Review: “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

Avengers 2

In the summer of 2008, Marvel began a journey with “Iron Man” that culminated in 2012’s first team-up with the star-studded Avengers. Since then we’ve added more solo outings for Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, as well as the mostly irrelevant (but downright entertaining) “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Now that we’ve come back around to another outing with the Avengers, the question is: Can the sequel live up to its predecessor’s expectations? The short answer is “no,” but that’s not such a bad thing.

“Age of Ultron” picks up with the full team rushing to defeat Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), a leader of Hydra, who possesses Loki’s scepter from the previous film. Though the villain is foiled rather easily, his work lives on in superhuman twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) Maximoff. When Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) discovers that the scepter holds the key to artificial intelligence, he decides to create Ultron (James Spader), an AI system that can theoretically police the world through an army of robots. If you’ve seen any science fiction movie ever you probably know where this is headed.

In the first Avengers film Joss Whedon spent a large portion of its running time bringing the team together as a unit. Like an NBA franchise that brings in several megastars on one team, there has to be time for ego to give way to camaraderie. With that issue mostly settled, the new film gives the audience a look at a more mature squad of heroes. More choreographed team maneuvers cannot hide, however, the divisions that will be coming soon in Captain America 3 when civil war strikes.

There is no mistaking that “Age of Ultron” tries to make up for the flaws of its predecessor as well as a recent DC film. The former is that the film spends a lot of time developing and shining a spotlight on Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. Under mind control for most of the first film, here the archer gets to make more quips and interacts frequently with Pietro aka Quicksilver. As for that DC film, one of the main gripes Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” received was that it didn’t firmly establish Superman’s concern for civilians and their safety. Fast forward to “Age of Ultron” and we are spending half of the finale watching Avengers put people on lifeboats to avoid Ultron’s deadly plan. It doesn’t detract from the action enough to be a major complaint, but no one really bought a ticket to watch the Red Cross go to work either.

While the film delivers more than enough explosions and laughs to warrant the ticket price, the sequel does have a “been there, done that” feel to it. Perhaps I’m the only one, but 11 Marvel films is a lot. Part of the reason why “The Winter Soldier” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” were able to breathe life into the Marvel universe is because they felt different and each had its own personality. “Age of Ultron”, on the other hand, feels more like a generic superhero movie. Very fun and entertaining, but generic nonetheless.

Originally the film was set to be roughly a half hour longer, but Whedon and Co. were forced to leave a lot of footage on the cutting room floor. This leaves the film with a bit of an uneven pace as well as a few small questions in the plot. It also makes Thor a substantially less interesting character by reportedly cutting out most of his subplot setting up 2017’s Thor 3.

But enough with the negative, let’s talk some positives.

  • Though I think the character could have been handled better, James Spader was perfect casting for Ultron. Voice acting isn’t as easy as some people make it out to be and he nailed it.
  • “Age of Ultron” was finally able to make the team feel like something more than Tony Stark and friends. For good reason, Robert Downey Jr. has been the face of the franchise until now, but here he is a member of a team rather than the most important guy in the room.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is an imperfect, but entertaining action film that sometimes suffers from being too generic and following a long line of other Marvel films.

Grade: B

Since the internet is all about lists these days, I would probably rank “Age of Ultron” 4th out of all of the Marvel films to date, just between “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Iron Man”. Feel free to share your thoughts below.

Happy viewing.

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Review: “Iron Man 3”

Iron Man 3

I haven’t been this torn over a comic book film since last year’s “The Amazing Spider-Man.” So, like, two superhero films ago?

Robert Downey Jr. returns as Tony Stark for the 4th time in “Iron Man 3” and this time we get to see more than his face inside of a helmet. The film takes place sometime after the New York showdown in “The Avengers,” an event which still give recurring nightmares to Stark and maybe just a hint of PTSD. Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and company have gone back to business as usual, but a new villain (Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin) has emerged and his public broadcasts/attacks have quite a few people upset. After Happy (Jon Favreau, former director of Iron Man films and current “Guy who’s always with Tony but I don’t actually know his name”) is put into a coma by one of the Mandarin’s men, Stark vows revenge against the international terrorist.

The thing that makes this third installment of the series so different is that the Iron Man suit only makes an appearance for about 20 minutes of the movie. Following a similar story to “The Dark Knight Rises,” the audience watches the fall of Iron Man after he publicly calls out the Mandarin. His home is destroyed, his suit drained of power and Stark finds himself in Tennessee of all places (These scenes are actually filmed in North Carolina, which makes me wonder why the film even said Tennessee. But I digress…) Using only his suave skills and brainpower, Tony plays detective to uncover the location of the Mandarin and what plans he has in store. As someone smarter than me said, “We finally get the answer to Captain America’s question in ‘The Avengers.’ What is Tony without his armor?”

Before I get to the part of the movie that bugs me (and apparently half the viewing audience), let’s talk some positives. As far as action scenes go, this is the best the Iron Man series has offered. There are two scenes where Tony gets to show some actual fighting skills outside of his suit that are both very enjoyable. The finale of the film, while maybe not as exciting as it could have been, is also one of the best sequences in the series.

