Marvel Studios has had since 2008 to hone their brand of superhero filmmaking to a sweet science of spectacle and Avengers: Age of Ultron, for better and worse, is the culmination of this craft. It is the definitive Marvel movie, delivering humorous characters, a real sense of scope, and shinier bells and more explosive whistles than ever before. Unfortunately, though undoubtedly the biggest and most expensive-looking in an unstoppable billion-dollar franchise, it’s unwieldy size threatens to collapse in on itself.
It makes sense, then, that the plot would center around the Avenger’s nearly bringing about their own destruction, by creating a peacekeeping AI named Ultron (played by James Spader) that — what else — immediately proceeds to do the opposite of peacekeeping. It’s an incredibly familiar, dare I say lazy setup, though an admitted step up from the “we need to get the cube before the bad guys do” premise of the first one.
Luckily, Spader makes for a fairly interesting villain, at least in comparison to Loki, mostly because of how much like his creator he is. Whereas previous Marvel villains are wholly self-serious entities, it is Ultron’s ability to serve up witty observations in the same snarky tone as Robert Downey, Jr. that makes him into something creepy and strangely intimidating.
As with every other film in the Marvel-verse, the dialogue oscillates between tongue-in-cheek and melodramatic, often leaving the film tonally jumbled. This has perhaps been the most long-standing problem throughout the franchise, aside from weak villains. How can we be expected to laugh at a situation one second and be expected to regard it with the utmost urgency the next? Giving Ultron the ability to be both tongue-in-cheek and melodramatic is a good starting point, but not enough to shake the feeling that this is all just a big, fleeting amusement park ride with no real stakes. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that.
For what it’s worth, one of my biggest problems with the first Avengers, how long it took to get going, has been swiftly resolved. The opening sequence, in fact the best in the entire film, is a super-fast, suitably epic battle that showcases all of the Avengers in action and highlights the creative ways in which they can complement each other’s powers and unique forms of witty banter. The special effects, of course, are best in class and without the need to bring the whole team together, we are left to watch the heroes we know and love go to town.
Though this first scene demonstrates the best that Marvel has to offer, the rest of the film quickly succumbs to repetition and contrived gibberish. In a bid to keep the story from feeling entirely like a retread, we are introduced to secondary characters Quicksilver (played by Godzilla‘s insufferably boring Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Scarlet Witch (played by Godzilla‘s talented but perpetually wasted Elizabeth Olsen), and later Vision (played by Paul Bettany, who has voiced Iron Man’s robotic assistant Jarvis since the first Iron Man). With an already large ensemble of main characters, these second fiddles are never fleshed out in any meaningful way, only adding more and more piles of plot and forming a narrative that is under-complicated and overly-complicated at the same time. The circumstances surrounding the Vision character in particular are completely nonsensical.
The treatment of the main Avengers themselves are more favorable. This is the second time Joss Whedon has mashed the several different sectors of the comic book universe together, and yet again he does a great job giving each of the major characters their own time in the spotlight. Of special note is the emphasis given to Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, a character who in the first film felt like a complete nobody with nothing unique to offer (his one special power is ripped off from Katniss Everdeen, after all). In this film, not only does Renner get the best lines, we learn more about him than anyone else. Smartly, Whedon focuses on the character’s own feelings of insignificance within a team of super-gifted or supernatural peers.
Also enjoyable is the bevy of small cameo appearances from other characters from previous films. Don Cheadle, Anthony Mackie, Stellan Skarsgard, Samuel L. Jackson and more all stop by to provide the world with a little more cohesiveness. And those that that are missing, like Gwenyth Paltrow, are explained in self-aware jokes that the series still has in spades.
Of all the main Avengers, it’s Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow who get short shrift. Thor’s subplot is nothing but setup for future movies. Black Widow is utilized for a particularly unnecessary, tacked-on romance that continues to highlight the need for real female superheroes who do more than serve as a plot device for the other, male heroes. Her shreds of backstory feel like a halfhearted attempt to counteract the lack of actual character development in the movie, but only serves to emphasize the problem further.
As for the requisite bombastic final showdown, it’s still a generic and overstuffed excuse to see the Avengers destroy hordes of faceless bad guys, and isn’t much more than a big mash-up between the final sequences of the first film and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But at the very least it is a more dynamic scenario than each of those separate films, and has enough emotional beats within it to break up the monotonous laser-and-punch-filled fireworks display.
Congested with characters and hamstrung by the need to one-up itself, Avengers: Age of Ultron has absolutely zero room to carve out an identity other than being “bigger” than its predecessor. Marvel has yet to solve the sequel problem that has plagued almost every major superhero franchise (see Spider-Man 3, X-Men: The Last Stand, and The Dark Knight Rises). Instead, the studio tends to provide innovation only through its side stories, as demonstrated by Guardians of the Galaxy. But as disappointing as this is, the formula works. And I suppose that as long as movies like this one keep money flowing to fund the studio’s more daring efforts, there’s only so much complaining that can be rightfully done. Especially when even the generic efforts are still fun enough to keep audiences engaged in the larger universe.
Score: 3.5 out of 5