Avengers: Age of Ultron, is the 11th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe®, the 2nd big Marvel team-up helmed by beloved nerd auteur Joss Whedon where Earth’s Mightiest Heroes™ must band together, squabble with each other, party together, argue and also save the world from a deadly threat unleashed by themselves. Apparently, The Avengers’ goal was for the world not to need them anymore, but it seems like the world will always need the Avengers as long as the Avengers are around. Which is kind of a metaphor for how this multi-billion dollar franchise of interconnected films has become. 11 films into this series have had their ups (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and downs (Thor: The Dark World) but mostly a lot of it has begun to feel middling (Guardians of the Galaxy). You can really feel the bubble that has been the Marvel superhero films begin to burst, if not strain with this iteration that provides a solid and entertaining time at best, but at worst seems like a 2 & ½ hour teaser for over 9 upcoming films. These films have essentially become their own marketing vehicles. However, there is an impressive spectacle on display here in the ways only a big Hollywood movie can provide, not to mention a fun character playhouse that only a theater-junkie like Whedon can provide when not pulled by the requirements of the ever-insular Marvel movie lore.
There’s no getting around it: this movie is a hot mess, sorely lacking the narrative grace that Whedon was able to bring to the first installment. This tale of rogue artificial intelligence, clashing character ideologies, forbidden romance and more throws around an exorbitant amount of ideas and themes but they all seem woefully undercooked. On the other hand, an argument could be made that this is one of the few Marvel movies that’s at the very least actually *about* something. The Avengers was mostly about the value of cooperation and even made some surface-level inquiries into American exceptionalism. Age of Ultron is all about confronting the invincibility of superheroes that have begun making the stakes incredibly low throughout this particular genre; these characters now have their strength pitted against how powerless they are to solve the impermanence of mortal life and the stasis required to sustain the Avengers’/America’s role in the world. The titular character that gets all of this rolling, mad-robot Ultron (voiced by the dulcet tones of James Spader) who for all of the interesting yet murky quirks regarding his intangibility – still winds up as an unholy disaster of a character. Yet, there was a brief period of time in this movie where Ultron was poised as a meaningful foil for the heroes.
Speaking of our heroes, the good news is that these are still the same motley crew of lovable misfits, for better or worse. One of the things I loved about the 1st film was the length it went to distinguish each character from one another beyond costume, actor or power set. They all had a unique voice and helped that film feel like a true ensemble piece in the best way possible. That becomes a problem here, for as entertaining as the banter and interactions between the cast, Whedon ends up falling into his usual trap of falling in love with his quip-heavy stylized dialogue a bit too much leading most of the characters to act and speak with the same voice for most of the running time. This approach definitely works for some characters but when everyone is all snarky, glib and slangy and everything is a joke, it can take you out of the experience when not applicable to certain scenes. There’s an early scene in the movie set at a party where our heroes enjoy some down time, and while I certainly never really wanted such an fun and down-to-earth scene to end, that shaggy hangout tone and cadence to the scene need not apply to scenes where dramatic stakes are priority.
I’ve been known to not be totally on board with Joss Whedon’s whole approach to writing and filmmaking but it was nice to have such a clear creative thumbprint on a Marvel Cinematic Universe® movie, which have started to suffer from an encroaching sense of generic. However, this might have been one of those rare instances where I would have loved to see MORE of Joss Whedon’s control over the film. As I mentioned before, there is a myriad of underdeveloped character arcs and plots to the film and I have no doubt that many of these were just used as setup/foreshadowing for later films or comic lore teasers. You can definitely feel the strains of the demands that every Marvel movie hit the same points on a checklist with the same look, structure and climax as every Marvel movie since 2012s Avengers. The film also falls apart by its effects-leaden last 1/3rd like most superhero films end up doing (did we learn nothing from Man of Steel?). The stuff that Whedon does actually seem interested on, i.e. the inner workings of the characters, the ambitious thematic material, all feel rushed or partly excised to make room for the other stuff. This is definitely a film where I am interested in seeing a “director’s extended cut” which might provide a more complete meal of some of the film’s more interesting parts.
I don’t want to be too harsh on the film though, because what actually does work in the film just WORKS. When not espousing dialogue a “cool” sarcastic teen would come up with, the cast of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow(Scarlett Johansson), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) are pretty much in full mind meld with their respective characters and rightly so having all played them in multiple features up to this point. None of these characters ever really grow or change over the course of the film but Whedon is really good at giving the impression that these are full characters through crafty use of shorthand. Side characters like War Machine (Don Cheadle, who seems to be having the time of his life), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and “Samuel L. Jackson w/ an Eyepatch” all make immediate impressions recalling their previous film appearances at best but at worst seem to exist to shill their next Marvel movie. However, chances are if you’re seeing this, you are more interested in what the new faces bring to the table because you already know that the aforementioned cast members would be up to task. We have a pair of mutants (except we can’t call them mutants because X-Men are not *yet* part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe®) called Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver played by the underrated Elizabeth Olsen and the charisma vacuum Aaron Taylor-Johnson respectively. There’s nothing wrong with either of their performances per se though Olsen stands out more due to her playing her character like a J-Horror ghost who really loves voguing; it’s just that we never really get a real good look into these characters as people instead of plot devices. Likewise, it’s a little murky as to whether or not Paul Bettany as “new” character, Vision, is or isn’t playing the same character he’s been playing in the previous films but he suffers the most from the plot device-not-person syndrome despite a striking visual design that’s refreshingly mostly cool makeup effects. Special note should be given to Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, who actually does get to be a fully-fledged character this time around and the unique privilege of becoming the surprise star of the show.
The real stars of most blockbusters these days unfortunately are the special effects. In this film, the visuals are both practical but mostly computer-generated and are mostly great. It helps that the action direction and choreography through the movie is engaging and stylish enough to make up for many shots looking daytime soap cheap. Early sequences in the film evoke the 1st film’s model of how to develop spatial relations in a computer-generated collage but later fight scenes here feel as hastily stitched from bland shots as they did in Guardians of the Galaxy and the less said about eye-torturing finale that makes even Zack Snyder look restrained, the better. The filmmakers do however manage to create distinct visuals of each of the super-characters’ power sets and fighting styles though, with standouts being Scarlet Witch’s crimson magic dance, Captain America’s Yuen-Wu-Ping inspired martial arts and an Iron Man v Hulk battle that will have many nerds peeing themselves with glee.
I’m not nearly as enthusiastic as most dyed-in-the-wool fans but I’ve certainly enjoyed almost all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe® movies, especially on first viewing and have always been interested enough to see how this franchise, which has been around since 2008, would evolve. However, I can’t help but feel a sense of diminishing returns or dilution with every passing installment. Their once fresh impact on blockbuster films and filmmaking has weakened with the movies beginning to take on certain sameness to them. I get that it’s purposefully built to be like we are watching consecutive episodes of a very large, very expensive TV show, but can that really be a good thing for cinema? Sure we all might generally love the show, but it’s beginning to feel less like “event” and more like an obligation albeit a pleasant enough one at that.
So yes, Avengers: Age of Ultron is fine. There are a few good jokes, some solid action, some interesting ambitions but almost nothing surprising or very memorable. I’m interested enough to not only see maybe the next Marvel movie or so, but also the rumored director’s cut of this one and that’s more than can be said about previous entries. However as it stands, I think it’s well time we got past the hurdle of simply being excited at seeing comics mythos and icons brought to life well on-screen and now these movies need to start taking those concepts off to actual interesting and even risky places. Or I guess we’ll all just tune in next time regardless.