Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Pictures present a film written and directed by Joss Whedon, based on the comic books created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Produced by Kevin Feige. Music by Brian Tyler & Danny Elfman. Photographed by Ben Davis. Edited by Jeffrey Ford, Lisa Lassek. Production designed by Charles Wood. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård, Claudia Kim, Thomas Kretschmann, Andy Serkis.
The best parts of 2012’s The Avengers had less to do with the slams and crunches of comic-book action and more to do with the giddy thrill in watching iconic heroes meet, argue, tussle and find commonality before finally uniting and standing tall. Such moments can be found in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, but the novelty has, inevitably, worn off, and in a calculated effort to stave off staleness, returning writer-director Joss Whedon has basically piled everything—plot, character, humor, action, everything—sky high. It’s an entertaining sequel—eager to please, eager to reference every moment in the increasingly interconnected Marvel universe, and stuffed with dialogue and character invention and spectacle. But it’s also rushed and busy and exhausting, a manic whirligig of a movie that is very much too much of a muchness. By much.
Here again we team up Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), some fresh from starring in recent solo projects, more or less. We join them in media res on a mission to attack an Eastern European fortress and recapture a magical doodad, our heroes so simpatico that a fluid single tracking shot captures them all in blissful action. Returning home to the Avengers tower, Iron Man—aka super-genuis Tony Stark, is panic-stricken by the alien-invasion events of Avengers 1, and so he (with Bruce “Hulk” Banner’s help) creates an artificial intelligence defense program named Ultron, “a suit of armor around the world.” This, naturally, ends up being a bad idea, as Ultron evolves, upgrades into a robot body and decides the best way to end human conflict is to eradicate the source of it: humans, everywhere.
Ultron is played by James Spader via motion capture—the performance is excellent, and the character benefits from Whedon’s penchant for unexpected zingers (Tony Stark is his father, after all). But despite his ability to build hordes of metallic warriors and his designs on world devastation, he doesn’t generate much menace or pathos—none of the qualities that previous villain Loki (Tom Hiddleston) had by the bucketload. His motivation is a shortcut cliché, and he picks up a pair of inhuman sidekicks, both of them somewhat underwhelming: the super-speedy Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and telekinetic brainwasher Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson). Before long we’re meeting other crucial characters like Vision (Paul Bettany), and the movie imports some supporting characters from the other Marvel movies, making room for Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård…heck, there’s even a scene meant to explain why two of the Marvel leading ladies (Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman) aren’t even in this movie. It’s a lot.
Whedon, who cut his teeth on television, is gifted at managing an ensemble. He reliably refuses to make a wall-to-wall action noisefest, and he infuses as much as possible with personality and wit. His real love for these characters shines through (he even gives a lot of the spotlight this time to Hawkeye, making up for his disuse in Avengers 1). But there’s a true difference between intricacy and plate spinning, and as Whedon bounces from scene to scene, character to character and beat to beat, we can’t help but notice many of these things don’t have all the weight they should and/or would. The film’s best relationship is a burgeoning romance between Hulk and Black Widow—both actors have chemistry, and they have a symbiotic connection where each can bring out the other’s beauty and beast.
But nothing really gets a chance to breathe right. Age of Ultron is fun, to be sure, but it lacks that magic zing. The action set pieces, as character-driven as they are, become a little numbing, and one can’t help but feel that Whedon (whose last film was a Much Ado About Nothing update) is sometimes shackled to the Marvel machine rather than working with it. There’s a scene early on where every Avenger attends a party at Stark tower, and they are all loose, funny, charming, sexy, sweet and compelling. Call me crazy, but I can’t help but feel that Whedon (and I) would actually prefer a two-hour movie of that party rather than the fireworks in Age of Ultron.