In 2012’s The Avengers, writer/director Joss Whedon managed a neat trick, pulling the narrative strands of the five Marvel Studios movies that preceded it into a cohesive whole. Characters quipped, action popped, Hulk smashed. It was great fun. So, can Whedon perform the same magic trick with the film’s sequel, Age of Ultron? No. Not at all. Not in the slightest.
There’s plenty to like in Age of Ultron, but that’s true primarily because there’s just so much damn stuff in it. For the first hour and a half of the film, it seems to be afraid to slow down. Every moment feels focus-grouped for maximum entertainment, packed with either action or banter. Some of it is effective (the scene where the rest of the Avengers try, and fail, to lift Thor’s hammer is not only genuinely funny, but pays off brilliantly later in the film), but overall the breathless pace is numbing.
Just last year, we had two shining examples of how much fun the Marvel Cinematic Universe can be, with Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. Age of Ultron is at its best when it embraces that spirit of playful action, and stumbles when tasked with ascribing meaning to its underdeveloped villain, Ultron. What exactly does Ultron want? He seems to be raging against the boundaries of his own existence, like any A.I. supervillain worth his salt, but there’s no gradual shift into murderous rage. Ultron wakes up pissed, and gets more pissed. His motivations are no more complicated than the talking Krusty the Clown doll that tries to kill Homer Simpson. Someone merely set Ultron to evil. It’s a shame, because the design of Ultron is great, and James Spader does a wonderful job of inhabiting the character with an all-too-human menace. But, frankly, Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina was a far more unpredictable, and therefore terrifying, A.I. villain than ol’ Vibranium pants.
For over half its runtime, Age of Ultron is a movie in a big rush to get to nowhere. But then the movie takes a breath, as the team hides out on Hawkeye’s farm, and we finally get a chance to sit with these characters for a bit. Once the action resumes, we’re more grounded in each individual’s motivation, and care more when we see them in peril. Death finally takes an Avenger, a raise of the stakes that’s been long overdue. Whedon plays with foreshadowing and audience expectation so well that each member of the team seems to be at risk, and that sense of foreboding lends weight to the final showdown with Ultron.
In such a fast-paced movie, performances naturally suffer. In a film so packed with characters, it takes an actor with a ton of natural charisma to connect with an audience in their allotted bursts of screentime. This is why Downey has worked so well in these movies, and why a more low-key actor like Jeremy Renner has struggled to remain memorable (though, to his, and Whedon’s, credit, Hawkeye is one of the best parts of the movie). So it’s a testament to the talents of Elizabeth Olson and Paul Bettany that the Scarlet Witch and Vision pop from the moment that they’re introduced. Olson gives the Witch a sort of boho Stevie Nicks vibe, and fully embraces the silliness of her dumb, non-specific European accent and the weird, twisty shit she has to do with her hands to make magic or whatever.
And Bettany brings Vision to life in a vulnerable way--he’s not merely J.A.R.V.I.S. in human form, and he’s neither recognizably human nor android. He’s a different, haunted kind of creature, and that’s important, because Vision is so key to the end of the movie that a botched performance would have sunk the film entirely.
By the time the film reaches its climax, the damn thing is finally running smooth, and a large part of the satisfaction of the back half of the movie is buried in all of that clunky setup at the beginning. It’s been said that Whedon had to cut a full forty minutes from the film, and you feel the absence of some important connective tissue throughout. Given that the film’s already overlong, it’s hard to say I wanted more of it, but if there’s a version of the film that flows a little more naturally and makes a little more sense, I hope we get to see it. And I’m sure that we will, because it will make money. Marvel loves money.
And, in the end, that’s part of the problem with Age of Ultron. These Marvel movies have always contained teasers for the next installments, but this is the first one that’s felt like a commercial more than its own storyline. The movie seems to be so concerned about introducing characters and plotlines that will play bigger roles in the next Marvel properties, from the upcoming Black Panther to the Infinity War films, that it remains in a sort of narrative purgatory.
In the heydey of Marvel comics, books with complicated storylines used to feature editorial captions explaining what issue a specific line of dialogue or story was cross-referencing. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is in desperate need of an equivalent. It’s hard to imagine anybody who’s not a huge fan of either the comics or the movies enjoying Age of Ultron on its own terms. The Avengers was fun and welcoming. Age of Ultron has an agenda. Such a demand of a movie audience’s time and patience wears thin, and after eleven movies, you begin to feel less like a fan of the MCU, and more like a consumer. And once you consume something rather than absorb it, that thing is, ultimately, disposable.