(SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison.
Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War, Infinity Wars I & II, Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok. It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions (Iron Man II), but there are points in Age of Ultron where it becomes distractingly so. Even with the infinity gems just about linked to the main plot, there’s something more flagrant and obnoxious about it here. As if Marvel can’t simply be satisfied with telling a perfectly good here-and-now story well on its own terms.
Because that story is pretty good. Slimmed down, excised of half a dozen extraneous characters and the tiresomely repetitive third act free-for-all, this might feasibly have been the best Marvel yet. In some respects, it feels like it should have been Iron Man 4. Albeit, Tony Stark’s behaviour here is setting up Civil War, and he’s been neatly repositioned from loveable anti-hero to a catalyst who helps fuel the conflict of these movies. It’s clear Whedon is doing his damndest to service as many characters he can, particularly those that have been previously under-represented, but Stark, partly by dint of Downey Jr’s unquenchable charisma and starry demands and partly as a natural evolution of the character, still ends up as the most crucial.
Stark’s appeal an abundance of nuance, something in short supply with his peers. He’s the reformed but unabashed capitalist, the arms dealing bad boy who has rechanneled his energies but not his personality. He’s arrogant, hubristic and, most dangerous of all, his belief in his way to the exclusion of others warns of a tendency to the fascistic. It helps that Downey Jr is fully on board with exploring the character’s dark side, but you have to wonder at Marvel (reportedly) blanching at Edgar Wright’s embracing the larcenous nature of Ant-Man Scott Lang when their most popular character (cinematically) is a collection of unwholesome parts beneath the charm machine surface (Whedon has recently been quoted as regarding the screenplay by Wright and Joe Cornish as Marvel’s best ever).
The Netflix Daredevil made something of a meal of comparing its hero to its villain (even though that came in one of the series’ few standout episodes). That’s not a problem with Age of Ultron. It’s fundamental to its DNA, and it’s enormously beneficial to have James Spader voicing Stark’s unwitting creation. Spader lends a ready tone of playful spite to Whedon’s Stark-inspired acid wit, unleashing mayhem on a monstrous scale even as Tony continues to expose himself as a towering egoist who sees it as his fight to bring down his progeny.
The first 40 or 50 minutes of Age of Ultron are first class. I could malign the slow motion 3D wallpaper line-up of the Avengers in a Russian, sorry Sokovian, forest (the one that appeared in trailers) as cheesy and not in the least air-punching, and there’s some quite ropey CGI and cinematography on display throughout the woods action, but this is in the context of a very solidly paced and constructed opening act.
Tony’s manipulated haste to develop Ultron from the AI (housed within a gem in Loki’s sceptre… ) recovered during this opening battle is responsible for all that transpires. Whedon expertly builds an undercurrent of tension as Bruce and Tony, their tests apparently getting nowhere, head off to “revels” celebrating their latest victory. It’s notable how, on both occasions the science geeks get together, Stark crushes the ethical qualms of amiable Bruce by sheer force of personality; it’s instructive of how others can go with the flow when suspect positions gain currency.
The party scene is Whedon in his quippy element; you get the sense he’d happily spend an hour with these guys trading barbs, and the audience would probably stick with him. Doubtless Anthony Mackie and Don Cheadle are relying on similar carrot-dangling that saw Jeremy Renner rewarded this time, but Cheadle at least gets a couple of very funny moments working his War Hammer war stories to both receptive and unreceptive audiences.
The highlight is the already previewed attempt to lift Thor’s hammer, and Whedon’s comic timing has taken no tumble since he absented himself from TV. Thor’s reaction when Cap nudges is priceless. Generally, while the Asgardian has less to do (at least, that is integral to this story), Hemsworth is clearly relishing the opportunity for deadpan delivery. Later, his boast that the Scarlet Witch’s sorcery will has no effect on him segues effortlessly into a full-blown hallucination.
But what really keeps the scene ticking along is the preceding knowledge that Stark and Banner’s experiments have been an unknowing success. The conversation between computer minds J.A.R.V.I.S. and the nascent Ultron is relishable, touching on themes of existential crisis and philosophical deadlock that will permeate the villain’s plotline. There’s ample room for more of this kind of metaphysical conjecture in the Marvel universe and, done this well, it would be a treat. Certainly, it shouldn’t be shied away from in favour of raising yet another unfeasible object heavenwards and having a big fight on it.
