Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015): Written and directed by Joss Whedon. Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, your dog, your mother, and your grandmother. Yes, yours. Running Time: 141 minutes.
Comic fanboys (and girls!) are howling with delight, hipster film snobs are mewling contempt, those who don’t care….still don’t care, even more massive bags of profit have been added to the Official Disney Money Mountain (roller coaster tickets now on sale), and plus it’s now the lusty month of May. Or to put it another way- a new entry into the Marvel Avengers canon is out in theaters! All hail the Marvel Cloud!
And this is not just any Marvel movie. Age of Ultron is the long, long, long awaited successor to the groundbreaking first Avengers movie, which not only did to the box office what the Hulk did to Loki, but also set a wholly new precedent ala LOTR and Harry Potter in terms of how big-budget, tent-pole blockbuster films are made. Whether you loved it, hated it, or found it somewhat overrated, the simple fact of the matter is that every superhero made since, especially Marvel ones, enter the public gaze beneath its immensely long shadow. Which begs the inevitable question; can Age of Ultron in any measure live up to the immense expectations set by its predecessor?
The answer to that question depends almost entirely on your attitude towards both the Marvel movies as a set and the plethora of recent superhero/comic book movies overall, and whether or not you can accept the current, heavily flawed environment these films are made in. It will also depend on how committed you are to keeping up with the next wave of films slated to come out over the next 5-6 years. Most of the previous films (even the first Avengers) can be enjoyed by newcomers without prior understanding of all the minutiae established in the other connecting movies, but that will very soon cease to be the case. Age of Ultron is ultimately nothing more than an interlude, a pit stop between the first and second phase of this now immensely expansive cinematic universe, providing the first signs of the old guard slowly giving way to the new, and the growing pains show. If you are on board already, and are only here for relaxing fun times, then come on in. If not, save your money for Tomorrowland, because nobody will bother welcoming you here.
Ah well. Even if it just an interlude, the relative calm before the expected insanity that Infinity Wars has been built up to be (with this film’s credits including yet another punishing cocktease), is it at least a fun and diverting interlude? Oh yes, very much indeed, made so primarily through the presence of James Spader’s smooth, silky, Goddamn-sexy purr of a voice.
But first, the plot synopsis; the Avengers, it would seem, have banded back together following the massive revelations of last year’s The Winter Soldier to sniff out the remaining Hydra bases around the world, one of which they believe contains Loki’s scepter. The opening is a brisk action set, brought down somewhat by a brief episode of the Shaky Cams, after which our heroes find the scepter and take it back to Stark’s tower in New York. Spurred on by a nightmarish vision of his friend’s deaths implanted in his mind by the vaguely-psychic Wanda Maximoff (one of a set of super-human twins created by Hydra to be a counterweight to the Avengers squad- the other is her brother Pietro, who has superspeed), Tony decides the few days he has before Thor leaves for Asgard to harness the scepter’s immense power to create an AI defense program he’d been brainstorming with Bruce Banner called Ultron, which would, in theory, one day make the Avengers Initiative unnecessary.
If you think it’s a spoiler for me to say that their plan goes wrong literally seconds after Ultron’s creation, you need to see more movies. Ultron “embraces” his programmed purpose (creating world peace) with a little too much enthusiasm, coming very quickly to the conclusion that peace is best maintained where there are no humans around to muck it up, and he soon enlists the aid of the Twins who bear their own personal grudge against Tony Stark) in devising a scheme to simultaneously destroy the Avengers and (unbeknownst to them at first) destroy all life on Earth. If there has been a consistent Achilles Heel in this franchise, it has been the paucity of decent villains to liven things up, but despite being limited to just this one film, Spader gives Loki a run for his money. His Ultron shifts constantly between being threatening, arrogant, forgetful, psychotic, and hilariously hammy, and if I had wished for one thing from this movie, it would have been to have at least a few more scenes of him chewing up the screen.
The finale this all builds up to isn’t quite the level of Awesome Pants the climax of the first movie is, mostly because it too features the Avengers exclusively plowing through wave after wave of samey, faceless machine baddies. Not that it isn’t every bit as entertaining as I’d hoped- my only wish when I go see these types of movies is to feel compelled to put on a goofy, fun-loving grin by the end, and the film’s flaws aside, I was all smiles as I headed for the bus home.
As noted though, there are some growing pains within the franchise that rear their heads here, with the biggest being a much more packed screenplay- with all the named characters with superpowers now introduced, the cast of these films is only going to get more and more crowded. Avengers had just the right amount- with 4 main characters having had past movies to set up their characters, plus two side ones, the interplay between each of them was pretty cozy, with more than enough time for each character to meet their allotted one-liner quota without one or two overshadowing the rest. For all of its plot and story issues it was actually a relatively tight work, flowing very smoothly from start to finish.
Here, though, we have an awful lot of new faces popping up, with more promised to come- the Twins you know from the trailers, and they are later joined by a third new Avenger, whose identity I will not divulge here since they cleverly kept it out of the film’s marketing entirely . We also have several appearances by Falcon and War Machine, with the ending indicating that they will be front-and-center teammates in the Avengers by the next movie (on that day, perhaps, I will no longer have cause to lament War Machine’s underuse….but not today). This makes for a lot of rough edges within the film itself, as it has to cut back and forth between characters and locations a lot more than it had to before, and the stretch marks are fairly obvious (especially since Whedon has confirmed he had to cut a fair bit from the final product). When taken together with the fact that at least one of the old characters is stepping out for good (oh no, not saying who), all indicators seem to be that Marvel is preparing to charge right into the biggest question surrounding the future of this franchise- can these movies move beyond the original cast, a magical mix of character actors who mesh excellently with each other, and still achieve box-office success? And will we finally get some long-overdue racial and gender diversity in our main cast, or will the characters with the most story attention and screen time continue to be white men?
We won’t really know until the next full-blown Avengers film comes out in….2057, I guess. For now, I am content with the rides we are getting. These are not deep movies. These characters are fun, funny, charming, and certainly iconic, but there are no Charles Kanes to be found amongst them. The action is brisk, exciting, and shows the best in special effects technology we currently possess, but the fights have been getting more and more repetitive. So these are not “great” films in the classic sense.
But there is a quiet earnestness in many of them that shines through, even though they are transparent commercial vehicles for huge corporate conglomerations. There is an abiding sense of fun in ever the lesser works of the set, and that is still here in spades. Perhaps the day will come when even the people making these movies tire of the repetitive action beats, and the bottom will surely fall out of this particular bubble at some point. For now, that day still lies in the future. For now, these movies are still simple exercises in childlike- and sometimes childish- fun. And that is its own form of greatness.