Film Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

“This isn’t strategy,” says Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), surveying the remains of Ultron’s first victim. “This is rage.”

Having saved the world from marauding aliens, Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), and the other Avengers must now contend with a threat from within – Tony Stark’s own messianic drone army, gone horribly, insidiously wrong.

James Spader joins the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe as Ultron, a powerful protector created by humanity in its own image who promptly turns upon his would-be masters and beneficiaries in the longstanding tradition of the Golem and Frankenstein’s monster, deciding that the surest route to “peace on earth” is the eradication of mankind.

Avengers: Age of Ultron
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Directed by Joss Whedon.
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson.

This motivates an abundance of paranormal-flavoured sci-fi action – more in line with the first Avengers in ‘PG’ bloodlessness than the surprising brutality of Captain America: The Winter Soldier – which manifests in brawls, gunfights, car chases, aerial dogfights, massed battlefield confrontations, and even what might be the first-ever on-screen duel between disembodied artificial intelligences.

With an expanded roster of super-powerful characters, many of whom have ongoing series of their own, returning writer-director Joss Whedon performs another impressive balancing act of narrative threads and real-life Hollywood superpowers, again producing a film that satisfies fully as lightweight, family-friendly entertainment but basically leaves it at that.

For allies, Ultron has the Maximoff twins, Pietro aka Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who can move at the speed of a bullet, and Wanda the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), a powerful telekinetic who can manipulate minds as well as matter. Olsen in particular brings an emotional intensity to her performance, but the twins don’t have time to develop much.

Interspersed among the Avengers’ battling, squabbling and investigating are a number of dream scenes, conjured by the Scarlet Witch’s confounding magic, one of which triggers an all-too-waking showdown between Iron Man, protecting bystanders, and a rampaging, bewitched Hulk – demonstrating that infighting among the heroes is still just as entertaining as their inevitable cooperation.

Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson), who don’t get films to themselves, are finally fleshed out with a family and a back story, respectively, though he is apportioned only a few routine scenes with an attentive wife while the Avengers lay low on his farmstead following the Hulk’s blitzkrieg of a tantrum, and she is the subject of some questionable creative choices concerning both her past and her ongoing story arc.

Rounding out the supporting cast are not only Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), but also Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Falcon (Anthony Mackie), with appearances by Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Heimdall (Idris Elba).

“I am on the side of life,” proclaims a hero as the climax approaches. “Ultron isn’t.”

And that is really all the justification given or needed for a 20-minute battle royale, a sequence set atop what amounts to a giant time bomb which echoes the film’s opening scene in featuring lengthy tracking shots of the sort that set geek pulses racing – that is, packed with intricate (if largely computer-generated) choreography.

Officially, the stakes aren’t any higher than before – the world hung in the balance last time, too – but the bar for comic-book special effects wizardry has been raised again.

Meanwhile, the Avengers have to evacuate a civilian populace while fending off Ultron’s attacking drones. But large groups of people are as unwieldy to a narrative as they are to those who have to physically wrangle them, and these anonymous innocents bog down the climax, like the citizens of New York (and Gotham City) before them.

That, along with the glaring fact that the antagonists are once again a swarm of computer-generated, anthropomorphic henchmen, suggests Joss Whedon did not fully learn the lessons of the Avengers’ first ensemble outing.

If the action scenes are bigger, more complex, and more adroitly presented, they still often have less impact, somehow, than their antecedents – a phenomenon also notable in the Hobbit and Star Wars prequel trilogies. It could be the sheer amount and complexity of the chaos, or it could be simply that the story which gives it all meaning is over-stuffed and repeatedly anticlimactic.

Likewise, Whedon’s trademark banter has lost some of its lively energy since the first time these characters crossed paths and swords en route to a world-saving confrontation.

And with the Avengers facing a homegrown menace, the intergalactic storyline last advanced in Guardians of the Galaxy is picked up only in a mid-credits appearance by Thanos, who dons a distinctive gauntlet that is sure to figure prominently in the Avengers’ next reunion, Infinity War, scheduled for a two-part release beginning in 2018.