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Avengers: Age of Ultron

I've been out of the reviewing game for quite a while so for any new members allow me to introduce you to JayDee's Movie Musings, the home of your two-time reigning Best Reviewer. As you'll quickly find out I do like my lengthy reviews in general. When it comes to comic book films however I tend to go nuts. I just wander off into some epic ramblings, as I've done here. And even by my standards this is pretty ridiculous

So without further ado, sound the alarm!

Fanboy Alert! Fanboy Alert! Fanboy Alert!


Year of release

Directed by
Joss Whedon

Written by
Joss Whedon

Robert Downey Jr.
Chris Hemsworth
Mark Ruffalo
Chris Evans
Scarlett Johansson
Jeremy Renner
Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Elisabeth Olsen
James Spader
Paul Bettany

Avengers: Age of Ultron


Plot - The threat of Hydra has seen the Avengers reunite to bring the corrupt organisation down. One by one they take out Hydra's bases around the world, culminating with a castle in the Eastern European counry of Sokovia. If the team were expecting to put their feet up and take a break however they are left sadly mistaken as a number of new threats arise. Hidden within the walls of the castle are two young individuals who possess incredible abilities; Pietro Maximoff (Taylor-Johnson) who can move at incredible speeds, and his sister, Wanda (Olsen) who is capable of telekinesis and a telepathy that allows her to infiltrate the minds of others. If that wasn't enough the Avengers have another threat they must face, this time one of their one making. Attempting to create a peacekeeping program that will do away with the need for the team, Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) attempts to instigate the Ultron program; an AI program so advanced it will keep peace across the entire world. Things go awry however and what he ends up creating is a being bent on the destruction of Earth's Mightitest Heroes. Only by remaining a strong unit shall the Avengers prevail, but that proves to be a tough ask as divisions begin to appear at the group's core. Only by getting back on the same page, and perhaps forming some unlikely alliances, will they once again be able to save the day.

As far back as 2013, perhaps even longer, movie viewers have been salivating about the prospect of 2015 as being an epic year for cinema, particular for genre fans. In the space of just twelve months audiences are set to see a new chapter in the Star Wars universe, the conclusion of the Hunger Games story, the return of the nefarious Spectre to the world of James Bond, a double dose of Pixar (Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur), the return to cinemas for both the Mad Max and Jurassic Park series', a reboot for The Fantastic Four, the entrance of Ant-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the new offering from Quentin Tarantino. Not to mention the the latest instalments in many ongoing franchises - Pirates of the Caribbean, Mission Impossible, Terminator, Fast and Furious, Kung Fu Panda etc. So quite the bumper year then, and that's not even taking into account what the small screen has to offer, such as the return of Game of Thrones or the first collaboration between Netflix and Marvel. However for me personally, 2015 has only been about one thing, the reassembling of the Avengers.

Back in 2012, Joss Whedon brought Marvel's supergroup, The Avengers, to the big screen, realising my boyhood dreams in the process. Truthfully it was something that was tough to imagine ever coming to fruition until Iron Man kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe in such style. And I loved it. Just absolutely loved it! As a result my expectations for this sequel were extraordinary. It was without a doubt one of my most anticipated films of all time. In fact to be more specific I'd say it was my most anticipated film since the 17th December, 2003. That was the day that the final instalment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was released, with me there on opening day to enjoy it. This was the first time since that day that I headed to the cinema not just hoping to find a new favourite film, but actively expecting to do so. So my expectations were just massive. Is there any way that Age of Ultron could possibly live up to them?

Well the simple answer is no, not quite. At least not on this first viewing. But then it wasn't really that fair of an ask. To be honest the odds of it doing so were almost insurmountable. For the expectations I had placed upon it, it would pretty much have had to land a
rating. And well at this moment in time I only have about 30 or so films that I'd laud that accolade upon; the first Avengers amongst them. In a number of ways Age of Ultron may actually be superior to its predecessor but I just didn't love it as much. I don't think it was as fun, it didn't have as many great scenes, it didn't make you want to punch the air quite as often. It just struggled to recapture the same magic and charm of their inaugural outing. But again that was perhaps impossible because what counts against Age of Ultron is that it is just a film. The first Avengers wasn't just a film, it was an event. Having Earth's mightiest heroes assembled on screen for the first time ever? Tough to top that kind of experience.

