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Friday, 1 May 2015

Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Warning: Contains Spoilers
Last week in Britain and yesterday in America Marvel's Avengers: Age of Ultron was released and I was very excited to see it; especially as the antagonist Ultron is my favorite Marvel villain. After a week of collecting my thoughts and notes here is my review of Age of Ultron with one or two spoilers so please do not read if you plan to go see the film.

Plot and relation to the comics
Age of Ultron starts after the other Phase II Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films (Iron Man III, Captain America: Winter Soldiers etc.) where the Avengers are tracking down the last of Hydra's bases after the collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D in Winter Soldier. There they discover that Hydra has been experimenting on humans and two twins (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olson) have superpowers. After a brief battle the Avengers find Loki's staff (from The Avengers) and after testing Tony Stark a.k.a Iron Man (played once again by Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner a.k.a the Hulk (played by Mark Ruffalo) find it has an energy source inside which can create artificial intelligence. From this Stark plans to use the staff's ability to create the 'Ultron Program'; an artificial intelligence defense program to safeguard the world from terrors such as Hydra and the Chitauri. However Ultron becomes sentient, rebels against Stark and plots with the twins to destroy the Avengers bringing in a new world order. Initially I was hesitant about the plot as the Age of Ultron storyline, in my own opinion, was one of the best storyarcs in the last five years for Marvel and when they announced that the plot to the film would not resemble this storyline this made me hesitant. However the film's plot was very good considering with thrilling action, quite tense drama and good pacing. The writers managed to put in enough time to help build up the characters personalities but still devoted enough of the film to keep it a thrilling action film. Despite the increased amount of darker scenes compared to other MCU films it still managed to keep the charm and friendly atmosphere at times that characterized other MCU installments. However the film could have benefited much more from more darker scenes. I personally went into the film expecting a darker film compared to the first Avengers but got a relatively light film (although not necessarily a bad thing). The darker parts of the film such as Black Widow (played by Scarlet Johansson) reliving her assassin training and the twins telling Ultron why they hate the Avengers were done very well and one or two more scenes like that would have been good. Of course too many darker moments would have made it too much like Man of Steel or The Dark Knight which would lose the MCU's identity.
A slight criticism that I have as well is how they didn't explain how Tony Stark managed to get his Arc reactors to power his suits following Iron Man III but again this is largely nickpicking. I thought the relation to the comics was also done well despite the constraints the MCU had for the origin of Ultron and Vision (explained later). They managed to make their origins fit well for the MCU which actually did not differ from their comic counterparts. Now looking at it doing an exact plot translation of Age of Ultron would have been unlikely considering how some major players are owned by different companies (such as Sony owning Spider-Man and 20th Century Fox owning the Fantastic Four and the X-Men) and some others haven't been introduced yet (such as Luke Cage, She-Hulk and Red Hulk) so they did a very good job in making it their own. Although I think from now on we might have to think of the MCU as something independent of the mainstream comics, the same as we might see the Ultimate comics, where they make it their own but keep overarching ideas and themes that the original had.

Characters
The recurring characters of Iron Man, the Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye (played by Jeremy Renner), Captain America (played by Chris Evans), Thor (played by Chris Hemsworth) and Nick Fury (played by Samuel L Jackson) are once again done very well. This most likely is due to them playing the characters together multiple times (in the case of Robert Downey Jr this being his sixth time playing Iron Man) so this definitely helped them feel like a team. Each made their character their own and it felt natural they way they spoke where they even had a recurring joke of making fun of Captain America for saying 'mind your language' to Iron Man (a joke my friends unanimously tired of quickly). Also I quite enjoyed the character development for Hawkeye and particularly Black Widow; seeing her dark past allowing us to create a bigger bond with her character. I similarly like her relationship with the Hulk where it is a romantic relationship with Banner but a mother/child relationship with the Hulk. Hopefully in future MCU films, including Infinity War and Civil War, they will continue what they started with this film.

Now the main subject: Ultron.
 Ultron is voiced (and at times offering the movements for) by Jeremy Spader in this film and he truly captured the essence of Ultron. A friend of mine saw the film before I did and told me that they changed Ultron's personality for this film although unlike the change to my second favorite Marvel villain, the Mandarin, in Iron Man III this proved to be a positive. In the comics Ultron grew his own sentience from taking the dark emotions created through Hank Pym's schizophrenia where he was formal and serious but narcissistic with huge egotism of his own purity. In Age of Ultron Spader masterfully portrays Ultron as a dark Tony Stark; like Stark he is informal and will crack jokes (although he does remain much more formal than Stark) but he is also filled with his own self importance that Stark has. Spader has voiced him like a master and he truly created a hypnotic but threatening villain and I much prefer him to Loki. Director Joss Whedon described Spader's voice as 'eerily calm and compelling' and this is definitely put across here. Near the start of the film when Ultron becomes sentient he looks through the internet and learns human history and the Avengers which makes his urge to wipe out the Avengers more fitting; Ultron is designed to save the Earth but sees the collateral damage from the Avengers fighting as endangering the Earth itself. Similarly by looking at the internet at human history he would see how inherently flawed we are and how we are our worst enemy such as with the Cold War where we almost brought our own destruction. Whedon made Ultron seem to be obsessed with improvement and evolution which would fit with his personality and views; for humans to be safe they have to evolve. This 'survival of the fittest' idea I thought was perfectly shown when he's talking to a captured Black Widow and in the middle of his conversation the new and improved Ultron tears apart the older model. I really liked what they did with Ultron.

