Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron was everything I expected — and less. Oh, sure, it delivers the requisite number of explosions (and then some), lots of footage of folks (both real and in their CGI incarnations) in often goofy costumes punching the crap out of bad guys various and sundry, massive property damage and effects upon effects upon effects. And it’s never less than decently acted — at least in those moments where its pricey cast actually get to act. However, it’s also lacking most of the fleet-footed fun of its predecessor — despite the presence of the same writer-director and most of the same cast. As I said in 2012, The Avengers wasn’t one of the Great Movies or anything of the sort, but it was mostly — until the inevitable big smackdown at the end — a lot of fun, not in the least because it was allowed to just be a comic book movie without any pretense of profundity. The sequel doesn’t make any great claims to depth either — which is in its favor — but something was lost between the first movie and this one. What once was a fun jaunt here feels more like a forced march — and one with too damned many characters.
The problem starts early on — in fact, with the very first sequence. For no very good reason, the movie starts in the middle of a barely comprehensible battle. I realize that Whedon comes from TV, where it’s a logical practice to start a program with some kind of “grabber” scene to keep the viewer from changing the channel. This is presold product on the big screen, and the money was collected before the viewer sat down — the option of changing the channel doesn’t exist. But the film is treated like it is, so we’re subjected to all this sound and fury (and I don’t mean Nick) for no very good reason — except “stuff blows up real neat.” And that’s not even quite true, since the effects work here is quite the worst — read: most cartoonish — in the movie.
In fact, the whole first hour of the film strikes me as a pretty tough slog. After that first hour, the movie improves considerably, even if, for me, it never reaches the enjoyment level of the first film — except in one notable capacity where it’s better than the first film. The central problem with the film (even at its best) is that its fairly simple story is overloaded with pointless convolutions and an overcrowded roster of characters — so cramped for space that few, if any, of them are given much to do, despite its 141-minute running time. (That’s actually a couple minutes shorter than The Avengers, but it feels longer.) In the bargain, much of Whedon’s sense of humor seems to have suffered. OK, I was amused by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) remarking that something was “Eugene O’Neill long,” but I was probably more amused by how incomprehensible that’s likely to be to a large portion of the audience than anything. I thought there was possibly a nice dose of amusing self-critique in having Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) sum up the situation for Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and cap it with, “None of this makes any sense.” And I’d like to believe that Vision (Paul Bettany) magically “growing” a cape was a gag, but I’m pretty sure Thor (Chris Hemsworth) vanishing part way through just to (conveniently) return to straighten out the plot because of a vision he had when he was offscreen wasn’t meant to be funny.
However, one area where Age of Ultron really does score is in its climactic smackdown battle — even if seeing superheroes battle endless streams of robots looks like something out of the pages of an old Magnus: Robot Fighter comic — regrettably without the “squeeeee” sound whenever a robot gets beheaded. (Then again I’m not at all certain that Ultron (voiced by James Spader) isn’t a riff on Magnus’ archenemy, the rogue robot H8.) For once, this isn’t just a free-for-all of battling and wanton destruction, but something that actually makes sense and evidences a good bit of concern over the destruction. If the whole movie had been this good … but it isn’t. And, yes, I realize nothing I say about Age of Ultron will have any impact — apart from getting a few angry responses because I don’t love it. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction and for some suggestive comments.