarvis (Stark’s loyal computerised companion since 2008’s Iron Man) into the red, green & gold form of Vision.
The returning cast members are well into their groove with these characters but don't show any signs of flagging, indeed it was probably wise to give them something more dramatic to chew on rather than to have them do the same schtick over and over. Robert Downey Jr’s insouciant Stark realises that it’s not just about him anymore, Chris Evans’ Cap broods about what he's given up to lead this life, and Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is troubled by cosmic forces he doesn't yet understand. Jeremy Renner FINALLY gets to reveal something of Hawkeye's back story and his everyman quality is perfect for the role, ably supported by Linda Cardellini as Laura, his devoted wife. Sam Jackson also gets another run out as Nick Fury, along with Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill. But it’s Mark Ruffalo as Banner and Scarlett Johansson as Widow who do most of the dramatic heavy lifting of this ensemble and their scenes together crackle with chemistry, from the playful flirting at Stark’s party to the heart-rending scene on Hawkeye’s farm where they realise that they can’t share a future together. That's something which is thrown into even starker relief by the film's key thematic through-lines of parenting and legacy; virtually every major character in the film is either trying to create/raise their descendants or is otherwise incapable of having them.
It's not all smooth sailing, however. Whedon’s rift with the suits at Marvel over the final edit have resulted in something of an uneven pace during the middle section, with Thor's side story in particular getting short shrift, and the combination of the Whedon-istic humour with the more downbeat storylines doesn’t always feel like they belong in the same film together. Still, there’s just enough connective tissue to map out who’s doing what and why, and even if some of their motivations have been cut down to the bare bones at least they're there instead of being removed completely. There is also the predictable complaint that the movie simply cannot stand on its own, i.e. it needs too much prior knowledge of what’s gone before and can feel like a mere stepping stone for Phase 3. But when a franchise is 11 movies in and is telling an ongoing story (it's not a simplistic Bond-style reset every time) then some assumed knowledge on the part of the viewers can no longer be avoided. That said, there's still a margin between making your own story and becoming a slave to the over-arching grand plan, and I felt Age of Ultron straddled that line well (unlike Ant-Man, Phase 2's finale, but that's best left for another review). If anything it plays like a genuine sequel to the first Avengers which is surely to be expected, seeing as most second instalments will have the requirement that you've at least watched the first one!
That Whedon still managed to craft something that retains so much of his unique voice and doesn’t drown in a multi-layered narrative that's been impeded by studio tampering is testament to his ability both as a writer and a director, and it’s a legitimate shame that he basically parted company with Marvel after enduring such a torrid time on this film. The Avengers themselves are now in the care of the Russo brothers who’ve been handed the keys to the Quinjet for the two-film Avengers: Infinity War arc. They did a brilliant job on Winter Soldier and are currently making Captain America: Civil War so I don’t doubt that we’re in good hands, but the Russos can’t make everything and Marvel will find such directorial talent harder to come by if they don’t take their hands off the reins once in a while. As it stands, this writer found Avengers: Age of Ultron to be a fabulous piece of comic book entertainment, and if the sculpture in the end credits is intended to be Whedon's monument to what he did for the Avengers (and indeed Marvel) then it's a fitting end to his tenure. Thank you Joss.
Disney’s 1-disc UK release of the 2D Blu-ray is being reviewed here, the region-free platter starting off with a skippable trailer for Ant-Man. The movie is presented in 1080p HD and in 2.40 widescreen format, having been shot primarily on the Arri Alexa and bestowed with a 2K DI finish and a 3D post-conversion. It’s worth noting that Whedon shot it in a different style so it's a bit softer and doesn’t have the same sort of in-your-face crispness as Avengers Assemble has. That’s not the same thing as a lack of fine texture which is there in abundance on surfaces, clothing etc but more a lack of the overtly aggressive sharpness which is common these days, and the sporadic appearance of digitally smoothed-over faces only adds to that feeling. It is however consistent with the digital cinema screening I saw barely 4 months ago so there’s no way it's a disc-related issue. What is more of a disc-related issue is the banding that's occasionally visible, like with the opening fade-in on Loki's sceptre. It's not a chronic problem but it does pop up a few more times on backgrounds of sky.
