Directing a film like Age of Ultron is certainly not an enviable task so Joss Whedon has my sympathy in trying to manage the enjoyment of diehard fans of the Marvel comics, cinemagoers who have seen all three-hundred other Marvel films and the rest of the audience just passing through and interested in the year’s newest big-budget blockbuster.
If there is one thing Whedon does undeniably well it’s juggling big action set-pieces with numerous characters occupying different locations at any one time. Age of Ultron is at its best when it’s being loud and ridiculous – the film opens with a battle sequence and the last portion of the film is a suitably grand action set-piece where every Avenger is given their moment in the spotlight. One of the strongest aspects of Ultron’s many battles, and something conspicuously ignored in so many other films of its type, is the concern for reducing collateral damage. A nice touch.
It is a shame, then, that Whedon is unable to juggle the ensemble cast during the quieter moments. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) gets fleshed out in more detail this time around and benefits greatly. Even charisma vacuum, Captain America (Chris Evans), seems more interesting (save for an awful running joke involving bad language), and Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) questionable leadership that toes the line between heroism and villainy is compelling – predictably, Downey Jr. hordes most of the best one-liners.
But the first film’s strongest Avenger, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), is handicapped trying to make Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) interesting through association in a tepid will-they-won’t-they-no-one-really-cares romance storyline that sadly acts as one of the main narrative thrusts. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) remains dull, though a scene involving members of the team trying to lift his hammer is a rare highlight.
The injection of new characters to an already stacked cast are mostly a miss with some especially poor Russian accents stinking up proceedings. Marvel films often fall short when it comes to an interesting villain, Ultron (James Spader) shows promise but is eventually bogged down in sloppy one-liners.
The moment-to-moment character interactions are great throwaway fun but it all takes place within a larger plot that feels messy, surprisingly insubstantial and sometimes difficult to buy into. Thor’s vision that helps move the story forward is sloppy and the slapdash introduction of The Vision (Paul Bettany) who comes and goes during the final battle like a panacea to any plot difficulty is the definition of deus ex machina.
In the age where superhero films have taken a stranglehold on the big-budget blockbuster, Joss Whedon’s Age of Ultron is a fitting microcosm of its genre: big, loud, long (why are these films always so long?), sometimes unbearably tedious but also sometimes thrilling. (6)