Note: I tried to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but I did mention a few plot points here and there (“soft spoilers”). So if you want to stay completely unsullied, scroll down to “Summary” for an overall, spoiler-free impression.
As the title suggests, the long-awaited sequel to the much hyped superhero team-up The Avengers from 2012 is more or less the same as its predecessor, but definitely a step down from the high bar the Marvel Studios set with “Phase 2”.
After the eponymous superhero team stormed the castle of the evil Hydra/S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist Baron Strucker, Tony Stark aka Iron Man finds a secret laboratory that reveals Strucker has been experimenting with alien technology his men scavenged from the rubble of the Chitauri attack in the showdown of the first Avengers movie as well as Loki’s powerful sceptre.
This technology enables Stark to finish his peacekeeping program “Ultron”, but of course with unwanted consequences as it creates the villain, who transfers his consciousness into a robotic body, thus making the Avengers the second worst offender in the league of organizations on film that were once intended to protect others but solely fight problems they created themselves (after the IMF from the Mission:Impossible movies).
Ultron unsuccessfully attacks his creator and his superheroic friends and has to retreat into Strucker’s abandoned keep, where he teams up with the mut… “miracles” Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, who possess the powers of super-speed and telekinesis/telepathy respectively and have been experimented on by Strucker. There he commences to build up his robot army to realize his mysterious devilish plan.
But that’s not all, he also attempts to transfer his mind into an organic body…
If you remember The Avengers (2012), you maybe already suspected that this plot description is just the tip of the iceberg.
Make no mistake, by that I am not referring to the complexity of the plot, as it is as simplistic as it gets, but to the sheer amount of newly introduced elements, as for some reason Marvel decided to turn the Avengers films into mere transitional pieces, means a kitchen sink for setups to upcoming attractions. The standalone movies of each character are far superior to their ensemble appearances and once again a precious chance is wasted to explore the relationship between those by now very well-defined heroes and let the charismatic lead actors have fun with it. No such luck, as even the more individualist actors like Downey Jr. have to adapt to the stern restrictions of a script that plays it safer than safe, because in the end there is no much time to concentrate on the characters that make up the very title, as new ones have to be introduced (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen as painfully uninteresting and embarrassingly cliched Eastern Europe stereotypes, as well as Paul Bettany as “Vision” in a hilariously flamboyant costume), plot points of movies that will not grace the screen in the next few years have to be established and not to forget all the pointless sideplots that need some space.
So it’s not surprising that the simple, yet heavy-handed story lacks any focus and just perfunctorily serves to push its characters towards an obligatory showdown that follows the exactly same dynamic as that of the first part.
What should have been the crown of each Marvel film “phase”, celebrating the ultimate coalescence of all story threads, has inexplicably become the brake block in the overarching story of the MCU, loud clunkers that squander their potential and tell so little during such a long running time.
Apart from the Marvel Studios bean counters that certainly bear some responsibility for the excelling average-ness of Age of Ultron, I first and foremost blame one man for the mediocre result on screen: Joss Whedon. He might have directed the financially most successfully Marvel Studios film so far, but artistically he is now lagging behind.
Marvel considerably raised the stakes in “Phase 2” and played it far less safe in terms of plot development than in “Phase 1″, which consists. let’s face it, mostly of fairly generic superhero origin tales. Whedon’s snappy 90s dialogue and teen prose wisdoms did not feel quite fresh in 2012 anymore, but now they are undoubtedly far beyond their pop-cultural expiration date. His dialogue -oh god the dialogue!- apparently still has its fans, but I am none of them. It’s the good ole bag of tricks containing glib remarks and smug retorts that would make you look like an insufferable douche in real life, but is applauded among his fandom. Whedon is no Shane Black, that’s for sure. The humour in his films only works when it is unintentional, like in the scene that marks Vision’s entry into the plot. Maybe even worse than the jokey bits is his (self-)”serious” dialogue, when the Whedon pathos machine is verbally steamrolling anything that looks suspiciously like subtlety.
Some occasional jabbering about an “oncoming war” and the dangers of A.I. is intended to feign some “real world” relevancy and add some depth, but sounds hackneyed and hollow after the for a comic book movie surprisingly nuanced political commentary of Winter Soldier, lacking any of its finesse. Whedon is no Christopher Nolan, that’s for sure. Overall, Age of Ultron tries too hard to juggle with a plethora of themes- A.I., power, playing god,etc.- but again fails to focus on one and leaves us with a mess of half-articulated half-truths.
Furthermore, Whedon does not really know how to handle the superheros. He seems to be unable to let them have interesting relations among each other, but always needs additional “regular” human personnel in an already overstuffed film that serves to reflect their behaviour. An especially tiresome subplot about Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) family leads to an extended portion of the film taking place in a US-farm house. Wow, we did not have that in such a long time.
He also lacks the necessary humble approach it needs to continue a saga that was initiated and developed further by different artists, but has to mold it violently to his likings, erasing any interesting contrasts by flattening the characterization with his “trademark” writing. Whedon might think of himself as an auteur, but a stale shtick does not an auteur make.
As a craftsman, Whedon can not, apart from a few impressive shots, bring visual grandeur to the film, as it was pointed out several times by critics, a weakness which may be owed to his roots in the TV entertainment biz.
His actual strength lies in the staging of the decent, if not very innovative action scenes though. He is still far from the Olympus of action directors, but he at least shows a good sense for geography and rhythm and does not indulge in shaky cam excesses.
Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth deliver serviceable performances, given the material they have to work with. I cannot explain why hit-and-miss actress’ Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is granted so much space in the script, as “ScarJo” appears again rather awkward in that role that has been expanded with a back-story that aims for emotional repercussion but finally leads to nothing. Hawkeye is still Hawkeye is still Jeremy Renner, this time with kids and wife.
As expected, Johnson’s portrayal of Quicksilver falls flat compared to that of Evan Peters’ of the same character in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). Apparently Olsen was told to channel a racist persiflage of a Gipsy woman for her performance as Scarlet Witch and she delivers her lines with “Rs” constantly rolling in like the waves at the shores of the Black Sea.
Worst of the bunch is Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk though, for which I blame not this fantastic actor but- you guessed it- Whedon, who obviously does not get the essence of the maybe most interesting character. In Whedon’s version, Banner is not a man torn between intellect and instinct, but an oddly detached and slightly blasé douche who sometimes turns into a monster that looks from behind like a green chewing gum someone just spit out. James Spader, who voices Ultron, the robot with the fully defined metallic facial muscles, had a thankless task, as the nondescript baddie is nothing more than a plot device.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is not the movie the excellent “Phase 2” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe deserved as a bookend, as it follows closely the pattern of the first part, including all its weaknesses. Heavy-handed and overstuffed with pointless side characters, subplots and setups for upcoming Marvel Studios outputs, it is not a worthy followup to the dynamic and rich Captain America: Winter Soldier. It delivers the spectacle, but brings almost no development to the mythology of the Marvel movies. If you wanted a film that sticks closely to the formula of its predecessor and rarely leaves that comfort zone, this might be for you. For all others remains the question if the heroes of Marvel simply work better in their solo movies or if Joss Whedon’s announced exit from the franchise might be the necessary change that could make Avengers 3 unfold the saga’s true potential.