Again, the first appearance of Ultron was previewed in trailers, effectively accompanied by I’ve Got No Strings. It’s no less potent for being part-seen, but it does bear noting that Ultron is hugely more unnerving and sinister as a makeshift collection of broken, twisted Iron Legionnaire body parts than in his overtly CGI succession of final states. This is never a deal-breaker, thanks to Spader’s confident delivery, but neither is there any danger of buying Ultron as a tangible physical presence. One has to wonder, if Neill Blomkamp can deliver photorealistic robotics every time on a fraction of the budget, why can’t Marvel make sure their titular villain is similarly convincing?
From this point, Whedon slowly unspools and becomes his grip on the mayhem becomes less certain. He sets the heroes’ initial agenda confidently enough, and keeps up the pace with a bravura breakneck sequence in South Africa, but his ingrained understanding of structure, allowing a respite before kicking off again, work better in miniature, as opposed to the bulked-up, overbearing form he’s dealing with here.
Andy Serkis makes the most of his appearance as arms dealer Ulysses Klaue in a convergence of parties on his ship. The scene is combination of the effective (arms dealer Klaue losing an arm when Ultron is inflamed over being compared to Stark), the humorous (speedy Quicksilver coming unstuck when he tries to appropriate Thor’s hammer) and slightly rote (the hallucinations aren’t nearly as effective as the one that informed Tony’s path to creating Ultron).
In the case of the latter, it becomes clear that Whedon’s desire to offer the non-solo vehicle Avengers, in particular Hawkeye and Black Widow, rich subplots are failing to fly. It feels transparently like a sop in both cases, with characters that either aren’t interesting enough, or lack the performer punch, to carry. So we’re privy to Natasha’s assassin school and the damage it inflicted upon her psyche. We also discover that Hawkeye is immune to Wanda’s psychic entanglements (his mind wasn’t ever so strong last time, though, was it, when he spent his time as a possessed bad guy?) The hope is clearly that this makes Hawkeye cool, up there with the big guns, but he should be so lucky.
So it’s Tony, again, who makes this sequence shine. It’s a problem with Marvel’s better, faster, more approach that each set piece has to top the previous one in terms of extravagance. It misses the point that the more satisfying one is the better structure and crafted. The fight between Iron Man and Hulk is quite substantial enough to form the conclusion to a lesser, perfectly respectable movie, but here it’s almost throw away.
I didn’t think it looked all that from the trailers; a little too familiar, with Stark in the ungainly Hulkbuster suit squaring off against the big greenie on the street of a thriving metropolis. What makes it is work and then some is how funny it is, nourished by a running Stark commentary, including his concern over knocking a Hulk tooth out and, best of all, his desperate attempts to subdue the unleashed menace through repeatedly hammer-punching him in the face while exclaiming “Go to sleep! Go to Sleep! Go to sleep!”
Whedon finds the narrative more problematic from here to the conclusion. When he happens upon a golden nugget, it shines brightly. The Romanovs’ discovery of Ultron’s true intent is one such. Another is the reveal that clever old J.A.R.V.I.S. played dead following his first contact with Ultron. The feuding over Tony’s plan to install him in Ultron’s half-completed living body reinvigorates the back half of the movie, even more so when this form is actualised as Vision.
If Vision overtly echoes Dr Manhattan in Watchmen, that’s not such a bad thing. Manhattan is an indelible character with a fascinatingly circumspect detachment from the fellow life forms with whom he cannot wholly connect. Not only is the design of Vision a slam-dunk, but Paul Bettany also brings a genteel panache to the character. He’s sober, supremely self-aware and intimately conscious of enormity of the task of dispatching Ultron.
Yet Whedon surprises by making him funny when you least expect it. (This shouldn’t be a surprise really; Whedon distributes pithy lines fairly interchangeably, it’s the actor’s delivery that makes them distinctive) The lifting the hammer moment, and once again Hemsworth’s reaction, gets the biggest laugh of the movie, and cements Vision as its standout character. There are loads of nice touches; his sympathy for Ultron’s solitary, fearful plight, his unheard conference with Thor (from whom he gets the idea for wearing a cape), his whisking in to hoist Natasha from harm at the last moment.
