Critical Mass(ive)

(My apologies for not having posted in a couple of weeks. I’ve moved to Des Moines, IA, so I was a bit busy. I’m back to doing regular reviews now and will start with the behemoth that appeared between posts.)

With its far-flung Universe and interconnected bloodlines, the Marvel Superheroes are a geek’s version of another literary genre: the multi-generational drama. The books of Howard Fast, Jeffrey Archer and others have a commonality with Ironman, Thor, Captain America, et al. They tell big stories that can stretch over multiple volumes, or, in this case, movies. That’s not strange to those who read the early comic books where the plot arc would continue for five or six editions, similar to how Charles Dickens serialized his novels. That’s why AMC Theaters could offer a 27 hour binge viewing of the previous Marvel movies in the lead up to the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron. There’s a concern, though, that eventually this could reach a critical mass with Marvel going into meltdown. When does it become too much of a good thing?

For this sequel to the billion dollar hit The Avengers, Writer/Director Joss Whedon throws the viewer into a huge battle right from the start with Ironman (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) attacking a Hydra stronghold in eastern Europe. This follows the first tag at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though to see how the Avengers get to the secret base you’d have to watch the episode of “Marvel’s Agents of Shield” on the Tuesday before the movie’s release. With an assist from robotic sentinels run by Stark’s AI valet, JARVIS (voiced by Paul Bettany), the Avengers make defeat the Hydra forces, but they run into two new characters with powers, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). The Scarlet Witch manages to give Ironman a major case of paranoia when he discovers the power source Hydra was using for experiments – Loki’s scepter.

Ironman’s fear-centered paranoia causes him to use the scepter to create a new version of the sentinels. But the power in the scepter has an intelligence of its own, and the result is Ultron (voiced by James Spader), who swiftly crushes JARVIS while he creates his own metal body. Tony Stark had envisioned Ultron as a way to protect earth’s population, but Ultron sees that most of the problems are created by people and the earth would be better off without them.

The movie is almost overwhelmed by the first battle sequence. Watching it on a large-format screen with the Dolby Atmos sound system, it’s almost a physical attack on the audience. But Whedon then reins in the action and focuses on the story. Another challenge with the movie is incorporating all the sidereal characters who’ve shown up in other movies: James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) in his War Machine mode, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) a.k.a. Falcon, Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), Heimdall (Idris Elba) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders). Even Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter gets a spin around the dancefloor. Somehow, though, Whedon manages to juggle a dozen balls at the same time and not miss a beat.

This time Whedon has chosen to go deeper and darker. As with Greek tragedy, the heroes – primarily Ironman/Tony Stark – have fatal flaws within them that set the story on the path to its destructive climax. While he doesn’t go as far as F Scott Fitzgerald’s famous line, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy,” Whedon does take it a step further than the first Avengers where some of the responsibility falls on SHIELD with the power weapons they’ve horded. Here, the responsibility for Ultron rests squarely on the shoulders of the Avengers – Tony Stark for instigating the creation and the others for not stopping him. Yet Whedon also incorporates an excellent sequence where he develops the character of Hawkeye, who was the least fleshed-out of all the characters. It’s a moment of humanity that underlines the stakes for which the Avengers are playing.

With most action flicks, the rule is the movie is as good as its villain. Ultron is part-Voldemort, part-Silva (from Skyfall): nearly invulnerable and definitely a psychopath, but one who carries his evil with panache. James Spader’s vocal talents are perfectly matched to the character.

There is one discordant note with a previous Marvel Universe movie, and it underlines why after farming out Spiderman and the X-men to other studios (Sony and Fox respectively), Marvel’s now keeping its characters in house. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character Quicksilver is the same one played by Evan Peters in X-Men: Days of Future Past. But since Wolverine rewrote history in that movie, we’ll let it go.

Overall, Avengers: Age of Ultron could have been a rollercoaster that ran off the rails in spectacular fashion, but Joss Whedon manages to keep things under control and deliver the audience to the station with smiles on their faces after a thrilling ride. It’s not the best Marvel movie yet – Captain America: The Winter Soldier retains that distinction – but it’s up there with the best.

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