Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) / Action-Sci Fi

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments.
Running Time: 141 min.

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, James Spader (voice), Cobie Smulders, Samuel L. Jackson, Linda Cardellini, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany, Anthony Mackie, Claudia Kim
Small role: Stellan Skarsgard, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Thomas Kretschmann, Stan Lee, Josh Brolin
Director: Joss Whedon
Screenplay: Joss Whedon

Review published April 26, 2015

One might surmise that writer-director Joss Whedon (Much Ado About Nothing, Serenity) might be engaging in a bit of damage control that Avengers: Age of Ultron might be a bit of a let-down as far as entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe when, a week before its official North American release, he announces that the three-hour version he intended to release in theaters will be released on the special edition Blu-ray, along with an alternate ending he had in mind.  It makes a certain sense that there is 40 minutes of footage excised, as the problem with this capper to Phase 2 of the series is that it feels like it is missing a good deal of expository information, with what's left feeling like the creators are taking us for granted through the use of narrative shortcuts to the main action.

Not that the first big crossover, 2012's The Avengers, didn't have similar issues, but at least that one had a good villain in Loki, who is, thus far, arguably, the MCU's only interesting bad guy.  This one features an A.I. android set on either evolving humans or destroying them, depending on which convoluted explanation he hatches on a whim at various points in the film.  At this point in the film series, most fans have resolved that the plot is secondary to the action and gags, and at least we get plenty of both in abundance.  It might feel less than inspired, and there really isn't a great deal underneath the surface to say about anything but to perpetuate its own existence and set up for sequels to follow, but, if you've been entertained with Marvel's movies thus far, it's good enough for at least one sit.

The film starts with a battle for Loki's scepter, remnant from the first crossover film, which had been used for its power to draw forth two more beings of inordinate ability and skill in twin brother and sister Pietro (Taylor-Johnson, Godzilla) and Wanda Maximoff (Olsen, Oldboy), a speedster and telekinetic mind-warper, respectively.  After the battle, the Avengers end up with the scepter's possession, which Tony Stark (Downey, The Judge) uses to try to create an army of artificial-intelligence entities that will work to shield Earth from possible alien threats in the future.  However, the first AI creation emerges, and its belief is that to protect Earth from harm (as Tony puts it, achieving "peace in our time"), that means eradicating the ones most responsible for its perilous situation -- humans.  It's now up to the Avengers to keep this new entity, dubbed "Ultron" (voiced by James Spader, The Homesman), from succeeding in its mission of protection.

The best part of Age of Ultron is really the best part of nearly any Joss Whedon-helmed film or TV show, and that's the snarky interplay of the characters, usually when they're engaged in some R&R in between major battles.  There are some truly funny gems in the film, which I won't give examples of because it might spoil the film to give you the punch-lines when they are, clearly, the only part of the movie I'd consider worth seeing the film for other than for following the MCU master storyline.  However, the jokes and joviality are also problematic.  That the Ultron situation has escalated to the point of imminent extinction of all humanity, and that the cataclysmic fiasco is almost entirely the making of members of the Avengers themselves, leaves one wondering why they seem to be able to act so casually about it, bantering over a few brews, or engaging in some flirtations while all of our lives hang in the balance.

With so many characters, so much plot for this and future entries to squeeze in, and action scenes that are quite prolonged, there's really not much time for actors to shine in their roles beyond just a few choice character beats.  I won't say the cast is sleepwalking through the movie, but clearly, there is little for them to do or say of great significance this time out, and the result is just to keep things moving forward.  A burgeoning love affair between Black Widow (Johansson, Lucy) and the Hulk (Ruffalo, Foxcatcher) is ham-handedly developed in a great hurry here, as the soap opera elements start to take over, ostensibly to give some pathos, but it feels weak and unwarranted to showcase all of a sudden and spend so much time dwelling on it. The secondary characters are more beefed up, which means more time for Hawkeye (Renner, The Immigrant), Black Widow, and Hulk, and the possibility of a shake-up in the make-up of the team, which is something the comic book would also do from time to time.

The character of Ultron itself is a bit problematic.  It's acting out of what it feels are noble intentions, but those intentions ultimately do more harm than good, which is meant to be a sort of allusion to how its creator, Tony Stark, manages to do the same out of his own fears and need to fix things beyond reparability, ironically.  As the amplified darker side to Stark, Ultron adapts his personality to an extent, voiced by Downey's Tuff Turf and Less Than Zero co-star James Spader, but outside of its menacing look, Ultron emerges as a rather boring villain to follow, merely an entity to try to defeat, along with a robot army of his own creation, so that the movie can keep a bloodless, PG-13 experience.

At this point in the series, the element of diminishing returns is finally settling in, as audiences know full well what to expect from each entry.  The main actors themselves are likely to find it overly familiar, as there's no emphasis on character growth whatsoever for the main players, which is why Ruffalo and Renner get more backstory this time around.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen are also new additions playing Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, and while they both have a history in the comics as being members of the "Avengers" ensemble, their powers definitely seem more mutant than scientific, and probably should have been left to FOX to use exclusively for the X-Men franchise. 

While there's as much CG action as you could ever hope to have in a major motion picture release, there's so much of it, there's little sense of awe anymore.  Fun characters tearing up the video game-like landscape just doesn't cut it when ther'es a blockbuster showing the same thing every other month, especially since there really isn't a sense of realism, dread or purpose for most of it.  At some point, given that millions of people are in mortal jeopardy at any given time (or, really, all of humanity), we should feel a palpable danger to the public.  And yet, normal humans, though abundant in New York City, feel like props in this film, in the background but never really part of the action, whether proactively or reactively.  While the Avengers are busy saving humanity, and trying to minimize collateral damage in a perfunctory way, we never get the sense they are trying to save any particular people, even ones most directly in danger of losing their lives in the all-out destruction they are a direct part of.

In the end, Whedon's film ends up being a middling entry in the MCU, perhaps due to having to compromise too much in order to squeeze in so many elements to set things up for the future, causing the story to go into "barebones mode" to stay under the 2-hour-and-20-minute mark (even pared down, it's the MCU's longest film to date).  Until the Blu-ray release, I won't be sure what has been excised, but I'd wager that I'd be more interested in that material if it gave better pacing and rationale than in seeing Hulk and Black Widow make goo-goo eyes at each other every three scenes. 

I'm uncertain if Whedon's vision for this one has been compromised by studio bigwigs who feel they know better, or if Whedon has finally tapped out creatively on the Avengers franchise, but given that the next two Avengers flicks are slated to be done by the Russos, and Whedon isn't on deck for any other projects other than perhaps the floundering TV show, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.", maybe the writing is already on the wall for their collaboration.  Age of Ultron feels like it's on autopilot, rather than made with the guidance of a formidable creative mind with a legion of fans to inspire.  It's the kind of safe, pat-and-predictable movie made more by people who fear failure more than a desire to be the best.

Whedon has often used humor and banter in effective ways to have us laugh at the foibles of the cast, not taking it too seriously in the way that marred DC's Man of Steel, for instance, but perhaps bolstering the serious elements to be just as interesting and engaging as the comedy would have made Age of Ultron a great deal better than it ends up. Whereas the 2012 movie felt like a major event that everyone involved had been amped to do, this follow-up feels like a chore that they had to do. Luckily, for fans who will likely feel like Avengers couldn't live up to the quality of its build-up in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, there's enough choice banter to keep the entertainment value afloat as a purely popcorn action movie, and plenty of eye-candy melees, even if it is akin Ultron itself -- a formidable but soullessly artificial vessel that started out with such noble intentions but went bizarrely awry.

-- There is a brief extra mid-credits scene.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo