Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlet Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, James Spader
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“If less is more, imagine how much more more would be.” Never has Niles Crane’s philosophy in Frasier been better summed up than in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Marvel’s latest output in its endless production line of machine-tooled blockbusters is an epic designed to be bigger than The Avengers, itself a textbook display of how to do big, epic blockbusting. Blowing up the scale, though, only leaves a movie full of gaping holes.
Picking up events after the previous sequels, Age of Ultron finds Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Ruffalo) rekindling their pet project: an artificial intelligence system to defend the Earth, not just from humans but from non-humans too. But that super-smart computer, as super-smart computers are wont to do, becomes sentient, decides to wipe out humanity and builds itself a near-indestructible body with which to do it. The result? Ultron (Spader), a walking, talking, homicidal robot.
Being smarter than our heroes – and more technologically advanced – Tony and Bruce naturally need to team up to beat him. And so they’re joined by all of the other Avengers. That’s when Age of Ultron’s holes begin to open up.
Marvel’s in the middle of a fascinating story-telling effort: one that seeks to take the intertextual mode of comic books and replicate it on screen. Stories link with stories; characters have knock-on effects for other characters. It’s a commercial as much as a creative concept, one that requires you to watch all the preceding spin-offs and sequels while also positioning each as an essential stepping stone to the next one.
Joss Whedon proved a dab hand at juggling those demands with Avengers Assemble by making the whole story about that challenge: the plot hinged upon whether these characters could co-exist in the same movie. Age of Ultron, though, has to come up with a different story, while still performing the same circus trick. And so we have Thor in the background laying seeds for the next Asgard-related outing. And we have Captain America pining after Agent Carter. We even have Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen as the Maximoff twins, two new, gifted characters presented as natural heirs to the super-powered franchise.
With 141 minutes to share between at least 11 Avengers, the majority of these supporting roles feel sketched in at best, to the point where you wonder why they’ve even been included: a simple story of technology and hubris, after all, seems a perfect fit for a Banner/Stark adventure. But with Iron Man Three only just put behind us, another standalone story would jolt the Marvel carousel off kilter. As a result, even Age of Ultron’s primary plot is skewed: what starts as a cautionary tale about creating something too powerful to control is resolved halfway through by, essentially, our heroes creating something too powerful to control. Even the opportunity for Paul Bettany (the voice of JARVIS) to play a more tangible role doesn’t cover up the lack of narrative progression; unlike Iron Man Three, Agent Carter, Avengers Assemble or The Winter Soldier (Marvel’s three best projects to date), our characters end the film in the same position they began.
Whedon’s knack for human drama isn’t completely absent: it crops up around the fringes, when he finds a moment to breathe. A subplot involving Hulk and Black Widow gives both usually-overlooked sidekicks a chance to develop, while the use of a safe house to explore Hawkeye’s own back-story is an inspired combination of plot and personal emotion. But Whedon’s efforts to contain that alongside all the other commercial requirements leave these moments riddled with clumsy gaps too, from Olsen’s Scarlet Witch using hallucinations to explicitly spell out our heroes’ inner conflict to a climax that still harks back to the familiar city-meeting-a-large-object formula. Even Ultron feels less threatening than he might – despite excellent vocals from Spader – thanks to a scene halfway through where he literally escapes capture by running away through the Internet. (An opening group set piece, meanwhile, relies a little too much on CGI to connect fully.)
The cast all put their backs into it, with Ruffalo, Renner and Johansson carrying away the show, but this feels more like an exercise in lining up the pieces for Round Three, rather than creating a satisfying piece of entertainment in itself. By the time the prospect of another outing rolls around, you find yourself considerably less interested than at the end of the last one. Like Banner and Stark, Marvel’s latest proves that the machine you make sometimes does the opposite of what it’s meant to.
Photo: Jay Maidment / Marvel 2015