Avengers: Age of Ultron is overkill—an overstuffed, overlong, lumbering mess of a movie that suffers from more of everything! More characters… more action set-pieces… more quips… more back story… more villains… more plot… more subplots… and worst of all, more unnecessary contractual obligations to set-up movies that only come out in 2019! Writer-director Joss Whedon faced similar challenges in 2012’s The Avengers too. But while he was able to weave in every joke, character and plot thread effortlessly in that film, nothing about Age of Ultron is seamless. Though not without its virtues—this is a considerably darker and more thoughtful film—the bulk of this 141 minute behemoth bears the scars of a war waged between an artist trying to tell his story and the demands of a grotesque piss-spewing corporate machine. The mere fact that he’s able to keep this leviathan afloat for as long as he does speaks volumes to his craftsmanship. But you feel his pain. He’s achieved mediocrity.
Age of Ultron comes on the heels of two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s biggest triumphs—the taut, cold-war thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the jubilant space opera Guardians of the Galaxy, whose effervescence still brings a smile to my face. What you expect is the logical next step in the evolution (or even maturity) of the series, not a sputtering regression. When the Avengers assembled for the first time, the result was nerd bliss. Here was the fruition of a dream that was thought impossible only five years prior. That Whedon had the foresight to incorporate these fears into the plot only aided its game-changing appeal. While the lack of novelty this time around was a given, a more pressing issue was: How do you top a movie already considered the most gargantuan blockbuster of all time?
One idea would have been to mix things up the way The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy or even Iron Man 3 did. Another would be to go smaller, but that was never going to be an option. Alas, Whedon’s approach (or at least the one he was forced to conform to) was to go back and rehash as many beats from the first movie as possible, down to the structure of the thing. Like The Avengers, Age of Ultron opens with a big action set-piece, which leads to the introduction of the movie’s primary villain, who then pits the Avengers against one other before everything goes haywire because of the Hulk. Again, they have to put aside their differences, with a little help from Nick Fury, and once again obliterate the common enemy in a battle royale over a heavily-populated city. The only difference this time around is that the plot is infinitely more convoluted, populated with more distracting detours, and ergo, crumbles under its own weight.
Things kick into high gear right from the start with a massive action set-piece set in an Eastern European country that functions as our introduction to the team—Iron Man (Robert Downey’s Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). The sequence is noteworthy for two reasons: For its shoddy CGI and for introducing Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson)—super-powered siblings who apparently watched a lot of Dracula movies growing up.
Their appearance sets in motion events that compel Tony Stark to build an artificial intelligence that will protect the world. Somehow, things go wrong (it’s never clear how) and eventually, a super-powerful sentient robot called Ultron is unleashed. Literally a minute into his arrival, Ultron surfs the internet (probably Twitter) and goes from an inquisitive child to a generic Bond villain, deciding that the world needs to be exterminated, pronto! While Ultron certainly has a point about exterminating humans, his motivations, and entire global domination scheme is, at best idiotic. At least he has the benefit of being voiced by James Spader who gifts the character with so many shades of gleeful menace and comic wisecracks that I was almost convinced to binge-watch The Blacklist. He’s not quite on par with Tom Hiddleston’s Loki but his performance is one of the more memorable ones in a franchise that sorely lacks formidable villains.
Eventually, it all leads to a massive punch-em-up but before that, the movie bides its time in introducing several subplots. The most interesting of the lot is the budding relationship between Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff that evolves through the course of the picture. She’s confident about her feelings about him and so is he but he’s terrified of the consequences. It’s unfortunate that Whedon doesn’t find a way to properly integrate this story arc into the picture, because Ruffalo and Johansson have credible chemistry. Meanwhile, Steve Rogers is still trying to figure out his place in the new world, especially in lieu of the events of Winter Soldier. He’s also getting increasingly wary of Tony’s arrogance and aloofness—something that’ll no doubt come into play in next year’s Civil War. There’s also Thor who, haunted by visions brought on by Scarlett Witch, goes off on a baffling quest to figure out the meaning of his dreams. It makes no sense except that it sets up the next Thor movie and gives Hemsworth a reason to take off his shirt.
If those subplots aren’t enough, Whedon also gives Renner’s Hawkeye a lengthy (and pointless) character arc as penance for making him a zombie in the first movie. Of course, Downey Jr. remains the star of the show so he gets to play “Search and Destroy” behind his computers while also starring in the movie’s two best set pieces. We’re also treated to appearances from Don Cheadle’s War Machine, Anthony Mackie’s the Falcon and Cobie Smulders’ Agent Maria Hill when nothing at all would have sufficed. Even Samuel L. Jackson is able to take some time off from his exhausting Capital One shoots to let us know he’s still a badass. And I haven’t even got into the arcs of Scarlett Witch, Quicksilver or the Vision! Indeed, the movie spends so much time on these seven subplots that anytime Ultron shows up, it serves as a reminder that he still exists. Never has a title character in a superhero movie felt so disposable.
In shoehorning so many subplots and characters into the film, Whedon and company end up short-shifting nearly all of them. Moreover, Kevin Feige and company are so preoccupied with setting up the next 10 movies in their universe that they forget about the step right in front of them. Because of this, and the need to cram every bit of information into a running time befit for an opening weekend record, the movie moves with the grace of a pirouetting hippopotamus. Whedon has stated that his original cut was a little over three hours long and it’s telling: Age of Ultron reeks of a film severely truncated for time (but not for content).
It’s a relief then that the movie at least delivers on the action. Although some sequences (like the rinse-and-repeat finale) don’t work, others, like the movie’s centerpiece—a breathtaking melee between the Hulk and Iron Man (in his Hulk-Buster suit, no less)—will be talked about for months. In the three years since The Avengers, Whedon has gotten a lot more confident with orchestrating energetic action set-pieces. You can tell by the ease in which he juggles between characters and locations that he is in complete control of the mayhem he’s engineering. The action in Age of Ultron is chaotic but always cohesive and fun. It helps that Whedon peppers every action scene with quips. Like in its predecessor, the writer never misses a chance to poke fun at characters or point out the absurdity of their situations. The movie is so much of a quip factory that even the sinister Ultron gets in on the stand-up routine!
Ultimately, as funny as the one-liners are and as spectacular as the action is, they don’t make for a fulfilling movie. Most blockbuster audiences may come for the action and the laughs in movies like this but is that really all they come for? I refuse to believe that. People want exciting and engaging stories that takes them places, and characters that they can root for. At least that’s what I want in my superhero movies. Is that really asking for too much? I’ve been on board with the Marvel Cinematic Universe ever since its inception, having reviewed every one of them post-2009. Though there have been missteps, this is a series that continues to be one of the most accomplished in populist Hollywood today. But there comes a point where you get exhausted from being assaulted with the same formulaic crap over and over again. And with Age of Ultron, I think I may have reached that point.
Director: Joss Whedon
Screenwriter: Joss Whedon
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson and James Spader (voice)
Producer: Kevin Feige
Running time: 141 minutes
Companies: Marvel, Walt Disney Pictures
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments.