Deep Focus: Avengers: Age of Ultron
Watching writer-director Joss Whedon handle the staggering number of superheroes, just plain heroes, sidekicks, super-enemies, super-frenemies, and super-friends with potential benefits in Avengers: Age of Ultron is like observing a 3-D chess master struggle with an epic bout of whack-a-mole. The subtitle might be Age of Ultron but the meta-message is: “We’re in the Age of Marvel: prepare or be square.” (Warning: to know what’s happening at the beginning, brush up on the mid-credits scene in the last Captain America movie.) Whedon must have hammered like crazy to forge a narrative through-line that would help non-initiates or even casual fans find their way into the contemporary Marvel Universe. The writer-director recently advised the rulers of the comic-book/multimedia empire to create movies that are engrossing and comprehensible, not just frantic chapters in an ongoing saga. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, he contradicts himself.
In the Russo Brothers’ terrific Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the First Avenger, striving to catch up with his country’s postwar changes, jots down items like “Thai food.” I grew up in the now distant Silver Age of Marvel and DC Comics (my first published piece of writing was a letter to the editor of Hawkman), so my reporter’s notebook for Age of Ultron resembles Captain America’s checklist. Instead of tasty items like “Thai food,” it contains subjects for further research like “Infinity Stones.”
In the opening sequence, the Avengers—Cap (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)—battle their way through a snowy mountain forest to a HYDRA stronghold in the Eastern European country of “Sokovia.” As revealed in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, HYDRA, a subversive fascist organization bent on world domination, has wreaked havoc by infiltrating America’s SHIELD (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division). Now the Avengers aim to stop HYDRA’s Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) from harnessing the earth-shaking power of Loki’s scepter (Loki, of course, is Thor’s evil adopted brother).
The Baron’s greatest success so far has been transforming attractive, embittered orphan twins Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) into the super-speedy Quicksilver and the telekinetic, spell-casting Scarlet Witch. The Maximoffs blame Tony Stark’s armaments for annihilating their family and country and are hell-bent on ruining Stark, his alter ego Iron Man, and Stark’s compadres and compadrettes in the Avengers and SHIELD’s noble remnants. Quicksilver, who quickly develops the signature phrase “You didn’t see that coming?” and the Scarlet Witch, who catalyzes confounding visions in the minds of the Avengers, zig and zag physically, emotionally, and politically throughout the movie.
Maybe I should say that Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch are “heck-bent on revenge.” One of the few running jokes to pay off is super-straight Captain America calling out the hip, racy Iron Man for “language.” Although this movie is full of witticisms, they often whiz right by you because they’re aimed at moving targets, and I’m not just talking about Quicksilver. Age of Ultron amounts to a panoply of entrances and exits by exotic and spectacular action figures.
Everything I’ve said so far is preparation—and I haven’t even mentioned baroque elements like Iron Man’s “Iron Legion,” his arsenal of drone Iron Men designed for tasks like protecting civilians from collateral damage. Age of Ultron doesn’t just start in media res; it never gets out of media res. After the Avengers wrest the scepter away from Hydra, Tony Stark wheedles a few days from Thor to test it, with the help of fellow scientist Dr. Bruce Banner (Dr. Jekyll to the Hulk’s Mr. Hyde). We learn, in passing, that ever since the Avengers nearly lost the Battle of New York to Loki at the end of The Avengers, Stark and Banner have been working on an “Ultron” defense program that would protect the globe like AI armor. (We don’t learn what their original version would have looked like, but anyone who’s read the comic books or seen a movie ad knows that Ultron functions most of the time as an ultra-intelligent robot.) Laboring in secret, with Banner as his sole partner and confidante, Stark aims to use the scepter’s omnipotent operating system to bring Ultron into being. Too bad the scepter’s OS, based in one of those Infinity Stones, has an imperial impulse of its own.
When Stark and Banner aren’t looking, the scepter-powered Ultron, after absorbing and crippling Stark’s talking AI assistant JARVIS, emerges from the lab in a metallic form soldered together from damaged and spare parts of Iron Legionnaires. With a bent spine and an eerie acid-streaked faceplate, Ultron looks like Igor and Frankenstein’s monster rolled into one—and, even creepier, he speaks with the oleaginous voice of James Spader. Stark’s goal for Ultron was creating “Peace In Our Time”; in Spader’s booby-trapped intonations, that phrase becomes both arch and menacing. In one of many cartoon ironies, Ultron decides that the first step toward “Peace In Our Time” is killing off the Avengers. (Ultron’s aggression feeds off his Oedipal hatred for Stark, which includes a streak of self-hatred, since his coding is partly derived from Stark’s mind.) Ultron soon builds his own army, as well as a sleek, fluid physique, from the Baron’s failed robot experiments in Sokovia.
