Review of “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

While raiding a HYDRA base in the small eastern European country of Sokovia to retrieve Loki’s mind control scepter, the Avengers, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in the form of the Hulk, encounter the Maximoff twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen).  He possesses super speed while see can manipulate minds and emit energy pulses.  Their powers have been enhanced due to HYDRA experimentation that has killed all other test subjects.  The raid is ultimately successful and the scepter is recovered but Wanda plants the nightmarish image of all the Avengers dead in the mind of Stark.  This leads him to restart a program to create, in his words, a suit of armor around the world.  The Ultron program was stalled due to software issues but Tony believes he and Banner can use the mind-control stone in the scepter to rewrite the program and create an automated defense system.  Tony’s helpful computer program J.A.R.V.I.S. (voiced by Paul Bettany) continues working on various configurations of the program and it comes to life.  Confused, J.A.R.V.I.S. tries to aid Ultron (voiced by James Spader) in understanding his existence.  Ultron quickly overwhelms J.A.R.V.I.S. and takes control of Tony’s robotics lab, creating a rudimentary body for himself.  Ultron has misinterpreted Tony’s intensions and decides the only way to protect the Earth is to destroy all human life.  During a celebration party in the Avenger’s tower, Ultron makes his presence known and attacks the team but they are able to defeat him; however, the program of Ultron escapes into the Internet and finds facilities to create more versions of himself.  Ultron also approaches the Maximoff twins about helping him destroy the Avengers.  The pair has a particular hatred for Tony as their parents were killed by weapons from Stark Industries.  They agree to help and the three, along with several robots, head to the African nation of Wakanda to meet with arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) who possesses a huge amount of the super strong metal vibranium.  The Avengers show up as well and a major battle ensues.  Wanda is able to place spells on nearly all the Avengers and each is shown devastating images of either their past or their greatest fears.  Banner is transformed into an out of control Hulk causing him and Tony, in his Hulk-Buster armor, to battle and nearly destroy a Wakandan city.  The world is turning against them due to all the property damage they cause, the team is in shambles and questioning if they can still be an effective fighting force and if they can defeat Ultron.

If you see “Avengers:  Age of Ultron,” strap in and leave the large soft drink at the concessions stand as you are in for a 140 minute rollercoaster of action and special effects.  You may also want to bring ear plugs as the film is quite loud with all the metal clanking and various things exploding nearly all the time.  It is a visual spectacle that works well within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU); however, if you are looking for meaning on a deeper level you may be disappointed.

The early trailers made it appear “Avengers:  Age of Ultron” would be a dark and serious affair.  That worry is unfounded as the trademark banter between the characters is fully on display even in more serious moments.  Each character has a chance to lighten the mood with the interplay between Stark and Rodgers delivering the most lighthearted moments.  Thor, Natasha, Barton and Banner also get opportunities to make the audience smile and chuckle.  Even the newly added Maximoff twins get a chance to throw off a quip.  It can’t be considered a full-on comedy but the film is much less dour than first looks suggested.

The quality of acting is about what you expect in any Marvel film but having Spader provide the voice of Ultron raises the quality of the villain’s performance.  James Spader gives Ultron a level of gravitas that might have been missing from another actor.  Ultron’s commanding baritone voice ringing with condescension, his ease in dancing verbal rings around Stark and the others and the cold calculation of his ultimate plan puts him head and shoulders above most other Marvel villains.  Plus, the robot Ultron is literally twice as tall as anyone on screen.  That physical dominance of the frame only adds to Spader’s voice acting.

The acting of Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo is put to the test in the film’s biggest flaw:  The will-they-won’t-they romance of Natasha and Banner.  While an unknown length of time has passed since “The Avengers,” the notion of these two becoming a couple seems a bit out of left field.  Perhaps this is writer/director Joss Whedon’s attempt to humanize these bigger than life characters.  Since we know very little of their lives outside of teaming up to fight a world-threatening evil, this might have been an effort to bring these demigods down to our level.  Quite frankly, it feels a bit tacked on.  Banner and Natasha are probably the two most dangerous members of the team.  She has been trained practically since birth to be an assassin and he fears he will hurt innocent people when he transforms into an out of control rage giant.  The two of them together strike me as a disaster waiting to happen.  It also doesn’t help that she was flirting with Rodgers in “Captain America:  The Winter Soldier” and in the comics has been romantically connected to him and Barton.  Of course, I don’t understand how anyone could turn down the affections of Natasha who is probably the sexiest woman in any of their lives, but that’s just me.  While the romance sections of the movie pay off by the film’s end, they tend to bring the story’s momentum to a halt.  They probably could have been incorporated in a different way to fit better within the narrative.

