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May 02 2015

Age of Ultron...And Marvel's Very Long "Connected" Movie

This article was originally published in Nathaniel's column atTowleroad

Movies really ought to be seen (and reviewed for that matter) on their own terms.But what if their very terms are -- "it's all connected!?"I had the exhaustive if qualified pleasure this week of attending "The Ultimate Marvel Marathon,"in which select theaters across the nation played back-to-back screenings of all 11 of Marvel Studio's films.Those take you fromIron Man(2008) through to the latest superheroic orgy of mayhem known asThe Avengers: Age of Ultron(2015).Between the screenings (20-30 minute breaks) were interstitials selling the television program "Marvel's Agents of SHIELD"that frequently reminded us that it was 'all connected'.Does the latest filmThe Avengers: Age of Ultronsatisfy all on its own?My early guess -- only time will tell -- is "not so much"but then,is it really intended to?

Seeing the movies back-to-back threw their problems into sharp relief: the movies are ultimately formulaic,disinterested in women,and have weakly conceived villains (an oddity given that good villains are such a comic book staple).They also betray an unfortunate tendency to end with a battle in which large inanimate objects frequently collide or crumble,mistaking mass destruction as the highest form of entertainment when the figurative character beats as well as,yes,literal character beatings are nearly always the most pleasurable moments.

On the plus side,the marathon was a great reminder of why blockbuster culture has been stampeding all over more intimate cinematic triumphs for a long time now.[More...]

They feel like "events"even when they aren't very good.The audience was cheering the arrival of every major character as they returned inUltronand who wants to miss a party that everyone else will be going to?

The close proximity of the movies also threw hot spotlights onto the films that felt the most complete in and of themselves.They number four if you're feeling generous: The first and third Iron Man films maybe but definitely both Captain Americas.The First AvengerandWinter Soldierare the crown jewels of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (by which I do not mean those blueball-inducing "Infinity Stones"-- Jesus the amount of times these movies tease those stones and that story won't be over until 2019 after several more movies!!!).The Iron Mans and Captain Americas,despite the fact that they're enriched by connections to other films,feel more or less like their own movies and not "Previously On"/ "To Be Continued"television episodes which won the billion dollar budget lottery.

Marvel's super powered stable began getting the live action screen treatment as early as 1977 on television but it wasn't until 2008 when Marvel began to take back cinematic control of their own characters (the ones they still held the rights to at any rate).Though they've been entirely too resistant to evolving (still no female led movies - even though Scarlett Johansson is quite literally more bankable outside this franchise than all of her male co-stars save Robert Downey Jr) they have done a superb job of long-term strategizing and growing ever since.In 2015 Marvel practically owns the world.That's an ideal deed to own,if you constantly wish to threaten and then rescue that same planet.

Which brings us back around to Ultron,the latest Global Destruction threat.

The new film begins before Ultron is born with a hunt for Loki's powerful scepter,so it's something of a red herring.Writer/director Joss Whedon worked a miracle withThe Avengers(2012) making the first superhero team movie that felt like a team movie (sorry X-Men movies but you don't cut it because you're constantly reducing down to Wolverine & Magneto when you have such a lively array of character to work with) so he can jump right in this second time around.There's no dull 'getting the band back together' business so we get to the big 'Avengers Assemble' money shot you've been seeing in every commercial (above) as fast as a new enemy gets around -- which is to say,very fast.

In the fictional city of Sokovia,we meet two mysterious new threats in the shape of twin "enhanced humans".The Avengers don't have the advantage of having seen their own trailers and read their own comics so they don't yet know if the magical Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) or her super-speedster brother Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are friend or foe or merely misguided Sokovian orphans with unusually sneaky gifts.The Avengers do just fine with this mission except for the part where the twins throw them off their game.Cue: one of the movie's repeat catch-phrases.

You didn't see that coming."

As with the first team-up movie,the surprises are difficult to find in the A storyline so the joy comes mostly from the best action and acting moments.Whedon's best contribution to the Marvel Cinematic Universe has undoubtedly been his two-fold gift for juggling humor with character beats while simultaneously offering up complex team dynamics and real gravitas underneath that thin surface of jokery.His initial claim to fame (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) may have been named after one character but it was a true team series,of dramatic and comic pleasures,from the first episodes.Age of Ultron's first act is basically one long doozy of a set piece,which manages to give us time alone with every principle character and give them some connective tissue in battle together,too.There's even a non-invasive welcome detour by way of a quiet moment between The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and The Black Widow in which we realize that their relationship is heading away from the platonic and to the romantic.(The Black Widow did not attend the Ultimate Marvel Marathon or she would have seenThe Incredible Hulkfrom 2008 and known that Bruce Banner is too scared to have sex -- the rising heart rate,you know.)

