You never get a second chance to make a first impression. The Avengers clicked with both Marvel fans and general audiences because we loved watching these massive egos clash for the first time. It was the perfect blend of action and attitude, and its mastermind, Joss Whedon, was handed the golden ticket to Marvel’s keystone franchise. The long-awaited sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron, shows the strain of trying to be bigger-and-better while still indulging the subtle pleasures of its predecessor. It succeeds, just barely, on the strength of a talented cast and our fondness for these characters. Still, it’s a decidedly somber affair that will turn off casual fans, and it stands as the most impersonal, and arguable weakest installment of Marvel’s vaunted “Phase Two.”
Perhaps Avengers: Age of Ultron was destined to let us down. Not only did it shoulder the unrealistic expectations engendered by The Avengers, it also had to follow in the footsteps of last year’s quirky delight, Guardians of the Galaxy. The Avengers aren’t the only irreverent super-team on the block now.
Writer-director Joss Whedon crafts a reasonably interesting story this time out, but the exhilarating sense of discovery is long gone. The result is an oddly flat affair. Too often, his larger-than-life characters disappear into the surrounding mayhem; tiny figures dwarfed by the computer-generated canvas. Rather than cracking wise about the ridiculousness of their predicament (Hawkeye has one killer line to sum up the situation, but that’s about it), these Avengers are all business. The quiet character moments, such a huge part of The Avengers charm, are little more than brief respites between monstrous set pieces in Ultron. Not surprisingly, these are the strongest parts of the film, and salvage what would otherwise be a pedestrian action extravaganza.
The plot, as with most Marvel properties, functions mostly to set up future canon and tie up the loose ends from previous films. This time out, the Infinity Stone inside of Loki’s scepter is used by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to power an artificial intelligence capable of battling their enemies, both alien and domestic. To the shock of absolutely no one, the plan goes horrible wrong and Ultron (James Spader), a super-intelligent android with an unquenchable bloodlust, is born. That Stark keeps his research secret, pre-empting any snarky resistance from his cohorts, tells us that Whedon is working against the cinematic clock. It’s quite likely he’s working against his instincts as a writer, as well. These moments of ‘laidback’ drama that characterized The Avengers are completely absent in Ultron and the loss is palpable.
Everyone from The Avengers is back. Banner and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are a thing now, apparently. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is Thorier than ever, Captain America (Chris Evans) still loves giving inspirational speeches, and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) finally gets a backstory so we know who the hell he is. The two newest cast members are Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his twin sister, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). “He’s fast and she’s weird,” seems to be the consensus on their ‘enhanced’ abilities. Those fretting over Quicksilver appearing outside of X-Men circles should embrace the immortal words of Joel Hodgson, “Be good to yourself, it’s just a show; you should really just relax.”
When you’re dealing with flawed humans (and one dimwitted immortal), the line between hero and monster is razor thin. “Everyone creates the thing they dread,” a largely uninteresting Ultron gravely intones. Whedon keeps this worthwhile theme lurking in the background, but there’s simply not enough elbow room to properly flesh it out. If there was ever a character to explore this mythos it would be the Hulk, but Whedon keeps fan favorite Iron Man as the central protagonist; the safest play for a billion dollar franchise. Still, despite Stark’s continued fragility after the ‘New York incident,’ he seems strangely absent and uninvolved. In fact, given the impossibility of weaving so many characters into a coherent story, each Avenger must disappear for long stretches. It undermines not only the grander themes of the movie, but limits their characteristic byplay with each another.
Luckily, there are still times when the gang settles down long enough to torment each other. A friendly wager over who can lift Thor’s prized hammer re-appears throughout Ultron, as does Captain America’s aversion to potty language. The scenes between Ruffalo and Johansson are terrific, with Johansson doing some of her rangiest dramatic work yet. Also effective are the quiet moments at Renner’s “safe house,” where characters pair up and pick at their open wounds. These scenes are the lifeblood of the Avengers franchise, and we leave the theater relishing every morsel thrown our way.
If Ultron has half the humor of The Avengers, it has twice the action. Big, loud, frenetic, and mostly unimaginative action. In fact, there is so much action that it ceases to be interesting. And some of it looks bad. Real bad. The pre-title sequence, which finds the Avengers assaulting a HYDRA hideout in the woods, is cartoonishly bad, with CGI characters moving in thoroughly unhuman ways.
As is the case with most action pictures (excluding the adrenaline-charged Furious Seven), when the action begins, the fun quickly ends. Ultron, unlike its self-aware predecessor, is irony-free. One could argue that these characters are growing wearier as their adversaries increase in strength, but the pendulum has swung too far in the solemn direction. The ending, too, feels like a carbon copy from The Avengers, with each character taking their turn against the big baddie while everyone else fights nameless, faceless henchmen. It’s safe to say that most viewers would gladly sacrifice 10 minutes of this filler in favor of a tighter, more compelling ending.
But time and time again, just as it appears things are slipping away, the likeability and charisma of the cast pulls us along. It’s not just a collection of terrific action heroes, but wonderfully gifted actors who lend instant credibility to all of this outrageous nonsense. Yes, it would be nice to see Mark Ruffalo hog more screen time or let Chris Evans flex a bit more than his muscles, but this is an ensemble cast that works together impeccably. They simply refuse to let Ultron fail.
Ultimately, despite its many flaws, Avengers: Age of Ultron provides just enough spectacle and flavor to warrant a big screen viewing. But the seams are definitely showing. Given the studio’s mandate to expand the Marvel Universe at all costs, it’s alarming to see a gifted filmmaker like Joss Whedon struggle to get it right. In the hands of a lesser artist, this might have been a disaster. As it stands, Age of Ultron is a movie for diehard Marvel fans only. Casual viewers can sit this one out. Here’s hoping that Ant-Man can re-capture the sublime joy of discovery once again.