Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, James Spader, Paul Bettany
Director: Joss Whedon
Running Time: 2 hours 21 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Avengers: Age of Ultron could just as easily be called Avengers: Age of Collateral Damage, as writer-director Joss Whedon's followup to the gargantuan hit The Avengers is bigger, noisier, and features more toppling buildings, exploding skyscrapers, collapsing bridges, and panic-stricken fleeing citizens per minute than any Michael Bay film in recent memory. That's not to say Whedon is channeling the auteur of crash-and-burn robot porn here; there's certainly more personality and less cynicism than anything Bay has offered up, but there's still no denying the struggle Whedon seems to be having trying to fight against the monopolizing Marvel machine.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the latest link in what amounts to a franchise-building corporatization of comic book culture isn't the by-the-numbers storyline centered around a Dr. Frankstein-style creation with evolving A.I. (the titular Ultron) who wants to eradicate life on earth as we know it, but rather the idea of a filmmaker with a personal vision valiantly pushing against a formula that at this point reeks of déjà vu. Though James Gunn brought his idiosyncratic talents to Guardians of the Galaxy, that picture was nonetheless beholden to the Almighty studio mandate; rolling out pretty much the same narrative arc as all of the previous Marvel films and tapering off some of Gunn's more alienating tendencies from his days shooting Troma-style B-movies. Here, Whedon retains many of the qualities that works so well in the first The Avengers; quick comedic banter, graceful character notes, and the notion of a band of misfits actively working together to defeat evil, but there's also the feeling that if he could make an Avengers movie where this motley crew hung out in a pub for 2+ hours, he probably would. To wit, there's a discernible apathy in the staging of the action sequences here; (Whedon is more of a writer than a visual stylist) that speaks to the fact that audiences have become spoiled by this type of thing for years now. That's not to say that the action beats are completely devoid of excitement; on the contrary, the film's opening during a fortress raid, for example, is a slam-bang set piece with fluid long takes and careful attention in highlighting each Avenger's fighting skills.
Let's be honest, though. Avengers: Age of Ultron isn't really directed by Whedon, but by a vast array of uber-talented computer effects specialists working overtime to satisfy drooling fanboys craving bigger and more spectacular superhero action. In between all of the bombast, however, Whedon does manage to sneak in his signature brand of arch dialogue and ace character moments. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has a few humorous lines teasing Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) about his propensity for laying waste to anything standing in his path, and there's some warm chemistry between Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Banner; two displaced characters who feel bonded even as their attraction could prove dangerous. Meanwhile, Robert Downey Jr continues to do his fast-talking egoistical shtick as Tony Stark/Iron Man, and while his never-ending yapping has grown somewhat stale at this point, his presence is thankfully less forceful here.
Ultimately, the plot hinges on whether or not the gang, which also includes Hawkeye (Jeremey Renner), and Captain America (Chris Evans), can stop the villainous Ultron (winningly voiced by James Spader), while also dealing with the arrival of Hydra-engineered mutant twins Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). Trying to fit in two new characters into a film that is already overstuffed is a gamble that only partially pays off; there really isn't enough time to establish them as noteworthy foils to the Avengers plan, though it does provide some much-needed tension. If anything, the emergence of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch simply speaks to Marvel's incessant need to build their universe tangentially without stopping to think whether or not in works in the context of a stand-alone film. More successful is the way Whedon fleshes out Hawkeye, giving Renner a chance to shine in some more downbeat scenes involving his home life and allowing the character to essentially become the film's central hero.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is at its best when giving us seemingly throwaway scenes involving the rag-tag group interacting; such as an extended bar sequence where each member tries to lift Thor's hammer. In these moments, it's clear Whedon is a true believer in these characters, with a genuine love for the comic book universe rather than a cynical cash-grab mentality that has been true of at least a few of the other entries in the Marvel franchise. Still, his screenplay also gets bogged down in exposition and backstory (much of which is told through cheesy visual hallucinations), and a central antagonist who never fully materializes as a viable threat; (despite Spader's droll vocal work, Ultron lacks the mischievous villainy of Tom Hiddelston's Loki from the first Avengers). Honestly, there's too much going on here; too many characters, too many subplots, too many lame jokes and bad puns, too many innocent bystanders being crushed by crumbling debris, for it to be entirely successful on all fronts. However, to be fair, the film does go out of it's way to show the Avengers valiantly saving the common citizen from harm, especially in regards to the overblown finale, which sees an entire city being evacuated. Still, while not on the level of Zach Snyder's irresponsibly cavalier destruction derby Man of Steel, there's something oddly disconcerting about seeing Hulk and Iron Man plow through numerous skyscrapers while faceless citizens run for cover. Though this ambivalence toward collateral damage is mentioned as a humorous zinger from Thor directed at a decompressing Banner, Whedon's screenplay could have gone further in detailing just how the Avengers feel about all of the destruction they're causing.
Ultimately, loss of human life and how long it will take our heroes to wipe out a throng of CGI-enhanced robot baddies on a floating Eastern European city during the exhausting climax isn't really the point. Avengers: Age of Ultron is pure pop escapism; about seeing comic book tropes writ large backed by a massive budget, and allowing oneself to be caught up in the absurdity of a tied-in universe which leaves little room for auteurism. Try as he might, Whedon cannot fully wrestle himself away from the rigid "house style" inherent in the Marvel canon, but he does provide enough giddy entertainment and popcorn thrills to at least match, if not improve upon, whats come before. If, as a sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron is more of the same, it's also not worried about setting up each character's inter-personal dynamics and therefore, can simply let things rip.