Avengers: Age of Ultron is one exhausting movie. I mean that as both a compliment and critique. This lengthy, ambitious, epic sequel to one of the most popular movies of all time exemplifies both the triumphant and the tiring aspects of Marvel’s seemingly endless cavalcade of comic-based films.
There’s a lot to like about Ultron. The early scenes give us everything we loved about the first film. Witty banter between bouts of action, alongside the quieter character moments that help flesh out the individual faces in this ever-growing band of heroes. There’s a particularly great scene where the heroes, including Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) attempt to lift Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) magic hammer. It reminds us that the Avengers’ world is one filled not only with epic battles and constant danger, but also small, intimate conversations and typically silly games of male one-upmanship.
But the casual camaraderie doesn’t last long. A program that Tony Stark created to help protect the world quickly turns against the team, vowing to rid the world of the Avengers. The menacing Ultron (played/voiced with typical excellence by James Spader) is a truly modern villain; a program that can be anywhere, and do anything to get what he wants. His very existence is a potent commentary on the modern paranoia of cyberterrorism and identity theft. It’s an intangible threat that returning writer/director Joss Whedon has horrifyingly anthropomorphized.
That darker, morally neutral tone is one that is adapted throughout the film. The bright, vibrant colors of the first Avengers film have all but been abandoned, reflecting the heroes’ shattered psyche. The greatest thing this sequel brings to the table is that it further hammers home the first film’s suggestion that the greatest threat to the Avengers may lie within. The interpersonal conflicts within the group are heightened by the introduction of two great new characters, the Maximoff twins (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen). Pietro, also known as Quicksilver, has super-fast speed, and Wanda, aka Scarlet Witch, can manipulate energy as well as minds. With complex motivations of their own, the twins are reluctantly recruited by Ultron to help him in his quest to eliminate the Avengers.
Scarlet Witch, in particular, is a phenomenal character, and she plays a major part in the film’s greatest sequence, perhaps my favorite in any Marvel movie ever. As she manages to manipulate the minds of many of the Avengers, she plants horrifying hallucinations in their minds. This sequence is not only visually stunning, it helps reveal the psychological torment our heroes are forced to live with. This culminates in a spectacular Avenger-on-Avenger battle that I wouldn’t dare spoil here.
Alas, the nearly 2 ½ hour film does not sustain the momentum of its brilliant early scenes. The film is epic, but perhaps a bit too overstuffed. What starts as a pretty clear and compelling conflict devolves into near-incomprehensibility as Whedon struggles to balance the desire to tell a gripping, contained story while still feeding the Marvel behemoth with plot threads and conversations designed to set up the next film. The most egregious example is Thor’s quest to track down a set of potentially universe-destroying Infinity Stones. It does nothing to further the main plot and is also super boring. This is my biggest issue with these films; while these kinds of scenes are great for universe building, I sometimes feel like I’m watching a teaser for the next Avengers movie rather than being allowed to enjoy the one I’m supposed to be watching now.
This is also an issue when it comes to side-characters. I like that each major Avenger gets his/her chance to shine, particularly a side-story involving a sort-of romance between Dr. Banner and Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (the always brilliant Scarlett Johansson). But why did Whedon feel the need to parade out the supporting characters from the heroes’ individual franchises for quick, pointless cameos? Oh look, there’s War Machine and the Falcon and Nick Fury and Dr. Selvig and…the list goes on. Unfortunately, the film has too much going on to give these characters anything to do, leaving them to feel like fancy window dressing.
Marvel’s other major issue is also in full swing here. I can’t quite put my finger on what makes Ultron an uninteresting villain. He’s got a wickedly cool design, and James Spader can do no wrong. I guess I’m just a bit tired of a villain wanting to destroy the world because he doesn’t like humans. The film tries to give him some more complex motivations related to his daddy issues associated with his creator. But he still ultimately devolves into a generic world-destroyer. His rushed motivations and lack of witty one-liners make him a bit of a waste, especially compared to Loki, arguably the greatest Marvel villain ever.
The film’s action-packed climax is quite the stunner, even if an army of aliens is simply replaced with an army of robots. It’s one of those grand, effects-heavy spectacles that will leave you asking, “how did they do that?” In fact, the action throughout truly delivers; it’s well-shot and epic in scale, even as it overuses slow-motion effects.
The film doesn’t end so much as wheeze and sputter its way to a credits screen. Compared to the rest of the film, the last 10 minutes are almost shockingly sloppy. I know the film has a whole new series of movies to set up, but so did the first Avengers, and that film did an infinitely better job of teasing its sequel while still giving audiences a satisfying capper to the movie they were just watching.
Age of Ultron is a solid action film with some spectacular moments, but it really shows the limits of Marvel’s cinematic universe. In thinking primarily about the whole, the individual parts tend to suffer. I want to watch a really good Avengers film, on its own. As the Marvel universe continues to groan under the weight of its own massive ambition, I fear the franchise’s best days are in its past. I hope I’m wrong.