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Summer Recap 2015: Flawed, But Still Fun

For the next two weeks, I won't be going to the movies.

Sort of.

I'm taking an extended hiatus from watching the last bits of late summer movies or the early fall flicks due up on the docket, and instead, I'll be holding off until mid-September for the crime drama Black Mass, due out on the 18th, and (maybe) for the second installment in the Maze Runner series, The Scorch Trials. Don't worry - I'll still be writing; in fact, I have a backlot of stuff of summer movies I've been meaning to review, but never got around to them, so what better time, with the fall and Awards season looming around the corner, than now to start talking about what I thought about this season's mix of summer offerings?

In 2012, I called Marvel's The Avengers the best film of the year - yes, better than Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Life of Pi and Django Unchained. I still stand by my choice, because, as I stated before, I saw Joss Whedon's superhero team-up as the blockbuster genre at its best. The many, many things that could have (and should have, in anyone else's hands) gone wrong, simply didn't. It brought a new element we hadn't seen before, it wowed, made us cheer and feel completely invested in this relatively new shared universe and it's vast characters. It put Marvel Studios on the map as a powerhouse film studio, made Whedon a bigger geek god than he already was, and changed the game as Sony, Fox and Warner Bros scrambled to model their comic book properties in the same mold as what producer and president Kevin Feige has done. So how do you build off of one of the highest-grossing movies of all time? You go bigger: You make the stakes and the action bigger, the villain badder and make the Battle of New York look like child's play. However, 'bigger' tends to be confused with 'better', and that's the biggest shortcoming with Avengers: Age of Ultron.

This time around, there's no Loki to spring the team to action, and there's no S.H.I.E.L.D. to reign them in. It's just Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) playing Frankenstein as they give birth to a malevolent A.I. in the form of Ultron (voiced and motion captured by the funny and menacing James Spader), a peace-keeping program who's idea of peace in his time equals wiping out humanity itself. The rest of the Avengers - Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hermsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) - pissed off at Stark for putting the planet in jeopardy, scower the earth to find and stop Ultron from achieving his goals, taking them from Wakanda, to Korea to Sovokia and causing shitloads of damage in their wake. It's a big cat-and-mouse chase that tends to wear you out, and not in a good way, either. Despite the film being a minute shorter than it's predecessor (Ultron runs at 141 minutes), Whedon's second outing drags in certain places, none more so the Seoul chase with Widow, Hawkeye and Cap in pursuit of stopping Ultron from bringing to life his own Frankenstein in the form of the Vision (Paul Bettany, formerly known as Stark's digital butler J.A.R.V.I.S.)., along with the subplot of Thor seeking out Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard in an extended cameo) to make sense of a vision he had while encountering Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (newcomer Elizabeth Olsen). I'm not going to spoil the payoff to this subplot, but if you've been keeping up with the MCU movies and/or seen last summer's Guardians of the Galaxy & 2013's Thor: The Dark World, you'll know that it's all setting up for a future showdown featuring a half-dozen artifacts, a metallic glove and a big, purple alien hell-bent on annihilating the universe.

Avengers 2 also contains plenty of new characters, along with returning ones. Unlike the last outing where each character had their moment, its predecessor just has too many. New to the MCU is Korean actress Claudia Kim as Helen Cho, a doctor who regularly aids the Avengers in Stark's rebuilt Avengers Tower; Aaron Taylor-Johnson as brother to Wanda, Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver; and motion-capture icon Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue, a South African arms smuggler who has a connection to Stark back in the days of him being a weapons manufacturer. And that's not even including returning characters like Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Agent Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell), Col. James "Rhody" Rhodes (Don Cheadle), former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill (Colbie Smulders) and the previously mentioned Selvig. Most of these returning actors show up to basically say that they'll be back in future installments of Marvel's interconnected playhouse (or in Atwell's case, that the second season of Marvel's Agent Carter will be back in 2016 on ABC!), and don't really affect the plot in any significant way, except in the case of Cheadle. Hell, even Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury isn't given a whole lot to do, expect to give the ragtag supergroup a pep talk after Ultron hands them their collective biscuit. You get the feeling that most of these guys only showed up in the final cut because the studio told Whedon he had to include them in the plot, and given the reports of conflict between the writer-director and the higher-ups, Feige included, it honestly wouldn't surprise me.

If it sounds that I'm hating on the Marvel Studios sequel, I'm not. Personally, I'm more let down than anything else because it falls back on familiar tricks - namely, Marvel's '3rd act syndrome' where it becomes a CG overload of explosions and mayhem that makes Bay's robot carnage in the Transformers films almost look restrained by comparison, along with the old blockbuster trick of one-uping the ante from the last go around, in the form of the Avengers v. Ultron's copycat army, and lifting a small city to new heights (literally) - tricks that I honestly thought Whedon would be too smart to fall for. Still, this isn't anywhere near as obnoxious, discarable or terrible as last year's Age of Extinction or as bloated and tedious as Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. The man still understands that, without compelling, fun characters, audiences wouldn't give a damn about what happens to any of them.

I love the contrast between RDJ's Stark and Evan's Rodgers, two guys who would rather do their own thing than work together. Stark built Ultron out of fear of another impending invasion, and to be the ultimate peace-keeping force he feels the Avengers can never fully be; whereas Cap sees Stark's actions as trying to start a war before the actual war begins. I also love the additions of Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch and the Vision, enhanced beings who bring a new element of superpowers not seen in previous Marvel Studios fare, and it opens the door for new forms of abilities that aren't grounded in reality or in the cosmos. The romantic subplot between Romanoff and Banner is also touching and bittersweet, given their respective backstories - Natasha was bred to be a killer during the Soviet-era, and Bruce, thanks to his exposure to gamma radiation, is a walking timebomb that can't be easily contained, if at all. Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye is a scene-stealer, from quips about hating being manipulated telepathically, to his secret second-life that adds a new layer to a character who was the most underutilized in the first movie. And Spader's Ultron presents a moral conundrum to the whole proceedings - the Avengers were created to protect the world from all sorts of threats, so what happens when the threat is one of their own making? Can we rely on them to protect humanity from themselves, if need be? Are outside forces necessary to reign in a potentially dangerous group of special individuals like the Hulk's and the Vision's of this brave new world? This addition of depth is explored, and although it's not fully answered in this blockbuster, it's refreshing to see these ideas take root and be fleshed out in future installments of the MCU. And despite a familiar 3rd act, the action scenes are simply Marvel-ous to be behold (sorry for the atrocious pun), including a show-stopper featuring Stark's Hulk-buster suit and the Hulk himself, throwing hands in a South African street and the opening sequence of the team infiltrating a Hydra base. Watching Thor and Cap bouncing their abilities off each other, along with Barton and Romanoff kicking ass on the ground is just fun to watch.

Avengers: Age of Ultron isn't as fresh as it was the first time. There's too much character-stuffing, and as a result, they feel like extended cameos, playing as reminders that they'l have more to do in the future. There's several plot threads vying for attention that it makes the film feel bloated, despite the shorter runtime. And the last third of the movie feels very much been-there, done-than with the first Avengers outing, as well as with other films in the MCU. But there's more-than enough thrills and solid writing from Whedon, as well as the advancement of our favorite characters to make us enjoy this blockbuster behemoth, warts and all. And given that later on, audiences would be treated to crap like the previously-reviewed Fantastic Four and Terminator Genysis, along with Adam Sandler's Pixels and my next review of my recap of summer flicks in the form of Pitch Perfect 2; sometimes, the best you can is good enough.

*** stars out of ****

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