The title story only comes to the light in the film's second act when Iron Man makes a foolishly swift decision about his long-shelved "Ultron program"(essentially peace-keeping robots to guard the earth) which leads to one very pissed off sentient robot,voiced quite memorably by James Spader,who takes his digital beef with Tony Stark out into the real world of flesh and blood.In one of the film's best scenes he introduces himself to them in lurching incomplete form (made from remnants of old Iron men suits topped with a distorted Jack O' Lantern creepy Iron Mask).He catches them off guard because they stupidly haven't realized that they've still got an hour of movie to fill.

From then on though,the movie devolves into an increasingly cluttered mix of globe-hopping action spectacle and occasional quiet moments.Whedon smartly frames the catch-your-breath moments around the most-human and thus the most vulnerable Avengers: The Black Widow and Hawkeye.Hawkeye in particular becomes something of a meta figure,channelng fan disinterest in his least powerful and least popular character into a kind of verbalized self-doubt and purpose-seeking.It's so on-the-nose that I feared they would give him the super-power of breaking the fourth wall and he'd start speaking directly to anyone he saw yawning in the audience.

The other self-aware business is much more successful.The movie makes great use in particular of Captain America's old-fashioned qualities for a running gag about his distaste for profanity.  Chris Evans continues to be adorably innocent sex on a stick and as steely heroic and self-sacrificing as ever.Total husband material.He can even chop firewood if you've lost your axe.

Fans of the individual heroes will have plenty of amusing beats to look forward to.After the bone crunching vulnerability ofDaredevilover on Netflix andWinter Soldierwhere the blows seemed to actually hurt in all of the action set pieces,much of the action here feels stakes-free.One big slow-mo climactic moment with ALL of the heroes and new characters in frame (that's a lot of people) obviously intends to be the movie's biggest money shot (a shout back to that circling camera in Times Square from the first team up?)  but it feels muddy and weightless,an abstract kaleidoscope of shifting colorful costumes rather than an actual brawl with fists,power blasts,kicks,and magical hammers.

Even master jugglers have their limits and Whedon starts dropping balls with this overstuffed movie.Now he's got twice as many characters as the original film and even more franchise sequels to prime in plot diversions (future Thor and Black Panther movies are the most ill-fitting skin-grafts and the next Avengers the easiest to imagine and most organic).There's so much of this that Ultron,who initially feels like the best villain Marvel Studios has ever come up with,begins to recede.He's far more threatening on his own when he looks like a junkyard than when he grows stronger and replicates.How could that happen?In the end his army of selves become suspiciously like body doubles for the anonymous alien villains at the end ofThe Avengers(2012) - computer-generated images for our heroes to easily rip apart in their world-saving duties.

This is a shame because with a tighter focus on Ultron and (even better) his counterpart sentient machine The Vision (Hello,Paul Bettany!),who is best left to discover in the movie,this spectacle could have been truly spectacular.

Grade: (first half)B+(second half)B-
Oscar Hopes: A Visual Effects nomination is likely if not secured (the competition for those nominations gets tougher all the time) but any more would be a big get since Oscar has mostly ignored the Marvel movies.The 11 films from the official Marvel Cinematic Universe have received only 8 nominations between them,all but two of which were in the Visual Effects category.The "extra"nominations were forIron Manin Sound Editing andGuardians of the Galaxyin Makeup.Superman(1978) andThe Dark Knight(2008) remain the high water marks for Oscar taking superhero movies seriously with 3 nominations and a special Oscar,and 8 nominations with two statues respectively.

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Reader Comments (14)

Okay,as much as much as I acknowledge their weaknesses (women,villains,destruction),I'm still on board more than you seem to be.I'll list from least to most anticipated:

