Saturday, May 2, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron officially kicks off the summer movie season.  Box office records for Marvel's eleventh entry to its venerable cinematic universe are insured.  After all, the Marvel brand is such a finely oiled, storm-weathered machine that it's nearly irrelevant to put much serious thought or intellectual weight over whether or not the movies themselves are good or bad.  Analysis is besides the point-- the approval ratings and billion dollar global business dictates Hollywood investments rather than artfulness, originality and aesthetic value.  This may sound horribly cynical-- the corporatist, overstuffed Age of Ultron can't not be iced with a little cynicism-- but that's certainly not meant to imply that there aren't pleasures to be found in Joss Whedon's second go as captain of the ship.  Nor is it meant to imply that there shouldn't be a place in the cinematic marketplace for the adventures of this rag-tag group of superhero misfits-- Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)-- learning how to form a team.  There's value in that, just as there is in Richard Linklater's effortlessly insightful 18-year spanning Before-trilogy.  I just wish slightly more people flocked to the latter and slightly less blathered endlessly at the former.

Hiring Whedon was Marvel's smartest move.  When he came aboard to write and direct the first Avengers, the Marvel universe was still an unsteady, risky venture.  Yet with Whedon's verve as a writer and willingness to work within the iron-clad Marvel infrastructure as a director, it was clear way before the iconic 360 money shot near the end of the 2012 film that franchise/brand was going to take over the world (whilst simultaneously showing the destruction of it in every movie).  Whedon already established on the great television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer a way to deconstruct, mold and sharpen genre pieces by attaching humanity, levity and relatable anguish while still respecting and holding true its mythology.  The first Avengers film was hardly a work of art but it was zesty and chock full of small, human-sized moments to savor on thanks to Whedon's sharp one-liners and gift with performers.  Avengers: Age of Ultron at times feels like a heated divide between Whedon's untethered imagination and Marvel's eternal task to retain the status quo.  Which again, isn't to say the movie is altogether bad (devotees will probably be happy, agnostics may continue to shrug), but perhaps marks a blessing that Whedon is handing directorial duties moving forward.

The problem (and that may be a poor choice of words) is that Age of Ultron simply doesn't really go anywhere or anywhere new.  It can't because even after eleven films, there's still more myth-building, more characters that need introducing, more fan-coded Easter Eggs and more teases to do before there can be any small sense of dramatic finality (i.e.-- when one of the principles decides not to renew their contract).  For the non-comic book nerd, that can take its toll watching the majority of these films and no aspect of Ultron's over-stuffed, maximum-sized bombast can quell the fact that we still haven't made much progress here.  It also marks the particulars of any given chapter as a low-stakes playing field for no matter how badly the world is jeopardy, how mean the Big Bad,  there's never a glint of any real danger ahead.  We know Thor will be back, we know Captain America will bounce back up, Black Widow is just fine despite being thrown on her back.  Perhaps the next chapter should try actually lowering the stakes-- maybe instead of the fate of the universe, it could be just a small city in danger, or small neighborhood, they could save a cat from a tree, perhaps.  We're just stalling here anyway, right?

Not quite.  There's tons of stuff going on in Age of Ultron.  The villain, him or itself, requires exposition of his own.  Ultron (voiced with slithering menace by James Spader) is a metallic, artificial intelligence, alien thingamabob created, Frankenstein-style, by Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark and Ruffalo's Bruce Banner.  Created with the intention of being a helpful global peacemaker and a way of insuring safety so that perhaps the avenging team can lighten their own load one day.  Themes abound of the right and wrong of Ultron's birth but take a back seat when the robot goes rogue; the circumstances leading to Ultron's creation and his ongoing motivations are endlessly confusing to mere laymans like myself.  He's the Big Bad, and one with world destroying fever, and that's all that's important.  Also requiring introductions are Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), Romanian twins/lab rats with horrendous childhoods (Stark played a role) and special abilities.  Pietro (aka Quicksilver, a "different" take on the same character was essayed by Evan Peters in last years' X-Men: Days of Future Past and provided that films' most memorable sequence), thanks to super high metabolism can move with remarkable speed  Wanda (aka Scarlet Witch) can read and alter minds with advanced telekinetic powers.  ("He's fast and she's weird,"-- thanks Cobie Smulders' Maria Hill).

With all the newbies required to make an impression (for at the very least, quick facial recognition), the requisite number of battle scenes required in such an endeavor and all the quirky, insecurity-laced in-fighting our heroes need to have for future installments that doesn't leave a whole lot of room to make much of a lasting cinematic imprint.  Thankfully, within all the required bookkeeping, Whedon finds little moments to savor.  The opening action sequence, for instance, contains a sparkling single-shot of the team that while perhaps not as instantly iconic like the 360 money shot in the first Avengers film, should spark an awe-inducing jolt of pleasure to not just the already indoctrinated.  Whedon also knows when the audience needs a breather and provides snappy, character-enhancing dialogue to calm all the business at hand.  A party scene at the beginning of the film features welcome small moments like Thor and Stark arguing over which of their girlfriends is the best, finds Johansson's Natasha Romanoff and Banner flirting at the possibilities of romance and, best and most random (not really) of all, the boys trying to drunkenly take a stab at picking up Thor's mighty hammer.  The casual beats of Age of Ultron play with a charming and humanistic bent so much so, you kind of want to just hang out with the pals rather than watch them continue endless, universe-saving battling.  It's a damn shame Ultron had to ruin such a nice party.

Maybe an Avengers hangout standalone movie wouldn't be such a bad idea.  One of the greatest, most imaginative and surreal episodes of Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the Season Four finale "Restless," which saw Buffy and gang returning home from battle.  Emotionally exhausted yet still on an adrenaline kick, the episode took place mostly in the head space of its characters and tracked their weird, spirally dreams.  Perhaps Marvel could sharpen backstories and broaden character developments on a micro level as long as the actors are chained to contracts and we're obliged to have more films on the way.  Or perhaps something can be done on the scale of Whedon's delightful 2013 take on Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing-- have the Avengers get together for gin-soaked weekend get together.  It could be made cheaply, on-the-fly and in Whedon's own backyard.  With the lowered stakes, perhaps we could all just luxuriate for a bit in the already well-established, contractually bound camaraderie of the ace group of performers without the necessity of world destruction.  Much Ado About Avenging, think about it-- there can be a full session of whether Stark or Hulk has the best Oscar-winning girlfriend, Romanoff and Banner can make googly eyes at one another and Maria Hill can defend the series finale of How I Met Your Mother.

Ridiculousness aside, perhaps a smaller project with less at stakes could crisply develop marginalized characters without the feeling of being smashed, trash compacter-style, into a mega enterprise.  Also, it might allow, if done on the cheap (Marvel will make a killing regardless) a fresh, more eccentric visual aesthetic to enliven not just critics who complain all their films look and sound exactly the same but the brand as a whole to move foward together onto fresher, more fertile ground.

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