Avengers: Age of Ultron is upon us and it’s your duty as a movie-going person to see it. So decrees Disney, Stan Lee and The Internet. By now you’re probably in or out on this whole Disney Marvel thing. If you don’t like Captain America, Iron Man, Thor or the movies with their titles in the name, you probably aren’t spending the weeks counting down to Age of Ultron. That said, if you’ve stayed through credits to see a Howard the Duck gag, then this is the week for you.
This second go-around of Avengers and eleventh film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe finds our crew already assembled. The plot is what you’d expect, which isn’t the same thing as saying it’s bad. We have our superheroes fighting a Big Bad. This time, said bad is Ultron (voiced by James Spader), a supremely intelligent robot that comes forth amidst an experiment by Mr. Iron Man himself Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). As our protagonists try figure out the best way to defend and fight in a world growing ever-more dangerous, mistakes are made, lives are lost and disagreements get vehement.
Age of Ultron is the most Marvel-iest Marvel movie to date, for good and bad. The comedic bits are plentiful and mostly excellent. The casting is strong, with chemistry between the whole gang having the kind of natural bounce one would expect of an Ocean’s Eleven picture. The villain is dull, plotting an end to mankind and concocting a plan requiring around heroes to fight yet another giant thingy in the sky. In a manner, this is frustrating. So many years into superhero cinema and this being so deep into the Disney version of it, the same problems keep thriving.
Ultron, a great nemesis in theory, doesn’t come together in execution. As a symbol of Stark’s hubris and fear, Ultron is intriguing. He represents, as Stark puts, “Peace in our lifetime,” and an opportunity for Black Widow, Hawkeye and all of the Avengers to take a knee and start a life free of combat. Evolving into bigger and better bodies, with a deep reach into countless electronic frameworks of modern society, the character should be an intimidating menace. Instead, Ultron reads as another series of quips for Joss Whedon to spit out. Yes, said quips are occasionally pithy. They undercut scenes too, making a monster too much like a man. One half-expects him to reference The Big Lebowski or spout, “How supervillain of me?”
There is a lot to enjoy though. Even if the jokes may come a little too often, the cleverness is usually rooted in who says it and gets a laugh. A running gag about Captain America’s innocence and distaste for foul language earns many dividends, while a scene about who is worthy enough to lift Thor’s hammer is hilarious and features several fantastic payoffs that aren’t merely amusing, they also inform a new character’s qualities.
Where Joss Whedon’s first run at writing and directing Avengers had highlights, few of them induced a sense of wow. Age of Ultron has a series of action set-pieces that excite in their creativity and insanity. Cap’s shield is wielded as a wicked weapon, bouncing off skulls, trees and buildings, before returning for another heave. A battle between Iron Man and an unleashed Hulk (still played to perfection by Mark Ruffalo) displays the shear force and danger of a world with superheroes. There is Hulk rampaging, wondrous Iron Man gadgetry and a use of 9/11 imagery that is actually wisely chosen, where in most blockbuster movies it evokes uncomfortably. Here, the collapsing buildings and ashen streets are meant to inspire fright and not as extra clutter to an effects reel.
Age of Ultron is never dull, even when the warts are evident. A subplot about Thor’s anxieties goes nowhere and the chaotic battles occasionally have so many combatants that the editing strains. At one point, we return to a dueling pair and one can’t help but think, “Oh yeah, these two were duking it out.” Additionally, for every compelling thread, such as Hawkeye’s secret second-life or a surprising new romantic pairing, there is a situation there solely to set up future movies.
As occurs in the Disney Marvel Cinematic Universe, the whole is not better than the sum of its often sensational parts, Though what’s there is worthwhile, I just wish there weren’t so many qualifiers alongside it.
Avengers: Age of Ultron opens tomorrow.