And the Marvel juggernaut rolls on. The assembled super-hero team known as The Avengers may be Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, backed with Earth’s Mightiest Promotional Campaign, but movies that pit good against evil are only as great as their villains. That makes this second Avengers movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron (opening today) just about average…and average is several steps below what is expected for this highly-anticipated film franchise.
Co-writer and director Joss Whedon – who helmed The Avengers back in 2012 – was able to sneak in an indy-film directorial effort in-between that first chapter and this new Marvel money-maker. That film was a re-make of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Who knew that his next film could have been titled the same.
That’s not to say that Age of Ultron is bad…it’s not. It’s just not great. To be fair though, Whedon faced a monumental task of pleasing legions of dedicated comic book fans, millions of casual movie-goers and also serving the corporate interests of Marvel/Disney. The first Avengers was so incredibly hyped, it is a minor miracle that Whedon was able to pull off something that far exceeded most of our already high-expectations. To achieve that result twice? A much tougher task.
The uninitiated Marvel movie-goer may feel at a loss when trying to decipher the deeper plot points touched on in this sequel. But there is enough action, explosions, smashing and gun-play to entertain even the greenest of folk.
Many will talk about the failings of this sequel as being “over-stuffed” or “trying to juggle too many characters at once.” It is true that this film has a seemingly endless supply of super-heroes at its disposal, but Whedon did it before. Here, it just seems super-convoluted because the story leaves out the most crucial element of the recent Marvel formula for success: Fun. If anything, Age of Ultron is the least balanced of the recent Marvel movies because it just becomes too serious for too many long stretches of time. Pace and balance…these are two crucial components present in the first Avengers film, but the funny one-liners, the corny physical gags, and the audience-winking that we’ve grown accustomed to, are dispersed like pieces of rubble blown apart from one of the many mindless battle sequences our heroes find themselves involved in.
After the events of the last film (and subsequent “Phase Two” movies like Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World), many of the biggest threats to Earth’s survival seem to come from the cosmos. To protect against another potential armageddon, billionaire playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), aka Iron Man, secretly creates a new artificial-intelligence system called Ultron. He enlists Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), aka The Hulk, and the secret of Ultron is kept from the other members (for reasons not all entirely clear or sensible). Ultron is purposed to bring peace to the world. But upon Ultron’s creation however, its robot incarnation (voiced by James Spader) concludes that the fastest path to world peace is to eliminate the human race. And with that, we have our film’s simplified evil master-mind, and his simplified evil plan of world domination.
With the proverbial cat out of the bag, the other Avengers are on hand to stop this new threat to humanity. There is the Asgardian God, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the latter of which we learn a bit more about. It still doesn’t make his character all that interesting though. There are then small appearances here and there by other peripheral characters we’ve met in other movies: War Machine (Don Cheadle), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Professor Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and a few others (notably missing is Stark’s girlfriend, Gwenyth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, whose absence is described in the film).
In one of the famous “stinger” end-credit scenes in a previous film, we got a glimpse of two super-hero newcomers, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Both of their roles are expanded a great deal in this film. We also eventually meet an Avengers staple, The Vision (played by Paul Bettany, who up to this point has appeared in voice-only as Tony Stark’s super-computer, Jarvis).
But again, it all comes down to the villain, and Ultron is no Loki. As great as effects have gotten over the years, it’s hard to relate to a CGI robot. Ultron gives our heroes a run for their money, but that leads us into the film’s other big problem: The whole “much ado about nothing” part. For all that is at stake, nothing is at stake. Worse yet, you can feel the rug getting pulled out from underneath us in the film’s final stretch, when the Avengers’ deck seems to get re-shuffled and set-up for a new hand…meaning that instead of getting some sort of satisfying conclusion to this story, we instead see characters getting perfectly positioned and set-up for Marvel’s next grouping of films.
What was once Marvel’s “magic” formula may end up being its Achilles Heel. Having films that introduced us to our childhood comic-book heroes like Iron Man, Captain America and Thor was at one time an exciting thing…and the thought that all of these heroes might come together in one film was at one time a mind-blowing thought. But this in not the Age of Ultron, this is the age of ADD. And we have now seen that, done that, been there. Seeing all of these heroes, these actors, share the same screen is no longer the real draw…we want to see these characters do something…meaningful, if possible. So it’s not that Whedon did anything wrong, he just wasn’t able to accomplish anything different.
But who can blame him? Marvel movies are the biggest money-makers Hollywood has ever seen and maybe will ever see. Plans for more and more movies stretch well into the next decade. It is inevitable that these movies will become stale and boring, and that some chapters will be better than others.
In other words, Marvel movies are truer to the comic books than anyone may have ever realized: They are a serial, not a story. This could lead to frustration for those looking for a conclusion in the normal sense. The comic books – these characters – have been around for over 50 years. New artists, new writers, come and go, but the characters never get old.
The only character that has lasted that long on screen may be James Bond. And let’s face it, nobody goes to the movies anymore to see James Bond…they go to see the villain that James Bond is up against. It’s the only new spark of life that can be breathed into such a tired formula. While the Marvel formula isn’t fully stagnant just yet, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a sign of a progression towards its eventual decline. When a film’s main purpose is to set up an upcoming film, at what point will we catch on and stop going? The answer is no time soon. The Marvel train barrels full-speed ahead much like the raging green Hulk, creating smash after smash, mindlessly and forcefully. But even the Hulk comes to his senses eventually. Let’s hope Marvel can somehow do the same…and there is precedence for hope, seeing that they once before created something new and fresh amidst a barren wasteland of other, lesser comic-book-based films of the past.
Genre: Action, Adventure, Science Fiction
Run Time: 2 hours 21 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie
Co-writtend and Directed by Joss Whedon (Much Ado About Nothing, The Avengers, Serenity)
Opens locally on Friday, May 1st, 2015 (check for show times).