In 2012’s “The Avengers,” six superheroes from different franchises came together to form a single team, and turned a web of cameos and references into a solid and readily expandable universe, which then turned a series of fairly profitable movies into a megalithic franchise that has made record profits. Marvel can launch any character or property and have a solid, reliable audience to consume it. And that means they’re free to take risks, to make more complex, more unique stories. “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Captain America: Winter Soldier” are shining testaments to that. But “Avengers: Age of Ultron” instead delivers a by-the-numbers action movie that, while perfectly presentable and competent, never truly manages to stand on its own.
“Age of Ultron” opens on the fully-realized Avengers team we saw at the end of the first film, fighting HYDRA, the nefarious organization from the first and second Captain America movies (if you haven’t been keeping up with all these releases, this movie isn’t going to hold your hand). It is unabashedly a comic book movie, complete with flashy heroes and unapologetic villains. There are no pretensions here. Fun and spectacle are the main objectives, and in that regard the film delivers perfectly.
The threat the Avengers face this time around comes from one of their own, as Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark accidentally creates a genocidal A.I. called Ultron, played by James Spader. Spader’s Ultron is cold but snarky, with a flair for the dramatic and a penchant for bantering with his enemies. These traits were obvious influences from Ultron’s “father,” Tony Stark. While clever and certainly entertaining, it also feels a little well-worn. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki already set the standard for witty comic book villains, and bringing that same dynamic to Ultron seems like a mistake.
However, backing up Ultron are two new additions to the franchise: Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, played by Aaron-Taylor Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, respectively. The two characters are siblings, twins that are experimented on by HYDRA and recruited by Ultron to help him destroy the Avengers. Their powers add more variety to the visual effects employed, as the visual dynamic of superspeed being captured quite well in Johnson’s action sequences. Olsen’s Scarlet Witch is given a little less screen time, but is set up to be quite important in later movies. But therein lies a weakness of the film: it spends too much time seeding plot threads for future movies. Supporting characters pop in and out with barely an explanation.
It’s fairly obvious that a couple scenes that would have made the story more complete were cut. In this regard, the film feels somewhat made-by-committee. However, considering the property and money involved, director Joss Whedon should be no stranger to executive meddling. But this movie feels like he simply looked at the first “Avengers,” extracted the general story beats, and then created another movie around them. “Age of Ultron,” even on first viewing, feels familiar. It’s like the entire movie is a callback to the previous one, even when there’s no point in being nostalgic. We know how this is going to turn out, we know that certain characters have to be in certain positions by the time certain movies come around and the film loses its drama as a result.
And even if we didn’t know, the movie doesn’t veer into darker territory enough to really merit any edge-of-your-seat suspense. The characters, even at their lowest, are never too glum for a one-liner. This might be owed to Whedon’s directorial style, but scenes that feel like they should be much more impactful are held back by jokes and one-liners that can feel a bit shoehorned in. Ultron himself is never without something to say, even in the face of defeat. The emotional impact of the story simply falls flat at times.
Still, despite all of these valleys, the film’s peaks still manage to rise brilliantly. The movie works best when you stop trying so hard to analyze all of the individual bits and pieces and enjoy it as a whole. The sheer spectacle of some of the later action scenes deliver fantastic imagery that make the movie worth every dollar the ticket cost. Everyone gets a chance to shine, and some of the best scenes in the movie are stolen by characters that you least expect. The movie ends on a relatively positive note, and sets up the cast to fight each other in next year’s film, “Captain America: Civil War.” But if this is the real movie event that should be hyped, it leaves “Age of Ultron” in a rather awkward position of irrelevance.
“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is, by all accounts, a good movie. It delivers a good deal of the fun most fans have come to expect, but it didn’t innovate on the formula in any way. It was too safe, and didn’t do enough to really set itself apart from its contemporaries. If the movie was less mindful of the expanded universe it takes place in and let its own story breathe a bit more, it would have been excellent. But as of now, it’s only a good–and corny–action movie. Certainly worth a viewing, but I doubt it will be remembered for very long.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Photo courtesy of Marvel.Com/Avengers