'Avengers: Age of Ultron'
The biggest problem with ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ is simply that no movie could have possibly lived up to its expectations. 2012’s ‘The Avengers’ had the advantage of being the first movie to combine independent superhero franchises into a rock ’em, sock ’em team-up. The sequel had to not only follow the third most successful blockbuster in history (for now, give ‘Furious 7’ time), but offer satisfying plot threads for five protagonists, introduce four major new players, and deliver massive action scenes every 20 minutes.
That was pretty much impossible, yet Joss Whedon did his best and has delivered a damn fun movie. It’s just not the greatest comic book blockbuster ever made, and unfortunately for some fans that’ll mean the whole production is a failure.
Things kick off in the middle of a big action scene in which Whedon attempts to top his one-take-wonder from the last ‘Avengers’. It’s a bold opening and a heck of a lot of fun, but doesn’t pack the same wallop as the first time, which is indicative of the movie as a whole. From there, we learn that the gang are seeking out the Loki-pokey stick from the last movie. They find it. All is well – at least until Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, duh) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., double duh) decide to use a little of the technology they discover at the secret base containing the stick to launch the A.I. Avenger project they were batting around, called Ultron.
With that mission accomplished, it’s time to party, with the gang cracking wise Whedon-style and reminding us why we love these crazy cats. Then Ultron (James Spader) bursts into the room to announce his plans to be the villain in ‘Avengers 2’. After that, the gang must bicker and battles must commence. Captain America (Chris Evans) frets about justice, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) goes on a mission that goes nowhere, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) falls for The Hulk, and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) gets a personality. Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are introduced, as is Vision (Paul Bettany). A few other subplots pop up, and it all builds toward a finale in which Whedon cleverly toys with the MCU “stuff falls onto a city” climax cliché.
As you might have noticed, that’s a hell of a lot of plot for one movie, even at 141 minutes. In recent weeks, rumors have spread about a 3.5 hour rough cut of ‘Age of Ultron’. Looking at the final cut, that seems entirely possible. At times, things feel a little too rushed, while at other times threads are left dangling (like whatever Thor’s original plot was supposed to be). The filmmakers still manage to condense all the sprawling excess and unfinished subplots into a satisfying summer blockbuster, so it’s hard to complain too much.
Given the massive expectations that Marvel movie lovers will have upon entering the theater, the easiest first reaction is to fret over all the things that this sequel isn’t. However, doing that requires you to ignore what the movie actually is, and that’s a mistake given all the geeky fun on display.
First off, Whedon’s crackling snappy dialogue and characterization are in full force. With the Avengers now finally a team, he lets the gang banter off each other freely with some big laughs sneaking in. Some of the best scenes and moments in the movie don’t involve a single explosion. They’re the result of Whedon and his cast having fun with the characters, whether they’re arguing over who can pick up Thor’s hammer or icing Don Cheadle whenever he tries to tell a War Machine story because his adventures can’t compare to Avengers shenanigans. This time, Whedon writes his Avengers like old friends, and the audience is invited in on their private party.
Downey, Evans, Hemsworth, Ruffalo and Johansson all wear their roles like comfy old pajamas now, so they slide into that tone with ease. Renner gets a bit more meat and backstory to chew on at long last, so Hawkeye finally feels like a full character. (Given everything else going on, he only gets a fraction of the running time, so don’t expect too much.) Olsen and Taylor-Johnson make for an amusing Russian-accented tragic hero team in their roles, even if they’re mostly setting themselves up for expansion in later Marvel movies. (Ditto Bettany, whose Vision looks and feels right, but is ultimately a ringer tossed into the mix for the finale.) Meanwhile, James Spader smarms and sleazes out a delightful voice performance as Ultron, who is officially the most sarcastic movie robot outside of Douglas Adams’ creations. Spader’s Ultron is one of the most enjoyable Marvel villains to date, but that’s mostly because – aside from Loki and Red Skull – he doesn’t have much competition in that department.
The action sequences are certainly big and expensive with a few amazing highlights, such as the long-awaited Hulkbuster fight and Captain America’s unique use of a motorcycle as a projectile. However, action spectacle has never been Whedon’s greatest strength, and overall the movie represents a mild step down from the explosive eye-candy of last summer’s Marvel blockbusters. His ability to juggle characters and plotlines with pithy ease is remarkable, though. The mere fact that he managed to deliver a movie with this many moving parts that somehow feels cohesive and propulsive is a heroic task that most viewers will take for granted.
If the movie seems a little light on style and subtext after ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’, that’s likely because there just wasn’t space for more. Whedon touches on the perils of A.I., the challenges of being a hero in this wonky world, and questions the motivations of the Avengers, but doesn’t dwell too much on any of those themes because he has a climax to deliver and individual character fan bases to satisfy.
If ‘Age of Ultron’ feels a little hollow, that might be a result of this sequel not serving as a payoff to Marvel Phase 2 like the last ‘Avengers’ did for Phase 1. All the movies in this run were more self-contained, and the few franchise seeds they planted either set up the upcoming ‘Infinity Wars’ or ‘Civil War’. Whedon couldn’t do too much to rock the boat. This is a mid-season adventure in the grand scheme of the MCU. It’s big and fun and loaded with fan service, but it ultimately doesn’t advance things much. The sequel just gets the band back together for one more big show and squeezes in as much superhero fun as possible. I can’t complain about that. If anything, it’s Marvel’s fault for suggesting that all ‘Avengers’ adventures must be universe-shattering events. That’s never been the case. Some ‘Avengers’ comics are just new adventures that only a team of the mightiest heroes could possibly take. ‘Age of Ultron’ feels like one of those comics on a $300 million scale.
Whedon and co. also deserve credit for delivering an unapologetically nerdy superhero experience without any concessions to mainstream audiences. Characters wear capes, shoot lasers from their heads, and engage in all manner of larger-than-life heroics with no connection to the laws and logic of our world. If you’d shown a Comic-Con crowd this movie ten years ago, they wouldn’t have believed such a thing is possible and would have wept with joy. Now we’re all jaded enough to expect this sort thing from a superhero flick. That doesn’t mean that ‘Avengers 2’ isn’t a very impressive and satisfying bit of comic book blockbuster fluff. It just means that the bar keeps getting raised and anyone who dares to make superhero blockbuster now had better really step up his game or the genre will die quickly through repetition.
We’re not quite at the point of total superhero saturation just yet, but if a blockbuster as accomplished as ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ feels even remotely like a letdown, then clearly we’re well on our way to that sad future.