AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON REVIEW: The Road to Nowhere
The knock on the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been that despite how well they might be made, they are still treated more like product than art. But in 2012, writer/director Joss Whedon did what many thought was impossible: he made real art out of all that product by bringing The Avengers to the big screen in mighty fashion. With Avengers: Age of Ultron, Whedon has once again done what many thought was impossible: he has taken a watershed installment in a monstrosity of a franchise and turned it into something of remarkable insignificance.
As the story opens, the Avengers – Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) – are out to recover Loki’s scepter from Hydra. They locate the item in the Eastern European country of Sokovia, secure it, and return home victorious. With a few days before Thor is to take the scepter back to Asgard, resident geniuses Tony (Iron Man) Stark and Bruce (Hulk) Banner examine it thoroughly and discover signs of artificial intelligence within the scepter. Stark hopes to leverage that A.I. to create thinking iron robots that will act as a global defense unit, thus opening the path to world peace and affording the Avengers the opportunity to disband.
Their attempts to integrate the A.I. into Tony’s iron corps repeatedly fail until, when they aren’t paying attention, Ultron (voiced by James Spader) is created. But there’s a glitch. As evidenced in the past, the power of the scepter is all-consuming, and it drives Ultron to see “protecting the planet” differently than Stark; Ultron wants to eliminate humanity to protect the earth. He recruits Hydra experimentation subjects/Sokovian twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen) to aid him and his army of robots in world domination.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is not a bad film; it’s just terribly pedestrian, and so much of it seems to have been constructed based on suggestions made in the Superhero Film Playbook. Consider the antagonist, Ultron. Despite having perfect vocals from Spader, he is a wholly forgettable villain, created as a conflict instead of a character. Although teased as a techno-Pinocchio, his robot construct prevents any opportunity for him to connect to the audience the way Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has done in past MCU films. He’s ultimately nothing more than a shiny thing with a smoothly-voiced sound card programmed with a collection of clever quips, something more fitting for a Sharper Image catalogue than a major superhero motion picture. He’s supposed to represent Stark’s dark side, but Stark’s dark side is far more interesting on Stark, not a Stark-bot.
Ultron is also hellbent on destruction, something that sets up the film’s other major flaw: the action sequences. Almost every action scene suffers from one of two problems: it is ether completely unnecessary to the story (see: Hulk vs. Hulk-Buster Iron Man) or it’s more of the same (see: the climactic battle, which looks remarkably similar to the climactic battle in The Avengers). The only difference is that the scenes are greater in scope, thus greater in destruction, than they have been in previous MCU films. It’s as if Whedon forgot that size doesn’t matter, and the only thing going bigger does is expose his surprisingly unsure direction of those sequences. Whedon relies heavily on chaos as a surrogate for choreography, and the net result is action that at times is annoyingly blurred, and often cannot be followed.
However, the film is not entirely without merit. In fact, when it isn’t cranking its action knob to 11, it has many great moments.
Through clever use of Wanda Maximoff’s powers, Whedon offers haunting insight into Black Widow’s past – insight that makes an even stronger case for the need for a stand-alone Widow film. There are numerous scenes where characters are paired-off that work incredibly well: Stark and Banner, Stark and Cap, and the highlight of the film, Banner and Widow. The film flirts with an unlikely romance between these two characters that gives Johansson and Ruffalo the room to put on an acting clinic. I could have watched these two help each other work through their troubling, deep-rooted issues for two hours and been perfectly happy.
There is also a sequence in the film, one that takes place at a country house (to say any more is to spoil), that is a highlight reel moment – possibly the best in the entirety of the 11-film, 24-cumulative hour MCU. It hits remarkable human spots for every character, and presents unique juxtaposition at the character level almost across the board. More of this, or more moments like it, could have done more good for the advancement of the MCU than any battle scene could. Unfortunately, the next cacophony of explosions couldn’t wait any longer.
After recently watching Iron Man 2, I noted on Twitter that that film – easily the worst of the MCU – held the distinction of being the only film of the ten to have a repeat director; Jon Favreau directed the One That Started It All, 2008’s Iron Man. I also wondered then if that was a bad omen for Whedon’s return. I think it was. Like Iron Man 2, Avengers: Age of Ultron manages to do some good things for the overall franchise (mostly character introduction and some posturing for the future), but it is burdened with a sense of obligation. There is this heavy, looming pall over the film that makes it feel like it was made only because that’s what you do next.
The MCU is mapped out for another 10 films that will go into 2019. That’s a long road to travel, but this leg of the trip goes almost nowhere.