“The Avengers: Age of Ultron”: A Delightfully Familiar Novelty

“Ultron” is the kind of movie that needs no introduction.

Even if you’re a lazy MCU fan like myself and skipped “Thor: The Dark World,” you know what’s going on here, and you know how the story will end. Though the unity of the Avengers is tested by Ultron and the Scarlet Witch’s mind games — reminding us again of the cacophonous squabbles in the first Avengers flick — we know the squad will find its footing, defeat its enemy, and suffer minimal casualties.

There’s only so much that a visionary director like Joss Whedon can do when a big-budget studio has his hands mostly tied. Killing a minor character and isolating a major one is the most dramatic change he can do.

Hey, even Billy Shakes’ hands were tied by the master of revels in Victorian England, yet he found a way to subtly infuse his stories with his own artistic stamp. Whedon does much the same through the thin spaces he is given.

Corey…did you really just compare Whedon to The Bard?

Yep. Why not?

In a film of this scope and size with such top billed actors, you’d think it might topple over from the Scrooge McDuck pile of gold coins it no doubt made in a matter of hours. (We’re about 30 hours from the official numbers for the whole weekend, but the opening day alone is already being reported with earnings of $84.46 million, the second highest ever.)

This gleeful man is Kevin Feige, who for all intents and purposes is the man in charge of MCU. He's probably the one swimming in the gold coins, McDuck-style.

This gleeful man is Kevin Feige, who for all intents and purposes is the man in charge of MCU. He’s probably the one swimming in the gold coins, McDuck-style.

You’d think the film would overwhelm the viewer with too many heroes and too many explosions (like “Spider-Man 3”), the product of a gargantuan amount of studio pressure to include enough things to please as many people as possible and therefore translate into as many dollah-dollah bills as possible. The bombast of the whole thing could have smothered whatever substance might be simmering under the surface. Recent solo films like “Iron Man 3” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” did amazingly well with their lead characters, but I was admittedly worried with how this might turn out. Bringing the whole gang back together was a no brainer, but as the history of these characters grow, so does the fanbase and the level of expectations.

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“The Avengers: Age of Ultron” is three things: familiar, a novelty, and an absolute delight.

So much of what you see in this movie is familiar; a more refined version of the ass-kickery that was the second half of the first Avengers movie. They’ve become a team, they call each other by their first names, they combine their powers mid-fight in such fluid ways that it’s impossible not to squee a little bit just from the synergy of it all. They even make fun of each other like teammates always do. In the early parts of “Ultron,” they’re unified under the cause of tracking down Loki’s scepter, an artifact of great importance in the first ensemble that impossibly becomes SO much more important this time around.

The stakes are the same yet somehow feel much higher, or at the very least profoundly different. Loki opening a portal to bring in an invading alien force is an outside threat moving in, but Ultron presents a threat from within. By his very essence, he is a manifestation of Stark’s misguided ego in its most corrupt form. And he wants to manufacture a meteor to destroy the planet? WHAT!?

The visualization of Ultron “waking up” and communicating with JARVIS was perhaps the most anxiety-ridden scene I’ve seen in any movie and so well visualized. How overwhelming must it be for a brilliant AI force with such processing power to wake up and instantly access all of this information?

It’s positively delightful to watch this whole movie unfold: new threats, new characters, new powers, new dynamics. So much has remained the same, or at the very least been refined, but there is still so much new brought to the table.

Lastly, I’m harping on something Liam said on Facebook: “The Avengers actually save people, what a novel idea.” In the first Avengers movie, the team saves the Earth from alien invaders. On a smaller scale, Cap spends a solid 70 seconds saving actual, individual people. We are reminded of this later in the “Earth loves Avengers” montage plays and the waitress just loves Cap for saving her life. It’s included out of necessity, to provide some scope to what’s happened.

The Battle of NYC reverberated throughout “Iron Man 3” and also serves as a cornerstone to Netflix’s Daredevil series.

