Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

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Edited by: Pat Aldo (cousin, co-author, Marvel expert)

Avengers: Age of Ultron is an exciting, action-filled spectacle and a new mark in the timeline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since the first Avengers, I’ve been waiting for this group of heroes to team up again, and here it is. I thought it would be hard to recreate the same kind of magic as seeing them assemble for the first time, but it wasn’t. There’s more character development this time around and we get to see the relationships within the team evolve. Everything I loved about The Avengers is back in Age of Ultron, with the addition of some new, interesting heroes and a different kind of villain. Marvel fans will likely be pleased with the result, but for those who aren’t quite on that bandwagon, it’s still a pretty fun blockbuster and there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy it too.

Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) are back together as an epic team to take down a HYDRA bunker run by Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), who is in possession of Loki’s scepter and is using it to experiment on humans. Siblings Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are two such humans who have developed abilities as a result. Scarlet Witch is capable of telekinesis and mind control, while Quicksilver can run at the speed of light. Because they have a personal vendetta against Stark, they allow him to take back the scepter, knowing full well what he’ll use it for will backfire. Ultimately, he and Banner use it to jump start a peacekeeping program called Ultron. Ultron, after seeing the kind of destruction people like the Avengers can cause, becomes a new threat who believes the only real path to peace is their extinction.

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Despite whatever feelings one might have about the movie’s flaws, Joss Whedon deserves a ton of credit for creating such a giant film that successfully juggles a large group of characters, ties up loose ends from the previous events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and sets up for the next few films to come, while at the same time, still maintains its own unique story. That may sound daunting, I know, but it never gets as overwhelming as you’d expect. What’s necessary to accept about the MCU is that “it’s all connected,” which means you’re going to get a lot more out of every film if you’ve been following the timeline up until this point. That’s not to say that none of the movies can stand up on their own, because many do, including Age of Ultron, but knowing what’s going on in regards to the bigger overall story is certainly going to affect your experience with it.

For me, there’s a special nerdy excitement I get out seeing these characters that I’ve been watching for the past 7 years interact with one another. What makes this experience different from the first Avengers is that the characters all know each other now so the relationships between each have had a chance to evolve. The smaller moments in the film where the team’s hanging out together are some of the best scenes, like when they’re partying at Avengers Tower and Thor challenges his fellow Avengers to try and lift Mjolnir. It’s also nice to see that some of the supporting characters from other movies aren’t totally forgotten about, like James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) from the Iron Man movies and Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) from The Winter Soldier.

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The action is just as good, if not better than in the first movie, starting out with a tracking shot following the team while they work together to breach the HYDRA bunker. It’s quickly paced and full of adrenaline, and of course, you’ve got the trademark humor and one-liners spread throughout. Take it how you will, some people enjoy the humor and others don’t. The jokes are excessive at times and it does down play the threat a little bit, but Marvel’s thing isn’t to be super serious, and that’s a theme that runs throughout all its films. If you haven’t accepted that by now, you probably never will.

The formula for Age of Ultron is definitely cut from the same mold as the first. There’s some build up of story which leads to a climactic battle, and then it winds down towards the end. Most, if not all superhero films follow this formula, so it may seem a bit repetitious, but the way it is executed definitely helps. There are plenty of epic moments in the action that make up for the over-familiarity and I love seeing the teamwork in play.

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One thing I was somewhat disappointed with was that Ultron wasn’t as menacing as the trailers made him seem. I think James Spader did a good job, but the most threatening aspect of his character was the fact that he can travel through the internet and access anything he wants, gaining him the upper hand. He’s also able to upload his consciousness to any of his robot legion as well. But these individual bots are pretty easily defeated, and thus prevent Ultron himself from contributing to the larger battle sequences. I think that besides Thanos, who’s been portrayed as the puppet-master of sorts, Loki remains the MCU’s best villain to date.

Additionally, I wasn’t overly fond of what they did with Black Widow’s role in this film. I like how both her and Hawkeye have more to do this time around, and Hawkeye’s character development is great, but I can’t help but feel like Widow was reduced to a stereotype. The romance between her and Banner seemed unwarranted, and it was too random for me to get behind. Their scenes together seemed cheesy and forced, and basically, I just wish they hadn’t made the only established female character on the team a love interest. I enjoyed finally discovering Widow’s backstory, but her character can be so stiff at times. This could just have something to do with Whedon’s take on her. Something my cousin, Pat, actually pointed out to me was that Widow and Scarlet Witch don’t exchange any dialogue in the film. I think if Marvel can improve on anything in the future, it’s the way they handle their female heroes, and I’m eager to see how they fare with the Captain Marvel movie, since it’ll be the first film in the MCU centered on a female character.

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The Maximoff twins, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, are both incredibly welcome additions to the film. The Witch’s abilities are, admittedly, cooler than Quicksilver’s speed, but they both work well together. I found her capability to manipulate the Avenger’s minds particularly awesome, allowing the team’s human nature and vulnerability to be revealed. Though the twins’ Eastern European accents may have proven to be a struggle at times, I think Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson fit their roles perfectly. I only wish that they had a little more screen time.

