Apparently it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
Ultron can’t see the difference between saving the world and destroying it. Where do you think he gets that from?
About halfway through the latest installment of Marvel’s Don’t Miss Our Next Installment, there’s a rare moment of quiet that is disturbed by Thor (the devastatingly handsome hammer god played by Chris Hemsworth), who accidentally steps on a child’s play set. A toy building, smashed under his mighty boot, and we chuckle at it. This, in critic’s parlance, is what’s called a “metaphor.” Avengers: Age of Ultron is a film about and made by men smashing action figures together for our amusement, though I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t highly amused. This sequel (or whatever) is incredibly entertaining, with more and bigger laughs, thrills, and ideas than the previous film. But it is also an overwhelming experience, bursting at the seams and washing over you until you’re practically numb to it, and I believe I can understand why it nearly killed director Joss Whedon to finish the thing.
The plot, not that it matters, is pretty straightforward given its 141- minute run time (down from an original cut of three-and-a-half hours, which… my God). After retrieving Loki’s scepter from an irrelevant bad guy — the first of the film’s many, many extended setpieces, though this one boasts a cool team-spanning tracking shot — Tony Stark (the walking goatee named Robert Downey, Jr.) unlocks the secret to artificial intelligence. Like many a mad scientist, he dives into experimentation without thinking of the consequences, instead only of the safer, robot-policed world he hopes to create. The result, unfortunately, is Ultron, a sneering consciousness encased in metal, every bit as arrogant as his maker, except with a penchant for biblical references and an unhealthy desire to wipe out humanity. And for the next two hours, the Avengers attempt to bring him down.
Granted, that’s not much, but when you’ve got several dozen characters (and counting!) in your ensemble, it’s hard to make things any more complicated while still servicing them all. Whedon does his darnedest here, creating simple mini-arcs for each of our heroes: the big winner is undoubtedly Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, who finally gets to demonstrate his value to the team, and the story, with the equivalent of a public apology letter from Whedon. The loser is surprisingly Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, who was showcased in last year’s Winter Soldier but gets saddled with a one-speed Hulk-mance here.
But there’s only so much screen time to go around, and Whedon has to juggle not only some new players, but the snaking tendrils that connect the Avengers films out to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes, the infinity gems are still in play. So are Don Cheadle, Stellan Skarsgard, Anthony Mackie, and others. There are the new, “enhanced” Russian Twins, the Maximoffs — “he’s fast, she’s weird” — played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, reunited from Godzilla. Andy Serkis shows up for a hot minute. But best of all is Vision, the android savior gracefully embodied by Paul Bettany. (He might be my favorite part, actually. He’s a crystal-powered Jesus with a mean right hook.)
In a way, it’s ludicrous that it even works as well as it does. But the drawback is that Age of Ultron feels less like a movie and more like a binge-watch, a full season of a show roughly compressed. While much of TV is trying to be more cinematic, these film franchises have embraced the serialization of television. As a result, it’s hard not to see each movie as merely a commercial for the next movie. You know Whedon hates that part of the process, and you can feel him fighting against it in almost every scene. Where his script excels instead is in the smaller, more human moments. His gift for — and reliance on — witty banter is well-documented, and the zingers whizz by throughout, no matter how precarious the situation. (A great example is the running gag about Captain America’s issue with profanity, in which everyone gets to take a shot at our favorite square.)
Just before Ultron is born and the story kicks into gear, there’s a very funny scene where the gang takes turns trying to lift Thor’s hammer; no one is having any luck until the Cap’n (Chris Evans) budges it for just an instant, and in that instant Thor’s face changes from deep concern to a wide-eyed, bro-tastic relief. If not for the costumes and Stark’s luxurious pad, it plays like a group of college buddies kicking back with beers on a Friday night. There’s a natural camaraderie amongst the cast that you can feel during these more intimate moments, and try to hold onto when their stunt doubles are kicking and punching CGI robot monsters.
And boy, there’s an awful lot of that. Any one of Ultron’s massive action sequences would be the centerpiece of another film, and Ultron has maybe five of them. It’s exhausting. At least there’s a belated effort to control collateral damage, but only after multiple other cities turn into war zones — the much-hyped debut of the “Hulkbuster” armor being particularly to blame. Stark has to get it FedEx’d from space to stop Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, still great), who has had his brains scrambled by the telepath/telekinetic Wanda “Scarlet Witch” Maximoff, and is now busting up an African downtown. The optics aren’t good for the team, which the film doesn’t shy away from, but did the destruction have to be so elaborate? At this point, these films are what they are. Some, like Guardians of the Galaxy or The Winter Soldier, have been incredibly successful, but they all come down to the same idea: Things Crashing Into Other Things.
If that’s your jam, you’ll probably love Age of Ultron. It’s massive, massive filmmaking, and Whedon keeps it moving with fleetness of foot and lightness of spirit. Some of the best lines even go to Ultron himself, with Spader’s wonderfully weird inflections as the icing on the cake. The mammoth robot stomps around and whines like a petulant teenager, having picked up all of his “father’s” mannerisms with none of his humanity. I don’t buy his mouth movements on a practical level, but hey, there’s so much else going on, so why nitpick? Of course the CGI isn’t that great. Of course the cutting is too fast. Of course the musical score is entirely unmemorable. That’s par for the course.
Yet despite their flaws, I can’t help but love every one of these films. The graphics in the closing credits hammer it home, depicting the Avengers as marble statues: in the 21st Century, this is the closest we have to a developing mythology. Where once we told and re-told stories about Hercules and Achilles, King Arthur and Robin Hood (scratch that — we’re still very, very much into Robin Hood), now it’s these characters, saving the day time and again and making it look easy. Given the boffo box office numbers from overseas, they might even be America’s greatest export. As a result their films may be more products than art, unable to stand independently of each other without a Wikipedia page, but maybe that’s the point: it’s the cinematic incarnation of the printed media that inspired it. Eventually the bubble will burst and the culture will move onto something else. I may even celebrate that day. But before then, I’ll see you in line. Kevin Feige has the next ten years of my moviegoing life planned out, and I’d hate to disappoint him. In any case, it’s still better than what DC is doing.