Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, and Chris Hemsworth in “The Avengers: Age of Ultron”
Crafting a sequel to one of the biggest blockbusters of all time can’t be easy, and it shows in Joss Whedon’s gargantuan follow-up to his original superhero mash-up. Make no mistake, “Age of Ultron” doesn’t break a sweat making you laugh, cheer, or altogether cherish the images on screen that have been lifted straight from those cheeky comics, but the strain of Marvel’s long-haul strategy is beginning to show. This darker, somewhat deeper installment suffers from an overstuffed narrative and lax character development, sometimes forgetting the simple joy of watching these larger-than-life characters just hang out together. All’s well that ends well, though, because such matters matter little when accessing the charms of Robert Downey Jr. and co. They win us over in spite of their overlords.
“Age of Ultron” picks up where “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” left off, with Cap pursuing a Hydra compound in one of those fictional Eastern Europe enclaves, this time with his avenging comrades in tow. The opening sequence is a visual tour de force, showcasing the witty banter, ingenious teamwork, and all-around awesome camaraderie that we’ve come to expect from the Avengers. Soon we’re introduced to Hydra’s prized pets, twin brother and sister Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, “enhanced” individuals serving as weapons for an indeterminate cause. Played by Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Johnson with appropriately accented brooding, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are highlights in a film that occasionally skirts the realm of diminishing returns. As far as Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Hulk, and the Captain are concerned, this is their fourth or fifth outing, and judging from my jury of peers, the Marvel behemoth might require new blood if it’s to continue thriving. Thankfully, the cast carries the movie when the narrative becomes too disjointed or the characters too mechanical. Downey Jr. is as endearingly snarky as ever, though seemingly forced to regurgitate Tony Stark-isms from previous films. Same goes for Chris Evans’ Cap. It’s as if Whedon’s forgotten about the fastidious character growth seen in the last Iron Man and Captain America adventures. Rogers, in some ways, is no longer the aw-shucks man out of time that he was a few summers ago, and yet a joke about his prudish sensibilities is revisited here ad nauseam. Bruce Banner has regressed too, able to control when he hulks out but suddenly unable to reel it in when necessary. The bulk of his screen time is devoted to an admirable but under-cooked romance with Black Widow, now often referred to as “Nat” for some reason. She was the breakout star of the first Avengers, but none other than Hawkeye is the breakout star of this picture. The underrated Jeremy Renner is finally handed a personality and he runs with it, stealing the show and giving us a human to get behind amid the myriad of mutants, gods, and billionaires.
While Marvel Studios have left audiences wanting for menacing adversaries, often producing villains that are either filler (Guardians’ Ronan the Accuser) or forgery (Iron Man’s Aldrich Killian), Ultron joins Loki and the Winter Soldier as outliers in that unfortunate track record. Voiced by a loquacious James Spader and combining the snark of Stark with the maniacal motivations of so many other A.I.s gone rogue, Ultron could have easily been Skynet on steroids, but Spader’s tones and Whedon’s writing elevate him above comparison. Created by Banner and Stark himself, Ultron is the robotic manifestation of everything wrong in Tony’s head, his fears, his foibles, even his daddy issues. Sure, the machine’s malevolent plan for humanity doesn’t make a lick of sense, but Spader sells it nonetheless with neuroses aplenty. Ultron’s ascension from nascent intelligence to instant supervillain is too quick for comfort, ditto his eventual lackey Pietro whose inevitable turn appears nearly as fast as the platinum-haired ne’er do well. Scarlet Witch escapes criticism, afforded far more opportunity for evolution than her brother, and it’s a testament to Johnson’s surly charisma that he makes an impression despite such shortchanging. Don Cheadle’s War Machine and Anthony Mackie’s Falcon are sidetracked with peripheral plots mostly hidden from view, and Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury and Cobie Smulder’s Maria Hill pop up now and again to remind us Shield is still a thing, sort of. On more than one occasion, it’s all a little exhausting. Especially when Infinity Stones and scepters lead to confusions of alien proportions, pieces of lore which require proper delineating, but are back-drafted in the hurry to expel exposition from the screenwriting process. It’s a delicate balance, and one which Whedon doesn’t always manage. Still, it’s an embarrassment of riches when all these rich, talented people are raising hell in the same room. Those stupendous set pieces, and they are stupendous, pale in comparison to any moment these actors are allowed to riff, be it comically or dramatically. Maybe it’s that law of diminishing returns again, but the concrete carnage is beginning to wear on yours truly, at least when offered with little breathing in between. Indeed, the best scene of the entire film rests not in the skies but in the secret life of one of these heroes, a familial reprieve on a farm in the middle of nowhere. The quiet is almost disquieting after such endless destruction.
Regardless of these admittedly rote qualms of mine, Whedon continues Marvel’s fortunate track record of overall quality, delivering a blockbuster that doesn’t quite join the greats of their ranks, but is just clever enough to rise above the mediocre and the middling. A typically tremendous cast, a viable villain, and the sheer nature of knowing everything is building to something bigger makes for enjoyable viewing. The new additions could have used more careful development, a requirement if they’re to come into their own, but they nevertheless bring freshness to a narrative that needs it. Perhaps that oft-rumored three-hour extended cut will solve the issues apparent in “Age of Ultron,” but either way, Downey and co. have achieved an on-screen rapport that can’t be easily ignored.