These days, we’re so used to feeling short-changed when we go to the movies that it may seem churlish to complain when someone gives us too much. But with Marvel’s latest comic-book battle royale, Avengers: Age of Ultron, I walked out of the theater feeling like the survivor of an all-you-can-eat buffet. There are five shock-and-awe action sequences when three would have sufficed. And there are more than a dozen main characters (including a few new ones) all jockeying for screen time when half that number would have already been pushing it. Even the film’s rimshot-ready one-liners have the overkill desperation of a stand-up scared of bombing. Either through his own ambition or the mandate of his corporate overlords, writer-director Joss Whedon simply has too many balls to keep in the air for one movie—even a two-and-a-half-hour one—and you can feel his exhaustion.
The movie wastes no time, kicking off mid-battle as Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Chris Evans’ Captain America, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, and the CGI Hulk storm the medieval lair of the last remaining Hydra agent (Thomas Krestchmann’s Baron Strucker), who possesses the glowing Staff of Loki and has nefarious plans for it. There, they encounter a pair of new “enhanced” enemies, the Russky-accented Maximoff twins: Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s blindingly fleet Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen’s telekinetic goth chick Scarlet Witch. Or, as Cobie Smulders’ SHIELD agent succinctly describes them, “He’s fast, and she’s weird.” She might have also said, “He’s kinda boring, and she looks like she’d rather be at a Cure concert.” Either way, they’re merely an amuse-bouche for the real baddie to come.
Having recovered Loki’s mystical doodad and its infinity-stone central processor, Downey’s Tony Stark decides to harness its energy to create an army of AI Iron Men to protect the planet from future threats. But his hubris backfires and he gives birth to the evil sentient robot, Ultron, who’s bent on not only taking out the Avengers, but the rest of humanity too. With his smarmy metallic croak, Spader is perfectly cast as the voice of Ultron. So much so that it’s surprising it’s taken this long for someone to tap into the actor’s gift for threateningly bitchy condescension in one of these things. While the gang hopscotches across the globe finding new excuses to face off with Ultron, Whedon does his best to occasionally slow the action down and give us the sort of character moments the film could have used more of. Fans of Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner (for me, the best surprise in the first Avengers) will appreciate his will-they-or-won’t-they flirtation with Johansson’s Black Widow. And there’s a funny bit of cocktail-fueled macho bonding when each of the superheroes takes a stab at lifting Thor’s hammer (unsuccessfully). Even Renner’s Hawkeye, who’s always felt a bit like the sixth wheel of the bunch, gets an unexpected backstory involving a secret family life with a wife (Linda Cardellini) and kids. Who knew that when he wasn’t busy reaching into his quiver, he was moonlighting as Alan Thicke from Growing Pains?
Beyond the core spandex posse, a slew of familiar faces wanders in and out of the picture as if someone back at Marvel HQ were desperate to extend the film’s line of action figures. Still, my real beef with these movies—and this one in particular— is how same-y they’ve started to feel. Each time out, everything is at stake and nothing is at stake. Someone wants to destroy the world, but none of our heroes is ever in any jeopardy. With sequels already lined up for the next decade, how much danger could any of them be in? They’re too valuable to the bottom line. And where’s the excitement in that? B-