“The equivalent of a dessert where there’s a little too much going on – it’s nice, easily consumable, and the flavors are all good on their own, but are competing overly heavily for the diner’s attention.”
by Ken B.
A dizzying EF5 tornado of plot, action, and snarky banter defines Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron – essentially, precisely what we’ve come to expect from his brand of superhero film after The Avengers, his knockout of a ride from 2012. And maybe my expectations were too high, following an exposure to relentless marketing and fond impressions of its predecessor, but I felt that this was a visible step down. Whedon’s character work feels a tick demoted from three years ago, and sometimes the endless series of story threads can become hard to comprehend as they stack, nearly on top of each other over the other elements, namely some impressive action setpieces. What comes out after the 141 minutes have passed is the equivalent of a dessert where there’s a little too much going on – it’s nice, easily consumable, and the flavors are all good on their own, but are competing overly heavily for the diner’s attention.
The plot for Age of Ultron is set into motion as soon as the Marvel Studios logo fades out. Our beloved team of superheroes – Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Clint Barton a.k.a. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner a.k.a. The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) – are in the fictitious Eastern European nation of Sokovia, engaged in battle with the forces of Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), who has obtained a powerful scepter that belonged to Thor’s evil brother Loki. After the Avengers successfully win back control of the object, Stark realizes that this item is the key to executing a long-simmering project of his: a complex, omnipotent computerized peace-keeping force called Ultron. When something goes horribly wrong (as things often do), Ultron comes to life, occupies a nine-foot-tall robotic figure, gains a voice (James Spader), and has an insatiable thirst for the destruction of humanity. Commanding an army of A.I. soldiers, Ultron can wreak havoc at the drop of the hat, and it will require massive amounts of technology, intelligence, and willpower for our protagonists to subdue him before his ultimate goal of human annihilation can be realized.
No criticism can be leveled against Age of Ultron that will be loud enough against the wave of public anticipation and subsequently the billion dollars it will make. And so be it – as far as blockbuster franchises that should be rabidly successful, you could do far worse than The Avengers and the two films it has produced to date. Despite the various complaints I have, it’s hard to refuse how fun the movie is when it’s working in its element of chemistry between its main cast members and stupendously structured action scenes, bursting with life and color. But in a way, the superior quality demonstrated in the film’s best moments highlights the inferiorities delegated to its worst. Things like a script with erratic focus and choppy cutting in the heat of the action can often prove to throw everything else off-kilter.
Age of Ultron still manages to use its characters well, mixing in some new additions, with the two biggest arrivals, besides Ultron, being the lightning-fast Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the mind-controlling Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). Portrayed as Sokovian twin siblings whose powers come as a result of von Strucker’s work with Loki’s scepter, the development of the two as they slowly become integrated with the Avengers provides an interesting new factor to the equation as well as some emotional coloring towards the end of the film. Zooming out to the ensemble in general, you’d be hard-pressed to call the distribution of material to the cast as even, with Downey and Renner playing front-and-center for a major portion of the movie, and Hemsworth’s Thor taking a back seat. There are plenty of opportunities for the whole group to play off each other with Whedon’s snappy writing, but everyone’s good work is still bested in many respects by Spader’s Ultron, who despite only performing with his voice, makes a towering, memorable turn as the cynical and crafty villain.
I still have my qualms, and I think this sequel pales in comparison with The Avengers, but that doesn’t mean I won’t endorse the collective project as a well-intentioned and enjoyable blast of blockbuster fury. Yes, the story is overstuffed with content, with each plot aspect routinely spinning off into multiple smaller details, and the editing can sometimes render parts of a fight scene vaguely incoherent from time to time, but this is a movie that is still very capable of winning viewers over based on the sense of fun and entertainment lodged at its center. I might not be the biggest fan of everything that Age of Ultron does, but as the saying goes, I just can’t stay mad at it.