Then there’s the problem with all the Marvel movies and superhero films in general:  The concept of meaningful stakes for the characters.  So far, nearly every MCU film has followed a predictable pattern of a worldwide threat bringing out the hero or heroes, that threat nearly defeating the hero then with one final effort the hero wins.  Marvel has a slate of films mapped out over the next decade that involves these characters.  Since we know they will be around in 2018 for whatever sequel, where is the danger to the protagonist?  It simply isn’t there.  We know Iron Man, Captain America and the rest will live to fight another day since they have a contract calling for them to appear in however many more movies.  The only mystery is how the villain will be defeated and that’s not nearly as satisfying as truly being in doubt as to if the hero will survive the final attack.  This formula make get a shakeup in coming films as both Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans are nearing the end of their contracts.  Also, the next Captain America film is based on the comic book storyline of a battle between factions within the superhero community where not everyone survives.  The fiscal realities of increasing star salaries and actors desire to work on different projects may be what puts some real threat into the evil plans of the villains.

“Avengers:  Age of Ultron” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and some suggestive comments.  There are fights throughout the film between robots and Avengers, Avengers and Avengers and Avengers and others who are not robots or Avengers.  It is all fairly mild as film violence goes.  There is very little blood and no gore unless you count the robot guts that are displayed when one is destroyed.  During the Hulk vs. Hulkbuster fight, a building under construction is demolished, some people in an elevator are nearly killed and the Hulkbuster suit has a piston-action fist that repeatedly punches the Hulk in the face.  All the suggestive comments are between Natasha and Banner except for one ancient reference by Stark during the scene where each Avenger tries to pick up Thor’s hammer.  Foul language is widely scattered, very mild and used as the set up for a running joke.

The weirdness of business agreements between companies is on full display in the film.  In the comics, the Maximoff twins are the children of main X-Men villain Magneto; however, since Marvel sold the movie rights for the X-Men and the use of the term mutant to Fox, their heritage could not be mentioned.  You might wonder how the characters could be used at all.  It comes down to the fact that the pair has been in both the X-Men and the Avengers so the lawyers decided both companies could use the characters.  Clear as mud, right?  Then, here comes Spider-Man who had been the cinematic property of Sony but can now appear in both Marvel and Sony movies.  It is enough to make one’s head spin; but if the complicated storylines of superhero movies don’t induce vertigo then legal issues between movie companies should be a piece of cake.  What does this have to do with whether “Avengers:  Age of Ultron” is worth your time and money?  Nothing, I just thought it was interesting.  Since most Marvel movies are critic proof, it really doesn’t matter what I think.  I will offer this one bit of advice:  Don’t pay for the 3D.  There is a few times it makes items on screen really pop out but most of the time it is hardly noticeable.  See the standard version and enjoy the ride with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.  It isn’t art but it’s fun.

“Avengers:  Age of Ultron” gets five stars.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Just a couple of new films this week and both are comedies.  Maybe I’ll review one of them or maybe it’ll be another film.  Stay tuned.

D Train–

Hot Pursuit–

Review of “Kingsman: The Secret Service”

For weeks, the only thing anyone heard about as far as movies were concerned was “Fifty Shades of Grey” and how it would dominate (pardon the expression) the box office over Valentine’s weekend. It lived up to expectations tying up (again, pardon the expression) over $81-million in ticket sales. While the rest of the competition was mostly spanked (see apologies above) there was one new movie that managed to pull in a respectable amount of money despite lacking any whips, riding crops and blindfolds. “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is what I saw and I suggest you see it as well.

Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton) is an intelligent young man who seems to be wasting his life with alcohol, drugs and petty crimes. He’s approached by a Harry Hart (Colin Firth), a dapper gentleman, who tells Eggsy he knew the boy’s deceased father. Hart is a member of a secret British intelligence organization called the Kingsmen. Hart, whose code name is Galahad, operates out of a tailor shop. While the average patron can be fitted for a custom-made suit, a Kingsman agent can access specialty weapons and an underground pneumatic transport system that goes directly to a villa in the English countryside, the headquarters of the Kingsmen. Galahad informs Eggsy his father was a Kingsman and died on a mission when Eggsy was a very young boy. Galahad encourages Eggsy to try out for a recent opening due to the death of an agent codenamed Lancelot. Lancelot died trying to rescue Professor James Arnold (Mark Hamill), an environmental and global warming expert who had been kidnapped by Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) and his accomplice Gazelle (Sofia Boutella). Gazelle has prosthetic legs armed with razor sharp swords which she uses to kill Lancelot. Valentine, a tech billionaire, has been trying for years to get politicians to do something about carbon emissions without success. He has developed a new plan and approaches many celebrities and world leaders for their support, offering them deals they cannot refuse. For those who turn Valentine down, they are locked up in his mountain headquarters. While Valentine wants to save the planet, he doesn’t care how many billions of people have to die to make his plan succeed. Eggsy and several other young people are led through the many tests and trials to become a Kingsman by Agent Merlin (Mark Strong) while Galahad continues his investigation into Valentine’s plan.

“Kingsman: The Secret Service” has a very light, jaunty feel to it. It doesn’t take itself seriously and is able to create both humor and excitement, often simultaneously. The film succeeds at being entertaining for several reasons. First, the story moves at a quick pace, rarely staying in the same place for very long. The filmmakers know the target audience doesn’t like taking the time for a huge amount of backstory so much of that is handled in a few sentences at appropriate times. This cuts down on long scenes of exposition and keeps the plot moving forward.

A second reason is the cast. A film like “Kingsman: The Secret Service” rarely has a group of actors with this many A-listers. Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Michael Caine and Mark Hamill all in one film based on a comic book is not something one sees every weekend. The lesser known members of the cast, Taron Egerton, Sophie Cookson and Sofia Boutella, are a nice garnish to an already stellar mixture of actors. Everyone in the film is excellent and they all seem to be having a great time.

The script seems to have its tongue firmly planted in its cheek. The style and tone of the dialog, usually delivered in either an upper crust or working class British accent, just feels like fun. Even when the movie has its bloodier moments, and there are plenty, the script manages to keep things light. It also doesn’t mind taking a look at other films of the genre, including the granddaddy of them all the “Bond” series. Firth’s character makes reference to the darker tone of the most recent films and says he prefers the earlier incarnations of Bond. The movie seems to pay homage to those films with the number of gadgets a Kingsman has at his disposal. I won’t try to mention them all here but they run the gamut from classic (knife popping out of the toe of a shoe) to fantastic (a bulletproof umbrella with other built-in weapons). Some of these gadgets are more believable and hence more effective than others. Still, one must suspend some disbelief if the movie is to be enjoyed. The film uses technology heavily throughout the story including the main plan of the villain. The movie may actually depend too much on gadgets to keep the action moving. A spy movie should be mostly about the spy doing some spying. That isn’t so much the case here; however, this is a minor fault when compared to how entertaining the rest of the film is.

“Kingsman: The Secret Service” is rated R for sequences of strong violence, language and some sexual content. There are numerous violent and bloody deaths in the film including numerous head shots, limbs severed, a person cut in half down the middle and numerous images of heads exploding. Surprisingly, the exploding heads are handled in a rather tasteful way. There is very little gore and it mostly looks like colored smoke billowing up from the neck. There is an early passing reference to sex then late in the film we get a brief glimpse at a young woman’s backside with the understanding that anal sex is about to occur. Foul language is common throughout the film.

“Kingsman: The Secret Service” is a spy film populated with very interesting characters including Samuel L. Jackson’s lisping villain and Sofia Boutella’s blade runner prosthetic wearing henchperson. It also features an exciting story, terrific action and likable characters about whom I wanted to know more. While it depends a bit too much on technology and not enough on the human aspect, there are still characters we root for and want to see triumph. It may never win any major awards or be considered a classic but it is a fun way to spend a couple of hours in a movie theatre without feeling like you need to take a shower afterwards.

“Kingsman: The Secret Service” gets five stars out of five.

This week, four new movies (assuming the expected snow melts in time for me to get out) vie for your entertainment dollars. I’ll see and review one of the following:

The DUFF—

Hot Tub Time Machine 2—

McFarland USA—

Still Alice—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.