If there is one constant in the world of cinema today, it is the inexorable tide of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Launched on the back of a B-list superhero and a mildly unproven director, only to reach escape velocity under the tutelage of Joss Whedon three years later, the unstoppable Marvel juggernaut has rolled on, releasing ten films in seven years, each a set building to a capstone of massive scale and titanic box office receipts. The second capstone is upon us now, with Whedon once again returning to the fold as writer and director of Avengers: Age of Ultron, another opportunity for Marvel fans to see their favorite characters on screen and for Disney to once again fill their coffers.
The film begins with the band fully together and ridding the world of the HYDRA menace that was unveiled in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The team of superhumans infiltrate the secret base of Baron Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), who is holding Loki’s scepter and using it to experiment on humans, creating the “enhanced” duo Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) Maximoff out of the wand’s otherworldly powers. After the Avengers successfully reclaim the staff, their convivial mood is interrupted by the arrival of Ultron (voiced by James Spader), a corrupted version of the AI created by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), twisted by the mystical powers of the glowing blue gem at the head of the scepter. Ultron was tasked by Stark as a peacekeeping program, so of course it believes the only way to do so is to rid the world of humanity. With the Maximoff twins at its side and an infinite supply of expendable robot fodder to throw at its problems, Ultron appears to be the greatest threat the Avengers have yet seen.
This newest Avengers is a decidedly international affair, with giant fights set in the fictional eastern European nation of Sokovia, as well as Johannesburg and Seoul, South Korea. Most would claim that such an approach is a naked grab for international box office (there’s a reason so many of these big blockbusters seem to occur on American shores less and less often), which it almost certainly is, but the diversity of the setting also points to how overstuffed the proceedings often feel. Acting as both the culmination of the second set of MCU films and the jumping off point for this next barrage of films, Avengers: Age of Ultron has so much to do in its 141 minutes that it barely has time to breathe. There is so much going on here, so many characters, both new and old, to be established and reestablished for the future, that often it can overwhelm the senses, but not in the positive, high-octane blockbuster kind of way. It is a symptom of Marvel’s oppressive world-building that so much of the film’s run time is devoted to new characters like the twins, or Vision (Paul Bettany, actually having a face on screen for the first time in the franchise), or Ulysses Klaw (Andy Serkis, a villain for a movie that will not see the light of day for three more years), squeezing the interstitial moments down to little more than an afterthought.
This is a shame, as Whedon was brought on to write and direct The Avengers because of those interstitial moments. And when they do show up in Avengers: Age of Ultron, such as a jocular contest to lift Thor’s hammer or an interlude at the secret farmhouse of Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), where he hides a wife (Linda Cardellini) and children that keep him going even in the darkest times. These are the moments that feel the most like Whedon, like The Avengers or his many television shows, offering up the humor and banter that makes the audience fall in love with these characters, but it is so few and far between that these moments are almost a detriment to the flow of the plot, creating a sort of start/stop jerky pace that never finds its footing.
It does not help that Ultron is another in a long line of bland Marvel villains; Spader’s voice work is on point and Whedon injects quite a bit of levity (the sarcastic malcontent is a Joss specialty), but in the character itself there is just not much there. His monomaniacal desire to destroy all humans is not fully established (there simply is not enough time), and while the concept of an AI that can jump from metal body to metal body is a strong one, in practice these giant battles amount to little more than legions of faceless automatons, existing purely to provide a bloodless body count. Luckily, Whedon is the sort of director who understands what is needed of these pitched wars between good and evil: the human element. The Avengers spend as much time saving civilians as they do fighting the bad guys, and while that could be considered a cynical response to the heavily criticized third act of Man of Steel, it still makes the otherwise stolid action more palatable. There is a baseline level of enjoyment that exists in Age of Ultron, the wizardry of Joss Whedon to find those moments of levity and the undeniably chemistry of its mammoth cast of actors, but it is difficult to find much more onto which one can latch.
In watching Avengers: Age of Ultron, it is understandable that Whedon has left the Marvel fold with no interest in looking back. The amount of pressure Marvel Studios puts on their writers and directors, the need to make a film that is crowd pleasing enough to provide a strong domestic box office as well as be beholden to all that has come before and all that comes after, borders on abuse, and it is a worrying trend that directors like Whedon, Jon Favreau and Edgar Wright (who did not even complete his feature) have parted ways with the House of Ideas’ movie arm. Indeed, one wonders how long James Gunn will last before his films become less a reflection of his character as an artist and more a prequel to the next movie. It is rare that one of these Marvel films is not an easy watch at the least, but with another seven movies on the horizon in the next four years, is it too much to ask for more?