There aren’t too many obstacles more daunting for a filmmaker than colossal expectations. Joss Whedon has to deal with a whole lot of them in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
After all, his 2012 flick “The Avengers” was one of the most popular movies in recent memory, scoring excellent reviews, grossing $1.5 billion worldwide and establishing Whedon as the A-list director long-term fans of his early work (the groundbreaking TV show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the quixotic sci-fi show “Firefly”) always assumed he was.
Now for the follow-up, which — while being well-paced — can’t help but feel a little overstuffed and a bit long. Iron Man even makes a joke about a particular situation feeling “Eugene O’Neill long” — no kidding, dude.
A host of new characters are introduced, including the robot baddy Ultron (a motion-captured James Spader), the enigmatic android the Vision (Paul Bettany, formerly the voice of Iron Man’s computer, Jarvis), the Eastern European “enhanced humans” Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, still the best Olsen) and her twin brother, speedster Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
The plot threads get a bit tangled, but “Ultron” opens in midbattle, as the Avengers — Tonk Stark, aka Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.); Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson); Thor (Chris Hemsworth); Bruce Banner, aka the rampaging Hulk (Mark Ruffalo); Captain America (Chris Evans); and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) — take down another base belonging to international terrorists HYDRA.
In the process, they free Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, who have a beef with Iron Man from back when their country was bombed with Stark-manufactured arms. Quicksilver runs really fast, while the Witch can, well, there’s an energy bolt thing and she can control minds. It’s a little confusing if you don’t have a decent grasp of Marvel comics B-listers.
But you can’t say “Ultron” is not Whedon-esque. As Whedon noted in an interview with the American-Statesman in 2009, dysfunctional teams are his thing: “I’m only interested in people in the way that they play off each other, the way they connect and don’t, the way that they band together and fail to — all my stuff sort of ends up being about that.”
To wit: We have a developing romantic relationship between Hulk and Black Widow, Stark and Banner working on a next-generation artificial intelligence, and someone on the team has not been entirely honest about their private life.
Of course, the AI goes nuts, stuffs itself into an indestructible robot body and judges humanity too messed up to be worth saving, so maybe it’s time to blow up the world and start over. Time for some punching.
Whedon is in a tricky spot, having to make a decent stand-alone movie and advance the larger story-ball down the field, a ball that will allegedly culminate in “Avengers: Infinity War” parts 1 and 2, due in 2018 and 2019. Whedon has passed the directorial torch for those to “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo. There is a mild exhaustion to “Ultron,” as if Whedon is frustrated he has to hit all these beats rather than making a tight story.
And Ultron the character is the exact point where CGI fails Whedon a bit. Whedon writes tortured, depressed villains quite well — Ultron’s sadness at the state of things manifests as genocidal rage. But while Spader does his level best, his voice-acting can only do so much if the CGI can’t quite “act” the character’s pulpy complexity.
But Whedon is still Whedon, and the grace notes — the snappy patter, the team dynamics, the “man, that was cool” moments — go a long way. A smart, goofy scene involving nobody being able to pick up Thor’s hammer but Thor (as only “the worthy” may lift it) pays off so brilliantly down the line that it induced actual fist pumps in the audience.
And the film pops to life when Bettany shows up as the Vision, an android cut from the same thoughtful cloth as Data on Star Trek if Data were less wide-eyed and a better puncher. With his red face and green body, Vision looks good and comic-booky while possessing a fascination with humanity that translates as a singular nobility and morality.
That sort of thing is always welcome in superheroes.
‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’
Starring: Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, James Spader
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments.
Running time: 2 hours, 21 minutes
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