Now before I move on to what was awesome about the film (and there is still a lot) let's have a look at some of the flaws I felt were to be found. The first complaint I have is going to sound like a strange one. I think the film is just too damn funny! That Pinocchio evoking trailer that got fanboys going crazy pointed towards a substantially darker and edgier outing for the Avengers. And while that film certainly is here it gets a little lost under the weight of Whedon's exhaustive assault of quips. It seems that during the action sequences 60 seconds can't go by without one of the heroes throwing out a witticism or a cheesy line. While the large majority of them do work in terms of being funny they do go some way to undermining the tension, the drama and the stakes. Given what was required for the first film Whedon was pretty much the perfect choice. It needed to be a whole lot of fun and it needed to handle a large ensemble, two things that Whedon has shown a great talent for in his career.

Film Trivia Snippets - Ultron is supposed to be between 8 and 9 feet tall. To replicate this James Spader had to wear an antennae-like contraption made out of a thick piece of wire with two red balls attached to the top that went up his entire back and 3 feet above his head. This was done so that the actors that shared scenes with him would be able to have a reference point for where his eyes would be; the two red balls represented the placement of Ultron's eyes. Elizabeth Olsen stated that this was actually distracting because Spader would be giving an intense performance and out of instinct she would look at him rather than the balls representing his eyes. Much to everyone's amusement, whenever this happened, Aaron Taylor-Johnson would yell, "Red balls! Look at his balls, Lizzie!" at her in order to get her to look in the right direction. /// Scarlett Johansson was actually pregnant during the Age of Ultron shoot. In addition to adjusting her schedule. to help hide this fact three stunt doubles were hired. This did cause a a deal of confusion amongst the other cast embers however because according to them all three stunt women were almost identical to Johansson. Chris Evans even stated that it got to the point where he would say hello and start a conversation with one of them, only to realize mid way that the person he was talking to wasn't Johansson. /// On James Spader's first day on set, the cast was so impressed by his performance that they applauded and cheered for him after his first take.
Here however I think he struggles a touch to introduce drama and tension, lagging behind the efforts of the Russo brothers with The Winter Soldier. With that film the Russos found the perfect balance between being a serious, grown-up affair but still remaining fun and funny. I don't think Whedon finds that same balance. And as big of a fan of Whedon as I am this is perhaps the right time for him to exit the MCU, with the Russo brothers now moving into the captain's chair by directing not only Civil War but the Infinity War films. After Iron Man 3 with its ballsy storytelling decisions and issues such as PTSD and the media's depiction of terrorism, the out-there quirkiness of Guardians of the Galaxy and the awesomeness of Winter Soldier with its revelations that shook the Marvel Universe, on screens big and small, this just feels a little formulaic and safe. Winter Soldier was a textbook example of how to really move forward with a sequel, this feels a little bit like more of the same. All of that is not to say that Whedon still didn't deliver some gold on his farewell. He still proved incredibly adept at juggling such a large ensemble, just about giving everyone their moments to shine. And where his humour really shines is during the Avengers' downtime when they're just having a bit of banter together. He also has some real fun playing with a classic cliché before subverting our expectations at the end. One issue I have with his writing however is that it feels like it rather ignores the events of both Iron Man 3 and The Winter Soldier in terms of what it did to the characters. Iron Man 3 saw a Tony Stark racked with self-doubt and apparently ready to walk off into the sunset, while TWS saw Cap having his illusions after the country he loves shattered. I felt there was little sign of these events on either of them however.

Another problem is that the film feels like it has been forced into spending a lot of time setting up future events in the MCU as opposed to just concentrating on its own devices. A couple of years back when Age of Ultron was first announced it felt like it was going to be something truly epic. Since then however a lot has happened. Marvel has announced their slate of films up until 2019 which includes such enticing big hitters as Civil War and the two-part Infinity War story. They've announced the introduction to the MCU of fan favourites such as Black Panther, Captain Marvel and Doctor Strange. Not to mention the little matter of Spider-Man returning to the Marvel fold. As a result what once felt like the Biggest. Thing. Ever. has become a touch overshadowed. While the scheduling of further appearances for Thor, Captain America and Iron Man significantly cuts down on the threat to their mortality. Unless it was some ballsy misdirection on the part of Marvel the survival of those characters was a sure thing before this film even started. The first Avengers film was the culmination of Phase 1, everything had been building towards that. It was the event. By comparison, Age of Ultron feels more like a stepping stone to bigger things. So we get our first mentions of Wakanda and prominence placed upon vibranium to set up Black Panther; we get examples of infighting and distrust amongst the team which will lead in to Civil War and we have Thor put on a path towards his quest in Ragnarok. So it feels very much like just a piece in a much larger jigsaw. If The Avengers was The Fellowship of the Ring then Age of Ultron comes off like The Two Towers.