The colour is also very similar to what I remember, with a slightly cooler feel to skin tones than the sunburned colour timing being applied to most movies today but primaries look very healthy, as evinced by the verdant green of Hawkeye’s farm and the fiery red of Wanda's spells. Black levels are strong, perhaps to the point of crushing in a couple of shots, but it also has some excellent shadow detail in others and it has a robust amount of contrast. The digitally acquired image is naturally free from any film-related blemishes so it looks pristine. There are no edge haloes to encumber the detail so it really does look incredibly intricate at times, I even spotted a single stray hair around Linda Cardellini's face in one shot (with only the tiniest bit of shimmering seen on the roof of Hawkeye's porch to spoil the party). The Hulk CG is astonishingly well defined, and you can see every shard of debris in the distant shot of the collapsing building when Hulk is smashed through it. The solid encoding also helps in that respect as there's no obvious blocking even in the busiest scenes, and any noise/grain is extremely fine and rarely intrusive.
The audio is encoded in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 but it’s a curiously listless experience on first listen because it’s been mastered much too low. If you add, say, another 10 dB on top of your normal listening level then it becomes more like the experience one would expect, with shuddering bass (that building collapse again) and clean dialogue which fully conveys the subtleties of the mix, like the muffled screams of the poor henchman that Cap’s dragging face down in the dirt at the beginning. I always get a buzz when I hear the ‘Helicarrier’ cue from Alan Silvestri’s original music for Avengers Assemble (this one was scored by Danny Elfman and Brian Tyler) and it was tracked into this movie for a certain scene, sounding every bit as heroic as it should do - although the music is clearly lower elsewhere during the film. The rears of the 7.1 array provide good ambient support throughout and they’re plenty effective in the action scenes, with bullets zinging around you or when the Hulk's ripping off a car's roof with you inside it. Certain sound effects like guns and Hydra’s laser weapons do seem to lack the concussive report that might be expected so the mix isn’t the last word in sheer attack – having been mixed at too low a volume has certainly curtailed the dynamic range – but on the plus side it doesn’t clip when cranked up like some other recent Blu-ray movies I could mention.
As for the extras, the days of Marvel providing a separate bonus disc filled with hours of stellar content have long gone. We get three featurettes which smack of marketing material: From The Inside Out is twenty-one forgettable minutes of 'making of' sound bites, The Infinite Six is a seven-minute primer about the Infinity Stones and Global Adventure dedicates a whole three minutes (woo!) to the globe-trotting that the production did. Under the Sneak Peeks section you'll find the same trailer for Ant-Man that starts the disc, a trailer for the Marvel Super Heroes Disney Infinity game, and a shameless plug for Audi cars. Next up is a three minute Gag Reel, it's full of the usual silly faces and flubbed lines but there are some funny gags in there.
So far so fluffy, but getting to the Deleted & Extended Scenes gives us something a bit juicier (though by his own admission Whedon shot a lot more than what we see here). Running for twelve minutes in total we get an earlier example of Wanda and Pietro's good side with The Man In The Church, some more chat between Banner and Stark in Watch Your Six, Bruce And Natasha Talk adds a coda to the existing farmhouse scene which would've drastically changed Widow's outlook for the rest of the film, and then there's The Norn Cave, the infamous Thor 'vision' sequence which Whedon battled the execs over. Whedon provides commentary for the deleted scenes and the main movie, sounding browbeaten by the whole experience and he's in his usual self-deprecating mood so it's not the most joyful chat track you'll ever hear. However, he's clearly proud of the film in spite of the studio's interference, there's not a lot of dead air and he articulately explains many of the storytelling decisions that were made, it goes a long way to redeeming the otherwise limp selection of extras on this disc.
Avengers: Age of Ultron on Blu-ray isn’t likely to convert anyone who wasn’t a fan of the film before, but for me it was one of the most enjoyable blockbusters of the summer, often because it isn’t doing the typical summer blockbuster type stuff and it's held up brilliantly upon further viewing at home. The 2D picture quality is largely faithful to the original intent but is held back from greatness by some minor technical issues. Something similar could be said for the 7.1 sound which seems to have been mastered at a lower level than normal, yet even when it's turned up louder it still lacks the potency of the best mixes. The extras are mostly bland EPK-type witterings but the commentary from Whedon – both on the movie and the deleted scenes – is pure gold.
8 out of 10
8 out of 10
7 out of 10
7 out of 10