‘Over-stuffed’ doesn’t even begin to describe Avengers: Age of Ultron. One wonders if Marvel executives held writer-director Joss Whedon at gunpoint while shouting, “You must include this character! And this character! And don’t forget this one! And you better make sure to mention stuff that will be important for later movies!! WRITE! WRITE! GET IT ALL IN THERE!!” I feel bad for the guy. It’s no wonder that he’s jumping ship after being the captain of this insanely overcrowded cargo vessel. What’s surprising is that, somehow, the movie works. It’s not perfect, not as good as the first Avengers—and not even close to Guardians of the Galaxy—but it’s a fun ride.
You know the drill. I don’t need to tell you what the plot is. Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye are back. This time, they’re up against Ultron, an all-powerful robot/computer virus bent on world domination. They’re joined by three new characters: Quicksilver, who runs fast, Scarlet Witch, who messes with people’s heads and shoots out bursts of energy, and The Vision, who is…uh…oh hell I’m not even going to attempt to explain that one. That’s ten main characters right there and I’m not including Nick Fury, War Machine, Falcon, and Agent Maria Hill. Remember when Spider-Man 3 came out all those years ago and we whined about how too many characters can kill a comic book movie and demanded that Hollywood never make that mistake again? Yeah, Marvel must have missed the memo.
Which is not surprising because Marvel has pretty much marched to the beat of its own drum ever since Iron Man came out back in 2008. I remember thinking there’s no way a shared movie universe could work. What works in comics would never work on film. It was the wrong direction to take super hero movies. And yet, Marvel subverted my expectations every step of the way. They did so by casting the right actors, hiring the right directors, and acknowledging how silly it is to have a demi-god, a giant green monster, and a guy in a metal suit all on the same team. The fabric is still intact for Age of Ultron but it’s also fair to say that the seams are starting to show.
What the studio needs to focus on is telling a good story and not being so concerned with what comes next. If the story is compelling, we’ll go to see the next film no matter what. We don’t need the constant teases to keep us coming back to the theater. We just need a good movie. Age of Ultron is a pretty good movie and I think that’s mostly due to Joss Whedon. He’s able to hit all the necessary beats while still making us care about these characters. Watching the film frequently feels as if you’re reading twelve issues of a comic book. Almost every scene is punctuated by a major moment or cliffhanger that would leave readers hanging on for the next issue. This is both frustrating and exciting. Frustrating because narrative cohesion often falls by the wayside and exciting because that kind of ‘go-for-broke’ storytelling is why many of us like comics in the first place.
The best thing about the film, shockingly, is Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, a character who was criminally underused in the first go round. So underused, in fact, that his beefed up role here almost feels like an apology. I had problems with The Avengers and yet walked out of the theater saying, “but it had a Hulk and he was awesome.” I walked out of Age of Ultron saying, “but it had a Hawkeye and he was awesome.” He is given all the best lines, has the most heroic moments, and the best character arc. When the movie almost becomes too chaotic to bear, you can always count on him to deliver a classic Whedon zinger and bring you right back down to earth. A sub-plot involving the family he keeps hidden away is oddly touching and when all the characters are engaged in the final battle, he’s the guy you want to keep going back to. The movie acknowledges his limitations as a hero without ever making fun of them and presents him as a badass who knows he’s out gunned but is going to do the right thing anyway. Renner relishes the role and I would not be surprised at all if the Internet starts clamoring for a Hawkeye solo film. He’s that good.
Other characters do not fare so well. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are bogged down by a ham-fisted backstory and terrible Russian accents. They both do some cool stuff in the finale but, for most of the movie, they’re just kinda there. I can’t tell you much more about them beyond what Agent Maria Hill says in the beginning; “He’s fast and she’s weird.” Their motivations are rooted solely in what the plot needs them to do. Same goes for Paul Bettany as The Vision. Many reviews have praised his character for being the most comic-booky of the bunch and that may be true but I didn’t care much about him nor was I particularly moved by any of his actions. He feels like a character who will only become important later and that’s annoying.
Then there’s James Spader as Ultron. When Ultron first appears on screen, he’s a chilling figure. Built out of Tony Stark’s hubris and eager to see his surrogate father laid low, he promises much more than he delivers. Spader’s voice provides a sense of intellect and cruelty that strikes a nerve but, once again, he’s just kinda there. He’ll pop up, throw out a few quips, fight some of the heroes, and then disappear till the movie needs him again. We’re also consistently told that he’s everywhere, all over the Internet and in every database, but we only ever see him as an eight-foot tall robot. The Marvel movies still don’t quite know how to craft a truly compelling villain. Loki remains the best example on the big screen while Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk is the most intricate and complex. These Marvel movies have got a lot to learn from Daredevil but that is another post for another day.
So if the new characters aren’t a home run, what about the old ones? Well, they’re all pretty great. Whedon is aware that the novelty of seeing all these heroes together has worn off so he instead allows them to function as a team. It’s fun watching Iron Man riff on Captain America for being far too concerned about language. It’s a joy to see Thor smirk as the other Avengers struggle to lift his hammer. And the banter between Iron Man and The Hulk will never get old. What doesn’t work is a shoe-horned romance between Black Widow and Bruce Banner. They have no chemistry whatsoever. This is partly due to the fact that Scarlet Johansson remains as wooden as broken down fence post. But the other problem is that the movie doesn’t give the characters time to breathe. Their romance is shoved into an already over-packed screenplay and it feels more like fan fiction than anything else.
There’s also the consistent problem with these Marvel movies, which is that everything is at stake and nothing is at stake. Ultron threatens to destroy the world, yet we know he will be defeated. Whedon is a man who excels at killing off beloved characters and one gets the sense that he wanted to do serious harm to these heroes but the studio wouldn’t let him. The compromise is that he gets to kill a character nobody gives a shit about. The death is supposed to be cathartic and moving but my reaction was this: “glad he killed that dumb character and let the more interesting one live.”
I don’t want to sound too negative though. By and large, the movie is an entertaining ride. The scene where Iron Man faces down the Hulk in a crowded city square is a complete delight. The opening sequence is a triumph of choreography and the final act is a rousing action adventure. If the whole doesn’t quite equal the sum of its parts, is that really the fault of Whedon? Do you recall what he said when asked what he’d like to do for a sequel after the first film came out?
“I’d like to make it smaller.”
Clearly, he wanted to go one way and the studio wanted to go another. The result is a mess of a film that nevertheless hits the right notes. Whedon gets in character moments for everybody even if they don’t always come to fruition. There’s an early scene where Scarlet Witch hypnotizes half of the team and their resulting visions are stirring and affecting. But do they ultimately serve the plot? Do they add anything at all to the overall story? Not really. But they work in the moment. And that is the case with much of Avengers: Age of Ultron. It works in the moment. And even when it isn’t working, there’s always Hawkeye.