Well that's some of the negatives dealt with, let's move on to some more positive discussion. As with all sequels, Age of Ultron was obliged to try and go bigger than its predecessor. The most obvious way to achieve this is by introducing some new characters to the team, and the film certainly obliges. And for the large part it is a successful move. First to enter the fray are the Maximoff twins, Wanda and Pietro. Though never addressed as such, they are Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch and initially start out as nemeses to our heroes before switching to the side of good when they realise the depths of Ultron's insanity. Both characters prove to be very welcome additions to the MCU and the team, with Elisabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson deserving real credit for what they bring to the party. Their Eastern European accents may be a bit iffy but that aside they both deliver quite charismatic and compelling turns. The film doesn't spend a great deal of time on their backstories but they are interesting enough to do the job. In war-torn Sokovia they lost their parents when a mortar shell hit their home with that weapon being made by Stark Industries. So their screentime is not the most substantial but I felt they certainly made the most of it.

Another reason why their presence is so welcome is that they just bring something a little bit different to the table. The Avengers may kick some serious ass but in a way they are largely pretty similar. The main physical trait of Thor, the Hulk and Captain America is to be found in their strength; they hit stuff and they hit it hard. So it's cool to have some new abilities introduced into the mix, particularly when those powers are so visual in their presentation. And speaking of new and visually interesting characters we also get the treat of Vision. He's only introduced pretty late in the game but is so damn awesome that it definitely leaves the audience wanting more. Visually he is a delight. He has a touch of CGI but the film-makers have largely gone down the practical route of make-up, making the character much more human than depicted in the comics. And in terms of his character he also seems quite a fascinating creation with Paul Bettany doing a lovely job at capturing the unique and eccentric nature of the character, and his almost naïve, childlike innocence despite his immense power.

Another way the film tries to make itself feel bigger is its scale in terms of being a much more globe-trotting adventure. The team finds themselves visiting several different countries across several different continents. In addition to just making it feel all the more epic it does a nice job of just making it a bit different. So many superhero films take place in large American cities that it's a welcome change to have various different looks and textures; from a sun-baked South Africa to the grittiness of Eastern Europe in the form of the fictional Sokovia, with the sterile, densely populated streets of Seoul thrown in for good measure. Oh and just as a little extra on the visuals because it doesn't really fit in anywhere else - Avengers tower, both inside and out, is a thing of beauty.

Film Trivia Snippets - At one point in time Abomination (the villain from 2008's Incredible Hulk) was considered to play some part in the film with Tim Roth reprising his role. The character was subsequently written out of following drafts however. /// Age of Ultron has the most VFX shots of any Marvel film to date, with its 3000 VFX shots besting the previous record of 2750 held by Guardians of the Galaxy. /// An early draft of the script had Ultron being created by the government to eliminate the need for the Avengers. However Ultron would turn on its creators, forcing the Avengers to once again team up to stop him. /// The versions of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch that feature in this film are largely inspired by their counterparts in the Marvel Ultimates comic. That series featured a controversial incest storyline between the two. While that particular aspect of their relationship was unsurprisingly never directly addressed in the film Elizabeth Olsen has said that she and Aaron Taylor-Johnson “played around” with certain parts of it. “Every time you see an image of them, they're always holding each other's hand and looking over each other's shoulder. They're always so close, it's almost uncomfortable. Aaron and I have been playing a little bit with those kinds of images just for ourselves.”
As with the release of every superhero movie, much of its success depends on the action set-pieces the film is able to deliver. Though with the market now so saturated by those wearing spandex and capes the challenge to deliver action that is fresh and exciting becomes ever more difficult. And now Age of Ultron is the latest to take up this gauntlet. Well there's no doubt that the action on show is realised by some spectacular visuals and that it provides its fair share of thrills. I would say however that it comes up a little short of some of Marvel's recent forays onto the big screen, lacking the creativity and uniqueness shown during Iron Man 3's Barrel of Monkeys sequence for example, or of the dance-off as seen in Guardians of the Galaxy. I also didn't find them quite as hard-hitting or enthralling as the series of terrific set-pieces that were sprinkled throughout The Winter Soldier. As I said though, there is still a great deal to enjoy.