10.Thor: Ragnarok (The Thor movies have been the weakest of the MCU even with the most conventional heavyweight they've gotten to stick around to the end kicking the franchise off and,as such,I'm not really looking forward to #3 that much,especially without an attached director.)
9.Untitled Spider-Man Film (After two tries that didn't really manage to stun me as adaptations of the character full concept,I have some hope that this one will get it better.)
8.Ant-Man (I had so much hope that this would use the powers of the character to try to be the first film to focus on cracking the idea of "make a stealthy clean escape compelling outside of a video game space",but of course they had to disappoint.(Sigh).)
7.Doctor Strange (With a stronger director,I'd be more confident they'd really own the more surrealist ideas of the original Ditko art and maybe they still will,but Scott Derrickson seems like a bit too much of a studio man to go there and he was hired to prevent it getting TOO weird.)
6.Black Panther (If I weren't excited for this movie's possibility of being a historic landmark I would place this way lower due to the documentary writer on the project.Maybe if they're willing to go for it,though,seeing one of these as a mockumentary might be kind of cool.)
5.Inhumans (In effect,with how dialogue heavy most of these wind up being,the guy who doesn't speak is probably going to wind up being the less important of the two lead characters,so they're in an exciting position of three of their non-big-crossover movies that will have a straight white guy as NOT the most important character in the world.)
4.Captain Marvel (If Guardians was successful,it was primarily due to Gunn's script improvements and Perlman's co-writer isn't too proven either,but I don't want to put this at all on the low end due to not wanting to knock the progressive move.)
3.Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (Yeah,as much as this one will probably be an improvement on the first one,there's still the possibility they won't be able to keep the energy up quite as high.)
2.Captain America: Civil War (Honestly,I'd want to put this one above Avengers: Infinity War and,as much as I know Marcus and McFeely ARE going to fix the flaws of the original,Civil War as published is still really NOT that good.)
1.Avengers: Infinity War (Marcus and McFeely are,frankly,the best writers (able to have wit while never forcing the moment like Whedon can) of the MCU and the Russo's are the closest thing to directors at their peak they have ever had,such that I fully buy that their combined efforts will go a LONG way to redeeming Thanos.)

May 2,2015 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Volvagia;I can appreciate.Obsession as much as the next guy,but do you ever think of anything else?

May 2,2015 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

We saw this at an afternoon matinee that was jammed full of kids in the audience.But instead of finding them irritating,I found it strangely liberating.I felt free to be just as inattentive and easily bored as they were.

Listening to them in the lobby afterwards,their favorite bits were when one of their favorite characters said a line that caught their imagination.The extended action sequences that cost so much $$$,seemed to recede into vague background.I was kind of relieved that it's not just me,as an adult,who barely remembers the action sequences except as indistinguishable mush.

May 3,2015 | Unregistered Commenteradri

Black Widow's brief flashback is making me root for a "Black Widow"movie just so we can see more of Julie Delpy.Wouldn't that be grand?

May 3,2015 | Unregistered CommenterIrvin

Pretty much agreed on all counts.

May 3,2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Yup.It's fun and all,but all the Marvel movies feel exactly the same,and not just because they contain many of the same characters.

May 3,2015 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

I guess I've learned to stop worrying and love the MCU.I had a great time at Ultron.Many of your critiques are spot on,of course,but weirdly enough,I thought they hobbled the first half more than the second half,which felt more focused,propulsive,and inventive to me.

May 3,2015 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

Roark -- i am willing to be wrong :) given the uunique circumstances of the viewing.I hope to see it again in a couple of weeks to reevaluate.

May 3,2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

It made no sense to me how under-cooked the new characters were.If you're going to introduce new characters they should have a bigger part to play.

Also,what was up with Cap and Hulk regressing from their growth in the previous movies?This wasn't the same Cap we fell in love with in The Winter Soldier.Why is Banner suddenly unable to control himself around civilians?He did just fine during the climax of the first Avengers.Inconsistent character development,to say the least.

May 3,2015 | Unregistered Commentertonytr

tonytr: As far as Hulk goes,not REALLY.See,we actually technically saw two kinds of transformations in the first movie: Forced transformations due to damage (Black Widow chase to Thor fight) where he has basically no control and consciously willed transformations where he has significantly more control.Scarlet Witch caused the first kind and after this all ended OF COURSE he's going to take some time off to re-evaluate his life direction and his proximity to civilians.As far as Cap: Not entirely sure of that either,though.Cap had the smallest arc and least focus of anyone this time around,frankly,and his big contribution to the proceedings was "this feels like making peace through fear",which isn't out of nowhere based on the last movie.If I were to place importance of each person who ultimately ends up an Avenger in the plot of each movie?
1: Iron Man,Captain America,Thor,Hulk,Black Widow,Hawkeye.
2: Iron Man,Hulk,Black Widow,Hawkeye,Captain America,Scarlet Witch,Thor,Quicksilver,War Machine,Falcon.

May 3,2015 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I will pay good money to any movie that starts off with a fight over Tom Hiddleston's scepter

May 3,2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoey

Joey - i see what you did there.

May 3,2015 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

Nathaniel - oh yeah,i'd want to revisit it outside of the marathon context too.will be interesting to hear (if you decide to share) how the experience changes,or doesn't.

May 4,2015 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

I wish filmmakers would realize that endlessly protracted action sequences eventually become tiresome & boring for audiences.Honestly,I'll be glad when (if) the current superhero craze dies down and settles back into a comfortable niche thing.I really enjoyed the first Avengers movie but had no real desire to see it again,and I'm sure I'll see the new one (husband's really into it),but honestly,I'm not in any huge rush.

May 4,2015 | Unregistered CommenterRob

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