The action in Age of Ultron is mostly pretty good, even if the joins show at times. But Whedon is the victim of more demanding juggling in the third act than he was in Avengers and, as a consequence, he appears less adept. Ultron’s plan is a mangle of semi-coherent exposition and, if his endless army of clones has the initially impressive impact of insects overrunning all and sundry, the picture takes the path of least resistance; sprawling punch-ups where the objectives and rules play second fiddle to variably engaging intercutting of our ensemble up to heroic deeds.
The sky-bound Sovokian city unfortunately resembles a more CGI-intensive but dramatically inferior crib from last year’s floating football stadium in X-Men: Days of Future Past. In tandem with this, Whedon overfills his bath and loses control his rubber ducks. He’s evidently decided to make a stand against the wholesale, wanton destruction of Man of Steel. It feels a bit petty, “Marvel cares about collateral damage, and we’re going to rub WB’s nose in it”. As a result there’s a series of digressions where individual innocents are saved from a grizzly fate (this works much, much better in the earlier Stark-Hulk face-off, and underlining it here is overkill and then some). The bloody helicarrier even shows up to help with the evacuation, resulting in further unnecessary longueurs.
Just when you thought the finale couldn’t get any more indulgent, Whedon, clearly out of inspiration for further ways to make Hawkeye a great guy, resorts to having him rescue a poor screaming child. It’s the laziest and oldest standby in the book, and it’s the more desperate that he chooses to throw in his big, impactful death at this point in the proceedings. It’s a waste. I had no problem with killing off Agent Coulson in Avengers because he was entirely insipid. The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. only serves to confirm this, where he’s been mystifying promoted to lead status.
Here, though, Joss goes to the trouble of introducing a new superhero, Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Pietro Maxmoff/Quicksilver, but again comes up short on Fox’s equivalent from Days of Future Past. There, Quicksilver was no more than a means to execute a flashy set piece. But what a flashy set piece. Here, the character is more integrated but at the same time Whedon seems only to be paying him lip service. As a result, there’s little impact to Pietro’s death, and it feels like a missed opportunity (he’ll probably be resurrected anyway, so little point getting worked up about it). The upside is that it gives the slightly better drawn Scarlet Witch a solid dramatic moment.
Even then, much of the impact of Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch is down to Elizabeth Olsen’s luminous presence. Whedon skimps on giving her substance. There isn’t a chance of learning the scope of her abilities (“Weird stuff” is about all we get; even if such vagueness is in keeping with the comic character, it’s up to Joss to set the movie’s standard). While she sets in motion events by giving Stark his turning point vision that doesn’t give her much heft by itself.
Come the finale, she needs a pep talk from Avengering nanny Hawkeye to induce her to come out blazing. Whedon stumbles this, giving it the status of a rousing moment but allowing it to fizzle after a few seconds and a couple of molten Ultrons. Still, if they can actually decide what Scarlet Witch can do, she’s a much more promising character than most of the rest of the second Avengers line-up, and Olsen’s great.
In neither case does Whedon have much inspiration for visualise the twins’ superpowers, which kind of kills the promise of an expanded superhero palette. That said, I’m willing to give him some slack as he knocks it out of the park with Vision. There’s no worry about visualising Hawkeye’s superpowers, as he has none. Jeremy Renner’s a decent actor, and Whedon may well feel indebted to ensuring his ex-Angel pal has more screen time and substance, but no amount of wishing is going to make Hawkeye interesting. No amount of meta-commentary on how it’s really very silly that he shows up firing arrows willy-nilly (even exploding arrows). No amount of giving him a wife (an uncredited Linda Cardellini) and kids (quite the reverse). And no amount of stolidity and focus makes his newly decided status as the bedrock of the team inspiring. It merely serves to compound his flavourlessness.
Whedon’s heavy lifting on the part of Natasha/Black Widow also singularly fails. Perhaps I’m just still sore that Emily Blunt missed out on the role, but Scarlett Johansson brings very little to the table, aside from filling out a tight leather jumpsuit. Certainly, Whedon seems more attentive to silhouetting her bust/butt combo than complimenting Johnansson with interesting character work. There’s an affecting moment where she discusses how she cannot look forward to a normal family life, but that aside Whedon’s done his best to reduce the character to a serial flirt. Last time it was Cap, now its Banner. As we know, a female character has to be defined by the guy she fancies or she’s nothing, even in a superhero movie.
