Let me just say upfront that Avengers: Age of Ultron looks and sounds great on Blu-ray. If you like the movie, it’s well worth your money. Apparently there’s some controversy surrounding the sound mix, but unless you’re a hard core, possibly obsessed to the point of distraction audiophile, this thing sounds fine.
But what about the movie, you ask?
Sure, the film fell short of expectations, not quite hitting the box office totals of Marvel’s The Avengers, but come on. It still made almost a billion and a half dollars world-wide, making it the second highest-grossing Marvel Studios film yet. You don’t need me to tell you whether the movie is good or not.
You saw it. You know what you thought already, and nothing I could say will change your minds, I’m sure.
But you know what?
I liked Avengers: Age of Ultron even more the second and third time I watched it. I’ve said it before (here, in particular), but the complaints of the film being overstuffed don’t really hold up for me. If anything, it could use a little more stuffing. One or two scenes could have stood to be expanded a bit, with a little more attention to getting across exactly what writer/director Joss Whedon wanted with the dialogue, but overall, the storytelling is much more complex than the first Avengers film.
While that may make the first film more enjoyable as a popcorn movie, it also demonstrates a dramatic growth in what Marvel Studios is willing to attempt with each passing film. There’s a fluidity to the narrative here that allows each of the actors to not only perform, but to inhabit their characters in such a way that you never feel like they’re putting something on. Every side comment or casual interaction is loaded with an authenticity that you don’t get in superhero films from other studios.
I think a large part of that is due to the fact that The Avengers don’t really have secret identities; they’re not putting on an act trying to disguise who they are from each other or the world at large. They’re more like the X-Men in this respect — although they still hide who they are from the public. Spider-Man might be able to let himself go when he puts the costume on, but he’s got to pretend to be mind-mannered Peter Parker when he gets home. Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne are characters Superman and Batman assume in order to keep their loved ones safe (or whatever reason they come up with this time around).
So even though the movie moves from action set piece to action set piece, we never lose track of the characters’ emotional journies along the way. This is especially true of the villains of the film, Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the titular Ultron (James Spader). Spader’s performance is so not what I was expecting that it took a little time to see what he was doing, but once it becomes clear that we’re dealing with an angry petulant child with a god-complex and a sharp wit, his Ultron becomes one of the most unique and entertaining explorations of the classic AI-gone-bad topos I’ve ever watched.
Plus, speaking as someone who sometimes fantasizes about a meteor annihilating humanity, he’s able to invest the character with enough pathos to nearly rival Tom Hiddleston‘s Loki in my eyes.
Ultimately, though, there are two elements of this film that make me love it more than the first film: The preoccupation with saving lives and the arrival of The Vision (Paul Bettany). Interestingly enough, both of these things resonate even more with me than they maybe normally would have, thanks to having seen Man of Steel and the trailers for Warner Bros. upcoming DC movie slate.
I don’t want to dig back into the muck that is debating the merits of Man of Steel (here’s my review of that if you missed it the first time around), but I don’t think there’s any doubt, especially after listening to Whedon’s director’s commentary, that Marvel Studios is consciously and aggressively positioning themselves in opposition to the emotional and intellectual implications of Warner Bros.’ approach to making superhero films.
It’s not about being “lighter” or taking a less “realistic” approach to superheroes, although Marvel Studios is devoted to making their films as entertaining as possible and have no problems with exploring dark situations with humor and an embracing of fantasy. Marvel’s guiding hand, Kevin Feige, understands that these stories and the images they use to ground themselves in as realistic a world as possible, have emotional resonance beyond simple concepts of “looking cool” or embracing paranoia and mass murder as substitutes for actual human drama.
These films aren’t things that grow organically in the forest somewhere that reach their climaxes without any creative supervision. These films have an end goal in mind from the very beginning, and the imagery and set pieces they develop build toward concepts of heroism, and even family, that are tragic at times, but never fail to be inspiring.
Or in other words, in a Marvel film, nobody’s making out in the rubble of a fallen city, covered in the ashes of the dead.
Marvel’s films and Avengers: Age of Ultron in particular, embrace the idea of being the best you can be, not because you’re emotionally damaged, but despite your damage; not because of the punishments or rewards attached. They’re about being the best people we can be, because we are part of a community and that’s what we’re supposed to do.
