Friday, May 8, 2015

Avengers: Age of Terminator

“The city’s flying, we’re fighting a robot army, I have a bow and arrow – nothing makes sense.” ~ Hawkeye on Avengers: Age of Ultron

It’s hard to find a single starting point where Marvel’s latest hero-stuffed behemoth goes straight downhill, but one of its biggest foils is that it just doesn’t make any sense.  Whether judged as a standalone story or a continuation of its forerunners, Avengers: Age of Extinction is an incoherent and occasionally chaotic sequel in which beloved characters act oddly with no clear motivation, scenes cut in the most inconvenient of locations, and one struggles to form the slightest emotional attachment to any of the urban scenery that’s wrecked by countless dispensable Iron Man drones.  Sure, Cap and Thor still have some cool combo moves, Tony Stark is never short of sarcastic quips, and there are a lot of pretty explosions to gawk at, but good special effects are par for the course in 21st century action movies, and Avengers 2 fails to develop on the first film in any way besides throwing new characters into the plot and hoping we care at all about their growth from bad to sort of good.

Given that a lot of Marvel fanatics actually care about these crossover movies and rather wouldn’t inadvertently spoil the entire plot for themselves (while reading as much about it as they can online), I’ll issue a rare, up-front caveat that this is not the review these people are looking for.  Spoilers abound.  With that said, Avengers 2 doesn’t have nearly the concentration of Avengers 1, and by the twenty minute mark it’s already lost its understanding of at least three main characters.  The movie opens with an attack on the bad guys’ compound in some snowy forest that’s designed to introduce the Russian twins – “enhanced” supervillains endowed with super-speed and hallucination-generating/force-pushing/robot-crushing/eye-glowing powers – as well as to set up a running joke about Captain America’s prudishness that all the Avengers appear to think is hilarious.  Iron Man naturally infiltrates the fortress first and finds Loki’s scepter waiting underneath one of the gigantic alien fish things from the first movie; one might fall into the trap of thinking said fish thing will be reanimated to impact the plot at some later point, but it’s only a giant red herring baited to deceive us by the Scarlet Witch, i.e. director Joss Whedon, not Elizabeth Olson, who hasn’t a drop of ginger blood inside her.
The real Scarlet Witch

If the airborne Chitauri battering ram has any bearing on the story, it’s in convincing Tony Stark that he needs to invest in a planetary, A.I.-based shield against future alien invasions.  Why Stark, inventor of the Jericho missile, textbook playboy billionaire narcissist, and firsthand witness of the monumental atrocities man is capable of committing against himself, suddenly acts so keen on thwarting the extraterrestrial conquest of people he can’t stand to begin with is a question best left to Whedon himself, though it’ll have to pass for a plot starter since S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury presumably already learned the “Man wasn’t made to meddle” lesson from last year’s Winter Soldier.  At any rate, Stark and Bruce Banner concoct the brilliant scheme of creating a super-A.I. through merging JARVIS’ intelligence with whatever power resides in Loki’s stick.  The result is Ultron, a malicious, appropriately sardonic, wisecracking robot voiced by that guy from the “Blacklist” show who’s probably stoked to be starring in a quality, high-profile program for once in a long while.

After crashing the Avengers’ party at Stark Towers and spouting off some epic-sounding, made-for-trailer nonsense about strings, Ultron escapes through the internet, starts building an army of mindless slaves, and dedicates himself to the extinction of the human race, because evolution only comes through trial and tribulation, or something.  If this sounds like a story that you’ve seen before, it’s probably because you have seen it before, just as recently as last year in that Johnny Depp movie called Transcendence.  Except you haven’t seen Transcendence.  Forget I mentioned it.  Notwithstanding that movie we shall not name, Ultron simply isn’t a very original villain, borrowing extensively from the Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol baddies who want to strengthen humanity by nuking the lot of them, the misguided computer in I, Robot that thinks mankind can’t be trusted with its own survival, and many other murderous machines from cinema that were created for good but twisted their programmed purpose into effecting unimaginable evil.

To its credit, Avengers 2 doesn’t just rehash the message of teamwork that permeated Avengers 1 and it clearly wants to say something about “man creating the thing he dreads”, which is a strong, unexplored idea in an era when politicians manufacture actual crises on the daily in response to hypothetical crises that our great, great, great grandkids may someday have to address.  It’s just a shame that the movie loses that theme in too many hectic battles and that the characters responsible for giving life to Ultron never express any remorse for making the very life-threatening thing they dread.  There’s a general lack of manifest consequences and regret in Avengers 2 that may have been shaved off for the director’s cut on DVD: e.g. Banner mopes to Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, about the world finally seeing the Hulk as the rage-fueled wrecking ball he is, but we don’t actually see this fear for ourselves, only getting to take his word for it. Along the same line, there seems to be an anti-Avengers movement of sorts brewing at the beginning of the movie in the tradition of The Incredibles or Watchmen, but Whedon never revisits this aspect of the universe he’s building, nor does he attempt to create reconciliation between Stark and the twins, who lost their parents to one of Stark’s weapons but inexplicably abandon their thirst for vengeance and team up with their blood nemesis when they discover that Ultron plans to kill them together with the rest of the human race.  Avengers 2 is so desperate to stuff every preexisting character into the framework – even minor ones like Falcon or Steve Roger’s girlfriend for just a scene – that it inevitably overstretches itself and leaves its mass of supporting characters dangling in strings of a negligent editor’s design.

