Three years ago, tossed the keys to the most important vehicle for the successful but still relatively new Marvel Studios, the film that would offer the culmination of a lot of careful positioning through a practically unprecedented convergence of cinematic properties, writer-director Joss Whedon went ahead and bravely made a Joss Whedon movie, drawing on his ample skill set honed through a bevy of geek-friendly properties, many of them interconnected. He was fulfilling the Marvel corporate vision, but doing so with a film that popped with his own sensibilities. The rhythms, dynamics, and dialogue were thrillingly familiar to anyone who once spent every Tuesday night in Sunnydale. Nothing made that more clear than the rapid evolution of Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) from a drab doodle in her Iron Man 2 debut to a vividly drawn character, the latest iteration of Whedon’s ongoing pop culture thesis that chastises anyone foolish enough to underestimate a woman just because she’s small and pretty.
A sequel to The Avengers was inevitable, and Marvel similarly had little choice but to turn it over to Whedon, who’d taken on a mighty task and tallied a billion and a half dollars in global ticket sales. All that certainty didn’t guarantee another blissfully simpatico relationship, and Whedon has been characteristically forthcoming about his squabbles with the studio. Even without the filmmaker’s broadly shared candor, the compromises that dogged the creation of Avengers: Age of Ultron show up all over the film as a general weariness. The first film outing of the Earth’s mightiest heroes is unmistakably a Whedon movie. The sequel is just another Marvel Studios movie, with all the strengths and weaknesses that implies.
Where the prior installment in the Avengers saga was about the S.H.I.E.L.D.-recruited superheroes coming together to combat a global threat swarming through a crack in the sky over New York City, Age of Ultron begins with the group as a going concern, clear spending a decent amount of time together hunting down the sort of missing mystically-powerful items that are the driving force of most Marvel movie plots. They word hard in missions against HYDRA outposts and play hard with parties at one of Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey, Jr.) posh pads, complete with the cool-down party game if figuring out if anyone is worthy to life the hammer of Thor (Chris Hemsworth). It’s during the ending phase of that party that the title-named menace introduces himself. Ultron (voiced by James Spader) is a robot that’s the end result of some tinkering with artificial intelligence on the part of Stark and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). Ultron decides to live out his Stark-programmed mission of achieving world peace through the only logical means: destroying the human race. Sure, Ultron’s plan is one I’d vote against, but I have to admit his math checks out.
What follows is a lot of a lot. Ultron is designed to widely transfer his consciousness, meaning there’s a steady flow of malevolent robots coming at the Avengers at all time. And joining all the returning characters — besides those already named, there are Captain America (Chris Evans), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and plenty of non super-powered supporting pals, led by Samuel L. Jackson, scowling as Nick Fury for the umpteenth time — the movie needs to make room for the proper introduction of the Maximoff twins (known as Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver in the comics, played by Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, respectively) while still squeezing in cameos from fellow superheroes that have already appeared in the other movies. It’s exhausting just to think about, and it’s certainly seemed to take its toll on Whedon. The whole film has the flagging energy one might associate with a creator who all but gave up midway through the process, setting aside ambition to tighten up the film and clarify its storytelling in the editing room because a goal of “good enough” suddenly seems really appealing. There are still plenty of Whedon’s favorite tricks in the screenplay, and some of them hold their charm. The finished product, though, has a damnable blandness.
Even if the writing has its moments, there are signs of fatigue in the script, too. With an overstuffed cast, it’s perhaps not surprising that Whedon struggles to give everyone worthwhile attention, but the narrative misfires throughout are atypical. There’s a running joke about Captain America tsk-tsking a curse word during a battle that would have been weak even before being completely sabotaged by Whedon having the star-spangled stalwart announced that it’s going to be a running joke. And while I don’t necessarily buy the argument that the tentative romance between Natasha and Bruce is sexist, it’s definitely dramatically weak, grounded in nothing recognizable as emotional truth consistent with previous depictions of the character, including those crafted by Whedon. Like too much of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the relationship is just sort of there, presented rather than honestly, artfully explored. Whedon’s first Avengers movie seemed to come straight from his geek-friendly heart. This time out, it’s less felt. It’s merely assembled.