AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
Running Length: 141 minutes
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson
Directed by: Joss Whedon
Written by: Joss Whedon
Cinematography: Ben Davis
Distributed by: Walt Disney Studios
It’s to Whedon’s credit that he manages to apportion attention to some of Earth’s not-so-mighty heroes.
With a few notable exceptions (*cough* Amazing Spider-Man 2 ), comic book movie sequels are in a unique position to actually improve on the original. The premise and time-consuming origin story have already been established, so the follow-up can get straight into the action. Granted, by the time the third entry rolls around, the studio has usually succumbed to financial temptation and just made everything bigger and louder with more characters – generally losing sight of what made the previous movie work in the process. But the second movie in the trilogy is usually the best one. Avengers: Age of Ultron finds itself in the unprecedented position of coming after nine previous entries in Marvel’s roster, including its monumentally successful predecessor, Avengers Assemble (2012). The expositional heavy lifting has been well established, so let’s cut straight to the chase.
Attempting to explain Age of Ultron’s plot is ultimately as pointless as a hammer made from marshmallows. We’re talking superheroes, so logic goes out the window. Suffice to say that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has created a kind of Star Wars Strategic Defense Initiative program called Ultron (James Spader), which immediately goes berserk and threatens to initiate an extinction-level event leaving the Avengers to avert catastrophe and save the planet. Again.
Things get off to a shaky start with a pre-credits action sequence where Earth’s Mightiest Heroes go up against a monocled caricature with the preposterous moniker of Baron Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann). Along with providing the opening hero money shot (see above), this sequence also demonstrates some of the worst superhero physics ever committed to film. Good and bad guys are bounced around the screen like a rubber ball in dense gravity, and plausibility is stretched even by the film’s flimsy internal logic. In fact, most of the action sequences unfold like a hormonal teenager’s glucose-induced WWE fantasies made manifest, and yet again the huge final battle set piece turns into another end-of-level boss fight. The fantastical may be desirable in these types of movie, but absurdity isn’t.
The problem with the superhero genre is the difficulty to engender a sense of genuine peril. When two characters are capable of knocking seven bells out of each other (and destroying an entire city in the process), yet dust off the rubble and walk away without a scratch, it’s hard for the viewer to buy into any sort of tension. And if comics have taught us anything, it’s that dead doesn’t ever mean dead dead. And the common knowledge that the principal cast are contractually obliged to appear in at least two more sequels does not help matters. But that’s business, and the days when sequels were greenlit purely on the basis of prior performance are long gone.
In fairness the action sequences are on a par with the general levels of craziness displayed in the first movie, and that went down quite well ($1.5 billion worldwide box office). Writer/director Joss Whedon’s sequel manages to better its predecessor in other areas. One of the toughest aspects of pulling off an ensemble piece like this is ensuring that everyone gets a fair amount of time at the buffet, and with a cast of this magnitude someone is bound to be left on the bench. Obviously Robert Downey Jr. is still Marvel’s MVP, but it’s to Whedon’s credit that he manages to apportion attention to some of Earth’s not-so-mighty heroes. Scarlett Johanssen’s Black Widow has an obligatory bit of romantic business with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), but one of the unexpected highlights is Jeremy Renner’s role as Hawkeye. Some of Age of Ultron’s best scenes transpire when Whedon dials it down from 11 and brings things home. Hawkeye’s home to be exact. Renner’s character has previously felt a little surplus to requirements – the ability to shoot really well doesn’t stand up against the Hulk or the Son of Odin – but it’s in the film’s quieter moments that he demonstrates how crucial his place is. And it’s surprisingly sweet.
Whedon even manages to squeeze a few newcomers into the mix. Franchise blow-ins Quicksilver (super speed) and Scarlet Witch (um… magic red stuff), Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor Johnson are burdened with the handicap of terrible “strong like bull” Eastern European accents and the intimation that their brother/sister relationship is a bit Game of Thronesy. The hugely underrated Paul Bettany finally gets some proper screentime as the Vision, a sort of Apple OS upgrade of Jarvis. In the past I’ve been ambivalent to the charms of Whedon the fanboy auteur, but I’ve sat through enough of these movies to tell when they’re not working. And Avengers: Age of Ultron works. Although the constant pop references (Banksy, Eugene O’Neill) grow old pretty quick, Whedon has a knack for gauging the time for levity and the time for sincerity, and he pitches both perfectly. In the hands of a lesser director, the action could have been unbearable. Have at that, Zack Snyder.
The comic book movie genre has undoubtedly reached saturation point, but Avengers: Age of Ultron is a smart, sweet, fun summer blockbuster. It will make a lot of people very happy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But please, enough with the Stan Lee cameos, already.