With the bigwigs at Disney harnessing the full power of synergistic hype, it’s become difficult to separate the Marvel movies from their media coverage. Consider how readily the masses turned on Iron Man 3 (2013) two weeks after the studio stopped advertising it. Whether or not we care to admit it, all those carefully calculated “leaks” and press conferences help shape our cinematic experience, so imagine my surprise when Joss Whedon decided to break rank and reveal Avengers: Age of Ultron as a contractual imposition for which he felt no attachment.
Given the writer-director’s track record of publicly distancing himself when a project goes off the rails, I feared the worst. After all, one could hardly expect Avengers: Age of Ultron to recapture the novelty of a line-wide crossover, especially with super-hero fatigue slowly settling in. What’s more, the very concept of an Avengers sequel lends itself to disaster, seeing as the film not only has to work as a direct follow-up to the 2012 original but also acknowledge the events of the four Marvel pictures released since, set up the next wave of movies, and provide a self-contained adventure for casual viewers.
As it turns out, Avengers: Age of Ultron does a solid job balancing all of these demands, though it’s worth noting that Iron Man 3 largely gets ignored so Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) can repeat the same arc, letting his hubris give birth to a new global menace and then realising that the solution doesn’t lie in the armour but his innate ingenuity. In this one, our favourite mad scientist recuperates Loki’s sceptre from Baron Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) and uses it to create Ultron (James Spader): a peacekeeping robot who, for reasons unclear, turns on humanity and enlists two “miracles”, Wanda (Elizabeth Olson) and Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), to defeat our heroes. This, in turn, leads to the introduction of yet another Avenger, whose mere mention feels like a spoiler.
For those keeping track, that comes down to seven returning heroes with individual supporting casts; four antagonists with varying motives and allegiances; plus the new kid in town, who, to be fair, only shows up at the end. Given its runtime of 140 minutes (minus the credits and a full hour of CGI explosions), this leaves Avengers: Age of Ultron with just a handful of scenes to explore each of the characters, making it a wonder that everyone gets a chance to shine and contribute to the plot.
Whedon achieves this by implying a lot of the character beats instead of wasting precious screen time on them. For example, Ultron displays real affection for Wanda and Pietro, but we’re never told why. By the same token, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) overcomes his self-doubt by bathing in a magic pond, but Avengers: Age of Ultron glosses over the exact nature of both the pond and his uncertainty. Such shortcuts prove necessary when dealing with a large cast of super-heroes, not all of whom are consummate team players like Captain America (Chris Evans) or Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). I only wish we’d found out more about Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) genuinely intriguing “other life” beside the usual family-man clichés.
However, my favourite thread in Avengers: Age of Ultron consists of the burgeoning romance between Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who, like the rest of us, appears to have forgotten all about Betty Ross and The Incredible Hulk (2008). The two have great chemistry, and I like that they’re kept apart by a common sense of duty rather than any selfish misunderstanding. Unfortunately, the subplot includes one of the worst speeches in all of Marvel’s cinematic history, as Natasha compares being a barren woman to the monstrosity of a man turning into a rage-filled giant and levelling half the city. Seriously?!
Otherwise, Avengers: Age of Ultron checks all the right boxes, maintaining a brisk pace throughout and keeping the tone light even as the stakes escalate. Sure, one could nitpick about a few zingers falling flat among the gazillion thrown our way, Ultron looking cooler when its mouth doesn’t move, or Whedon once again killing off a character for no other reason than to remind us This Conflict Is Very Important Indeed. However, no one could deny the level of craft involved in this production or the fact that fans couldn’t possibly ask for more.
This makes it all the more difficult for me to admit that I didn’t really care for Avengers: Age of Ultron. As my brain was registering all the neat stuff projected in front of me, my gut got kind of bored. Perhaps the movie just caught me in the wrong mood, or all that polish prevented me from forging an emotional connection. Then again, perhaps Whedon was telling the truth, and this is what you get when a gifted artist does earnest, professional work on a project for which he has little passion.