There’s a bunch of other stuff that doesn’t flow naturally from the movie’s precursors. For one, Whedon wants us to believe there’s this ongoing romantic tension between Banner and Romanoff even though the last film set no precedent for this attraction, Scarlett Johannson is fifteen years younger than Mark Ruffalo and way out of his league, and Black Widow has already seemed to have a thing going with either Captain America or Hawkeye.  “It’s just like Budapest all over.”  “You and I remember Budapest very differently.”

Granted that she and Hulk are both social outcast types who view themselves as cold, sterile monsters capable only of killing and destruction, but is there anything forecasting their romance in the Marvel lore beyond that possible bonding ground?  Halfway through the movie we get to meet Hawkeye’s formerly nonexistent wife and kids, because apparently he wasn’t sophisticated enough a character as the lone wolf marksman with a mysterious past.  It sure makes Scarlett’s choice a lot easier.

Nick Fury might have entered at one point and most everyone in the theater applauded to see yet another familiar face, though his five-minute presence would be as disposable in the long run as the Stan Lee cameo, the one or two shots featuring War Machine, and the random Asian scientist they added for whatever reason.  Thor seems fairly detached from all the proceedings, going off on a separate adventure entirely and rejoining the fray every now and then to force-lightning something.  Quicksilver’s only reason for being in the movie is to make some cool slow-motion sequences and die at the end in a barrage of gunfire that should realistically blow him to pieces but merely stains his costume with a lot of red spots; his sacrificial demise is about as moving as Jazz’s in the first Transformers.  Hence the only truly important heroes we’re left with are Iron Man, Hulk, Black Widow, Captain A-swearica, and this new purple guy “Vision”, who shows up as the wise and noble counterpart to Ultron, talks with the voice of JARVIS, and dramatically hands Thor’s hammer back to him in one of Whedon’s most squandered ideas for a scene. What could have been a subtle and potent symbol of Vision’s worthiness to wield the power of Thor comes across as shallow and forced because we’ve only known the character for a brief three minutes, there’s no proof of his goodness aside from his own testimony, and the other actors try too hard to sell the drama by putting on looks of shock and awe.

Having harped on Ultron’s faults for more than two pages now, I still can’t in good conscience discourage any of its target viewers from going to see it.  If you’re looking for a twisty, intelligent, well-focused story, you’re better off just re-watching The Winter Soldier, which had much superior action to boot, and even the simple band of five in Guardians of the Galaxy exhibited clearer character progression than these smaller-scale guardians, but if all you want to see is a bunch of professional badarses smashing hundreds of robots to pieces for the greater good of humanity and cracking jokes about it in the process, Avengers 2 will probably satisfy that desire.  I could nitpick about the camera being more herky-jerky and close-up than in the first film, but by and large the action is very impressively staged and Whedon still throws in a couple long spinning shots that are obvious throwbacks to the greatness of Avengers 1.  I also appreciated many of the comedic visuals sown throughout the lighter moments, such as Thor boasting in the industrial base of how he’s impervious to the witch’s enchantments while the camera smoothly pans left to a totally out-of-place Asgardian hall.  Even though I didn’t buy the spontaneity of their relationship, I liked Black Widow pushing Banner off the cliff because she “needed the other guy”, I liked the eerie Black Swan-reminiscent glimpses into Black Widow’s past, I liked that Jeremy Renner had the gall to call Black Widow a “slut” in an interview, and I liked that so many people blew up on Renner for describing a nonexistent character with arguably slutty characteristics as a slut, because apparently you just can’t call anybody a slut or a whore anymore because that’s sexist against women according to people who aren’t sexists at all.

Overall I enjoyed myself at Avengers: Age of Extinction, but as my friend laconically summed the movie up, it’s just the same damn thing all over.  If you’re 17 or older, go watch Ex Machina instead.  If you’re not 17 or older, get someone who is to watch Ex Machina with you and he’ll thank you for it later.  Full review of that forthcoming.

Trailer Reviews
Ant-Man – Unsurprisingly looks just as pathetic as its title would imply.  “Is it too late to change the name?” Um, yes it is, Paul Rudd.
Fant4stic – On the one hand, I really liked Miles Teller in Whiplash.  On the other hand, the story looks terribly generic, blue-screen backdrops are strewn all over the place, and no one wants another Fantastic Four movie.
San Andreas – Appropriately enough, a trailer about a CGI city falling apart priming me for another movie about CGI cities falling apart.
Jurassic Park 4 – Why is the T.Rex’s head always out of frame?  Why is Star Lord riding a motorcycle through the jungle alongside the friendly velociraptors?  Why was this even made?
Mission Impossible 5? – The motorcycle chase scenes look pretty cool, but we already saw those in the second movie, and the hand-to-hand fight scenes just seem so oooordinary to me after experiencing both Raid movies and Ip Man, but that’s the price you pay for watching foreign action films.  What is Alec Baldwin doing here?
Aloha – Actually an Ex Machina trailer, because the Avengers crowd would have no interest in seeing this whatsoever.  I had to watch this a couple times to figure out what’s going on.  Bradley Cooper works for the Air Force, I think, and he has Emma Stone in his back pocket but still wants to reunite with his ex Rachel McAdams, who broke up with him because he was a “workaholic” and was starring in way too many movies.  John Krasinski and Danny McBride probably provide comic relief, Alec Baldwin yells at people just like in real life, Cameron Crowe directs, and Bill Murray is a wise and elderly speaker of truths about life. It’ll probably try to make us cry.
No Escape – Owen Wilson and his family go to an unspecified Asian country to reboot their lives and land themselves right in the thick of a warzone.  Lots of people will get shot by military-style assault weapons of war in this tonally strange action-disaster-drama movie hybrid from Progressive producer Harvey Weinstein.
I’ll See You In My Dreams – If you liked The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, you’ll love I’ll See You In My Dreams.

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