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Let’s be honest, Marvel’s model of making movies struck gold. The joy-filled roller coaster Guardians of the Galaxy gladly coexists with the rough and tumble tone of Daredevil, neither of which clash with the ‘70s paranoia thriller inside Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And Thor: The Dark World, a less liked feature from the wide-ranging oeuvre of Marvel, is a still compelling treatise on pro-genre marriage, wedding Star Wars and Lord of the Rings into a mutually loving whole. What Marvel found in its team of Avengers isn’t only a diverse team of heroes but a diverse team of films, complementing and contrasting through genre, tone, and style, like friends whose weird idiosyncrasies emerge the longer you get to know them. They’ve created a storytelling tesseract, an elastic mold to fit any shape or form, a flexibility they’ve earned by learning to make movies that don’t suck.
More than superhero movies, Marvel ingeniously developed a formula worth, er, marveling over, and while first Avengers might not be the official best (the court’s out on whether it’s The Winter Soldier or Guardians), the third-highest grossing movie of all time is their crowning achievement.
But not even a god of thunder can help lightning strike twice. The Avengers: Age of Ultron is not better than the first Avengers. At least, not in the ways that audiences probably care about. The Age of Ultron is Mr. Incredible from Pixar’s The Incredibles: flimsy, fat and clumsy, but it’s still got some moves. We’ve got more characters, more locations, more action, but there’s also more “art” with Whedon using the story’s global battle as a metaphor for the inner conflict of the characters rather than a fist-pumping call to arms. Whedon’s second Avengers is dark but not dour, closer to a black comedy than the action comedy routine we’re used to. Even pairing the sardonic Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) next to the goody-goody Steve Rogers (Chris Evans)—comic gold in the past—is less about laughs and more about friction. Ideology is at play, ethics are questioned, and, poignantly, it’s the flaws of Tony Stark that thrust the globe-trotting narrative into play. It’s a much less fun movie than The Avengers and it’s designed to be that way, making this a more personal, and, dare I say, auteur vision of the team.
Where the plot of the first Avengers was a consequence of Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins) ignorance — it was he who banished Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to Earth, a decision that ultimately incurred Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) wrath on our planet — using Stark as Age of Ultron’s indirect villain is a ballsy, wise move. Immediately, Whedon throws us into a kickass action sequence that’s the movie’s best use of the whole team in one place, showing a company of heroes so in sync that they complete each other’s kill-moves in the same way best friends complete each other’s sentences. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) catches and redirects Cap’s shield back to him, which immediately reflects a lightning strike from Thor into enemy soldiers. The movies don’t get more fun. We meet two fresh faces for the Marvel universe, the twins Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), working for evil organization Hydra and later the film’s big bad. Back at Avengers HQ, Stark and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) co-create an artificial intelligence that (all too abruptly) spirals into a homicidal maniac. He’s named Ultron, played with spectacular sarcasm and menace by James Spader. I’ll say it now: the whole cast is great, but what else is new?
Ultron himself is a grim-faced mirror, a dramatic foil to everything Tony Stark’s experienced since bringing the nuke into the portal above NYC. It’s a classic case of a fearful and beaten down guy overcompensating for his own safety, and whether you see that as a reason to sympathize or to interpret Ultron’s creation as a parallel to U.S. foreign policy, Ultron runs on a deeper, more mature level of complexity than any Marvel movie before it. Look no further than the nightmares that Scarlet Witch concocts into the of team’s minds; this is the first Marvel movie that has any possibility of being confused for a movie made by the surrealist David Lynch.
Ambitious and self-confident as Ultron is, it just doesn’t always work. Gone are the garden variety of beasties for “Hulk, SMASH” or for Iron Man to pulverize with lasers. The Avengers shifted from ground-level baddies to taking down an alien whale and back again, carefully timing its crescendos for a cathartic, explosive release that often got applause in theaters. Here we only have one enemy: boring, blue-eyed bots, foes who are only marginally more imposing than my grandmother. There’s an awkward detour into Hawkeye’s personal life serves no purpose other than to apologize for his irrelevance to the team, and a random side mission for Thor has a point we won’t know for years. Which is to say, it take a while for things to get moving.
Once we get there, we have spectacle to spare, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a film with more fun in the first half of 2015, but in only the second of four planned Avengers movies (so far), there’s already a seam-splitting strain to keep all the pins in the air. As you enter a third act so overly complex it makes the finale of The Avengers look like the minimalism of Malevich’s The Black Square. Keeping track of all those pins can be an exhausting memory game you’d rather not play. You’re overloaded with visual information that doesn’t always fit together. I was left thinking why is Scarlet Witch there doing that and why does that affects him when he saves her so she can do whatever while Ultron’s fighting him and how the plan works. Wait. is there a plan? Oh, they said they were—Oh, that’s right. It’s the kind of sequence that the script simply could’ve read as “they fight.” You can almost feel the weight bearing down on our (un)lucky writer-director, acting as Marvel’s stand-in for the Greek titan Atlas, tasked or tricked to cradle their whole world on his back.
Curiously, the Marvel model mimics the success of the James Bond series, a Darwinian franchise that’s constantly evolving. It’s less about wondering if the good guys will survive the latest villain, since they almost certainly will. It’s less about taking the threat seriously—just as in Bond, the Avengers crack jokes in the face of what would horrify you or me—and instead it’s more about the moment-to-moment successes that are stitched into a whole. The adventure of the week formula is wearing for some, but I see it as the perfect personification of the comic book standard from which this entire horrorshow is clearly based. What matters is situational fun, and it’s there Age of Ultron succeeds most. Quiet dialogue scenes are a delight: when the film slows down, its quality grows. Plus, individual action beats, quips, and visual ideas are boatloads of fun, and there’s a distinct joy in seeing a late-film character enter the fray. Who or what, I won’t say.
As cheer-worthy as many moments are, they lack the connective tissue to rekindle the bracing momentum of the best Marvel movies, a flaw that, if you’ll forgive a fitness metaphor, is a lot like refusing to take a rest in between sets of weightlifting. We speed so fast and furiously from set (piece) to set (piece) that what was lost or gained becomes meaningless to what comes next. After Ultron’s best action scene, the soon-to-be iconic showdown between Hulkbuster and Hulk, Banner faces possible charges for arrest. He went totally wild, demolishing Johannesburg, Africa. It’s a fascinating moment, both because it forces Banner to confront his inner (green) demons as much as the world has to confront the consequences of giving the keys of the world’s safety to a team of dysfunctionals. You can almost sense a thematic link forming between Banner’s outburst and Stark’s mistake in making Ultron—but then it’s dropped and never mentioned again.
Whedon used Marvel’s mold to tell a personal and poignant story about dealing with your shortcomings, on levels both personal and worldly, all while delivering a fun, sort of satisfying but overly ambitious project that, like Ultron did from Stark, ultimately got away from him. The original cut reportedly ran about three hours and, for the first time ever, there’s already an announced extended cut version coming out on blu-ray. Here’s hoping the extended cut allows Whedon the same chance at redemption that he offers the characters. A great film is buried beneath The Age of Ultron. I just can’t wait to see it.
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