The latest installment of Marvel’s Avengers franchise is nothing short of what we all expected it to be: lots of flying, punching, shooting, impressive bodies, and (spoiler alert) the thwarting of schemes globally destructive in nature. And while this film does not disappoint in terms of amazing effects, gadgets, and pithy one-liners (and even delivers more than expected in an excellent villain), it falls flat in a couple of crucial areas that make the first Avengers movie still watchable on FX.
At the heart of my criticism lies a simple question: How many stories can you successfully tell in two and a half hours – emphasis on the word successfully? Age of Ultron tells a lot of stories, but few of them are successful, as though the film were admitting that its scope is too large for one sitting. To their credit, the writers for Age of Ultron had to navigate a lot and I mean A LOT of already existing stories and plotlines in order to make this movie even slightly coherent. In addition to its predecessor, Age of Ultron is following the events of Iron Man III, Captain American: The Winter Soldier, Thor II, and very likely last summer’s big hit Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s understandable that, in an ever expanding Marvel Universe, there are more stories that need to be told; but those stories carry such a weight that I’m almost ashamed to say a multi-season television series would probably be a better medium to handle them all.
Not to say that all of the stories are poorly told or not worth telling; some of them are. The center of the conflict in Age of Ultron is more or less a continuation of Iron Man III (and, you could argue, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises) in which Tony Stark (Downey) essentially wants to eliminate the need for superheroes like himself. In the context of the rest of the Marvel movie franchise, Stark’s motivations to create “a suit of armor around the world” are real and honest enough to carry the plot, and even goes so far as to make us buy into the whole “robots-are-the-next-step-in-human-evolution-and-therefore-all-humans-must-be-destroyed” cliche, though, this movie shamelessly borrows its destruction plot from (of all movies) G.I. Joe: Retaliation, only with an infinitely higher budget. We’re even treated to a couple of unexpected, though not unwelcome, subplots which add – with varying levels of effectiveness – a level of depth to a cast of mostly flat characters. The Hulk (Ruffalo) gains introspection, and a love interest. Thor (Hemsworth) has hallucinations that turn out to be visions whose meaning he finally discovers at a critical time in the plot. Hawkeye (Renner), well, you’ll see. And even the character of Stark’s A.I. companion J.A.R.V.I.S. (Bettany) really takes shape by the movie’s end.
I have two basic problems with this movie: first, there are too many characters. Second, it was built around the trailers, Easter eggs, and end credits scenes, and not the other way around.
This film seems preoccupied with both making us want to care about a lot of different characters and tying everything up in a tight, clean bundle. But considering the sheer volume of both major and minor players in this movie, their back stories and relative levels of development, and how they contribute to the main plot (i.e. stopping Ultron (Spader) from destroying the world, the film’s resolution is not so much a tight, clean bundle as it is a paper bag full of feral cats (which makes me wonder if Avengers: Bag of Feral Cats would have been a more apt title). Here we are introduced to not one, not two, but THREE new superheroes whose powers, weaknesses (save in one instance) and accents are never clearly defined. But what do we care so long as buildings are repeatedly destroyed and robots obliterated in devastating and creative ways? The film openly acknowledges that it’s accumulated enough superheroes to form a sort of Avenger’s B-Team, which is nice, but for some reason, also unsettling.
But the thing is (damn you, Disney), you really REALLY want to go all crazy cat lady on this movie and take all these characters home – even the ones without superpowers, and who aren’t even in the movie but are mentioned. But you can’t. Because you only have one paper bag. And they’re feral cats.
One problem with the Marvel franchise is that it exhausts all our excitement before the movie even premieres, and places all our highest expectations after the credits are done rolling. We’ve all seen the several teaser trailers leading up to the premiere: the scene where Hulk is fighting a giant Iron Man suit, or where the respective Avengers are brandishing their new gear, or each taking a turn trying to life Thor’s hammer (which actually becomes a successful joke throughout the movie), and we’ve seen how creepy Ultron looks and sounds as he recites lines from Pinnocchio. These trailers get you thinking, “man, if this is what they’re showing us before the movie, I can’t wait for those things they must be holding back.” But what are they holding back? More or less the same scenes we saw in Avengers but with a bit of an upgrade. You’re not that surprised when people survive, nor that disappointed when they don’t. It almost feels as though the writers, having written great scenes for the trailers wondered, “how are we gonna fill the remaining two hours and twenty five minutes? Well, let’s make ’em fight each other a few more times over something stupid, travel across the world, and assume that everyone they meet both speaks and understands English.”
Really, the two and an half hours spent watching the movie is basically a virtual safari for how many Easter Eggs you can spot (I saw like two, but only because they were striking me in the face with the mighty force of Mjölnir. I’m sure a much more well-versed Marvel fanatic could spend the whole time excitedly explaining all the references to me.). These repeated references only serve to draw attention away from the movie itself, and the no-longer-secret, but now-highly-anticipated end credits scene is the grand daddy of them all. But it’s not enough for there to be a single, end of credits scene; we need an equally cryptic mid-credits scene as well. This is the show that true believers paid their $11.50 to see. Forget that the Avengers just saved the world again – that’s merely a subplot to a bigger picture. We want to know what’s coming next; if we don’t leave the theatre saying, “What the heck did that mean?” or “That looks friggen’ awesome! I can’t wait for 2017!” then Marvel has failed.
In spite of the character and subplot saturation, and its blatant overuse of self-promoting marketing techniques, Age of Ultron is exactly what we want out of a superhero movie. It’s got humor, action, romance, and the climax takes place at exactly the right time. If you can get past all the merchandising distractions, you could say it tells a more compelling story than Avengers did because it asks a very poignant question: will there ever come a time when superheroes will no longer be necessary? If Marvel had things its way (which it does), we’ll have to sit through a few more years’ worth of credits to find out.