Hulk smash! Thor smash! Captain America… smash! Iron Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow… smash, smash, smash. Smash?
If you enjoy seeing robots getting smashed into tiny pieces, then you’re gonna love Avengers: Age of Ultron, which climaxes with a 30-minute sequence of our titular heroes bashing the hell out of an endless army of metalheads. Most of these comic book blockbusters culminate in similar scenes, but the repetitive nature of the action in Age of Ultron – all of the robots look the same, and they all go down in similar fashion – turns the big finale here into a wearying endurance test.
The robots are under the control of Ultron – no, they are Ultron, an artificial intelligence that has achieved sentience after an ill-advised infinity stone experiment conducted by Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). Meant to protect mankind from the kind of alien threat that invaded the planet in the last film, Ultron wakes up and immediately decrees mankind must evolve or die. Oh well.
Ultron is a fascinating villain, and he’s perfectly voiced by James Spader, who gives him this wonderfully detached human quality. He’s also got something of a God complex, and writer-direct Joss Whedon’s script gives him a couple of compelling monologues along the way. “What if mankind doesn’t evolve?” he’s questioned at one point. “Ask Noah.”
The Avengers smash him up good in his first scene, but he “escapes through the internet,” Stark decrees. Here’s a villain who doesn’t, technically, have a physical body – he exists as data. How can our heroes possibly defeat him?
The answer? Smash!
Yes, they smash him and every last one of the thousands of robots he inhabits, breaking them up into tiny metal pieces, and we know the A.I. threat has been vanquished when the lights go out in their eyes. But Ultron also inhabits the internet, the air, the wireless ether. The genie’s out of the bottle at this point, I’m thinking, and I was curious as to how the film would address this.
It doesn’t, of course, save for a throwaway line about “wiping every trace of him off the internet.”
As the robot-smash climax goes on (and on, and on), the film also does something interesting: it becomes the antithesis of the kind of mass-destruction finales as seen in the previous film or Man of Steel, during which we presume thousands of innocent lives are being lost while the superheroes are dueling it out in populated cityscapes.
Here, an inordinate amount of time is spent detailing how the Avengers save every last person in the fictional nation of Sokovia, which has been uprooted from the Earth and is floating in the atmosphere. It’s nice to see the film address this issue, but there’s a lot of overkill here as the film goes to painstaking detail to showcase each Avenger saving multiple people from certain death (the Spider-Man movies seemed to handle this better, with Spidey squirting out some webbing to catch a falling victim or pull away some rubble in a brief cutaway shot).
Speaking of the floating city, what was Ultron’s ultimate plan here, anyway? He’s potentially in control of every robotic being in the world and can initiate a Skynet-like apocalypse, but after being rebuffed in his initial quest for missile launch codes, he takes to the sky in typical mad supervillain fashion.
Director Joss Whedon seemed to have had free reign here – he’s the only credited screenwriter – and apparently his original cut ran some three hours long (not that this film, clocking in at 141 minutes, feels considerably shorter). That’s apparent in the slapdash nature of the storytelling, but it doesn’t explain the lackluster action scenes.
It says a lot that the low-key fight scenes on TV’s Daredevil – a new Netflix series created by Whedon associate Drew Goddard – are a lot more hard-hitting than the CGI-infused robot-smash battles here. Coherence isn’t an issue, but the action feels a lot more rote and less imaginative than what we’ve seen before. The kinetic action choreography of Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a lot more fun than what’s on display here.
Saving Avengers: Age of Ultron is the wonderful cast of characters we’ve grown to know and love. There’s Downey’s Iron Man, Captain America (Chris Evans), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who have each had their own movies – good thing, because they get precious little to do here (particularly Thor, whose vision quest subplot gets about twenty seconds of screen time).
Better developed are Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hulk (Ruffalo), who get to share an unlikely romance, and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) who shows a soft side. New to the mix are Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a. Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen); they have fully-fleshed character arcs and a sufficiently-developed backstory involving some anti-Stark sentiments. Also new: Vision (Paul Bettany), Stark’s second attempt to create sentient A.I., whose purpose is rather thinly sketched.
Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury, Don Cheadle’s War Machine, and Anthony Mackie’s Falcon also briefly show up. In blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em cameos, look out for Julie Delpy in the Black Widow flashbacks, Idris Elba in Thor’s dream sequence, and Andy Serkis as a potential new supervillain (an unrecognizable Josh Brolin also shows up as a late tease). Kerry Condon voices F.R.I.D.A.Y., the computer program that takes over for Bettany’s J.A.R.V.I.S.
I like these characters, and I’ll think of Age of Ultron fondly for the small character moments, like Thor looking concerned when Captain America budges his hammer, or a running gag involving Captain’s concern over foul language. But it says a lot that this Avengers flick is a whole lot more interesting when we’re watching these guys sitting around and having a few drinks than when they’re out saving the world.
Note: above review refers to the 3D version of Avengers: Age of Ultron a dull, murky screening that detracted from what should have been a vibrant and colorful experience.