The best addition, however, would have to be the Vision. Hands down, Vision is the MCU’s latest breakout character, and his presence was insanely rewarding. This beloved comic book character, often referred to as “the Android Avenger,” is especially visually appealing, showcasing phasing abilities and powerful energy blasts. It’s fantastic to see Paul Bettany, who has been voicing Tony Stark’s A.I. program JARVIS for years now, finally assembling with the Avengers on-screen in physical form. He serves as a wealth of knowledge and powerhouse for the team, moving forward, and his addition to future installments is incredibly exciting!

The next adventure for our heroes will be in Captain America: Civil War in 2016. Judging by the emerging conflicts shown between Stark and Rogers, I’d say Age of Ultron has already set a pretty solid foundation for this upcoming plot. Despite whatever small faults I may have had with it, I think Whedon did a job worth recognizing with such a difficult task. Avengers: Age of Ultron is an enjoyable addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and an exciting reunion for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. I truly loved it.

4.5/5

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Lucy (2014)

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Lucy is a visually stunning movie whose biggest problem is not knowing what it actually wants to be. It is too philosophical and deals with themes too big for your generic Luc Besson action movie, and at the same time, despite taking itself way too seriously, it never delves deep enough into those themes to make it a legitimately clever sci-fi epic.

Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is a student in Taiwan whose boyfriend of one week forces her to deliver a suitcase full of drugs to a Korean gangster named Mr. Jang (Choi Mik-sik). She is then knocked out and when she wakes up, she learns that she has been cut open, and a package of a blue powdery drug called CPH4 has been stuffed into her lower abdomen for the purpose of being Mr. Jang’s new drug mule. However, after being kicked in the stomach, the package rips and the drugs leak into her body. These drugs cause a reaction within Lucy which allows her to use more than 10% of her brain’s capacity. This 10% theory is studied and lectured about by Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), and after Lucy reads 6,000-some-odd pages of Norman’s research in under a minute, she contacts him and asks him for his help.

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Although I kind of understand where Besson was trying to go with this story, I didn’t like how he got there. I have no problem ignoring the whole 10% of your brain theory, which I can only assume Besson wanted us to do by presenting it like it’s actually a fact, even though most people know it isn’t. I can pretend anything is true just for the sake of a good story. This story, however, wasn’t all that good. As soon as it starts to show a hint of real intelligence and raise some good questions, it becomes overshadowed with absurdity and mindless action.

I had a big problem with Mr. Jang, as well. I love the very talented Choi Min-sik and think he’s a pleasure to watch. He didn’t serve a real purpose to this movie, though. Mr. Jang might’ve been the reason Lucy ended up this way, but then he and his henchmen only became a side story as the movie went on. As Lucy became more powerful, it was clear he would never be able to hurt her. He became nothing more than a simple annoyance after a while, instead of an actual threat. His presence only worked for one reason, and that’s by acting as an example of man’s primitive nature, by showing violence and people killing people over stupid reasons. That’s the only smart reason I can give for why Besson felt the need to have the same old boring shoot-outs and car chases mixed in with a movie that is trying to be more clever than that. The more likely reason is that Besson, a person who has found his niche in action movies, simply just didn’t want to give up the shoot-outs and car chases.

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But let’s think about the first reason for a second. As the movie goes on, and Lucy achieves a higher percentage of brain capacity, she loses the need for violence. She goes from shooting a cab driver just for not speaking English, to simply incapacitating a mob of Koreans with her mind, when she could’ve just as easily massacred them. She moves further away from her primitive being and her natural animalistic instincts (there are actual clips of animals doing animal things throughout the whole movie) and transcends into a being that uses her mind for much more than just taking lives.

At the same time, as her brain capacity grows, she starts to lose sight of the things that make her human. She no longer feels pain, fear or love. Having access to all of this knowledge has made her the equivalent of a monotone robot, which could explain why Scarlett Johansson has given such a rigid and lifeless performance. But then you have to ask yourself, if being intellectually superior means sacrificing your humanity, is having access to all this knowledge really all that worth it? The movie bases itself on the idea that humans are wasting their potential, and yet it doesn’t present the opposite as being all that appealing. The opening line of the movie is, “Life was given to us a billion years ago, what have we done with it?” Huh? You mean aside from building cities, discovering technology and improving medicine? Sure, I’d love to move stuff with my mind too, but I wouldn’t want to walk around acting like Robocop in the process.

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Lucy had a lot of potential, treading on similar waters of that which movies like Transcendence tried to do as well. It is not easy to tackle big themes like the purpose of life and man’s capacity for living it, while being too distracted by action that serves no real purpose. I’ll give the movie credit for being somewhat entertaining, visually appealing, and for touching on a few clever points. But overall, it seemed like it failed to accomplish what it set out to. Unless, of course, it set out to tell us that the best way to live life to its potential is to become exposed to a large quantity of drugs that will unlock our brains so that we may kick ass, take names and eventually transcend outside of our physical bodies. If that’s the case, then it succeeded, and I apologize for judging it too harshly.

2/5