Longtime readers will know that, while I’ve enjoyed a lot of Marvel movie, I’ve always had grave reservations about their overall strategy. Long story short: I think their crossover stunts are basically just crass cross-marketing techniques disguised as clever fan-service and that their in-house style and formulaic writing usually stifles any chance of creativity. And yet, even I had to admit that they delivered the goods last year. Their box-office triumph Guardians of the Galaxy wasn’t exactly high art and it shared some of the same weaknesses of some of the other Marvel movies, but it was probably their wittiest effort to date and was a really fun romp overall and it was only the second best Marvel movie of 2014. The real crown jewel was Captain America: The Winter Solider, which managed to simultaneously function as a completely badass action movie, a clever (if on the nose) allegory for U.S. foreign policy, and move forward the overall Marvel mythology in a meaningful way without making it feel like a crass commercial for future movies. In short, the studio has been riding high off of a lot of well-deserved success last year and couldn’t be in a better position going into their biggest event yet: the sequel to the highest grossing non-James Cameron directed film of all time, The Avengers.
The film begins mid-action-scene as the whole Avengers team is seen assaulting a Hydra base in a fictional Eastern European country called Sokovia. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) are able to take down the base without much trouble even after Hydra releases a pair of superpowered siblings named Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). Having routed this threat, the avengers confiscate Loki’s scepter (which Hydra has for reason that I think are explained on the “Agents of Shield” TV series), and return to New York to celebrate. While back at the base, Tony Stark gets an idea to use the scepter to augment an artificial intelligence that he’s been developing that is intended to act as a sort of protection system for Earth. Shortly thereafter, while the Avengers are celebrating their victory, this A.I. comes alive and inhabits the body of a discarded robot and becomes an evil robot named Ultron who wants to take over the world.
The first Avengers movie was one of the most anticipated movies in recent memory but there was a lot of concern that it was going to end up collapsing under the weight of its own ambition. After all, how do you fit four different major characters into one movie and still have enough time to tell a decent action story. For the most part that movie was able to avoid most of the pitfalls people thought it would fall into and while I wasn’t as in love with it as some people were I did think it was a pretty damn solid action movie and probably Marvel’s best effort yet at that point. That does not, however, mean that Joss Whedon was going to be able to pull off the same magic trick twice. Low and behold, The Avengers: Age of Ultron is exactly what everyone was afraid that the first film would be: an overstuffed mess.
The problems begin with the first act, or perhaps I should say they begin in the second act because the first act seems to be completely missing from the movie. Well, maybe not the entire first act, but the film seems to have taken a lot of misguided narrative shortcuts in the first thirty minutes which get the film off to a very shaky start that it never really recovers from. The decision to start the film right in the middle of an action scene without so much as a briefing beforehand is… odd. I’m not exactly sure what led The Avengers to that castle and while this is a bit disorienting there was plenty of time to recover from that. The much bigger problems set in when Ultorn is created and almost immediately starts going on a rampage. It’s not at all clear what this A.I. that Tony Stark was making was supposed to be or why he was able to use a magical scepter to augment it. Worse than that, it seems like a manner of minutes before this A.I. has transformed into Ultron with minimal explanation and only a few more minutes before Ultron has become a full on supervillain which Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are loyal to for some reason. Ultron’s exact motive is pretty damn unclear as well. I guess we’re all just supposed to remember the Will Smith movie I, Robot (in which the robots attempt to enslave humanity because a misinterpretation of their programing leads them to believe they need to save humans from themselves) and apply the same logic to Ultron, but the movie does very little to actually establish this motive and even less tor really explore it.
The film almost feels like it did flow more naturally at one point but that it had to be aggressively cut down to avoid being three and a half hours long and exposition was deemed less important than the many action scenes and bits of banter. I suppose I can see how that would happen given the many storylines they need to incorporate, however, given that there have been no fewer than ten previous films and three TV series in the Marvel franchise I kind of feel like inadequate time to set up just shouldn’t be an excuse. If Marvel was serious about using their system as an actual means of storytelling rather than a branding gimmick they should have done a lot more to make the transition into this movie a lot smoother than it was.
Of course there really are way too many storyline to fit in this movie and who the film decides to prioritize can be somewhat baffling at times. Iron Man and Captain America, arguably the two most popular Marvel characters, certainly have their share of screentime but don’t really have much in the way of an arc outside of their occasional bickering on the sidelines about Stark’s role in creating Ultron. Still, the movie serves them a lot better than it does Thor, who really doesn’t do much at all in the movie aside from go on one really strange side mission involving a cave which only seems to be in the movie in order to explain infinity stones to people who didn’t see Guardians of the Galaxy. The film actually seems to give even more screentime to side characters like Hawkeye, a hero who frankly doesn’t seem all that “super” to me and who we’ve been trained as an audience not to really care about on the basis that he doesn’t have his own solo film. Black Widow and the Hulk also have a decent amount of screentime and the two characters have apparently formed an unrequited romantic bond in the time since we’ve last seen them. This relationship might have evolved a little more naturally had the Hulk had his own solo film since 2008 and that might have gone a long way in clarifying the characters powers. So far the series has been wildly inconsistent about whether or not Bruce Banner is able to control his powers and this movie is no exception. He’s able to control them in the first action scene, unable to control them in the second, and able to control them again in the third, it’s completely inconsistent.
At its heart Avengers: Age of Ultron’s biggest sin is that it just fees perfunctory. Ultron seems like he was solely created in order to give our heroes something to fight and the character arcs are largely miniscule, but as shallow as the movie is, it does deliver more often than it doesn’t in its action scenes. The movie opens on a pretty cool assault on a mountain lair, has a well realized fight between a rampaging Hulk and Iron Man, features a cool sequence where the heroes chase down a van that Ultron is hiding in, and ends on a big battle scene which certainly has its moments. The film wisely focuses on teamwork during these battles and has the heroes combining their powers in interesting ways throughout. Still, I think there was a bit of a quantity over quality approach to some of this action and I’m not sure Whedon had the action chops to really push any of these sequences into the upper echelon of action filmmaking. Instead it’s clear that Whedon’s real passion lies in comedy rather than action, at times almost to a fault. I’m not a fan of Whedon’s television work and think his brand of self-referential humor can be borderline cringe inducing at times. Fortunately he toned it down considerably when he made The Avengers and while there’s a little more of it this time around it still isn’t too bad and a decent number of his zingers do hit their target and help propel the film.
The above average actions scenes and the one-liners that do land are almost enough to save Avengers: Age of Ultron from its many, many, many narrative shortcomings. Taken moment for moment this is a fun movie, it’s only when you take a step back that you realize how much of a misguided mess the movie is. All too often I’ve reviewed Marvel movies, pointed out the many ways that their crassly commercial bullshit holds them back, but still given them a pass at the end because of how fun the ride was in spite of that. That’s not happening this time, especially not when we had two Marvel movies last year that showed so clearly how much better these movies could be. Guardians of the Galaxy was a much funnier romp, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a much better action movie, and frankly this movie gives me a better appreciation for how cleanly told a lot of these Marvel movies have been, especially the first Avengers. A lot of Marvel loyalists are going to find excuses for this one (hell, I still run into people who have convinced themselves that Thor: The Dark World is a good movie) and there are also going to be some spurned Marvel fans who are going to make this into a bigger disaster than it really is. Really, this is a highly flawed movie with some highlights that do elevate it but make not mistake, this is not quality filmmaking.
**1/2 out of Four