I’ve written copious times about superhero fatigue. It’s a plague upon our cinemas that the machines at Marvel (and most recently DC) have cultivated with furious vigor. Each templatized cape and tights follows a similar path; achieving domestic and cosmic bliss until a post-credits scene gets us revved up for the next installment. The cycle is as predictable as Bill Murray’s alarm clock in Groundhog Day. The lack of ingenuity in the medium has lowered our expectations for how interesting a superhero can be. Instead we’re left with fan service and set up because God forbid we don’t link these to the next 20-years of explosion porn.
When Joss Whedon was announced as Director for the first Avengers nerd-dom rightfully rejoiced. Whedon is behind some of the best and most lauded Comic Con centric projects of the last 20-years (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse, Cabin in the Woods – just to name a few.) And it paid off for Marvel in spades. Whedon brought just enough reverence for the material to appease the hardcore comic fans while maintaining the sharpness, wit and levity of his previous work. The Avengers went on to dominate the summer of 2012 (even eclipsing the final Christopher Nolan Batman) and cement Whedon as the official champion of Marvel’s tent pole team-up franchise.
After 3-years and copious amounts of hype and set up Whedon has delivered his follow up: Avengers: The Age of Ultron. And even for a guy like Whedon who seems to let criticism from the hardcore fans sluff off him feels boxed in by the weight of this universe. Gone is the joy of watching these relatively new characters unite together and fight, replaced with the crushing realization that no one is safe from the long arm of complacency.
It’s not that he doesn’t try to bring the same verve to Ultron – quite the contrary. Whedon fills the 2:30 with quips and witticisms that most blockbusters could only hope to orate. Often the film is quite funny and the best scenes (as with the first film) involve our heroes just hanging out at parties and joking with one another.
When Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) reveal the Ultron program the uber-square Captain America (Chris Evans) is skeptical. As the superhero crew celebrate their retrieval of Loki’s scepter from the evil Hydra, upstairs in Stark’s shop a potentially greater evil is expanding. Ultron (voiced by a never-smarmier James Spader) has become sentient and after a quick download of all-of-human-history deems extinction is the next step in human evolution. Classic superhero backfire.
After some I-told-you-so from Cap to Iron Man and Hulk the crew is off on a globe-trotting hunt to stop Ultron’s rapidly expanding power. He also has an infinite stone – which is important because there are 6 of them and if you get them all the universe explodes or something. This was about the point in the exposition machine that is the middle-third of this film that I lost track and interest. The returning characters and the new additions are extremely well drawn and fun to spend time with but once the plot bogs down pace the movie is tough to sit through.
Luckily for viewers with ADD (or me with chronic superhero boredom) Mr. Whedon has blossomed into a very solid action Director. The first ten minutes of Age of Ultron are the most coherently filmed, beautifully shot action in the entirety of the Marvel universe. The camera whips from the Hulk to Black Widow – following an arrow from Hawkeye’s quiver – seamlessly picking up a flying Iron Man – soaring down to a shot of Cap’s shield. It is virtuosic stuff and worth experiencing for a fan of action alone.
But to what end? Ultimately Ultron suffers from middle-child syndrome. It has to tie in the mythologies of so many other films while setting up the Infinity War to come. It’s no small task that it doesn’t collapse under the weight. But with Whedon out as Director the machine inevitably chugs on grasping every burgeoning teenage boy in its path. It’s hard to blame him. By the end of the film I was exhausted, I can’t even imagine shouldering the burden of making it. And with each passing blockbuster Marvel is replacing the fun of their universe with something the human race loathes…obligation.