Robert Downey Jr.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Fans of Iron Man, Captain America and the other members of the notorious Avengers clan don’t have to worry about. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” not living up to the legacy of its action-packed predecessor. “Ultron” is on par with “The Avengers” in terms of CGI-laden action and great humor, but it doesn’t aspire to add anything groundbreaking.

The film is exactly what audiences expect from a Marvel film. It’s a fun, thrilling ride that, despite a few story hiccups, serves as an entertaining summer blockbuster.

After the events of the previous film, Captain America (Chris Evans) and the rest of the Avengers struggle to protect the world from an ever increasing number of threats. Desperate to create a way to guard the planet so that the Avengers aren’t constantly needed, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) creates a sentient computer program called Ultron (voiced by James Spader) designed to patrol for crime. Upon uploading himself into a mechanized body, Ultron goes rogue when he determines mankind is the greatest threat to the planet and teams up with two mutants to rid the Earth of humanity. The Avengers race to stop Ultron as deep-seated divisions among the team threaten to tear the group apart.

“Ultron” again proves that Marvel films can be light-hearted despite the destructive action sequences and heavy themes of doubt throughout. Unlike movies based on characters from Marvel’s rival DC Comics, such as the colorless, brooding “Man of Steel,” “Ultron” is filled with humor that makes the characters more relatable. Sequences, such as the celebratory party thrown at the Avengers headquarters early in the film, work as great character development while providing some laughs. It proves Earth’s “Mightiest Heroes” are interesting even when they’re not battling bad guys.

Director Joss Whedon expertly handles the action scenes. He thoroughly plans every shot to clearly capture every punch and explosion. Watching Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk and Iron Man go toe-to-toe in a citywide rampage is a delight. The only downside is the climactic battle, which takes place in a crumbling city besieged by Ultron’s robotic army and feels derivative of the final battle from the first film.

The film’s heart comes from its strong acting. Downey carries a majority of the film’s one-liners, and his sarcastic demeanor is charming. Evans’ Captain America is a good-natured and forceful leader, but Downey’s presence overshadows him. Evans only truly shines in the fast-paced action sequences. Spader’s Ultron possesses the charisma of a megalomaniac with a major God complex, and his sardonic nature is humorous and eerie at the same time.

The film does have flaws that keep it from being a true superhero epic. Some weak side-stories plague the plot. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is sent on a pointless side-quest, and the payoff only turns out to be a setup for the next sequel. Meanwhile, Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow suddenly become love interests, a twist that comes out of nowhere. The motivation behind their attraction is so thin that it’s difficult to believe. The film’s pacing is also off in some crucial moments. Ultron’s “birth” is rushed through too quickly, while a few quiet, sentimental moments run far too long.   

Overall, “Ultron” proves that superhero films still have some punch left in them. It may possess a few structural issues, but it remains a solid action film that embraces the fun and excitement of comic book stories. With heartfelt, funny performances by both the leaders of the team and the villain, “Ultron” is easily the next hit in Marvel’s long string of successes.

 

  • Director: Joss Whedon
  • Genre: Action
  • Runtime: 141 minutes
  • Rating: 8/10 Robot Armies

The Avengers

Thor portrayed by Chris Hemsworth, left, and Captain America, portrayed by Chris Evans, are shown in a scene from “The Avengers” (Photo courtesy of Disney).

Ever since Samuel L. Jackson poked his eye-patched head in for the post-credits stinger in “Iron Man,” audiences have been looking forward to the inevitable “Avengers” movie. In creating this film, Marvel Studios had to launch four separate franchises and establish four superheroes worth caring about in the process. One misstep, and it could have been a disaster. Not only did they do it, they absolutely nailed it. “The Avengers” is the best film in the Marvel canon, a massively entertaining summer blockbuster and a huge success for writer/director Joss Whedon.

Thanks to their respective setup films, we already know Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). It would be easy to say Whedon had all the tough work done for him since each of these heroes was established in their own film (or two), but juggling these big, distinct personalities could have been an equally foreboding challenge. Whedon doesn’t disappoint, and he crafts a true ensemble, even as each character gets his own big moment.

