“You’re tip-toeing, big man. You need to strut.” This friendly suggestion, playfully tossed at Bruce Banner in 2012’s The Avengers, sums up the difference between that film and its bigger, prettier sequel, Age of Ultron, in a way that Marvel probably never intended. Joss Whedon’s fun yet formulaic introduction to Marvel’s dysfunctional superhero team felt more controlled, more restrained, its potential ever present but never fully realized. Marvel’s incredibly brilliant yet blatantly corporate guidelines gave Joss a roadmap that prevented this super-powered event film from tanking, but this play-it-safe approach robbed its capable director of any creative wiggle room. Don’t get me wrong: The Avengers delivered more wit and whimsy than I could have ever hope for, and I adore Whedon for creating such an endearing crowd-pleaser. However, after feeling my own head explode while watching Age of Ultron, I’m convinced he has been holding back on his fans for years. If The Avengers was Whedon’s way of tip-toeing around the corporate eggshells strewn at his feet, then its sequel is the bold, sure-footed strut one adopts after experiencing the enormous success he’s now known for.
During a raid on a HYDRA base, Tony Stark stumbles upon an old A.I. program that Baron von Strucker and his crooked cronies had been hiding from the world. Overjoyed at the discovery, he christens the dormant program Ultron, believing it to be the perfect way to ensure peace on a global scale. Predictably, he neglects to tell his understandably skeptical teammates until after the crazed program tries to destroy Avengers Tower. Meanwhile, the superpowered twins, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, spend their time slinking around the slums until a shiny, impressive new Ultron enlists their help in wiping out the Avengers. Together, they attempt to undo them “from the inside,” clouding their heads with grim glimpses of their deepest fears and eventually turning them against each other. The result? Millions of dollars of property damage and one very, very pissed off Hulk.
Age of Ultron positively pulses with more fun, hilarity, and comic book fan service that you can wave Loki’s scepter at, sporting a number of awe-inspiring action sequences that will send audiences into unbridled fits of squealing while still keeping its key players at the center of the story. Characters who rode backseat last time (Hawkeye, Thor) gleefully call shotgun this time around and steal every scene they appear in, commanding the screen with a winning mix of class and camp that makes me think twice about all the shit I’ve talked about them since the first film crashed into theaters three years ago.
As expected, the cast delivers on every level, sporting more of the onscreen camaraderie and chemistry that made them such a lovable bunch last time. Franchise staples Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, and Scarlett Johansson welcome some talented new faces to their already crowded ranks, most notably Paul Bettany’s Vision and Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff. Aaron Taylor-Johnson also appears as Pietro Maximoff, but he isn’t given much to do besides dart on and offscreen at super speed and taunt Hawkeye during combat. And, of course, Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury lurks in the shadows, his omnipresence serving as a source of comfort for the wayward heroes he’s taken under his wing.
Unfortunately, Whedon’s Ultron lacks the conviction and motivation that make his comic book counterpart such a terrifying villain, sucking him dry of any real formidability and underselling him to a point that’s incredibly disappointing. In the comics, he’s a robot whose genocidal tendencies stem from his all-consuming hatred for one well-meaning but emotionally distant man: Hank Pym. In the film, he’s angry about……..being a robot. Gone are his daddy issues. Gone are his impassioned speeches about fatherhood and how Pym failed miserably in that department. He’s less focused, less passionate, the anger that defines his character replaced with blind rage that rarely makes sense and always underwhelms.
What’s interesting about the movie’s interpretation of this iconic adversary, though, is that it introduces us to the idea that his very nature dooms him from the start. Ultron can’t understand the error of his ways, because he lacks the humanity to do so. While this spin on him meshes beautifully with what Whedon is shooting for, it feels like a shameless betrayal of his character and never once feels organic. As a reader and fan of the comics he sprang from, I can’t pull myself away from the notion that he could have been handled more lovingly, more capably.
As the film barrels toward a protracted climax, it becomes painfully obvious that Whedon trimmed the story down to a not-so-lean 140 minutes after realizing he’d written a three and a half hour movie. Thankfully, he refuses to let this disheartening realization slow his strut, instead settling for the smaller, more intimate moments amidst all the cramp and clutter. Whedon, beside himself with the giddiness of a kid with new toys on a frosty Christmas morning, loses himself in the characters and happily succumbs to all of the pitfalls and missteps that he knows will follow. Age of Ultron‘s feeble structure can be likened to a hastily prepared science project, its bells and whistles taped together by the small character moments that ultimately make the movie a worthwhile investment.
Aside from its clumsier approach and a handful of questionable filmmaking decisions, The Avengers: Age of Ultron ignores its numerous shortcomings and delivers the colorful, over-the-top fun and high-stakes action that characterize the superhero genre. You absolutely get what you pay for with Age of Ultron, and in that sense, it succeeds.