One of the downsides of Marvel announcing its future slate of superhero movies so far in advance of their release dates is that their “Phase One” blockbusters already seem to pale in comparison to the on-deck “Phase Two” installments. After all, how can writer-director Joss Whedon's just-released Avengers: Age Of Ultron possibly compare to 2018's two-part Avengers: Infinity War? One is merely an age, the other tackles, well, infinity. One can only assume heaven and hell are on deck for “Phase Three.”
It’s this dedication to grandiosity that, no doubt, fuels Whedon's recent complaints that his $250 million sequel to his $1.5 billion hit, The Avengers, left him depleted and exhausted. It's understandable, given the ridiculous juggling act on display in Age Of Ultron. Overstuffed with no less than a dozen superhumans threading their way through a trio of plotlines, the movie has just enough Whedonesque quips, banter and character moments to make his presence felt (the best is when Thor’s teammates attempt, in turn, to lift his mighty hammer) but mostly features gargantuan fight scenes, crammed-in cameos and corporate blueprinting for future sequels and spinoffs.
It's an impressively bloated entertainment machine that brazenly wears its comic-book origins on its sleeves but offers little of the giddy fun of its predecessor, nor any of the subversive surprises of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Nevertheless, it'll make another $1.5 billion, even if it is, as Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) describes: “Eugene O’Neill long.”
Things kick off with an assault on the castle fortress of Baron Strucker (Thomas Krestchmann). Iron Man, Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) are out to capture the last of Hydra's evil agents and retrieve the Staff of Loki hidden in his labs. Little do they know that the staff contains one of the Infinity Stones, powerful artifacts that will come into play in the next set of sequels.
Also in Strucker's employ are Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a. The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and her super-speedy twin brother Pietro, a.k.a. Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The siblings complicate the Avengers’ mission and inadvertently inspire Stark to create the movie's main nemesis. You see, Wanda's mind powers cause her foes to live their worst fears, and Stark foreseeing the demise of humanity decides that Loki's staff must be used to power a defense system that will protect Earth against an alien attack.
Instead, his by-any-means-necessary hubris gives rise to Ultron (brilliantly voiced by a droll James Spader), an artificial intelligence that decides that mankind is actually Earth’s greatest threat. Using spare Iron Man parts, Ultron constructs a bad-ass robot body for itself, builds a mechanical army, teams with Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, and recites lyrics from “I've Got No Strings,” a song featured in Disney's Pinocchio (apparently, even genocidal robots believe in corporate synergy).
There's a fight in an Eastern European forest, at Avengers tower, on a freeway, in the streets of Johannesburg (an enraged Hulk versus a Hulk-busting Iron Man), and, in the finale, around and atop a floating city. Super sidekicks like Rhodey/War Machine (Don Cheadle) and the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), along with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Stellan Skarsgård's Dr. Selvig, and newly minted android The Vision (Paul Bettany) — nee J.A.R.V.I.S. — all get thrown into the convoluted mix.
Needless to say, the various characters all jostle for attention, with Hawkeye, improbably, emerging with the most intact through-line. Natasha (Black Widow) and Bruce (The Hulk) smolder with romantic longing, sentient robots muse on the nature of humanity and each member of the team gets a well-timed zinger and single spark of emotion as the next sequel-friendly plot device kicks in. The mayhem is occasionally clever but, functionally, Whedon is serving Disney's branding schemes first and his story and characters second.
What he does manage to shoehorn into this noisy spectacle is the geeky grandeur of comic-book quirk, and the heartfelt idea that ideals and intentions, not super powers, are what make the hero. It's a sentiment voiced by Hawkeye — who’s all too aware that a dude with a bow and arrow seems ridiculous alongside gods and robots and monsters — and in Captain America's rallying cry against Ultron, who sees humanity as worthy of only extinction. “This isn’t just about defeating him. This is about whether he’s right.”
For fans who remember what it was like to page through heavily-inked newsprint to witness colorfully costumed superheroes fire laser beams from their forehead at skull-faced bad guys and still protect the innocent from harm, Avengers: Age Of Ultron is an old-timey ode to what made comic books great. Thor's teammates may not have what it takes to lift his hammer, but they're plenty worthy enough to be called heroes.
Avengers: Age Of Ultron (PG-13)
Dir. Joss Whedon; writ. Joss Whedon (based on comic books by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby); feat. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson