Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

avengers: age of ultron one sheet posterDo superheroes get bored? Is it possible that being constantly on call to save the world every time something bad happens might get just a bit in the way of having a pleasant life, a family and a social life? That’s the central question of the terrific new Marvel movie Avengers: Age of Ultron. And I’ll make this easy: Just go see it.

The story is propelled by a question that’s on a lot of people’s minds nowadays: Can our attempts to create technological systems that protect us backfire and become dangerous in their own right? This might be the central question of all science fiction, actually, first showing up in the cinema in 1927 with Metropolis, and more recently in films like The Matrix, The Terminator and Ex Machina.

In Avengers: Age of Ultron it’s Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) who creates an artificial intelligence built around tech stolen from Hydra in a thrilling, albeit somewhat half-baked opening scene, tech that we’ve, well, seen before in earlier Marvel movies. Problem is, while he and his fellow mad scientist Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) are earnest in their desire to establish “peace in our time” (a line filched from WWII propaganda). Ultron gains a body and quickly becomes powerful enough that its desire to create peace by simply eradicating those pesky Avengers becomes a serious threat.

Hydra has a base in the Sokovia where the evil Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) has created two dangerous superhumans of his own: Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). They promptly join forces with Ultron and the three prove to be formidable opponents, causing all sorts of grief for the Avengers. Scarlett Witch has the ability to manipulate dark energy and causes each Avenger — Iron Man (Downey), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) — to have dark visions, something that leaves all of them more shaken up than the fact that they fail to defeat Ultron in their first skirmish.

The film then has its slowest but most interesting passage when the team hides out at Hawkeye’s farm in an unspecified rural location. Turns out that Clint Barton (Hawkeye’s non-superhero identity) has a family, tinkers in the barn with a tractor that won’t start and gets halfway through home improvement projects then gets sidetracked. When Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shows up and they all sit around the table sharing dinner, it’s a bizarre and fascinating juxtaposition of mighty superhero and mundane lifestyle.

Avengers attack in slow-motion, from "Avengers: Age of Ultron"
Avengers attack in slow-motion, from “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

Meanwhile in South Korea researcher Helen Cho (Claudia Kim) is perfecting a synthetic skin, something that becomes of great interest to Ultron. Not one to ask nicely, Cho is quickly placed in peril, even though Ultron seems just as interested in creating an army of robots to do his bidding: it’s surprising how often we see him toiling over a table full of parts or otherwise duplicating himself for the upcoming destruction of the Avengers.

There’s a lot more story packed into this 2 1/2 hours of superhero action, but in many ways, Avengers: Age of Ultron is about the mid-life crisis that many of the lead characters have as they tire of saving the world and get a taste of non-Avengers life through Hawkeye and his bucolic farm. Romances also blossom between Avengers in a way that offers yet further hope of redemption for these tough, obsessed individuals.

Surprisingly, the special effects in this blockbuster movie poised to make a killing at the box office are not uniformly superb. The opening scene seemed poorly rendered and it takes about five or ten minutes for the production quality to bump up to a level we expect from director Joss Whedon and the Marvel film team. Not to worry, as the film proceeds, the effects are great and the visual design of the climactic battle will have you cheering, if you’re not too caught up in the tension.

The performances throughout are also sufficiently good that it’s the characters we enjoy on screen, not the actors portraying them. Not every Marvel film has enjoyed that luxury (think of Natalie Portman in the original Thor film), but there’s a distinct pleasure in seeing so many characters we have grown to love up on screen, each wrestling with their personal demons and finding a way to work together as a team.

This isn’t a perfect film. But that’s okay. Avengers: Age of Ultron is still ridiculously entertaining and will have you cheering and laughing when you’re not caught up in the storyline and often stunning visuals. And it’s going to be a huge hit at the box office. Of that there’s no question.

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