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Arts & Culture

'Age Of Ultron' Not Quite As Well-Assembled As First 'Avengers' Film

Poster art -- depicting the team assembled -- for Marvel's latest installment of the Avengers franchise, "Avengers: Age of Ultron."
Marvel
Poster art -- depicting the team assembled -- for Marvel's latest installment of the Avengers franchise, "Avengers: Age of Ultron."

Joss Whedon's sequel will likely please but not enthrall fans

Film Review: 'Avengers: Age of Ultron'
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "Avengers: Age of Ultron."

ANCHOR INTRO: Joss Whedon’s Avengers thrilled fans but can Avengers: Age of Ultron live up to its predecessor? KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando says not quite. Joss Whedon set the bar pretty damn high for the Avengers sequel. His first film did everything right for a summer blockbuster, delivering a perfect balance of humor and action, accessible fun and geeky insider jokes. Plus the casting was spot on, the effects were integrated into the story, and the ensemble just clicked. But the team now faces some challenges. CLIP This vulnerable world needs something more powerful than any of us. Nothing gets seriously derailed in Age of Ultron but it’s definitely not as much fun. It opens with an onslaught of CGI that’s off-putting. It’s like being dropped into the climax of another movie and don’t know what’s at stake so it all seems meaningless. But in the end, Whedon delivers enough fun, action, and engaging team banter that fans will exit pleased but perhaps not giddy with joy. Beth Accomando, KPBS News.

Companion Viewing

"Serenity" (2005)

"The Avengers" (2012)

"X-Men: Days of Future Past" (2014)

"Captain America: Winter Soldier" (2014)

Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” thrilled fans but can “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (opening May 1 throughout San Diego) live up to its predecessor? Not quite.

Joss Whedon set the bar pretty damn high for an “Avengers” sequel. His first film did everything right for a summer blockbuster, delivering a perfect balance of humor and action, accessible fun and geeky insider jokes. Plus the casting was spot on, the effects were well integrated into the story, and the ensemble just clicked. But it’s hard to duplicate that magic and even harder to surpass it. Rest assured nothing gets seriously derailed in “Age of Ultron” but it’s definitely not as much fun.

To begin with, “Age of Ultron” gets off on the wrong foot with its amped up open.

It starts with an onslaught of computer-generated graphics that’s off-putting. It’s like being dropped into the climax of another movie where you don’t know what’s at stake so it all seems meaningless.

The other problem is that you have to warm up to CGI. You have to get reacquainted with this superhero universe where Hulk can pick up vehicles like rag dolls and Thor can fly through the air.

Superheroes defy the physics of the world as we know it but CGI can sometimes just look cheesy when it throws physics out the window. That’s why starting with this epic CGI battle is a bad idea because it looks like a video game. In fact, I was hoping the film would pull back from the fighting to show us Tony Stark playing a video game of The Avengers to justify how fake the opening battle looked. But no such luck. The scene felt like something the studio demanded because they feared the film had to hook the audience from the first frame with something big and noisy. It all seemed designed just so they could have that slow motion image of all the Avengers attacking. And yes, that is a pretty awesome single shot.

The other annoyance in the film is a big fight between Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), when the green guy goes on a rampage. The scene made me think of “Man of Steel” and that’s not a good thing. The fight went on for too long and was ridiculously destructive. Sure they take time and make a special effort to show people being saved from death or injury but you can’t tell me that no human got hurt as buildings are leveled and cars are sent careening. There’s no real tension in this fight, you know neither one will hurt or kill the other and it’s not so cleverly executed that it’s just fun to watch. It’s more Michael Bay than Joss Whedon and that’s not good.

But as the film builds and the Avengers take on their new nemesis Ultron (James Spader), we are reminded why we enjoyed the first film so much, it’s the camaraderie – even when it’s being tested – of the Avengers. It’s the way they exchange quips, the way they interact, how they piss each other off, and ultimately how they all come together.

The film may be a mega-blockbuster but Whedon knows how to bring it in to remind us that despite having to save the world yet again, this is a film about a small group of characters that we love. Whedon also knows how to make a running gag about bad language or no one being able to lift Thor’s hammer pay off. And I also enjoy that he even managed to slip in references to Samuel Beckett and Eugene O’Neill.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen join the Avengers team as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch in "Avengers: Age of Ultron."
Marvel
Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen join the Avengers team as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch in "Avengers: Age of Ultron."

Once again the cast is great.

James Spader (in voice only) has a blast as Ultron although I’m not completely sold on his look. But Spader’s delivery is great. The new additions of the twins Aaron Taylor-Johnson (of “Kick-Ass”) as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch are solid although I think I prefer Evan Peters (ironically also of “Kick-Ass”) who played Quicksilver in “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” Comic book fans actually have two sets of these twins now in the film world and each with a completely different origin. Can you say parallel universe? As my guest blogger Ramie Tateishi put it, “Comic book fans are used to the idea of parallel universes where familiar things appear differently.”

But the core Avengers team still glows with perfect casting. The old-fashioned charm of Chris Evan’s Captain American and earnest heroics of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor play delightfully off of Robert Downey, Jr.’s snarky Tony Stark/Iron Man. Similarly Tony Stark’s ego is nicely contrasted by Mark Ruffalo’s more humble Bruce Banner. And Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow once again proves that female characters don’t have to be mere set dressing or romantic interest in an action film pumped up on testosterone.

When the film finally reaches the climax it has earned, we are sucked back into the superhero universe and are more welcoming of the CGI effects. But still, the film packs in more than it needs. As with “Guardians of the Galaxy,” fans are less won over by the special effects than the characters. We can watch “Guardians” and the first “Avengers” film over and over and over again because it’s like hanging out with best friends. And like best friends, it’s less about what we do with them and more about just enjoying their company.

So I would have been happy to see less time on the big effects in “Ultron” in exchange for a few more scenes of the Avengers just hanging out and maybe sharing some shawarma. But I suspect that Whedon had to fight battles perhaps on par with that of the Avengers trying to convince Marvel and/or Disney that maybe the film could be smaller rather than bigger. Whedon, as he has proven in his TV show "Buffy" and "Firefly," is best at the more intimate stuff, at highlighting the mundane amidst fighting demons, saving the planet, or other such shenanigans.

The only thing that got streamlined for this sequel is dropping "The" from "The Avengers" in the title. Other than that, everything else got inflated and it didn't need to be. Whedon is good at the little things and at dialogue scenes, and I wish "Age of Ultron" had found more time for both.

With “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments) Whedon delivers enough fun, action, and engaging team banter that fans will exit pleased but perhaps not giddy with joy.