But Liam is right when he calls saving people a novelty for the Avengers; in Ultron, saving individual people and limiting casualties is a the means rather than the end. In “The Avengers”, saving the Earth from invasion saves the people. “Saving the world” is their goal. In “Ultron”, they strive to minimize casualties and save the people of Sokovia while also stopping Ultron in the process. It’s a matter of priorities, one of brief, hot debate between Cap and Nat.

Every loss is something to regret, most of all for Banner when he has to endure the guilt of leveling cities as Hulk.

There is a subtle difference at play here, and it means everything for “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

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Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye really comes into his own in “Age of Ultron.”

Think about how many people die in a Transformers movie. Not just the ones we see, but all of the people in that building leveled by a Decepticon, or the people working quietly when somebody throws Bumblebee through their break room. Do you ever feel the gravity and trauma of mass genocide for even a split second? How about when John Turturro is shouting underneath a giant pair of robot testicles? No? Didn’t think so. Bay is great with some things; reverence and respect are not on that short list.

“Age of Ultron” is a reactionary bombast in two ways: it rebounds against the frustration we all felt with Hawkeye in the first movie while also responding to the chaotic destruction in your average blockbusters. These were the two flaws in “The Avengers,” albeit not glaring ones. Keep in mind, the movie still did rather well communicating the scope and scale of the destruction. “Man of Steel” was a much more egregious offense, glorifying senseless violence and destruction and turning arguably the most noble superhero of all time into a cold-blooded killer (PS. no wonder why he is the villain in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” PPS. Speaking of good filmmakers who aren’t good at reverence and respect, heyyy Zack Snyder)

By centering “Age of Ultron” around Hawkeye, the movie has a focal point to highlight the worth of a human life. The short middle section spent with Hawkeye’s family shows the Avengers what they are all fighting for (something Fury directly tells you at some point). Its Hawkeye’s courage and humility that grounds the team and eventually inspires Scarlet Witch to enlist full-time, which is pretty awesome considering she has one of the best power sets of anyone in these movies. The moment when he pokes fun at the ridiculousness of his position — fighting alongside gods with a bow and arrow — humbles both his character and the film as a whole.

Hawkeye was just a narrative device and an extra face the first time around, but in the second Avengers movie he becomes an important part of the team, caring about Nat as much as she did for him in “The Avengers.” His wife even neatly summarizes his true purpose in keeping the team grounded. Normally, I take issues with characters vocalizing the “point” of things outright, but it feels natural in this script. (Reminder: it didn’t in “Blue Jasmine” or “To Rome with Love”)

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“Age of Ultron”‘s script is an astonishingly dense, multilayered beast. It has to be. It has to juggle all of these characters and places, tie up some loose ends, and ultimately propel the entire franchise forwards, not just the next Avengers movie. Every detail or event that happens serves two to three purposes because it has to. There is literally no room to waste space.

Hawkeye getting hurt in the opening and then having skin repaired did the double service of introducing Helen Cho while also reminding us of his fragile humanity, a pointed weakness that turns into a strength when he’s the only one who resists the Scarlet Witch. Ultron goes on to tear the team apart from the inside out with the Witch’s help and it is Hawkeye’s humanity that brings the team back together. And then, later on, Cho is the one with the technology to make a real-life android.

The gag about Mjolnir when everyone tries to lift it at the party is a hilarious moment that a lot of us saw months ago. I thought it would just be a one-off thing to giggle at early on, but instead it became a motif. We are shown the team bonding, being silly, over booze and hammer lifting.

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Cap budges Mjolnir, something no mortal can do. Note Thor’s puzzled look.

The moment where Cap budges the hammer really strikes a nice chord. Despite being outclassed by many of his fellow Avengers, Cap deserves the role of leader and later stands toe-to-toe with Ultron, which is somehow so much more impressive than watching Iron Man waste Ultron with a big blast. Captain America is nearly “worthy.” Then, later on, seeing The Vision lift Mjolnir with almost more ease than Thor himself brought huge guffaws in my audience. And THEN, to bring it back again at the end of the movie as a point of banter between Cap, Stark, and Thor is just sublime. The humor and levity fits so well with the machisimo of these characters.

