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Comic Book Film Review 2015: "Avengers:Age of Ultron" (Written & Directed by Joss Whedon)
Joss Whedon, creator, executive producer and lead writer on such cult hits as "Buffy The Vampire Slayer", "Firefly", "Dollhouse" and "Cabin In The Woods" struck comic book film gold in 2012 when Marvel head Kevin Feige decided to give him the keys to the Marvel palace as he went to the top of the short list of directors to helm the first "Avengers" movie. Whedon brought his trademark and clever wit through his dialogue and his impressive ability to stage and choreograph pulse-pounding and dynamic fight sequences mixed in with genuine heart and a healthy emphasis on character development. "Marvel's The Avengers" was the successful end result of the writer-director pulling out all the stops to satisfy legions of built-in fans and to win over converts. Suddenly, and some would say inexplicably, comic books and their adaptations became the norm, the status quo whereas even 10 years ago it would be seen as bizarre and "uncool". Whedon, a self-proclaimed comic’s geek in his own right brought his innate passion for storytelling and he can best be seen having a remarkable run as a comics writer on several titles such as "Astonishing X-Men", "Fray", a story set in the distant future post-Buffy The Vampire Slayer and even contributing heavily to the "Civil War" Marvel crossover.
It would seem that he'd be the natural choice to assume the mantle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And so it began his relationship with Executive Producer Kevin Feige as Whedon now oversees all MCU properties. Avengers: Age of Ultron is a film that never runs short on ideas - in fact it can be argued that the film possesses far too many plot points and narrative threads for one installment. The director himself admits that while structuring the first film, it was a monumental and daunting task since these weren't characters he'd created and the overload of movie stars was also intense in order to successfully tie the emotional beats together and have each and every actor shine in their own way. In Whedon's other work outside of Marvel, his own output tends to focus on characters banding together to work toward a common end goal with usually a focus on one or two central protagonists. His 2002 series "Firefly" and his first TV show "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" showcased this the most - Firefly possessed a commanding lead in the form of Nathan Fillion's Mal Reynolds, leader of a rag-tag bunch of resistance bounty hunters/space pirates in the far-flung future whose goal is to not only explore the galaxy but to also stay one step ahead of imposing intergalactic enemies and loot like pirates do. Buffy served to shift the focus, for the first time in Whedon's career, a female central protagonist who battles vampires in a modern day city. Played by a baby-faced Sarah Michelle Gellar, Buffy takes on the role of the latest incarnation of a "Slayer", a descendant line of defenders of Earth who protect against unrepentant evil forces.
To be fair, Whedon thought that he really needed to surpass the epic-ness of the first film in a number of ways - plumbing the depths of some characters (like Hawkeye who was mostly sidelined the first time out and Black Widow) while introducing others (newbies Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver) to provide linkages to the X-Men universe and make a bold case to have an MCU crossover. One can admit that the first Avengers was nothing but light-hearted fun even if there were a number of perilous moments sprinkled throughout it. The first film provided an excuse for Robert Downey, Jr.'s Stark to wisecrack and for Chris Evans's Captain America to solidify his place as a man out of his time in order for him to adapt to the 21st century. Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner/Hulk finally got a movie deserving of his presence after two failed solo outings and he really brought plenty of pivotal moments. Sam Jackson's Nick Fury was given a wealth of screen-time as he tried to plant the seeds of motivation to the disparate heroes by faking a main character and fan favorite's death. All of this was done with pinpoint precision and the action sequences felt fresh and never redundant. This is exactly the reason why Rotten Tomatoes rates it certified fresh at 92%. Its sequel, however, hovers at 75%, a marked drop.
My primary issue with this film was that I couldn't appreciate the smaller moments because my eyes were far too busy uncomfortably scanning and getting dizzy during the action scenes. Now, I love a good and healthy dose of action in my media - from "The Raid" and The Raid 2", "Enter The Dragon", Michael Mann's "Heat" and "Collateral" and right on up to the "Fast and Furious" series. Whedon's film possesses almost too much action and not only that, it doesn't feel syncopated. It lacks the soulful pacing of the former film and the movie, cinematically, was shot in darker tones that were reminiscent of Zack Snyder's progressively weightier take on the Man of Steel. The brighter hues and energy of the first one seem to be all but drained. To further that point, many scenes, particularly dialogue-specific ones, feel rushed with characters cutting off mid-sentence with plenty of awkward timing. Even though the acting throughout this impressive cast is uniformly great, the several times that that occurred really took me out of the scene and left me thinking that the whole film just would rather barrel along forsaking what came before it.
The plot was also a massively egregiously chore. Out of all the runs on the Avengers in the comics, Whedon conveniently and lazily chose to rehash virtually the same "Save the World" story arc from the first film only instead of Loki, played with aplomb by Tom Hiddleston, we get a very menacing James Spader as AI gone bad to worse Ultron. Ultron's belief system is that in order to ensure world peace, everyone, including the Avengers themselves and every single civilian must be eradicated to make way for a "new world". This "new world" would no doubt be populated by sentient robotic and cyborg life that is self-sustained and is without the tampering of pesky humans. Loki's mission was all too similar as well but his goal was far more fleshed out - he sought the all-powerful Tesseract in exchange for an army (The Chitauri) to decimate Earth. Nick Fury's SHIELD operation also wanted the powers of the mythical object to make super weapons toward policing the Earth. This then caused internal divisions within the Avengers as they came into conflict as to how to approach Loki, win the day, all while staving off Loki psyching them out and playing with their heads.
Whedon could have gone in so many different directions as the Avengers comic book line dates all the way back to the introduction of the team in 1963. That is a whopping 50+ years for which to adapt and emulate the richness of Stan Lee's creations. Leaving the theater, I couldn't help but feel that this film could have been so much more than the sum of its many many retreaded parts. Many would probably just tell me to shut my brain off and enjoy what is onscreen. That approach only works for a Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich or M. Night Shyamalan film. Whedon's film does possess conviction and heart and yet it is absent of so much that could have made it top the former.
In closing, let’s just say I am glad Whedon and Co. are handing the reigns of the next few movies to Anthony and Joe Russo, the wunderkinds behind 2014's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier", the crowning jewel of the MCU. The brothers are slated to tackle "Captain America 3", and the two part Avenger flicks "Infinity War Part 1" & "Infinity War Part 2". Let’s just hope that the exhaustion of mounting these enormous pictures doesn't blunt their creative powers in much the same way Whedon's mojo was tossed to the wind.