At 141 minutes, it’s a miracle the movie is never merely mechanical, but like JARVIS or Ultron, it’s not fully human, either. Whedon studs the action with bits of “personality” that rarely add up to character. The movie’s premier odd couple (or perhaps odd quartet) is Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow and Bruce Banner/Hulk. Black Widow coos the Hulk down from his galvanizing rage and back into the human form of Banner; Romanoff strives to persuade Banner that she loves a man who avoids a fight. Her fellow semi-normal mortal and non-romantic best friend is Renner’s Hawkeye, who becomes the blue-collar anchor for the team and remains aware how incongruous it is for a mere archer to team up with a super-soldier, a Norse god, a self-made mutant, and a genius. Whedon’s actors are admirable and at times amusing, but his slab-like spectacle and blundering ambition blunt their stabs at robust poignancy and humor. Whedon puts the Black Widow/Hulk romance on hold in a supposedly funny, rousing action turnaround that fails as both a setpiece and a sight gag. Whedon reveals the basis for Hawkeye’s good-guy sanity in a homespun sequence that’s as corny as Kansas in August—and might actually be set in Kansas in August.
The stream of gags and wisecracks is like a bizarre version of Laugh-In tucked into a succession of special-effects mini-apocalypses. There’s even a Laugh-In–like party scene with James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) endearingly struggling to win yuks with an anecdote about his armored strength. Later, he and Iron Man and the other Avengers attempt in vain to lift Thor’s hammer. Hemsworth as Thor proves to be the film’s deftest deadpan comedian. In one juicy throwaway riff he modulates his grandiloquent rhetoric about reveling in the screams of the dead by mumbling about muscle sprain and gout. But the heavy machinery of the storytelling grinds away at the cast’s gaiety. We witness the birth of an intriguing character, a righteous android called the Vision (Paul Bettany), but he registers as little more than a charismatic enigma. In the film’s drollest exchange, Ultron accuses the Vision of naïveté, and the newbie replies that he was, in fact, “born yesterday.” The film, though, is weighed down with too many yesterdays.
Bryan Singer had just as many comic-book icons and shifting realities in X Men: Days of Future Past, yet he kept them spinning around a single dramatic axis (the threat of the Sentinels in the present, the need to prevent Mystique from catalyzing their creation in the past). Even characters reduced to walk-ons, like Halle Berry’s Storm, enriched the emotional atmosphere. Simon Kinberg’s script, unlike Whedon’s, didn’t force one-liners and two-liners into the dialogue. So moments of inspired hilarity—especially a Buster Keaton–worthy sequence featuring that film’s Quicksilver (Evan Peters)—had an undiluted potency that gave the entire film a healthy shot of laughing gas.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron suffers from a surfeit of talent, not a lack of it. Whedon tries so hard to be personable and purposeful that you feel the effort every step of the way. His first Avengers managed to be an engaging, profoundly American film without really trying. Coming out during the 2012 presidential campaign—the same month as Washington Post political columnist E.J. Dionne Jr.’s book, Our Divided Political Heart—Whedon’s spectacle illustrated Dionne’s thesis about the need to balance individualism and community more viscerally and persuasively than President Obama did in his “You didn’t build that” speech. In the first movie, most of the Avengers distrust each other, jockey for power, and splinter over tactics; it takes the murder of a human they all love to unite them against an alien invasion. For Americans sick of polarized politics and a government operating under constant threats of shutdown, The Avengers provided a fantasy of rivals transcending their differences so life can go on.
In Age of Ultron, Captain America continues to be the voice of community, insisting that the team prevail or fail together, and Tony Stark re-emerges as the entrepreneurial maverick who thinks he knows best how to save the world. Their conflict is all the more promising because Stark, the individualist, is also the elitist intellectual. But the conflict doesn’t play out—it just peters out. The movie will define “over-stuffed” for its epoch the way a certain all-star comedy did for the Kennedy era. It’s a Marvel, Marvel, Marvel, Marvel World.