The film kicks off in tremendous fashion with a James Bond-esque opening that finds our heroes already in the midst of action as they launch an assault on the Hydra-defended castle of Baron von Strucker. As far as superhero movie openings go this has to be right up there with Nightcrawler's White House. incursion from X-Men 2. It is a giddily entertaining way to begin the film and is just chock-full of great moments. In fact you could argue that it sets the bar so high that the film is unable to match it for the next two hours. Well apart from one tiny, almost insignificant thing that comic book fans may or may not have been looking forward to; just a little thing called the Hulk vs the Hulkbuster! If Age of Ultron existed for no other reason than to facilitate this smackdown it would still have been a worthwhile exercise. It's a great spectacle with a number of funny and exhilarating moments; the highlight of which is perhaps the Hulkbuster breaking out a pneumatic hammer of a fist to try and subdue Big Green. That doesn't work out too well for Mr. Stark. One other thing I enjoyed about the action is that there was much more teamwork and co-operation on show from the team. They've now been together for quite some time and they've found their groove in terms of working together with various combo moves that were just really cool.

After a few strong sequences however I couldn't help but find the big finale to be just a tad underwhelming and anti-climatic, ending in a fashion similar to many comic book flicks. In defence of the film however I think it sort of gets stuck with its ending just by the very nature of being a big superhero team-up film. It's almost law that in an instance such as this you have to provide enough cannon fodder that allows the entire team to show off their skills. So with the first film we had a horde of faceless Chitauri warriors, and this time out we have an army of Ultron-controlled drones for our heroes to smash up. It's also unfortunate that it comes off as a bit of a retread of Iron Man's finale, though done with more style. One nice thing about the big finale however is that we see the characters being what they are supposed to be - heroes! Yes they're busy destroying a lot of robots but almost as much time is spent on showing them helping and rescuing the innocent civilians to try and prevent casualties. Too many films of late have glossed over this fact, and in particular this feels like a bit of a shot across the bows of DC and Man of Steel's city-levelling conclusion which seemed to put no value on human life.

The first Avengers film shone its spotlight predominantly on its big, super-powered stars; Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and Captain America. This time out Whedon has almost completely switched things up, pushing the 'normal' heroes of Black Widow and Hawkeye to the forefront. What sets them apart is that they are just normal humans, and it's that humanity that Whedon focuses on. In the case of Black Widow this reveals itself in more hints towards her very dark past and her relationship with Bruce Banner, and by extension the Hulk. In fact the two threads are connected with Widow's own life experiences allowing her to perhaps understand what Banner is going through better than anyone else. They have both been created as these monsters and are now trying to make the best of it and do what good they can.

As the trailers suggested the film does indeed follow up on some brief hints laid out in The Avengers and runs with a potential romance between the two characters. I'll be honest and say I had my reservations about it and wasn't sure it really fit in. By the end however I found myself almost completely won over by Whedon's dialogue between the two and the engaging performances of both Johansson and Ruffalo. It becames a real Beauty and the Beast kind of tale. And then you've got Jeremy Renner's Clint Barton. In many ways Hawkeye actually emerges as the unlikely star of the piece, getting the film's most profound story and many of the best lines. Renner plays the part with a real warmth and earthy charm which makes his story quite touching. I know that neither Black Widow or Hawkeye are likely to get a solo outing anytime soon, but this has just further wetted my appetite for any future Secret Avengers movie that would be spearheaded by these two.