Speaking of The Vision, I was just in awe when he was “born.” Thor hammered The Vision right out of the lab and just as the android was about to crash through the window, he just stopped midair. Like it was nothing. Like a casual thought could translate to instant power. He just stared out at the city. Raw power, man. Think about how many times we see each of the Avengers, even the bigwigs like Thor and Hulk, just CRASH into and through things. They can’t just stop when they go careening through the air. Thor can’t even take off without sending his hammer all whippy-whippy.

The Vision has a very special kind of power that we’ve only gotten a taste of, one that I’m looking forward to seeing in the future. Paul Bettany, much like his former character JARVIS, spent a lot of time basically as a slave in the MCU; now he’s a superhero!? One of the most powerful!? Awesome for you, bro. You go Glen Coco.

The last point I’ll make: the comic-bookiness of “Age of Ultron” was visually astounding. In “Hulk” (2003) they did really weird things with panels on the screen to try and hearken back to the comics. It failed in spectacular fashion and was Just. So. Lame. Was there a “BOOM!” in there somewhere? Probably.

“Watchmen” (2009) utilized framed shots that were taken straight out of the graphic novel. It worked, but the way it delivered was just a little quaint, little more than an easter egg for those who actually read the graphic novel.

But “Age of Ultron” twice uses slow-mo tracking shots, holding all of the heroes in frame to give too much activity in one shot, drowning us in all the action simultaneously. It’s something that comics are forced to do because of the medium; hold a frozen frame with a ton of stuff happening at once. In the beginning, we see the whole team flying through a snowy wood assaulting a Hydra base in Russia.

Then later, in the same town, they all fight an army of Ultrons. Smash smash boom boom. These shots are everything these films are, distilled into single shots. So generic. So familiar. So expected. So delightful. So novel. And so friggin awesome.

Lingering random thoughts:

  • When did Black Widow get a TRON costume?
  • The party scene with Black Widow and Banner made their romance work so incredibly well. I wouldn’t have believed it without that well-acted scene.
  • What kind of martinis were they drinking and where can I get one?
  • I eventually grew a bit irritated by the Romeo and Juliet dynamic at play with Hulk Widow/Black Hulk/whatever the hell their ship name is. While endearing to see the former heartless spy Black Widow, of all the characters, be the one longing for the romantic ride off into the sunset was sweet. Her and Banner’s mutual propensity to run from conflict irks me to some degree. Tony has been chiding Banner to “suit up” since early in the first movie. Their romance grounded “Age of Ultron” in humanity similar to Hawkeye’s story, but Hulk leaving to protect her just felt so blah to me.
  • Almost everyone’s abilities come to them with ease, yet with Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, they are constantly exerting some amount of strain to “perform.” Quicksilver gets winded and Scarlet Witch gets all squinty and focused. Kind of interesting.
  • It was really heartbreaking to see JARVIS die. Is he gone for good now that The Vision is on the scene?
  • When Ultron first revealed himself, it was hilarious to see everyone scramble. Tony: “CRAP, where is my suit!?” Cap: “Oh gosh, where did I leave my shield?” Pretty much everyone scatters and panics yet Thor is just like: “LOL…SWING, throw, punch! Boom boom pow! Lightning! Bam! Look at my cool party jacket!”
  • Thor is ready to play detective and will no doubt discover Thanos, which is an exciting set up for future events. It makes me wonder if and when “Guardians of the Galaxy” might converge with the Avengers.
  • There’s a new team of Avengers, which is pretty cool but also feels kind of wrong. Is Iron Man out? What will RDJ’s involvement be with the franchise moving forward? He’s been the main character for basically five movies. What might come next?
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