Each of the films preceding “The Avengers” had its own issues, but if there’s one thing Marvel has done right on a consistent basis, it’s casting. Chris Hemsworth has had a great month between this and the Whedon-scripted “The Cabin in the Woods,” and his Thor is much more layered and interesting as he is forced to battle with his brother, the nefarious Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Hiddleston is fantastic here, full of anger and insecurity, and his chemistry with Hemsworth gives the film’s conflict an emotional complexity that many comic book good vs. evil stories lack.

Evans and Downey are the characters who chafe the most often as Captain America’s unflappable optimism clashes with Iron Man’s shielded cynicism, and “The Avengers” is smart in the way it incorporates Tony Stark’s daddy issues into their relationship. Evans continues to impress as Steve Rogers is relocated to a time period he doesn’t understand, and Downey’s Tony Stark comes so naturally at this point that it’s impossible to discuss the character without thinking of his portrayal.

The only major cast member who didn’t get a chance to establish himself in a previous film is Mark Ruffalo, but he’s a perfect fit for Bruce Banner, and the Hulk ultimately ends up walking away with the movie. Ruffalo plays Banner not as an emotionally conflicted scientist, but as a man who’s come to terms with his unusual condition. When the Hulk finally comes out, it’s equal parts inevitable descent into madness and joyous celebration of destruction, and many of the best beats in Whedon’s sprawling Manhattan climax focus on the green force of nature..

For “The Avengers” to work, Marvel needed not only someone who could write well for its heroes, but someone who could deliver action scenes on a massive scale, and Joss Whedon turns out to be the perfect man for the job. His setup is quick and easy, and starting with the opening assault on a military base, Whedon stages his action scenes with incredible scope. From there, he just goes bigger and bigger, while never losing sight of his characters and infusing the most intense moments with a sharp sense of humor.

The film’s final action set piece, a sprawling alien invasion in Manhattan, is a climax in the truest sense of the word. Whedon finds a way to pay off character dynamics that have been simmering the entire film while staging one of the most impressive, massive action scenes to hit screens in far too long. Imagine the epic final battle in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” but this time, you actually care about the characters, and you have an idea of how insanely exciting and satisfying “The Avengers” is.

“The Avengers” is the event movie that every summer blockbuster wishes it could be, the final result of a grand, multi-franchise experiment that works better than anyone ever dreamed it could. Thanks to Joss Whedon, the strong cast and the undeniably smart people pulling the strings at Marvel, “The Avengers” is a resounding success and a wonderful start to what promises to be an unforgettable summer of movies.

Printed on Thursday, May 3, 2012 as: 'Avengers' blasts off with solid cast, staging

Sometimes, a film can have all the right ingredients: A proven, smart director, two immensely likeable stars, and a tried and true premise. And sometimes, even with all those ingredients, a film can rub you the wrong way or just fail. Unfortunately, “Due Date” is a perfect example of this.

Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis star as two men forced to drive across the country together after a misunderstanding on a plane lands them on the no-fly list. However, time is short, because Peter’s (Robert Downey Jr.) first child is being born in a matter of days. The set-up is bound to draw comparisons to the John Hughes classic “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” but where that film was heartfelt and warm in its humor, “Due Date” is obnoxious and annoying.

Almost every negative aspect to the film can be tied back to the screenplay, which is frustratingly inconsistent. It’s dark, but never enough to be taken seriously, and it never quite reaches the heights it’s aiming for in that respect. It’s got a handful of funny jokes, but that’s because of the sheer, irrepressible likability of its stars. Unfortunately, this about all the film has going for it. Its characters are empty vehicles, going wherever the lazy, obvious jokes demand they must. They don’t behave like real people, even though the film desperately wants us to take them and their arcs seriously.

Downey Jr. manages to come out mostly unscathed thanks to a few great moments, especially a late-night conversation at a rest stop that actually manages to be legitimately sweet. It feels like a scene out of a smarter, funnier film. Galifianakis, on the other hand, after his already-iconic role in last year’s “The Hangover” (from the same director), is ridiculous here, less a character than a collection of eccentricities and quirks played for laughs. It’s as if someone took his character from “The Hangover” and told him to be even weirder, but lose everything that made that character stand out in the first place. The results are almost depressing in their hollowness.

“Due Date” should have been a much funnier film, and on paper, it sounds like a surefire winner. However, an insurmountably weak script undoes the entire thing, despite the best efforts of its stars.