REVIEW SUMMARY: Jammed with action and occasional quips, the sophomore adventure of Marvel’s superhero team feels as soulless as the machines they set out to fight.
Brief Synopsis: After acquiring Loki’s scepter from a Hydra fortress, Tony Stark creates the dangerous artificial intelligence Ultron, and the rest of the Avengers must stop it before it destroys humanity.
Pros: Broadening of the Clint Barton character; touches of humor that break tension; James Spader as Ultron, who seems to enjoy himself.
Cons: Overfull screenplay; lack of real interest by two of the main characters; too many characters; lack of quotable dialogue.
The robot uprising is finally upon us in Avengers: Age of Ultron, the latest chapter in a neverending Marvel story, and this time the villains seem particularly apt, as writer/director Joss Whedon’s second foray into the universe of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby feels programmed and mechanical. It’s neither that James Spader, who voices the sentient machine Ultron, doesn’t masticate scenery in his metallic jaws with great zeal, nor that Whedon’s screenplay completely lacks the wit, to say nothing of the insight, of the superhero plight he brought to Marvel’s The Avengers—how many summer blockbusters dare reference Eugene O’Neill during their two hour–plus running time? Unfortunately, the quips, explosions, and the action sequences, which begin well before the opening title and never quite abate, neither drown the meshing of cinematic gears nor mask the tiny cracks or hairline fractures in the sequel’s foundation. Even when the movie slows down to allow the major characters some emotional depth and a chance to proffer at least one life beyond the bravado and derring-do, it ramps up the pace again to get back to the major set pieces, and introduces new characters before one gets the chance to reacquaint themselves with those already known.
Perhaps Whedon stopped trusting his audience to care about the characters, because the sudden chase that jump-starts the movie disorients to such a degree that it impedes understanding, artlessly dropping explanation as bullets tear through the air, jeep engines roar, and the intrepid team comprising Tony Stark’s Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Steve Rogers’s Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff’s Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Clint Barton’s Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Bruce Banner’s Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) do battle with the modern-day remnants of Hydra, based in a forest outpost in the Eastern European country of Sokovia, where Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) has used Loki’s scepter in experimentation on human subjects (and thus bestowing superpowers on Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olson, respectively), the former with incredible speed, the other with the ability to read minds and throw blasts of energy). The group, of course, acquires the scepter, which, as Stark and Banner learn, contains an artificial intelligence that Stark believes will help him complete his Ultron program, a global defense strategy that will protect the planet and make the Avengers obsolete. He and Banner fail to divulge their plan to the others and inadvertently create Ultron, who believes (of course) that the only way to save humanity is to destroy it. Using one of Stark’s humanoid drones as a body, Ultron dismantles Stark’s personal artificial intelligence JARVIS (Paul Bettany), attacks the Avengers during a victory party (where we learn that Romanoff carries a torch for Banner), and flees to Africa to build a robot army and recruit the Maximoff twins, who harbor a grudge against the cocksure Stark, whose pre–Iron Man weapons helped kill their parents. It feels like a lot of story, but strip away the high-tech jargon and near-constant special effects (often blended even more seamlessly than in the previous entry) and the threads bare themselves, revealing a pedestrian, far too glib retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with Stark a snarky Victor and Ultron a monster of equal snark. The group’s anger at Stark flares as quickly as it vanishes as they agree, dutifully, that they must stop Ultron from whatever plan he has in, um, mind.
Chases ensue. The Avengers attempt to confront Ultron in Africa, but Wanda turns the group’s minds against them, which ultimately causes the Hulk to run amok in Johannesburg, leaving Iron Man to attempt to stop the smashing. Ultron takes control of nanabiologist Dr. Helen Cho (Claudia Kim) and demands she build him a body made of vibranium, the same material as Captain America’s grand old shield, thus making him invulnerable, and the Avengers brave Seoul rush-hour (as dangerous as my morning commute into Austin) in order to engage in a vehicular game of keep-away. Ultron returns to Sokovia, where he reveals his final plans. So relentless is the action that the set pieces blend together, allowing little time for the viewer to follow precisely what is happening or why it matters.
Marvel’s The Avengers worked because it took time to introduce characters and let them play off each other, each learning how to overcome their egos in order to function as a team. We know how that team functions now, so we expect a clash or two. But in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Whedon forces their inner dynamics without offering anything new, and receives little help from his actors; Downey, almost always the scene-stealer as Stark, looks as bored as his verbal barbs sound tired, while Ruffalo appears to want more to do than brood over his Jeckyll-Hyde dilemma. The others—Evans, Hemsworth, Johansson—bring what they can to their roles, but also share the stage with James Rhoades (Don Cheadle), Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), thus crowding an already saturated movie and muddling things that should be clear. The muddle extends to the tone—it begins too darkly, contrasting too much with the humor—and the dialogue; characters voice bon mots, but the explosions muffle them. (Indeed, the movie so lacks the quotability of its predecessor that it hampers the entire production.)
Avengers: Age of Ultron possesses some charms. One amusing scene shows several members of the group attempt to lift Thor’s hammer, speculating what might happen if it rested in an ascending elevator. The biggest one, however, comes in the character of Barton, who takes the Avengers, after suffering a defeat against Ultron, to his safehouse in the American Midwest and is revealed to have a wife and children. Renner plays the sequences with his wife (Linda Cardellini) with such conviction that it stands out against the incessant destruction, and provides a glimpse into the ordinary life of the superhero. Avengers: Age of Ultron needs more scenes like this, but instead overloads quiet moments with far noisier ones, and thus suffers the pains of most such sequels: it contains twice the carnage, but only half the fun.