If your previous superhero all-star team-up movie becomes the third highest grossing film of all time, as a filmmaker, what do you do for an encore? If you’re writer/director/soon-to-be former Marvel consigliere Joss Whedon, you don’t try and top yourself and you go for a more humanistic view and a lateral direction. Or at least, that’s the goal in “Avengers: Age Of Ultron,” a darker, but not totally somber effort in the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon, one that’s sometimes baggy, tedious, and episodic, but also frequently, although not entirely entertaining and satisfying. And it is a little repetitive and messy too.
An action-adventure movie that explores the consequences of playing God, the value of teamwork (natch), and the cost of precautionary measures rooted in primal fears, Whedon’s sequel is a type of riff on the “if you want peace, prepare for war” adage and how that oxymoron can go horribly wrong.
‘Age Of Ultron’ begins with one of those mostly meaningless James Bond-like pre-credits blow-outs, with the heroes in mid-battle in the mountains of a fictional Eastern European country, closing in on one of the last remaining Hydra bosses (the Nazi-like terrorists last seen in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier“). In many ways, the arc of this scene reflects the flow of the movie itself. It starts out hollow, like a noisy video game action sequence — a cluster that even freeze-frames the entire team in one shot to remind you how cool it is to see them together (cue groan) — but eventually develops some soul and human concern along the way. ‘Ultron’ repeats this method throughout: dropping the heroes into perilous situations (cue action), but somehow managing to end on poignant notes reminding you these champions are also human beings with concerns that the audience can relate to.
In ‘Age Of Ultron,’ ambitious, futuristic visions turn into nightmares and threaten to undo the team. The gist of the thorny plot is this: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is witness to a dark omen of world destruction. This terrifying dream rattles him so much that it compels him to follow through on an old idea, the Ultron peacekeeping initiative, which would take Stark’s Iron Man droid force to the next level. There’s an end game to it all: what if an sentient artificial intelligence program could safeguard the planet and make “The Avengers” obsolete? In other words, they could go back to semi-“normal” lives.
As it is wont to do in these kinds of cautionary tales, Stark’s Dr. Frankenstein hubris creates a monster. Ultron (voiced by James Spader) comes to life as a reflection made in Tony Stark’s image: a quipping motor mouth creation, but with an extremist, wingnut attitude of peacekeeping so far to the right it becomes a righteous and scary dogma. With the help of two genetically altered humans from Sokovia harboring anti-American bias — Pietro (Aaron Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elisabeth Olsen), both of whom are never referred to by their super hero nom de plums, which is a refreshing touch (though also due to legal reasons) — Ultron begins to rain terror down on The Avengers and the world at large.
Characteristically, as per many modern superhero movies, the villain, Ultron, is perhaps the least interesting element of the film. His fanatical ideologies are seemingly complex, but many of them are rooted in clichés, and his motivations are typically dull: world destruction. Not to mention that the character is overwritten to the point of being obnoxious. In fact, most of the film’s general goals — putting the team through their biggest test to date, seeing if they can band together to save mankind, placing the fate of humanity in their precarious hands — is pretty rote and banal stuff.
But in many ways, Whedon is aware how basic his plot is and that Ultron is really a justification to make the heroes look inward and ask the slightly more interesting and morally complex question: are Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, full of discord and discontent this time, actually the problem? Are they gods with unchecked powers — they level a city in one early battle — and the ones we should be really worried about?
Sometimes the plot of ‘Ultron’ appears engineered to run down a checklist of would-be greatest hits that Marvel and it’s fans would like to see. A detour to a South African nation known as Wakanda (the home of future Marvel character Black Panther) is mostly just an excuse for The Hulk to face off against Iron Man’s Hulkbuster armor. Yes, it’s a thrilling action scene, but a plot contrivance is a plot contrivance.
And there are lots of little problems along the way. Whedon cannot resist the urge for incessant quips, and many of them are either corny or forced. Yet some characters (*cough* Nick Fury) are needlessly humorless to remind you this is a super serious adventure. While it’s a darker effort than most MCU films, that’s relative (the movie still glows neon bright compared to the tone of Nolan’s Batman films). There are compromises that stick out awkwardly too, with expository conversations explaining the absence of certain characters, and tin-eared dialogue about saving the world.
Whedon recently said his original cut was three-hours, but even at two-hours-and-twenty-something minutes, ‘Age Of Ultron’ feels about as long as the story can bear. It’s not that ‘Ultron’ is long, but it does suffer from pacing issues. Every action sequence needs a respite, absolutely, but some of the dull, flat, over-explained scenes of science mumbo jumbo that usually follow the taking stock, “Hey-here’s-where-we-stand-now,” catch-up moment, really kill the energy and momentum of the movie.
But for all its bluster, end-of-the-world stakes, gravitas, and seriousness, what Whedon’s movie does best is communicate its concern for the all the human beings touched by this story: the broken, nearly shattered heroes, their extended families, and even the civilians caught in the crosshairs.
What ‘Ultron’ does get right to a crucial degree, and which does earn its emotional stripes, is the price of human life and the true meaning of being a hero (as hackneyed as that last bit sounds). There are deep consequences here, and they can be even quite moving. If Zack Snyder’s “Man Of Steel” has complete disregard for human life — too focused on creating a 9/11 like terror to care about collateral damage — then Whedon’s film is pretty much the exact opposite. In a crescendo that’s over-the-top and even a little bit ridiculous in spots (cue endless amounts of robots not unlike the end of “The Avengers”), what shines through is the humanity behind the catastrophic destruction and the innocent lives that hang in the balance.
As early impressions have noted, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), The Hulk (Marc Ruffalo), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are more integrated into this ‘Avengers’ installment, but to say they’re the new leads is to greatly overstate the case. Perhaps what Whedon does most brilliantly is to give almost every character their due and own emotional journey. And new characters or not, in many ways, ‘Ultron’ is another story with Marvel A-lister Tony Stark at its center.
Less discerning fans of Marvel’s template should walk away satisfied though. There’s plenty of action gusto, there are human dimensions, and while the plot and villains are thin, when wasn’t this the case before?
Sure, “The Avengers: Age Of Ultron” concludes with an all’s well that ends well feeling, but the difference being, this time, the heroes are more damaged and scattered, and while this may not have been intentional, the ramifications of ‘Ultron’ should make for some good dramatic fodder down the MCU road. While ‘Age Of Ultron’ isn’t perfect, and arguably less successful on a whole than “The Avengers,” on a purely enjoyable moviegoing level, it should please fans hardcore and casual alike, and that’s maybe that’s all that really matters in the end. [B-]