What to say about The Avengers: Age of Ultron? It’s certainly a Marvel movie; a spectacle-heavy rationing of motormouthed zingers, busy with whip-pan, slo-mo action montages and done up like a prom queen with CG glitz. It’s the insatiable younger brother to Joss Whedon’s initial compulsory corporate softball tournament; a large and in charge super-conglomeration that rarely stops to make time to make sense, and though darker (emotionally), bigger (logistically) and meaner (spiritually), it’s not nearly as much fun as when space worms were involved. The Marvel brand has been defined by its sense of “fun” and Age of Ultron certainly houses the brand of larger-than-life, escapist entertainment that Marvel fans have emptied out their pockets for in the past but it misses the shock-and-awe boat that installment numero uno rode in on, instead serving up a welting reminder of the inconsequential, aggressively episodic nature of this whole shared universe business. By the end of Ultron’s short-lived age, tables have been set but little has actually changed. This is Lather, Rinse, Repeat: Age of Redundancy.
Ultron’s age begins rather inauspiciously as a Tony Snark (Robert Downey Jr.)/Bruce No-Banter (Mark Ruffalo never jokes) science-fair experiment that’s about as thought through as clam juice in beer (seriously, who in their right mind drinks Clamato?) They fiddle around with Loki’s scepter – an intergalactic, mind-controlling instrument of doom – extrapolating the living, breathing artificial intelligence lying within and attempting to reroute it into Tony’s army of spare metal exo-suits. First off: what in the f*ck? Tony Snark and Bruce No-Banter are both recognized as leaders of their fields, preternatural tech/bio geniuses struggling under the weight of their own brilliance and yet, they don’t second guess that initiating the singularity could pose an issue. Best not fill in the rest of the team on these expirem…OHMYGAWD ROBOT ATTACK!
So cometh Ultron (a perfectly apt and James Spader-y James Spader), a malevolent robot who deviates from his intended course (to create world peace) with the veering power of Paul Walker’s Porsche-owning friend. (Way too soon, I know). You see, Ultron realizes that peace is only possible when ALL THE HUMANS ARE DIED. KILLS THE HUMAN! Something involving Vibranium, other experiment victim/volunteer twins and Andy Serkis as a South African pirate (I seriously have no idea what this was all about) happen and all the pieces are in place for Ultron to blow up the f*cking world. I know what you’re thinking, “Le extinction of the entire planet? Again? Le sigh.” (Because 85% of SSR readers are French (or French-Canadian)) But in all seriousness, Marvel shiprunner Kevin Feige and Co. really need to come up with a better end game for these movies because, let’s face it, we all know that Marvel isn’t going to blow up the f*cking world. In fact, these films are so bloodless, we pretty much know that they won’t let a bystander die either (at least not on camera.) When the threat level is this high (“But ours go to 11”), it cycles back to zero. The more apparent danger, the more we can be assured everything is gonna be ok.
But Tony Snark is brash and megalomaniacal as ever, which puts him at odds with the swear jar Captain himself, Mr. U.S.A. (Chris Evans). They be diametrically opposed because Tony shoots tequila in the off-time while Mr. U.S.A.’s only respite comes in the form of lapping Anthony Mackie around the Capitol building and not going on dates. The table is apparently set for a civil war of sorts between them but I honestly only got a sniff of a slap fight at best.
In keeping the “huh?” factor high, Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) role in the film is as slapdash as they come, coming in and out of an interplanetary rainbow revolving door to investigate sh*t that has nothing to do with the movie we’re actually watching. But coming up next: Thor: Hell’s Kitchen.
And since we’re singling out characters of examination, one must prop up this Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) guy. Dude’s a G in Age of Ultron, stealing scenes like he’s Wiona Ryder at a designer hat convention. Renner was famously PO’ed about his character’s treatment in the first film – and who can blame him? He was relegated to playing a mind-controlled minion for two acts – and it appears that ol’ Jossy did him a solid in his sophomore ‘Vengers venture by actually making him a character and giving him the film’s best lines to boot (RDJ still kills it with the quip-saurus – the “hide the zucchini” line is easily film’s second best.)
Another factoid of Whedon that’s been cycling through the blogosphere is the apparent emotional and practical difficulty he faced adapting the buttloads of characters and plots into this one movie. Again, who can blame him? In Age of Ultron, Whedon is tasked not only with juggling the original septet but shoehorning in not one, not two but three new avengers as well as all the side characters from the standalone flicks. When Hawkeye spouts, “We’re battling an army of robots on a flying city and I’m using a bow and arrow, none of this makes sense,” we know that’s Joss struggling and shrugging at his audience. “Sorry guys, I don’t know what more I can,” he pleads.
One of the chief problems plaguing the Marvel Cinematic Universe is this inescapable question of “But where the hell are the other guys?” Rather than address this problem, Age of Ultron extrapolates it by launching us right into the action with a fully assembled team hopping through the forest, scooping up the field mice and bopping them on the head. I understand the logistical need to skip the howdy-dos (the movie is already 141 minutes) but approaching the whole avengers assembling thing with shruggy nonchalance after they’ve spent three movies apart, desperate for one another’s assistance (Captain America quite literally had to prevent a fascist, quasi-Nazi regime from taking over the world and didn’t think to maybe speed-dial up his friend (the God) or kinda-nemesis-but-also-ally (the wanna-be-God; the one in a weaponized metal suit)). From page one – er, scene one – I was questioning the veracity of this cinematic universe and its mislead lack of cohesion. But Kevin Feige has made his Iron Man-sheeted bed and now must sleep in it. For all its perks, Age of Ultron – like Iron Man 2 before it, is so busy setting up Phase Three that if often forgets to just be. Take your moment of chi Joss. You earned it.
The plot movements in Age of Ultron are, like racing through the mud, squishy at best (don’t get me started on how slapdash the whole Hulk vs. Hulkbuster thing is) and downright confusing at worse (character allegiance in this movie is so ill-defined, I couldn’t give two shakes who’s with who and who’s banging whom) so it’s no surprise that the final product can’t escape the feeling of being a collage of Avengers-y moments. ‘Splosions and zoom zoom, one-liners and inner demons, hero complexes and villains with sneers. It’s all there, the pieces just aren’t necessarily assembled properly. Avengers assemble?
Having said all that, what Age of Ultron gets right – and believe me, it does get quite a few things right – is having the whole crew assembled for the whole movie. We get (sparse) quiet moments where they’re all just hanging out, being human, trying to prove their worth by lifting Thor’s hammer. We get (a skoosh) more insight into Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) past (even though her present is occupied with a tepid, off-color romance). It rightly offs the most obnoxious character by curtain time and doesn’t leave too many threads (or should we say strings) hanging in terms of the villain prospect (unlike Marvel’s never ending Loki problem) but, then again, who knows? These movies don’t kill people. They just get plopped in timeout for a while. Maybe Ultron will get a spin-off TV show. (Ultron Dynasty?)
The Avengers: Age of Ultron, though single-serving entertainment sure to delight the masses, is a clumsy effort to consolidate stories that prove irreconcilable. With the MCU amoeba-ing into larger, stranger shapes and sizes, the disparate stable of its characters will only prove further inharmonious. And though Whedon has clearly written the hell out of Ultron, he reveals that he is not the omnipotent savior of superhero films. No, he’s just a man. A man trying his damndest to make sense of a bunch of dudes in tights prancing around the screen fighting sentient robot armies. In that capacity, he ain’t done too bad.