This might be staying the obvious, but the problem with setting the bar ever higher is that each time it’s a harder task to clear it. Marvel might well have now reached that stage. The studio has become synonymous with quality (for good reason) but not everything they touch can be solid gold. I was in the minority for not liking CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, and I expect I’ll once again find few friends with the opinion that AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON isn’t all that. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of fun to be had, but I’ve found too many issues to give this one a pass.
After preventing an alien invasion, superhero team the Avengers went their separate ways until the day they were needed again. Following their latest mission together, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) revives a previously mothballed project to create a true artificial intelligence to bolster the “Iron Legion” of automated suits already patrolling the planet as a police force. As this AI, dubbed Ultron (James Spader) gains awareness, it rebels and sets out on its own considerably more radical path to cleanse the Earth. To come out on top again, the Avengers must now contend with their own demons, an army of replicating robots, and the superpowered Maximoff twins (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who are still in a quandary about which side they’re fighting for.
It all starts promisingly enough. The Avengers unite again to tie up the loose ends from the Marvel series so far by raiding an Eastern European castle full of alien technology and controlled by evil global organisation Hydra. It’s a very shiny, dynamic action sequence which emphasises the Avengers’ team-working, and gives everyone ample opportunity to look cool. Here, we’re also introduced to the Maximoff twins (powers later summed up as “he’s fast, she’s weird”) who become a royal pain in the Avengers’ collective behinds from the off. After this, the whole affair goes a little bit squiffy.
The film’s lurching and tangled (not like a good mystery, like a roll of Christmas lights) plot made me realise just how lean, clean and no-nonsense the story of the first film was. THE AVENGERS was simply, who are these guys and why should they work together? In contrast, the plot of Ultron jitters from scene to scene, with seemingly no connective tissue. There simply too much plot. It’s not too complicated, and I’m not advocating the dumbing down of summer blockbusters so I can keep up, but Joss Whedon has attempted too much in the time, and with this many characters, to do any of it much justice. Too often we have a Deus ex machina moment where no obvious way forward presents itself, so instead we get “because science” or “because magic” as an explanation. Some might say that it’s just a superhero movie, why does an illogical plot matter? It always matters. No matter your genre, your movie’s internal logic has to work.
While plotting is the film’s most glaring issue, I also had big problems with character. I may have liked what they did with teasing Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johnannson) past, liked that they made Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) a fully-rounded person, and liked that Scarlet Witch (Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) got memorable and well-performed debut appearances. What I didn’t like was how Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) makes some decisions that greatly reduced his credibility as a character. He’s a genius, and he’s witnessed what happens when science goes haywire (he’s the result of it), yet he still supports Stark twice in taking his experiments to the next stage despite the death and destruction they have already caused.
The biggest character problem I had was with the big draw for the film – Ultron. James Spader’s performance is fine, and it sounds like he’s having a lot of fun with it, but as a character I found him quite insufferable. You should be able to root for a great villain, enjoy every moment they’re on screen despite their evilness because they’re often more interesting than the heroes. Ultron, though born of his creator’s short-sighted genius (the first of many FRANKENSTEIN references) is a bit of a dull and stupid character. He’s too smug, too glib, too childish to be threatening. I also don’t get how you make the leap straight from mild frustrated rebellion against your master to instant genocidal tendencies. Is it just because he’s a killer robot and that’s what they do? Whedon could be smarter than this, he should be. It’s the second major film of the year after CHAPPIE to take such an interesting premise and proceed to do nothing with it. I wasn’t overly fond of Ultron’s design either. By mo-capping Spaders lip movements to a semi-rigid face he comes across as a little – and there’s no kind way of saying this – Muppety.
I was a little disappointed that this time round we essentially get less Banner, more Hulk, but the Hulkbuster fight is admittedly great. Like with the previous film’s Iron Man vs Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the very best action sequence in over 140 minutes (sequences which can often be an overload of visual information) is a personal affair, and unlike the comparable CGI-ed fight at the close of MAN OF STEEL, at least the two combatants look distinctive from each other, at least you can tell who is winning.
I also like how the Avengers actually stop mid-action sequence to save people, just like superheroes should, in a very Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN way. You might be fighting Ultron on an out of control train running through the centre of Seoul, but the well-being of the civilians always comes first.
As I said at the beginning of the review, Age of Ultron has some great moments. Whedon’s script and dialogue is still witty, if a little less sharp than in the previous film. There’s still some amusing banter amongst the team. Vision has several of these great moments, and I like how he becomes a thematic and symbolic representation of “the good monster” next to Ultron’s bad. Hawkeye probably has the standout moment of the film, when, in an attempt to rally a terrified Scarlet Witch, he simply points out the ridiculousness of their present situation and his choice of weaponry. More moments like this, or a more consistent effort overall might have made Age of Ultron rival Whedon’s last superhero extravaganza, because it’s certainly not lacking in ambition, just crying out for better execution. SSP