Age of Ultron is a fine title, but I might have called the Avengers sequel Age of A Lot. There’s a lot happening in this movie. A lot of characters, a lot of intersecting storylines, a lot of pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo, a lot of special effects, a lot of action, a lot of incident, a lot of a lot. Meanwhile, in short supply: imagination, variation, respite.
I enjoyed watching it, but I haven’t really enjoyed thinking about it afterwards. Mostly because I’m not sure my brain can handle the convoluted machinations that drive nearly every scene of this ultra- (ultron?)-long, ultra-confusing behemoth. It doesn’t need a little less talk and a lot more action – it needs a little less of all of the above.
What’s frustrating is that so many of the component parts for a successful sequel are in place. The stakes are higher, with the fate of the entire planet in the hands of the Avengers as the evil robot Ultron (voiced with relish by James Spader) wreaks international havoc. The banter is zingier, with quips flying left and right. (My favorite, from Hawkeye: “The city’s floating, giant robots are attacking and I have a bow-and-arrow. Nothing makes sense.”) The cast of characters is deeper, with franchise newcomers Andy Serkis, Linda Cardellini and Julie Delpy joining Marvel Cinematic Universe supporting players like Don Cheadle, Idris Elba, Hayley Atwell, Samuel L. Jackson and Anthony Mackie.
(Aside: Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman are offscreen for this installment. I wasn’t in the room for contract negotiations, but the scene in which Maria Hill asks Tony Stark and Thor about their significant others struck me as a rather unpleasant reminder that Marvel movies treat women as romantic objects and ancillary players almost exclusively. Black Widow’s arc in this movie made matters no better.)
But some of those positives don’t really seem like positives in translation from paper to screen. An abstract sense of higher stakes doesn’t make up for the fact that the explanation for Ultron’s existence, motivations and collapse doesn’t hold up to even the slightest scrutiny. The script is full of one-liners, yes, but many of them play like the script read “INSERT ONE-LINER HERE.” And the bigger cast means that almost no one, save Hawkeye of all people, gets a complete storyline grounded in humanity.
Maybe that’s the biggest problem. Instead of finding something new to say with these characters with whom audiences are extremely familiar at this point, writer-director Joss Whedon and the Marvel empire at large seem content to rehash old tropes, slapping a fresh coat of paint on a shoddy story and hoping no one will notice the holes. Once again, Black Widow develops a spontaneous romantic interest in one of the Avengers, and once again said Avenger (Bruce Banner, played with wonderful restraint by an ultra-chill Mark Ruffalo) seems more mystified than aroused. Once again, the movie closes with a protracted action sequence that makes mush of the location but leaves the characters the same afterwards as they were before. Even with the attempted emotional through-line of Scarlet Witch’s mind manipulation, what’s missing is a sense of discovery and danger. Invincibility has its downsides.
(Second aside: Joss Whedon does many things well, but directing action isn’t really one of them.)
Marvel is still printing money with these movies. There’s no reason for anyone involved in that company to look at the box office numbers for Age of Ultron and think anything needs fixing. Indeed, the problem isn’t that Marvel movies are terrible. This one is no exception – the sequence in which Iron Man tries to tame Hulk in the African city is effective, as is the mid-movie breather at Linda Cardellini’s farmhouse. The lead performances continue to be excellent, even when their material lets them down. (The very funny Chris Hemsworth has little to play as usual.)
But don’t be surprised if the numbers start to trend downward, even as media coverage of the MCU reaches new heights. Headlines describing Whedon’s experience directing this movie as “soul-crushing” probably won’t help. Nor will the swelling accusations of sexism. Avengers: Age of Ultron is a very loud, very long, occasionally lovely piece of status quo maintenance, but the status quo was made to be challenged.
Perhaps the most dispiriting thing about Avengers: Age of Ultron is the collection of trailers that precedes it, at least in the showing I saw. If that snapshot of the year ahead is any indication, Hollywood is doubling down on name brands without understanding the core of their appeal. The appeal of Jurassic Park is the sense of wonder that precedes the horror of dinosaurs gone rogue, not the rogue dinos themselves.
Batman isn’t cool because he speaks in a guttural growl and wears an intimidating cape, but because he stands for a kind of vigilante justice that reflects audiences’ current fears and tastes.
Similarly, the Avengers aren’t interesting because they use big words and glower. They’re fun because they can do things that we can’t and look good doing them. When Age of Ultron understands that fundamental idea, it’s a lot of fun. When it doesn’t, it’s a lot of everything else.