With Warner Bros. about to launch their own DC Comics shared-universe in next year’s Dawn of Justice, the fans have already come to a consensus: The movie looks too dark, too serious, edgy purely for its own sake, and Ben Affleck should not be Batman. Aside from the latter, those are all legitimate concerns, and we’ll just have to wait and see how things shake out a year from now. I mention all of that to say this: Avengers: Age of Ultron goes so far in the opposite direction that it doubles down on everything fans seemed to love about the first Avengers, both for better and for worse. Joss Whedon and Marvel Studios are giving the fans exactly what they want here, never stopping for a moment to consider that what the fans want might be incredibly stupid.
The film picks up with our plucky band of heroes still cleaning up the Hydra mess leftover from last year’s Winter Soldier. The Avengers are on the hunt for Loki’s scepter (from way back in the first Avengers), but instead stumble across a hidden factory with a few deep, dark secrets. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) sees potential in one of those secrets and decides to bring his new toy home with him. With the help of science buddy Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Stark wants to engineer a robotic peacekeeping system that would finally allow him to quit the Iron Man gig once and for all. Of course, as with any story about artificial intelligence, things immediately veer into Terminator territory. The AI, named Ultron (James Spader, absolutely luxuriating in the sound of his own voice), takes the form of one of Stark’s robots and decides the only way to save the Earth is by destroying humanity.
And of course, the first step in destroying humanity is destroying the Avengers. This is where Ultron’s sidekicks, Sokovian twins Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), come into play. While Pietro runs really fast and punches dudes in the face, Wanda uses her mind powers to exploit the Avengers’ worst fears. For Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) and Bruce it’s issues of intimacy; for Thor (Chris Hemsworth) it’s the specter of death; and for Tony Stark it’s the otherworldly, almost Lovecraftian nightmare that Marvel has been teasing for years now. This sudden plague of doubt causes the Avengers to splinter and question their own ability to do anything as a cohesive unit.
Taken on its own, Ultron’s plot far outmatches its predecessor, if only by the sheer number of twists, turns and developments that crop up along the way. Looking back, the first Avengers’ story is almost punishingly simplistic for a film that runs nearly two and a half hours. At the time, I remember being genuinely disgusted that Marvel’s five-year plan amounted to little more than “They fight aliens.” One could level the same complaint about Ultron’s “They fight robots” finale, but this time around the script works in enough digressions (like Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue) and sets up enough other plot points that it doesn’t feel like a waste just to get there. (Still, Thor splits halfway through the movie to go hang out in a hot tub with Stellan Skårsgard to learn things he presumably already knows.) From a franchise point of view, this film is essentially a highway rest stop on the long road to Infinity War, but at least this time the audience has the benefit of knowing that going in.
To augment the film’s zig-zagging, globetrotting plot, Whedon & Co. throw a number of increasingly insane action sequences at us, beginning with the raid that kicks off the film. This sequence takes place in a forest inhabited by the kind of dense fog that helps maintain the illusion of shot continuity. Moving forward things continue to open up, as Stark first must battle the Hulk in a crowded city (where the fog turns to smog), then later as the team battles Ultron in a highway chase borrowed from a lesser Die Hard, and finally as the whole gang defends a city from Ultron’s army of toy robots. The Stark/Hulk fight is unique, in that it at least attempts to address complaints about the destruction caused in the first film, painting the Hulk’s rampage almost as a kind of humanitarian crisis. This pays off during the finale, as the film puts just as much focus on the team’s rescue efforts as it does on the team defeating Ultron. This almost plays like a direct response to the finale of Man of Steel, in which Superman and General Zod punch each other through scores of buildings with seemingly no regard for the civilian casualties in between. (It also seems like a misunderstanding of the context in which that film places its finale, but that’s an argument for another day.)
But it’s the split-focus across the board where the film runs into trouble. The plot in Whedon’s script feels well-developed (or at least, by the standards of the genre), but his dialogue tips the one-liners into overdrive. It’s as though the only lesson he took to heart about his first outing was that people loved the jokes. Suddenly every character is the funniest guy in the room, including Captain America (Chris Evans), who gets to deliver the very first quip and then catches hell for it for the entire rest of the film. The zingers come so fast and furious that even Ultron — you know, the villain; the guy we’re supposed to hate and fear — can’t help but turn every line into a joke on itself. While Spader is more than capable of spinning Ultron’s dialogue into perfect little bon mots, the script offers them with such frequency that it undercuts the tension of the whole film.
I realize I’m talking about killer robots and hulking brutes here, but if I can’t buy into the threat that a villain poses, why should I care if the heroes defeat him? Ultron’s plot for world destruction is evil, sure, and I buy that he himself is physically imposing, but when did a snarky attitude trump menace? Tom Hiddleston’s Loki walked that line perfectly; he was as gleefully arrogant as he was menacing. The guy had personality for days, so much so that they brought him back twice. As a villain, Ultron mostly just seems annoying. I hope Marvel rights this issue by the time Thanos shows up as a major player, or else the whole enterprise will have been for nothing.
Ultron is a fine film to kickoff the summer movie season, but I’m beginning to feel like these characters are running out of places to go. It’s impressive that it took eleven films for me to say that, but still. While the film makes good use of some of the series’ utility players (Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye suddenly becomes sympathetic, and JARVIS finally shows up onscreen wearing Paul Bettany’s face), you can actually see the moment where Whedon realizes he’s just spinning his wheels on Iron Man, Captain America and Thor. If Marvel’s Phase Three intends to be the end of the road for some of these characters, it’s coming not a moment too soon.Liked This? Share It!