Film: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Say what you will about the Marvel Cinematic Universe—formulaic hitmaker, nostalgic button-pusher, miraculous blockbuster franchise—I still love it, even when I’m apologizing for its flaws and excesses. And yes, the much-anticipated Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) possesses its share of flaws and excesses, rough edges that could have used some serious sanding down. On the other hand, I still found it highly satisfying: breathless, funny, thrilling, and chock-full of the iconic heroes of my youth, including some Avengers second-stringers I was very excited to see come to life on the big screen.

This installment begins with a full-on assault of a H.Y.D.R.A. base in the fictional eastern European nation of Sokovia, where the Avengers are tracking down the missing sceptor of Loki. But they get much more than they bargained for: not only do they face off against two experimentally enhanced humans—the twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen)—but they stumble across the seeds of a complex new artificial intelligence. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) decides to develop this AI into an invincible new peace-keeping technology, and lures Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) into helping him. Alas, that famous Stark inventiveness has always had its short-sighted side, and his experiment spawns Ultron (voiced by James Spader), a robot whose notions of “peace in our time” turn out to be decidedly more pure and sinister than Stark ever imagined.

Without getting much further into it, I suppose that’s an adequate, brushstroke summary of the plot, which is more or less a structural and thematic mirror of its predecessor. As in the original, the fractious, exceptional individuals that make up the Avengers are first torn apart by their differences—with a little help from the villains—but then rally, with the moral guidance of Captain America (Chris Evans, still pitch perfect in the part), to present a unified front against a threat to the world. Ultron wants to eradicate humanity and evolve a new species, but he’s more or less the same type of villain as Loki: a maniacal trickster, with legions of minions at his disposal for the Avengers to systematically obliterate.

It’s a successful formula, and a solid framework on which to hang the series’ raison d’être: clever, engaging character interactions between the team’s iconic heroes. As usual, Joss Whedon’s dialogue zings and sings, full of witty lines and clever rejoinders. The ensemble dynamic, even complicated as it is by its small army of new and recurring characters, is as exuberant and winning as ever. Whedon has always been good at fast-paced interplay between disparate team members, and he hasn’t lost his touch.

He also pleasantly surprised me by scaling back the story focus on the MCU’s dominant A-listers—Captain America, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Iron Man—in favor of the characters who don’t have their own franchises. It was a pleasure to see extra attention given to Bruce Banner, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Alas, Johansson and Ruffalo are shotgunned into a romance that capitalizes on their chemistry, but diminishes Black Widow’s agency and resourcefulness. Not exactly a feather in Whedon’s cap, regressing Johansson—to me, the walkaway superstar of the franchise—into much more conventional, supporting-role spaces. Meanwhile Hawkeye, ever the butt of a joke, has a nice subplot painting him as the team’s “glue guy;” finally the wise-cracking Hawkeye I loved as a kid has found his way to the big screen. Renner isn’t my ideal incarnation of Marvel’s unlikely archer, but he comes closer here than ever.

The film also introduces three more great, lesser-known Marvel characters: Quicksilver (Taylor-Johnson), Scarlet Witch (Olsen), and the Vision (Paul Bettany). All three are introduced in lore-bending but effective fashion, integrated well in light of the limited time allotted to the task. While we don’t really get to know them too deeply, their powers are perfectly rendered, and their surface personalities, at least, are true to the lore.

So what’s not to like? Well, for one, there’s a certain level of structural and thematic predictability, some attributable to MCU formulism, others born of Whedon’s familiar writing tactics. There are hand-wavey plot transitions that gave me “wait-what?” moments. (The vision pool? The Vision’s Frankenstein-like birth?) Some of the story decisions (the Banner-Natasha romance, the “Science Bros” subplot) felt like fan-service pandering, or maybe even the greasy fingerprints of studio interference. There’s Stark’s dismaying remorselessness in light of his disastrous decisions. And there’s the ever-worrying trend of wanton destruction, collateral damage, and civilian casualties that tend to cloud these otherwise light-hearted spectacles. (A lengthy, middle-stretch slugfest between Iron Man and Hulk, while it has thematic and emotional payoff, at least, reminded me dispiritingly of Peter Jackson’s King Kong dinosaur battle. I felt bludgeoned.)

In the greater scheme of things, and in the moment, these issues didn’t particularly bother me; I was more or less swept along by the colorful, exciting fun of it all. These are characters, after all, that lodged themselves into my pop culture psyche as a kid, and I’m still a little amazed at how well they’ve translated to the big screen thirty-odd years later. Is the continuity getting too overpopulated? Probably. Can the MCU sustain its hit-making prowess without shaking up its formula now and then? I do wonder. But as chaotic and messy as the universe is getting, my enthusiasm just isn’t flagging. Avengers: Age of Ultron is imperfect, but I still enjoyed the hell out of it.

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