Avengers Age of Ultron: Bringing the band back together

What exactly do we as viewers want out of superhero movies anymore?

Last weekend’s release of the cinematic blockbuster “Avengers: Age of Ultron” has moviegoers questioning themselves and everything they know about the emerging titan genre of cinema.

It’s almost as if it’s not enough for a quality superhero movie to be engaging and thrilling and witty with quality direction, a good script and compelling performances.

Nothing seems like it’s going to come close any time soon to the apex of the genre, Christopher Nolan’s cinematic experience, “The Dark Knight,” but when it comes to true fantasy superhero films, things don’t get much better than BOTH “Avengers” films.

Director Joss Whedon’s first foray into the Marvel Studios world was a culmination of years executing a carefully crafted vision that took comic book films to a whole other level. Anticipation grew with every post credits teaser and film announcement. “The Avengers” rode in on so much positive momentum that it feels as viewers have cheated themselves out of a great movie, expecting a life changing experience.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe — a franchise beginning with 2008’s “Iron Man” and spanning 11 released films through “Age of Ultron” — is a highly integrated world that continues to expand in scale with each installment. In fact, 11 more films are already on the books through 2019, with “Ant-Man” expected to debut July 17.

It’s certainly not impossible to catch on to the events of “Age of Ultron” without catching up on all the carefully constructed backstories expounded on in the franchise, but understanding what’s going on scene to scene will be extremely difficult.

“The Avengers” is nothing more than the “Ocean’s 11” of superhero films as Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the gang are all back in the fold for world saving part two with a handful of secondary characters like War Machine and Falcon tossed in for good measure.

The real star of the second Avengers go-round is Jeremy Renner, whose Hawkeye character went from mindless servant in the first film to the emotional core of “Age of Ultron.” Renner, perhaps the most talented actor among the leading men, handles his role with a quiet, yet firm control. Viewers are best able to understand the stakes of each mission through his eyes, especially as his Hawkeye is one of the most human characters in the Marvel franchise.

Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans continue to build tension between their respective Iron Man and Captain America characters, further laying the groundwork for an expected battle between the two in next year’s “Captain America: Civil War.” Downey, who usually overwhelms any scene he’s in as Iron Man, is more relaxed and has taken a relative backseat in “Age of Ultron,” despite being the impetus for much of the film’s plot.

Chris Hemsworth does yeoman’s work as the background character tasked with making the mundane expository information seem interesting, though there’s so much going on in “Age of Ultron,” it’s hard to see how Whedon could have expanded his role without significantly increasing the 150 minute running time.

As the power-crazed robot Ultron, James Spader provides the most compelling villain in the Marvel universe. His Ultron is calculated, yet multidimensional and there’s no other actor that could have pulled off the dry wit and candor that Spader provides to add depth to a relatively simple character. It would have been very easy for Spader to simply phone in his performance, recording everything via voiceover and calling it a day. Spader’s on-set work, especially in the motion capture work, is readily apparent on screen and helps to round out Ultron.

The “Age of Ultron” script benefits greatly from Whedon’s comedic barbs, which worked so well in “The Avengers.” In fact, the first half of the film is quite possibly the funniest movie to have been released in the last six months.

Violence typical of superhero movies is prevalent in “Age of Ultron,” though only slightly darker than the first “Avengers” installment. Parents need to be aware that a romantic subplot between Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk and Scarlett Johannsson’s Black Widow involves discussion of forced female sterilization. 
Ultimately, the question of whether or not individual viewers will enjoy “Age of Ultron” comes down to what they want out of superhero movies nowadays.

Those not content with simply enjoying popcorn films and that crave a deeper level of thinking will probably leave theaters disappointed. Make no mistake, however, this latest Marvel installment is leaps and bounds better than the three most recent films featuring Avengers in solo missions — “Iron Man 3,” “Thor: The Dark World” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

It’s interesting that the most unknown superheroes put on screen, last year’s surprise smash hit “Guardians of the Galaxy,” arrived in theaters immediately before “Age of Ultron.” It seems that this film in particular — with its originality, humor and likeable cast of misfit characters — has changed the way that viewers approach “Age of Ultron.” Flip the release dates of these two films and there’s little doubt that audiences would respond better to both films, especially “Ultron.”

For those viewers who can’t get enough of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — the ones who have forgiven the significant flaws in “Iron Man 3” and don’t mind multiple Hulk recastings (Eric Bana in “Hulk” to Edward Norton in “The Incredible Hulk” to Ruffalo in the Avengers films) — this installment in the franchise is everything they could have possibly wanted out of the film and more.

Fans will geek out over that incredible fight between Iron Man and the Hulk that’s been taunting them in trailers and, save for Clark Gregg’s Coulson character who migrated over to ABC’s “Agents of SHIELD,” everything they love about “The Avengers” is back, bigger and louder than before.

To be sure, “Age of Ultron” probably needs multiple viewings before judgment is passed because there’s so much going on in every scene. But for a franchise that has given audiences top-notch entertainment for nearly a decade and surprised at every term, doesn’t the Marvel Cinematic Universe deserve the benefit of the doubt?

Whedon’s “Age of Ultron,” probably his last Marvel film in the foreseeable future, has exactly the right amount of action, emotion, humor and heart that should keep audiences on the edge of their seats clamoring for more. At the end of the day, isn’t that what viewers ultimately want out of their superhero films?

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