'Avengers: Age of Ultron' review: More of same in 'The Avengers' gargantuan sequel
Someday somebody's going to make a superhero tentpole movie that doesn't involve the fate of the world or lay waste to vast chunks of God's green earth. Writer/director Joss Whedon, he of the numbingly gargantuan action sequence, is not that somebody. And yet to blame him for not following up 2012's The Avengers, the third highest grossing film ever made, with My Dinner with Thor is not realistic. It would also be a shame. Whedon, by any fair accounting, marshaled enormous reserves of wit and flair to slam-dunk the first film, a mighty achievement considering he needed to establish the Avengers series as the all-important sun around which an entire solar system of individual comic book properties would revolve.
For the inevitable round two, Avengers: Age of Ultron, he gives us more of the same because something different is not worth the risk, especially when things worked out pretty okay the first time. So even if you can't fault him, by the umpteenth energy blast and perfectly crafted witticism hurled during Age of Ultron's 141 minutes, the law of diminishing returns begins casting its shadow and our minds fill with random questions like: why, for the second straight Avengers film, does the climactic battle include hundreds of evil, flying robots? How many of Robert Downey Jr.'s one-liners were ad-libbed? And, most pressingly, will there ever come a time when the Marvel Cinematic Universe becomes so bloated with product that we just tune out?
The answer to the last question is presumably, someday, yes. But until then we have Age of Ultron, which, if nothing else, is a testament to Whedon's ability to keep so many plates spinning. In a tightly constructed script that speeds along with confidence and precision, there is nary a wasted utterance, each carefully engineered line of dialogue crafted to fill in backstory, provide motivation, elicit a chuckle, introduce a new character, name-drop an old character, or advance the plot.
The Avengers face new enemies in murky storyline
That plot, sad to say, is a bit of a murky stew. Our heroes span the globe trying to find the next someone or something, somewhere and somehow. So you may want to take notes, starting at the top, as Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), lay siege to HYDRA's Eastern European headquarters. Inside is a powerful scepter whose previous owner was Thor's deliciously mischievous brother, Loki.
Loki himself is nowhere to be found in Age of Ultron, a villainous void filled, to mail order success, by the movie's title robot (voiced with honey-thick, pithy annoyance by James Spader). The accidental creation of the group's billionaire narcissist, Tony Stark, Ultron's motives for world destruction and penchant for Stark-like snark is Whedon at his most autopilot. He's just another computer-generated bad guy whose primary responsibility is to put the Avengers through their paces before being spectacularly vanquished, a fate that can never befall our heroes when they're contractually obligated to stick around for Captain America: Civil War and the two-part Avengers: Infinity Wars, which will keep the CGI flying and the money flowing through 2019.
'Age of Ultron': Wide but shallow ideas
As the current caretaker of the series (soon to be replaced by the Russo brothers, architects of the legitimately good Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Whedon is a writer and director whose pool of ideas is unquestionably wide yet also shallow. He's less a thinker than a teaser, throwing out an inexhaustible amount of ticklish ideas and tasty images that thrill from moment to moment then disappear from memory. What the Russo brothers were up to by infusing The Winter Soldier with its '70s-evoking, conspiratorial mistrust of government is beyond what Whedon is capable of here. His version, some mishegoss from Ultron about destroying mankind in order to save it, is about as thin as the paper the Avengers comics are printed on.
The same can be said for Whedon's stab at character-deepening backstory, a promising development with too little follow-through. One of the film's new characters is Russian beauty Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who has the ability to instill nightmares in the minds of her victims that dredge up their deepest fears. A mere touch to the head and Black Widow relives her childhood training as an assassin and Captain America shares a dance with former flame Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) at the V-Day celebration he never got to attend. Wanda and her speed demon brother Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) especially have it in for Stark, the former military weapons manufacturer they hold responsible for the death of their parents.
The memorable moments from Age of Ultron acknowledge that we're a dozen deep in Marvel movies, so buying a ticket to the next in line will seem less of a cultural obligation if we care about the characters. In a clever second-act surprise, the Avengers go into hiding, but instead of hunkering down in a secret high-tech lab, they pull up a chair on Hawkeye's farm, which includes a wife and children.
Whedon also slows down for some romance although it's not entirely clear why Black Widow would be interested in the Hulk's bespectacled alter ego, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, representing what little heart and melancholy the series can muster). And in a particularly Whedon-esque poke at the male ego, Stark, Clint “Hawkeye” Barton, and a cameoing James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) take turns trying to lift Thor's hammer (note: not as dirty as it sounds).
'Avengers: Age of Ultron' shows that Marvel Cinematic Universe 'is starting to wear thin'
Otherwise, to quote a Marvel creation who has been poorly treated on the big screen, “it's clobbering time” – with the audience the ones getting clobbered. Yes, Whedon might find the coolest angle to shoot a kick or a punch, and he might provide Stark with the wittiest post-fight bon mot, and he might have fanboys salivating as the Hulk and a ridiculous-looking, bulked-up Iron Man pummel each other through Johannesburg. But at no point is there a melee that takes place anywhere unique or surprising. The big action finale, as thrilling as it is rote (right down to the crying little boy who needs a heroic, last-second save) is most notable for introducing The Vision (Paul Bettany), a floating, red-skinned something-or-other who at least adds some spice to an otherwise pro forma fade out.
Removed from its place in the impressive and downright historic Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a marvelous machine, filled with energy, wit, and good old-fashioned fun. If it had been the first Avengers movie, we'd be screaming for a sequel. But the Avengers series isn't intended solely to stand on its own. It's a mothership made to spew out characters and storylines that, we're now officially starting to worry, threaten to feel same old, same old. In that respect, the Avengers films play a great short game, but their long game is starting to wear thin.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).
Dir.: Josh Whedon.
Scr.: Joss Whedon, based on characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
Cast: Chris Evans. Chris Hemsworth. Mark Ruffalo. Jeremy Renner. Scarlett Johansson. Robert Downey Jr. Don Cheadle. Elizabeth Olsen. Aaron Taylor-Johnson. James Spader (voice). Paul Bettany. Cobie Smulders. Hayley Atwell. Andy Serkis. Idris Elba. Anthony Mackie. Claudia Kim. Stellan Skarsgård. Julie Delpy. Thomas Kretschmann. Chris Luca. Samuel L. Jackson. Josh Brolin. Linda Cardellini. Henry Goodman. Stan Lee.
'Avengers: Age of Ultron' images
- Chris Evans as Captain America and Chris Hemsworth as Thor in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
- Joss Whedon directing Scarlett Johansson on the Avengers: Age of Ultron set.
- Elizabeth Olsen as Avengers: Age of Ultron's Scarlet Witch.
Credit: Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios.
Avengers: Age of Ultron cast information via the IMDb.