It’s all Joss Whedon’s fault! He made The Avengers in 2012 and set the bar for the comic-book movie genre with his ingenious, funny writing and engaging interplay of superheroes. He’s the reason I had high hopes for Age of Ultron, even though it bears the burden of being a sequel. But I’m sorry to say I came away disappointed. Long, loud, and confoundingly cluttered, the film shows stress cracks early on, as it tries to disturb the temporary harmony its characters achieved in the first film, just so Whedon can pull them back together for a rousing finale. It doesn’t quite work.
Yes, it’s fun to see the Marvel stars at odds with each other, spouting wisecracks galore. Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man is as self-centered as ever, and draws Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk into his daring scheme to harness an artificial intelligence. Chris Hemsworth’s single-minded Thor and Chris Evans’ straight-arrow Captain America don’t like the results, while Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow have their own reactions to the chaos.
As if it weren’t enough to juggle six leading players (along with Nick Fury, Rhodie Rhodes, et al), Age of Ultron introduces four major new characters. Ultron is the ultimate adversary, a superbrain without a conscience in a humanoid body; he’s performed with relish by the great James Spader. Fold in two disaffected younger people (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) with dubious accents from a battered Eastern European country called Sokovia who seek revenge on our American heroes, and an eerie entity known as Vision (Paul Bettany) whose purpose and identity shouldn’t be spoiled here.
That’s not all: Whedon throws in a newly-minted romantic subplot and a family backstory for Hawkeye. Was all this really necessary? (Hardcore Marvel enthusiasts might disagree with me.)
Adding to the muddle is a tsunami of scientific jargon-babble, spouted mostly by Downey and Ruffalo as their dangerous experiment goes awry. The movie dares us to follow along toward a lumbering climax in which our heroes try to save the nation of Sokovia. This culminates in a massive sequence of destruction and a final challenge for the Avengers but Whedon, of all people, should know that we can’t root for people we don’t know. The Sokovians never become characters; they’re just stick figures in a crowd, and this undermines the dramatic intention of this crucial sequence.
Humor is what set The Avengers apart from Christopher Nolan’s deadly serious approach to storytelling, and it’s a major asset once again. The moments of pure fun in the new movie involve wisecracks tossed back and forth by the Marvel all-stars, who enjoy needling each other.
But that lightness of touch is sorely missing from the movie overall, and that’s a shame. The mere presence of the formidable heroes will be enough to please many fans, and the visual effects are outstanding, but I was hoping for a film that would provide the complete sense of satisfaction I derived from The Avengers’ debut movie. “More” isn’t always “better” and this film is evidence of that.