Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015)
The new film about the Marvel universe – sequel, of sorts, to the 2012 The Avengers – manages to be both busy and inert, as if an angry bee had gotten itself stuck in molasses: there’s much mayhem and destruction, and the appearance of action, but no forward motion. What, you say? An entire country is levitated by a Transformers-like robot (or AI – for artificial intelligence), leaving the fate of the earth in the hands of our superhero friends! How could that be nothing? Yes, but, how is that any different than the basic plot and outcome of this movie’s predecessor, or many of the other Marvel films? And while we’re watching all of this mind-numbing on-screen destruction (so much debris!), are we actually witnessing any real change in the lives of the characters? I think not. Ridiculous of me to want that, I suppose, but I need meaningful story to ground my appreciation of the action and CGI. For every Captain America: The Winter Soldier – a model, for me, of how these kinds of films should work – we get two or three of these muddled messes.
If I were to try and pinpoint the moment when my interest in the on-screen proceedings dwindled to a virtual zero, I’d be hard-pressed to find just one. Was it the terrible CGI fight sequence that opened the film? The silly staged slow-motion group shot of the Avengers within that opening? The expositional dialogue between all characters throughout the movie? The nonsensical design and characterization of the main villain (Ultron)? Or the waste of the very fine actress Linda Cardellini (“Bloodline“) in the role of the world’s most supportive spouse? Take your pick!
That’s not to say that some of the individual stories are without interest. It’s always nice to see Chris Evans (Snowpiercer) as Captain America, and Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin) – as Black Widow – and Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher) – as the Hulk – have some nice scenes together that hint at what might have been a nice alternative movie were we not stuck in an ensemble piece that allows no time for such things as drama. But then along comes Robert Downey, Jr. (Iron Man 3), with his now-usual smart-alecky shtick, to make sure that nothing of consequence actually happens. Two other actors – Jeremy Renner (Kill the Messenger), as Hawkeye, and Chris Hemsworth (Rush), as Thor – inhabit the roles of the final two Avengers, but barely.
So on to the plot, such as it is. Writer/director Joss Whedon – who, before he became the anchor of the Marvel ship, was mostly known as the successful television showrunner of series such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel” – starts the story in medias res, as our heroes are closing in on the latest Hydra hideout. There, they confront two new “enhanced” (as Captain America calls them) adversaries – Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) – the latter of whom has the power to manipulate minds. It’s too bad that neither Taylor-Johnson nor Olsen are any less bland here than they were in Godzilla, but this doesn’t stop the Scarlet Witch from implanting a vision of global destruction in Tony Stark’s brain that leads him to create Ultron (what a name, folks!), an AI whose role it should be to protect the world from further harm and ensure “peace in our time.” Apparently, The Terminator doesn’t exist in the Marvel universe, so these poor guys have no way of knowing how badly this could turn out.
Ultron is voiced by James Spader (“The Blacklist“), who has a lot of fun in the role. Ultron is not your average robot. He has personality. Since he was designed by Tony Stark, and is meant to be his evil doppelgänger, Ultron is a strutting megalomaniac. Sounds fun, right? Unfortunately, he also makes no sense, even for a Marvel film. He is both seemingly omnipotent, able to transfer his consciousness between physical bodies and control the internet, and peevishly childish, undone by bouts of temper that erupt from nowhere and make the audience laugh, yet degrade an already senseless script. As much as I had mixed feelings about Ex Machina, that film’s treatment of AI design is masterful compared to Avengers: Age of Ultron. And don’t even get me started about what happens to Jarvis (Stark’s benevolent AI manservant). Argh.
I suspect that if one is a diehard Marvel fan, none of this will matter. I also suspect that the film will make as much money as did the last actual Transformers film, ensuring many more Avengers and Marvel stories to come. Get ready.