A big reason for the boost in action quality is new writer/director Shane Black. Known for his involvement in several action films like “Lethal Weapon” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” Black is not exactly new to the genre. There also many callbacks to his films like “Lethal Weapon 2” and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” that should make fans of the director happy. Unfortunately, whether it’s Black or co-writer Drew Pearce, the writing in “Iron Man 3” is not so great. I’m hesitant to use the term “plot hole” but there are several elements of the film that could have been handled better or written more understandably, one of which is the big twist.

Spoiler Alert

Many people are calling the twist “fresh” or “brilliant” but is it really? It turns out that the Mandarin is actually just an actor putting on a front for Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), an evil businessman who is playing both sides of a War on Terror in order to rake in cash. I’ve never read an Iron Man comic, so I won’t babble about the wasted opportunity of the Mandarin (who is considered Iron Man’s main villain), but the bait and switch left a bad taste in my mouth. The silliest part to me is that the audience is supposed to be surprised that the real villain is a rich businessman trying to get richer at the cost of human lives. No way! Especially in a series that has already had rich businessmen as the villains in the first two installments. Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin is turned into a joke for bathroom humor and I’m left wondering what could have been. Moving on…

End of Spoilers

“Iron Man 3” is a flawed, but very enjoyable addition to the superhero movie-verse. Aside from its visual spectacles, Robert Downey Jr. and company all bring in good performances and Shane Black does what he can to make us stop asking “But why doesn’t he just call the other Avengers?”

Grade: B- (borderline C+)

Review – Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

                                 Noomi Rapace (L), Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law

All too often, sequels have this annoying habit of not living up to the expectations set by their predecessors. On rare occasions they live up to the original (The Dark Knight), while even less often they exceed them (X-Men 2).

Whether the blame is to rest on audiences for getting their hopes too high or on filmmakers for not trying hard enough, sequels tend to be disappointing.

This was my fear when waiting in the theater for “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” to start.

The first film in director Guy Ritchie’s franchise left off with the suspenseful acknowledgement of Holmes’ greatest villain, Professor James Moriarty.

Including Moriarty in this new film raises both the bar of expectation as well as the list of possibilities for the story. He is brilliant, powerful, a skilled fighter and, above all else, purely evil.

“Game of Shadows” picks up with Watson’s (Jude Law) approaching wedding and Holmes’ (Robert Downey, Jr.) continued pursuit to uncover Moriarty’s schemes. Unlike the first film, there isn’t much time spent on setting up our heroes. The plot is fairly straightforward: Holmes must find and stop Moriarty at all costs.

The majority of the film follows Holmes’ investigation of what his nemesis has been up to. Moriarty is different from 2009’s Lord Blackwood in almost every way. His schemes are brought to fruition through the acquisition of companies and by dispatching men to do his dirty work. Blackwood ruled through fear whereas Moriarty is a thinking man.

As for the man who plays Moriarty, I was a little worried about Jared Harris’ capabilities. He is a fine actor, but not one where you immediately think “Of course, who else could it be?!”

That being said, Harris gave a chilling performance worthy of the character. It was not a portrayal that will have people talking Heath Ledger in 2008, but Moriarty felt right. He was calm, intelligent and he gave off the creepy feeling of evil. The first scene where he and Holmes meet is very relaxed but you can feel that both men would stab the other in the heart if the time was right.

Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes (L) and Jared Harris as Dr. James Moriarty

Being a fan of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy, I was very excited about seeing Noomi Rapace (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) in an American film. Both she and her “Dragon Tattoo” co-star, Michael Nyqvist are appearing in American blockbusters this holiday season for the first time.

Rapace gave an okay character a pretty good performance. There wasn’t a whole to work with as the story was mostly concerned with Holmes, Watson and Moriarty.

Speaking of Holmes and Watson, Ritchie may have had a little too much fun with the bromance between Law and Downey. The latter’s delivery on lines like “Lie with me, Watson” are dead on, but overall it felt like they were implying a romantic relationship a few too many times. We get it, you don’t have to beat it over the audience’s head.

How well did “Game of Shadows” live up to the original? It’s kind of hard to tell. “Sherlock Holmes” was partly such a big success because Downey was still riding his comeback from “Iron Man” and the film was a brand new idea. Kind of like how the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” was great and the jokes became stale further into the series. Downey hasn’t outstayed his welcome in this franchise but the filmmakers may want to cut down their reliance on humor in future films.

One thing that I did enjoy more about this film than the last was that Holmes didn’t hold back his cards from the audience until the very end. This time around, we were able to journey with Holmes, rather than just have him tell us everything at the end.

The last 45 minutes of this film are really what sold me. I was feeling pretty shaky up until that point. Between the scene where the heroes are trying to outrun military artillery to the chess match between Holmes and Moriarty (and what this scene leads to – don’t want to give up too much) I believe this film is better than most sequels, but misses the bar set by the 2009 film. A little too much camp, not enough classic Sherlock.

Grade: B

What was your favorite film this holiday?

Good afternoon and happy viewing.