The worst of it is, the attempts to stimulate a romance between Bruce and Natasha give off nary a spark. Whedon probably, reasonably, thought he was on solid ground. After all, it was the engine that ran Buffy and Angel. But there’s negligible chemistry between Mark Ruffalo and Johansson, and the emotional attachment feels like an imposition (I have no idea if they have history on the page). Satellite characters are compelled to mention their attraction every other scene, as if repetition makes it believable. They talk of running away together, but this fails to build into an Avengers’ version of star-crossed lovers. To top it all, Joss then goes and makes Natasha a damsel in distress, one who needs rescuing by both Banner and then Vision.
Ruffalo was one of the highlights of the first Avengers, and suddenly everyone was saying Hulk could be done right in the movies. He’s much less well catered for here. Whedon curtails the bromance with Stark, perhaps rightly thinking “Been there, done that”, but bogs Banner down in a romance that does nothing but make him look maudlin and ineffectual. Hulk’s rage at Ultron isn’t a classic moment probably because we don’t really buy into his deep-running feelings, but it’s clear Whedon hoped it would be exactly that (ironically, Vision’s rescue of Natasha thereafter has more impact). Likewise, Hulk’s Kong-like moment of carrying Natasha to safety would only carry a poetic resonance if we saluted their pairing. It isn’t clear if Bruce really has set sail for Planet Hulk come the conclusion, but I’m beginning to wonder if Hulk’s success in Avengers was a one-off.
There’s the usual return of Sam Jackson as Nick Fury. I don’t recall Jackson raising his voice this time, but that might be because the character sends me into a snooze whenever he shows up to rally the troops. I did become distracted by his curious eye patch support. Surely ducking it under the ear can’t be at all comfortable? Cobie Smulders yet again proves her greatest strength is her name, delivering a toe-curling delivery of her comedy moment (“Testosterone!”; well done, Joss, that’s a keeper). Claudia Kim make an impression as Dr Cho. I wasn’t clear if she bought the farm, but she’s a more welcome presence than many of the lesser regulars. Give her some superpowers already. Thomas Kretschmann rocks up and is then killed off, another case of the script’s bloat and carelessness.
The new Avengers line-up reeks of second tier, Vision and Scarlet Witch aside, and there’s surprisingly little emphasis on passing the torch to the incumbents. Perhaps Whedon knew they were a bit weak, or perhaps its because Marvel has decreed the old guard will reassemble at some point (Infinity Wars Part II?) Certainly, some of the set-ups work better than others. The clashing between Cap and Tony, which will be capitalised upon in Civil War, feels germane. Speaking of Cap, he’s as dependably unimpeachably self-rigtheous as ever, and poor Evans just about avoids making him an embarrassment with the protracted punchline of Steve Rogers saying a cuss word. The infinity stones are enormously “whatever” though, a MacGuffin lacking even mildest intrigue, something only solidified by the shrug-worthy mid-credits appearance of Thanos.
Will Whedon be missed? Since he will doubtless hang in there as an ear and finesser when the going gets rough, probably not in an immediately obvious way. I suspect there’s a danger of stagnancy on the horizon, though. Playing it safe with the Russo brothers and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely for both Civil War and the Infinity Wars double seems like a recipe for the less remarkable, whatever the potential of the source material.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is too distended, has too many parties to please, so becomes distracted from its abundance of plus points. It fails to scale the heights of the very best on the Marvel movie league table, and is less immediately lustrous than either of last year’s more distinctive offerings. This is still a highly enjoyable summer blockbuster, but Marvel really needs to ensure the long game isn’t at the expense of the immediate picture. They should also acknowledge they’re desperately short of sophisticated climaxes. Or at least, ones that satisfy beyond the base line objective of blowing yet more shit up. If Fox could do it last summer, maybe Marvel can yet sort their (third) act out. Who knows, maybe their unloved semi-abandoned stepchild Ant-Man will break with that status quo.