When done right, comic book movie adaptations can be interesting, exciting, and every bit as engrossing as any other genre of film. See Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman. Marvel’s big budget blockbuster entry for last summer, Guardians of the Galaxy, is another good example. But Avengers: Age of Ultron, the second in a so-far-planned series of four films, doesn’t quite make the grade, and it definitely doesn’t live up to the massive amount of hype surrounding it. Then again, almost no movie could.
This installment finds the assembled superheroes – Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) – battling a threat created by one of their own. With the brash self-confidence that he has the know-how to bestow “peace in our time” upon the world, Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) uses an element within the recently recovered scepter of vanquished enemy Loki to power a worldwide defense system. The system – dubbed Ultron by Stark – is an advanced artificial intelligence program that is supposed to detect any alien threat to Earth and neutralize it instantly. Things go haywire when the self-aware Ultron decides the only way for Earth to truly be peaceful is for humanity to become extinct.
It’s commonplace now for these comic book movies to start in medias res, and Age of Ultron is no exception. This technique can be compelling, but overuse has turned it into a crutch. It feels like a cheat. Emotional investment doesn’t have to be earned. A case in point is when Tony Stark has a vision of the Avengers’ demise at the end of the opening battle. It comes within ten minutes of the start, and with no context, I wondered why I should care. The end of the battle results in the recovery of that aforementioned scepter. During the battle, we are introduced to two new characters, the Maximoff twins, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), who have the superpowers of incredible speed and telepathy/telekinesis, respectively. These powers are due to the insidious group Hydra experimenting with Loki’s scepter. The twins are the only subjects to survive these experiments, which works out well for the villains since they also have personal stakes for wanting to take down S.H.E.I.L.D., the Avengers, and Tony Stark personally.
Wanda and Pietro are from the fictional Eastern European nation of Sokovia, where the citizens are enraged by what amounts to S.H.I.E.L.D. bombing the country with drones in an effort to defeat Hydra. You need only a cursory knowledge of contemporary world events to know this plot line is based on current U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere. It would have been an interesting concept for a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster to tackle, but with so much going on, the idea is rushed over. In the movie, all is forgiven, because the real focus of Age of Ultron is Ultron himself. James Spader perfectly voices the crazed A.I. that has marked humanity for extinction. The actor has crafted a persona of snarky nihilism, and his Ultron compliments that persona well. His performance is a lot of fun, and it’s something that makes this installment of Avengers enjoyable.
Another element that works is writer/director Joss Whedon’s injection of humor between Avengers team members, as well as their friends and various hangers on. From the very first Iron Man, Downey, Jr. nailed the sarcastic quality of Tony Stark, and Whedon knows a few things about writing that kind of character. Stark’s good-natured jabs at Captain America – which eventually everyone gets in on, – his comic bickering with Bruce Banner, and his quips to all of the other Avengers is just right. The rapport between the entire group is very successful, and is a combination of Whedon’s writing and the actors’ chemistry.
What Age of Ultron really struggles with is creating any sense of dramatic stakes. In a way, this problem is baked right into the franchise itself, so Whedon started with a no-win proposition. Can anyone who watches this movie honestly believe that any of the heroes with their own franchises (or performers with long-term contracts) might not make it to the end? These are the Avengers. What are they going to do, kill off Iron Man? Thor? Whedon tries to fix this with an unexpected death – yes, I realize how morbid I sound – but it’s not enough to make up for the lack of stakes elsewhere. As a consequence, the proceedings become about how many things can explode in two and a half hours.
That makes Avengers: Age of Ultron just okay. Whedon and his crew handle the action sequences competently, so in that way at least it’s better than basically all of the Michael Bay Transformers movies. The story is standard action/superhero boilerplate. The whole affair is middle of the road, vanilla, Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking, which is a pretty harmless way to waste a Sunday afternoon.