If the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a collectible card game, Avengers: Age Of Ultron is the best booster pack you could possibly get. But like all booster packs, it takes a bit of trying and hunting to find it, and you end up getting way too many cards that don’t serve much of a purpose. They’re pretty and shiny, but they’re just not as good as the ones you really want. Such is the case with Joss Whedon’s second outing for Marvel, a film not quite as revelatory as his first, but still a damn good time.
The Avengers face a new enemy this time around, one that they themselves have a hand in creating. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Marc Ruffalo) create an experimental artificial intelligence called Ultron be a global peacekeeper, specifically against intergalactic threats. Anyone who’s ever read a Marvel comic knows that this goes horribly wrong, and Ultron gains not only sentience (and the voice of James Spader), but a rather wicked, sardonic sense of humor. Deciding that the best way to protect the world is to eradicate humanity, Ultron sets in motion a plan to destroy the Avengers and Earth along with it, aided by Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), a pair of super-powered twins (who, for legal purposes, are in no way, shape or form mutants).
Let’s get this out of the way right now: this film is big. Plenty big. Super big. It’s longer than all the other films in the MCU by at least 20 minutes (except for the first Avengers film) and has more characters than you could possibly want or need. It seems like virtually every supporting character from every other movie makes an appearance, and the bloated cast is part of what makes the film a bit unwieldy. Even still, the film often feels thin and airless, like parts of the narrative were cut away. Allegedly, Whedon removed an hour of footage from his initial cut, and it honestly shows. Plot points pop up out of nowhere, and almost always at just the right time.
And it’s not like the film needs a dense, heavy plot. Part of the thrill of the first film wasn’t the battle against the bad guys but the remarkably complex web holding the characters together. Thankfully, there’s still plenty of that here, and the dialogue flows organically, truly feeling as if these characters have spent much longer together than we realize.
Team dynamics have always been some of Whedon’s strongest assets—from Buffy to Firefly to here—and when the film focuses on the tension between the Avengers themselves, it really shines. The most intriguing interactions are always those between Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner and Johnasson’s Natasha Romanov. It’s a flirtation that looks odd on paper and doesn’t seem like it should work, but Ruffalo and ScarJo are more than up for the challenge and bring subtlety and depth to the relationship. The addition of the Maximoff twins as wild cards helps keep everything feeling fresh, as well, with Olsen giving the more impressive performance.
Though character relationships are clearly on display here, the film also has its share of massive action pieces. It opens with a guns-blazing raid on an enemy compound, and the turning point of the film is a block-leveling urban battle between an out-of-control Hulk and Iron Man. Just like the first film, they’re impressively-choreographed, physics-bending pieces of pure comic book euphoria. The only problem is that the flow between action scenes and character scenes doesn’t feel nearly as seamless as it did the first time around.
But that isn’t entirely Whedon’s fault. A great deal of the energy around the first film was seeing the team assemble and watching years of careful cinematic maneuvering come into focus. If the first film was a celebration of the birth of the superhero team, Age Of Ultron is its moody, emotional adolescence. There are heavier themes this time around, and an acknowledgement of the dark side of superheroics. During the Avengers’ first encounter with Ultron, he calmly, almost off-handedly, mentions that “You’re all killers.” And honestly, he’s not lying. It’s a sentiment rarely invoked in most super-hero films, and it gives the battle scenes a dark edge that feels at times uncomfortable in the best ways. Whedon doesn’t quite develop the theme as much as he should (see above re: alleged director’s cut), but it’s still leagues beyond the casual collateral-damage-as-foreplay that Zack Snyder was so fond of in DC's Man of Steel.
If anything, Whedon should be given proper credit for at least trying not to repeat himself. He doesn’t always succeed, but the effort is clearly there. With several more films on the way, and with Whedon preparing to pass the torch to the Russo brothers, it’s tempting to spend the film’s run time speculating on what the future of the franchise will bring. For now, though, Age of Ultron gives us the best opportunity to enjoy some good, old-fashioned comic book zap-pow-bam fun.
FBOTU Score: 7 ouf ot 10 / B