There is a dream sequence in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” in which Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) hallucinates her past as an assassin in training. She watches a ballet, which then morphs into her trainer (Julie Delpy, of all people) forcing her to kill a man. If any scene in “Ultron” exemplifies the journey that writer and director Joss Whedon ’87 undertook to make the film, this is it. “Age of Ultron” is a behemoth balancing act. Whedon juggles as many balls in the air as he can while the Marvel machine throws more in his face as they forcibly take others away. The two and a half hour movie is a lot of fun, but the balancing act has become more punishment than ballet, both for its creators and its audience.
Much has changed since the first “Avengers” smashed box office records in 2012. There is certainly nothing like the evolving Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is a franchise comprised of multiple franchises, subgenres, and stand-alones, with “Iron Man,” “Captain America,” and “Thor” weaving in and out of each other and everything culminating in the “Avengers” films. The first one was a titanic effort to solidify the series as a cohesive universe that could actually function. Each film in the franchise has not only had to meet the “Avengers” bar not only in terms of spectacle, but also in hilarity. Now, “Age of Ultron” confidently enters that universe, and for the first time feels very comfortable playing around with it rather than holding it together.
The plot is straightforward enough. The Avengers are busy cleaning up the mess left in the wake of the previous film and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” when Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) accidentally make a superpowered robot bent on humanity’s salvation through destruction. Ultron (voiced and mo-capped by the ever-melodious James Spader) is one of the franchise’s rare interesting villains, and his dialogue is laced with Whedon’s trademark quips and villainous paradoxical logic. He might have even been able to hold a candle to Loki if he had enough screentime to do so.
This film, for the first time, really focuses on the underdogs: Hulk, Widow, and especially Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) get their best material of the franchise while Iron Man, Thor (Chis Hemsworth), and Captain America (Chris Evans) are effectively on character autopilot. Hawkeye and Ultron compete for the best lines of the film, and Hawkeye almost wins.
As for the new additions, Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) is reminiscent of River from Whedon’s “Firefly” but with more magic. She mostly acts as a plot point (a conduit for the mind control trope that Whedon adores), but an interesting and fun plot point at that. Aaron-Taylor Johnson complements her as her twin, Quicksilver, who is also mostly a functional character. However, both actors make the twins worthwhile. And then there’s Paul Bettany, who brings quite a lot to the table as Jarvis, Stark’s virtual friend, this time around.
It was very hard to bring the Avengers together in their first ensemble film. It is much easier to tear them apart, and here lies Whedon’s playhouse. He never goes too far with it, merely pulling at strings. The writer is often at his best when he lets his characters unravel, but there’s so many unravelings that none get their needed attention. While “Age of Ultron” is a more consistent film than the first, it is too busy to leave a lasting impression. You can’t one-up the iconic moments in the first film and make it feel fresh. Whedon knows that, and so he makes this film a very different, more hyper-energetic animal than the first. While the first film (mostly) centered itself in two or three locations, this film sprawls across five continents. The first film lingers on sets as it entraps its characters in a Helicarrier. “Age of Ultron” moves at an unyielding speed and stops for air only when it needs to. The audience is amazingly able to keep pace as the film stops at each beat it needs to make, but few beats are given enough time to sink in.
The first thirty minutes or so are the film’s strongest. We start en medias res, wasting no time. The comedy, action, and cinematography are all at their peak here, and the film only references the canonic Marvel material that it absolutely needs to. For instance, Tony Stark, after destroying his suits in “Iron Man 3,” once again has a fleet of armor without explanation. After the first action sequence, we follow the Avengers at a party, which confirms my theory that I could watch these characters go shopping for three hours and be satisfied. Ultron’s “birth” is one of the most inventive sequences, and many interesting questions are raised before the action gets going. Unfortunately, not long into the second act, the film is no longer able to pursue these questions as it becomes focused on moving its chessboard of a plot forward. Stark and Banner get mere slaps on the wrists for being responsible for creating a megalomaniac robot, and Ultron’s philosophy and self-loathing melt away into a standard supervillain plot.
The film is consistent in other ways. It plays with tone with much more nuance than most superhero movies. It’s darker, but not simply for darkness’ sake. The film does not dramatically change the status quo of the universe, but then again, it doesn’t necessarily want to. Many of the characters undergo their own dramatic change, and that is quite enough.
The film’s surprisingly bland, cacophonic score is one of the first signs that “Ultron” is a swan song not only for Whedon’s contribution to Marvel, but for the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself. Eleven films in (and with ten more officially on the way), Marvel is finding it increasingly difficult to vary its formula. Its response is to keep adding more “stuff,” but that has its drawbacks. We finally have the sense that these characters have a shared and colorful history, but each new threat they face becomes decreasingly meaningful. “Ultron” would have worked exponentially better as a television season with unlimited budget than it does as a movie. In a television season, its characters could have the fleshed out development they deserve.
The more boring segments of this action film are the action itself. Whedon pulls his strongest punches in the early sequences. After he plays with new superpower combinations in the first half, he then turns to merely increasing the scale. It is refreshing to see that each character has their particular brand of fighting (and each brings something new to this installment), but only so much can be done with that in a two and a half hour movie. Hulk vs. Iron Man is a refreshing treat, but after the third Ultron vs. Everyone Else fight, it becomes an exercise in tedium.
I admit that this has not been a film that has been easy to review. The first “Avengers” was a watershed moment that pushed me towards pursuing a film major. And while “Ultron” has its faults, it does what it needs to. It’s still funnier than it has any right to be, and truly knows how to deliver spectacle. The second act is bogged down in the need to prepare its pieces for the upcoming “Civil War” and bombastic climax of “Infinity War,” but that was a problem the film always had to face. Whedon isn’t able to explore any of his interesting plot threads in depth (partially because so much of the film was cut in post-production), but he finds meaning in the quiet moments. Between the quips and snaps, he finds lasting impressions in the quick looks of dread in the character’s faces that haven’t really been seen before. Ultron’s final scene of the film is surprisingly poignant; this scene justifies his existence more than anything else.
But more than anything, “Ultron” is fun to the end. Even with fewer jokes, Whedon remains the funniest blockbuster writer in the business as he takes the humor to a darker level. Ultron is able to be both sinister and hilarious as he sings Pinnochio’s “I’ve Got No Strings.” Ulysses Klaw (Andy Serkis) delivers a deadpan speech on the horrors of cuttlefish. Even a major death ends in a punchline. It’s as if the film uses humor as a coping mechanism for its intensity, and that may be its most impressive feat of all.