Silver Screen: The Avengers ***
The Avengers are back! At least insomuch as they ever went away. It’s all part of Marvel Studios’ ultimate goal, which is to make sure that every single thing you see is somehow tied into their ever-sprawling cinematic universe. For now they have movies, TV shows, and comic books. The next phase is to digitally insert Samuel L. Jackson into your old home movies and high-school yearbooks. You’ll close your eyes only to find that Marvel has painted Jeremy Renner onto the inside of your eyelids. There’s no refuge, even in slumber— all your dreams feature post-credits sequences that tie in to Thor III.
In this case all the Avengers are back together simultaneously for a sequel to the 2012 blockbuster. The original was a culmination of several movies’ worth of setup. The followup doesn’t feel like a culmination of anything, but rather a breathless attempt to maintain inertia as the franchise and its various offshoots align themselves for another half-decade of spinoffs and sequels.
The team last assembled to stave off a horde of invading aliens. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, the threat is internal. Snarky super-scientist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) wants to police the world with an army of drones controlled by a computer whose artificial intelligence is a hybrid of human and alien technology. It doesn’t take Stan Lee to imagine what happens next.
The robots revolt. Their shared consciousness, a program known as Ultron, takes the form of a sassy mechanized monster (voiced by James Spader). The Avengers, meanwhile, are distracted by their search for a bunch of cosmic gems, known as the Infinity Stones, one of which is defended by a set of “enhanced” fraternal twins controlled by the villainous spy group Hydra. Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a Flash-like speedster, while his sister Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) has vaguely defined telekinetic/telepathic powers that allow her to control minds, shoot purple-pink blasts of energy, or do whatever else the plot requires in any given moment.
Wanda’s indeterminate abilities do provide Age of Ultron’s most thrilling action sequence. She messes with the Hulk’s (Mark Ruffalo) volatile mind, sending him on a rampage only Stark’s Iron Man can stop. It’s a big, brainless slugfest, and it’s also the one time the movie’s mostly computer-generated effects convey much gravity. Elsewhere, the punches land without impact. The opening sequence is a motion-blurred mess of service to the inevitable 3D presentation; our heroes zip through the woods tossing around Hydra soldiers who possess all the weight of cheap hotel pillows.
This is biggest difference between the first Avengers and its inferior followup. The original took time to build its plot and treated the gathering of the heroes as an event unto itself. These were big stars playing characters who had fronted their own movies, all crowding the frame together. Somehow the novelty seems to have completely worn off by Age of Ultron, which opens in media res on what seems like an awfully ho-hum mission and never treats the superteam with the same sense of awe.
So too were the villains of the first movie established as major threats during the course of the various solo adventures. Similarly, the big baddie of the forthcoming two-part Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos (a briefly glimpsed Josh Brolin), has been teased and established throughout several movies, including last year’s cheeky-fun Guardians of the Galaxy. Age of Ultron’s titular tyrant, on the other hand, is an afterthought. He’s cooked up by Stark in a couple quick lines of dialogue, takes all of thirty seconds to become the movie’s major (albeit exceptionally generic) threat, then politely waits around to be dispatched while our heroes run around setting up plots for future movies.
Avengers: Age of Ultron delivers on the most basic level. Writer/director Joss Whedon jams the screen full of superheroes and destroys an entire city, as is now de rigueur for all summer blockbusters. The characters snip and quip at one another with Whedon’s trademark banter. Some of the best scenes take place in the chatty calm between computer-conjured storms, as when the crew sits around cracking jokes and trying to find out if any of them can lift Thor’s hammer.
But the character interactions that gave the first movie just a tinge of substance are largely absent, likely because Whedon is tasked with introducing so many new characters and juggling subplots from two or three separate films. In addition to Ultron, Pietro, and Wanda, this Avengers installment presents the newest and most ill-defined Marvel superhero, Vision, a physical manifestation of the friendly computer voiced by Paul Bettany. He’s a magenta-and-green artificial lifeform powered by one of those omnipresent Infinity Stones, somehow or another, and he can do... well, a lot of stuff, probably. As with Wanda and Pietro, we don’t spend long enough with him to care at all, yet the exposition around his origin pulls focus from an already overcrowded cast.
Personally, I’d rather spend time with Downey Jr., Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Evans, and Jeremy Renner than with magenta Paul Bettany, the kid from Kick-ass, and the third Olsen sister. But to each his own— perhaps literally. By the next sequel, as the cast swells, everyone in America may have their own individual Avenger. And we’ll be forced to ask ourselves: Can you ever really be certain, at any point in time, that you’re not watching an Avengers movie?
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.