If any modern day director were to break the curse of sequelitis—that is, the near impossible feat of returning to the same well of intellectual property and churning out a film that matches the success of its predecessor—one would think Joss Whedon is our best bet. He accomplished the seemingly impossible once already, managing to assemble earth’s mightiest heroes in 2012’s The Avengers, an entertaining 143 minutes of wish-fulfillment that had enough “Whedonisms” to stand apart from most of the boilerplate comic book adaptations released over the last decade. That is not to say the great sequel is a mountain yet to be summited, but what sets apart great sequels such as The Godfather Part II and The Empire Strikes Back are qualities that are almost fundamentally opposed to what Marvel Studios intends of their cinematic universe. Yet Age of Ultron is one of the few Marvel films that shows the weight of everything it has to carry over its 141 minute running time. This burden seems to have overwhelmed Whedon as well, who has eluded to frustrations during the film’s production. And it shows on screen. A few quintessential Whedon moments manage to emerge, and they are the most memorable parts of the film. But surprisingly Age of Ultron is not necessarily the typical disaster-laden spectacle that pummels you into submission and leaves you with the kind of stomachache that usually comes after devouring too much ice cream. Instead the feeling that lingers resembles the sensation after wolfing down a bag of cheese puffs—mostly unsatisfying and ultimately hollow.
The whole gang is back together, and then some. Age of Ultron opens with an assault on the Eastern European compound of Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), one of the last commanders of HYDRA, the mysterious military and espionage organization that upended the Avengers’ S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. As the camera swoops through the forest of the fictional town of Sokovia, we see Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) have teamed up once again to retrieve the mystical scepter that was used to devastating effect in The Avengers. Upon its inspection, Stark and Dr. Banner determine it holds the key to completing the Ultron program, a sentient artificial intelligence Stark intends to employ as a peacekeeping force, to be everywhere the Avengers cannot be, and be there every time. Stark, still scarred by the events of Iron Man 3, yearns for “peace in our time,” and strives to mitigate threats to the earth before they fully materialize. So when this mantra is translated to a program such as Ultron, it predictably identifies the Avengers—and humanity—as the planet’s greatest threat. Less predictably (at least to Stark) Ultron inhabits one of the old Iron Man suits and quickly wreaks havoc, all while tossing quips and barbs through the voice of James Spader.
There is also a bit about “Infinity Stones” that seems so tacked on that you are better off reading the comics associated with them. Marvel certainly would not be opposed to this solution. Make that double for the addition of two new characters: the telepathic Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and the speedster Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who each carry a personal vendetta against Stark. Since the two do not have their own films (yet), they are given ample real estate to prove why they belong in the same crowded frame with the rest of the cast—often to the detriment of the characters we have come to know and love. One aspect that made the first Avengers movie so successful was the crisp, witty dialogue spread throughout Whedon’s script, positioning the verbal sparring between heroes to be more satisfying than the various “Who would win in a fight?” fan service throwdowns the film concocted. Whedon aims to capture lightning in a bottle a second time in Age of Ultron but to varying levels of success. Attempts at humor fall flat more often than not while the exchanges that carry the most resonance are those that contribute to the overarching themes of the story. That arguably the best sequence of the film—a party where our drunken heroes take stabs at lifting Thor’s hammer—can support arguments for and against the overall success of Age of Ultron does little more than expose the unevenness of the whole enterprise.
As a cautionary tale about the perils of artificial intelligence, Ultron carries nowhere near the nuance or depth seen by Alicia Vikander’s Ava in the superior Ex Machina from earlier this year. Where Ava’s A.I. character could afford to be alluring and enigmatic, Ultron must be snarky and bombastic. What is left is an exploration of A.I. that is hackneyed at best and hardly fleshed out at worst, working better as a comment on the military industrial complex than as a contemplation of the transcendence of human thought and morality. Spader’s performance is not a far cry from his turn as the nefarious Red Reddington on “The Blacklist,” which fits with the notion that Ultron was created in Stark’s image. In one scene, Scarlet Witch chides the rest of the Avengers, “Ultron can’t tell the difference between saving the world and destroying it. Where do you think he gets that?”
When the movie finally gets to it, the strongest theme at the heart of this franchise does not disappoint: the preventionist inclinations of Tony Stark clashing with the noble idealism of Steve Rogers. Certainly embedded as a prelude to the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, the debate of safety at the expense of liberty packs a punch because it remains as relevant as ever. It also serves as one of the few instances where there is some semblance of a connection between the world these characters are charged with saving and the world we live in on a daily basis. But in a sequel with more plot, more heroes, more villains, and more explosions than it knows what to do with, is saving the world enough for audiences anymore? The film seems to recognize this too, clumsily adding lines that suggest not all of the Avengers will make it out alive and including a character death so devoid of emotion that it only seems to exist to conveniently service comic book property continuity issues.
There is a scene at the end of The Avengers that to an extent speaks to the state of comic book adaptations. After New York City has been saved from alien invaders, there is a montage of everyday people sporting Captain America tee-shirts, Tony Stark signature goatees, and replicas of Thor’s hammer—essentially self-affirming Marvel’s place as the ubiquitous culture of America. And an inherent part of this culture is the unwieldy hype, not surrounding the most recent Marvel film to enter cinemas but the hype aimed towards the films still to come, which sometimes are without a director, script, or actors. Avengers: Age of Ultron is way too aware of this trend in that it invariably serves as a teaser for multiple future installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in order to mask the widespread deficiencies of the film up on the screen. In a climate where “take my money” is a phrase used ad nauseam, our tickets for Age of Ultron were purchased, in all but monetary terms, years ago. The greatest drama of the film lies here, at least for the producers. Perhaps there was a deleted scene where one exclaimed, “If we don’t sell them today on Captain America: Civil War, the entire cinematic universe is at stake!”