Film Trivia Snippets - Before casting Elizabeth Olsen in the role, Saoirse Ronan was considered to play the part of Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch. Lindsay Lohan was apparently also in the running for the role after auditioning for the part. Though much of that is only coming from Lohan herself. /// Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark has appeared in a total of five films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And in every single one of them someone grabs him by the throat at some point. Must be his personality. This time out however it's not an enemy but an ally in Thor. /// Part of the film was shot in South Korea, or to be more specific it was shot in the Gangnam district of Korea; the area that originated the song and accompanying dance, “Gangnam Style.” During breaks between takes the cast and crew would often take to dancing to the song. /// The film's composer, Brian Tyler, has stated this his score pays homage to the work of John Williams, with Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars and Superman being specific inspirations. /// It took Joss Whedon a full year to convince Aaron Taylor-Johnson to accept the role of Quicksilver. Johnson was concerned over the intensity of the Marvel contracts, the time constraints, and the fact that it was going to be such a large cast. Even after he accepted the role, he was still nervous, but was comforted after he learned that his friend and Godzilla co-star Elizabeth Olsen would be playing his sister and would be his his filming partner throughout much of the film.
As I believe I set out earlier on, my levels of anticipation were pretty astronomical. To be honest I'm not sure they could possibly have been any higher. If however there was still a little bit of room left for my anticipation levels to rise even further then they were probably fulfilled when news broke of James Spader's casting. I've been a fan of his for a long time and I felt that he was just perfect casting to provide the voice of Ultron. When it comes to creating a voice intended to evoke menace and evil there are two opposing directions you can go in. One is to rant, rave, growl and shout in an over-the-top insane manner. And the other is to go with a more quietly unsettling demeanour. And on the latter front there are few actors better than James Spader. He just has such a mellifluous and eerily calm voice that can prove to be somewhat hypnotic, whilst still dripping menace. Yet at the same time he allows Ultron still to remain human.

He certainly proves to be one of Marvel's better villains thus far but he falls short from being a true challenger to Loki's crown as their top bad guy, and again I'd have to say that Whedon is the one preventing it. Even he gets in on delivering a few comedic lines and just comes across a little too snarky, undermining how intimating he is just a touch and meaning he is not quite as compelling as Tom Hiddlestone's God of Mischief. He also struggles to feel like a true threat to the Avengers. Which is a shame because the motivations of the character are interesting. He isn't just a complete out-and-out evil b*stard, he believes he is doing what is right. Along the way however his intentions became more and more entangled with madness as he proves to be mentally quite unhinged, prone to bursts of anger and arrogance. And the fact that his motivations and personality have largely sprung from the mind of Star himself adds to his level of intrigue. And Spader's voice was indeed a terrific fit. In fact it's so perfect that he doesn't really have to alter his voice at all; Ultron is basically Raymond Reddington in robot form.

One of the major complaints levelled at many superhero films these days, and blockbusters in general, is that they are way too long. And it's something I often agree with. With running times that approach and on occasion even pass the 3 hour mark many of them come off as bloated and unwieldy. Well Age of Ultron arguably suffers from the opposite problem. It is such a jam-packed affair that has to try and service so many characters, so many subplots and so many future stories that even with its 141 minute running time it can still feel rushed, with some characters or subplots not getting fully serviced. You get the feeling that a great deal of footage was left on the cutting room floor, particularly when it comes to a side mission for Thor which seems to make very little sense. Age of Ultron is the rare superhero movie in that I'm actually hoping for a directors cut. So come on Joss, give us the 3 hour version!

Now over the last year or so I've noticed my ratings becoming much stricter. I'm not quite at Mark's level yet but I'm getting there. That tends to go out the window however when it comes to superhero movies; my own personal kryptonite. And I'll be interested to see what I make of this one on repeat viewings. I can imagine it going down as the flaws begin to bother me more but I could also see it going up without the huge pressure of expectation this initial viewing had with it. I'm hoping for the latter.

Conclusion - Age of Ultron may not be the out-and-out crowd pleaser that its predecessor was, largely as it no longer has the novelty factor it had, and I can see why it has not been as warmly received by critics. That doesn't stop it delivering another blast of cinematic fun from the minds of Marvel. It has some terrific action, some lovely character moments, a lot of funny lines and a host of impressive performances. And for whatever flaws the film may have there are several moments that pretty much achieve perfection as far as a superhero movies goes; when it's at the top of its game it is excellent.