Then there's the new characters. First off with Vision (played by Paul Bettany) and I liked what they did with him. Having an existing character become the Vision in human form with his characterization that he finally has his own mind and body gave a great alternative to the bleak and self-righteous view that Ultron has. Of course Bettany gave a great performance which allowed it to be more believable and I quite like the joke they had regarding Vision and Mjolnir. I also enjoyed seeing the interaction between Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and am glad that they starred together in Godzilla before Age of Ultron. They seemed to be some form of sibling affection which seemed believable. Especially as we see their evolution from bitter allies of Ultron to loyal allies of the Avengers. However at times the balance between acting with other characters and keeping their generic Eastern European accent made their acting be less believable at times; especially as sometimes the fake accent was a bit off putting at times. Nevertheless quite often both of their acting was done very well, especially with Olson portraying Scarlet Witch as being mentally unbalanced from past traumas, and I hope in future MCU films Olson can improve her acting as Scarlet Witch. Although I was not expecting Quicksilver's fate. I just hope though Olson can use less of a broad fake accent to focus on acting.

Effects
Like the other MCU installments the CGI was fantastic. I saw Age of Ultron in IMAX and it's the first film that I've ever seen in IMAX but the CGI blew me away. It looked realistic and it felt that the CGI was actually needed in the film rather than being shoehorned in to make a blockbuster. The effects on the Hulk and Ultron were done very well. It was easily possible to tell the emotions that Ultron was feeling (even if you couldn't tell from Spader's acting) and the capturing of Mark Ruffalo's face for the Hulk was perfect. You could see the rage of his face as if it wasn't created by a computer. One thing that I must mention is the Hulkbuster fight. For those who don't know the Hulkbuster armor is a suit that Iron Man wears over his normal suit to purposefully fight the Hulk and was introduced in the World War Hulk storyline. In the film we find out that Bruce Banner and Tony Stalk made it to stop the Hulk if Black Widow couldn't calm him down. I was originally dreading the fight as I was going to imagine it to be like the fights in Michael Bay's Transformers films where putting it bluntly it is an indiscriminate mess of CGI shapes. Other than having better CGI than Bay's Transformers the Hulkbuster fight showed Bay how a CGI battle of titans should be. It was clear to see, the effects looked both impressive and realistic and it was thrilling to watch. This whole section could be devoted to the best parts alone in the fight although there was a part that was very impressive involving the Hulk being thrown through every floor of an empty skyscraper under construction. In a similar sense the final battle between the Avengers against the hordes of Ultron droids was again impressive against a backdrop of a floating city that will wipe out humanity (linking back to Ultron's view to stimulate human evolution through a dinosaur like extinction event). The destruction of the city as Ultron lifts the city such as the crumbling buildings and the twisting of a bridge was impressive to see. Though I believed that the final battle in The Avengers was a more impressive spectacle compared to this one. Despite this the effects were very impressive and hopefully the magnitude of the battles can be realistically replicated for Civil War and Infinity War and not be like Star Wars Episode I.

Miscellaneous 
First off Stan Lee's cameo. It was highly amusing seeing him in a brief drinking game with Thor while he drunkenly spouts his catchphrase (Excelsior!) for the first time in a live action film. Product placement however wasn't subtle at all and it is a pet peeve of mine. It is slightly distracting seeing Bruce Banner calm down while listening to Beats by Dr Dre, Quicksilver pulling Addidas trainers from Tony Stark's wardrobe and seeing Korean Airlines right next to Ultron's head as he makes a speech. Saying that this again is nitpicking and saying that it is relatively subtle placement compared to other films (Man of Steel and World War Z being prime examples). The after credit scene (which I will not spoil) is a very good hint about the future in regards to the Infinity Gems which will change the MCU indefinitely. My final point is the reference to other heroes. There was one major one and it happens to be one about my favorite Marvel hero: Black Panther. There is a huge reference to Wakanda with Ultron using one of Black Panther's archenemies, Klaw being played by the excellent Andy Serkis, to take Vibranium for upgrades. With Black Panther making his cinematic debut in 2017 I am grateful for the reference.

Conclusion
For great CGI, pacing, acting and character development but for not so subtle product placement, lack of darker scenes and at times the mixed reaction to fake accents (even then I am nitpicking) I would give Avengers: Age of Ultron 8.1/10. I would gladly watch it again and if future MCU films are at this standard we will be in for a treat. 

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