That’s who we’re supposed to be.
That’s why the Vision, in barely a third of the film, with very few actual moments of interaction with others, is the best Superman to make it to the screen since Christopher Reeve wore the costume.
He might be the best Jesus, too.
Director’s Commentary: Joss Whedon does what Joss Whedon does best and chats casually about the making of his movie, dropping anecdotes about the making, handing out praise to the cast and crew with abandon, and keeping me interested for the entire runtime of the film. And this is after watching it once through already just for a refresher.
There aren’t really a lot of surprises in the commentary, but he does touch on a few thematic elements that he tried to work into the complex web of story structures that make up Avengers: Age of Ultron, from his love of Frankenstein/Robot stories, Westerns, seeing Tony as the villain of the piece (but redeemed in the end, of course), trolling audiences with endless hints that Hawkeye wasn’t going to make it out alive, and elements of Class Warfare and the moral responsibility of filmmakers appropriating what could be seen as 9/11 imagery (Zack Snyder, take note!).
Also, Angel fans will have one super subtle Easter Egg pointed out.
Not everything he tried to do was fully successful and Whedon is his own harshest critic in this sense, repeatedly emphasizing that he feels the movie falls short here and there with what it could have been ideally. But anybody who makes things knows that the work is never really done. We can always make things better if we just had infinite time and resources. But even with flaws, Avengers: Age of Ultron is still a worthy capstone to Whedon’s time with Marvel Studios, and I think he knows it.
From the Inside Out: Making of Avengers: Age of Ultron (20:54): There’s not a lot of depth here, but we do get a lot of on-set/location footage and the featurette provides a nice look at what was physically happening before all of the CG was inserted. Overall, it’s an okay way to spend 20 minutes, but in the end, is a missed opportunity.
The Infinite Six (7:28): This is interesting for people who haven’t been reading comics their whole life. This short featurette takes a brief look at each of the Infinity Stones that have been introduced into the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far: The Space Stone, or the Tesseract, introduced in Captain America: The First Avenger and used as the motivation to lure Loki to Earth in Avengers. It is the key to interdimensional travel. The Reality Stone or the Ether from Thor: The Dark World allows for the manipulation of the physical world. The Power Stone from Guardians of the Galaxy is just what it sounds like: an immense source of power – enough to level a world, if need be. And finally, the Mind Stone, which has been around longer than we maybe realized, housed in Loki’s scepter and the reason he was able to control minds so easily. The stone allows for possession of others and can project the holder’s consciousness to a higher plane of existence.
At the moment, The Space Stone is in Odin’s care, The Reality Stone is with the Collector, The Power Stone is being safeguarded by the Nova Corp, and the Mind Stone is settling nicely on Vision’s forehead. Looks like Thanos will be going on a road trip.
Global Adventure (3:01): Extremely useless round-up of the global sites where filming took place. Most of this was already discussed and shown in the Making Of featurette. Disappointing.
Gag Reel (3:37): This was one of the most entertaining gag reels I’ve seen packaged with the Marvel movies. You really get the feeling that everybody on set loves hanging out with each other and were having a great time making the film. It also drives home just how difficult filming was at times. I couldn’t imagine being able to wrangle all of these people and getting them to do what I wanted on-screen.
Deleted/Extended Scenes (12:04):
- The Man in the Church: Wherein we see Wanda and Pietro hanging with the people of Sokovia, and we see the flirty introduction of the brother and sister act that shows up at the end of the film and contributes to Quicksilver sacrificing himself.
- Watch Your Six: Wherein we see a few seeds of paranoia being planted about Hawkeye and his secret.
- Bruce and Natasha Talk: Wherein we see an extended cut of the notorious scene where they discuss being monsters and running away together. Bruce’s rejection of Natasha is a nice touch that I think should have stayed in, as it really informs a lot of her actions and responses in the third act of the film.
- The Norn Cave: Wherein we see even more of wet and shirtless Chris Hemsworth. It’s an interesting attempt to give this brief plot detour more gravitas and importance, but ultimately it’s unnecessary. The shortened version keeps it more image-oriented instead of having a scary voice spout portents of danger.
Also, when you purchase it through Disney Movies Anywhere you get the exclusive clip, “Connecting the Universe” that explores the epic intertwining story lines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.