I think I liked Avengers: Age of Ultron, the movie, but not so much the noisy Comic-Con preview for the greater Marvel universe it was stuffed inside. It’s disappointing, because there’s a story in there that’s compelling, even as it’s being smothered by tie-ins, teasers for future episodes, and thousands of interchangeable CGI bad guys getting exploded, just to make sure the fanboys never get too bored. It’s strange, there’s enough action for four movies, but because it’s so unrelenting, what might otherwise be badass becomes forgettable, like trying to eat a bowl of frosting.
The compelling moments are given so little breathing room that you scarcely have a chance to enjoy them amidst the constant barrage of sh*t flying at your face. Piled atop the potentially fun Ultron story – a self-aware AI entity created by Tony Stark – are about four other storylines and 10 extraneous characters, including Agent Maria Hill, star of ABC‘s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (I think?), the most useless character since the son on Homeland. There’s a lengthy, obtuse subplot about Loki’s Mind Stone that’s mostly unnecessary to the movie we’re watching but that I imagine will at some future date remind us to drink our Ovaltine. Marvel’s trying to tell so many stories at once here that I almost miss origin stories. Since when did fun superhero movies make me this tired?
Thus far, Marvel/Disney has been pretty good about hiring interesting directors for their projects and giving them just enough space to let them do what they do (Whedon’s Avengers 1, Shane Black’s Iron Man 3, and James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy being particular high points). Joss Whedon is clearly their workhorse though, and in Age of Ultron they just keep running him up the middle, right into the teeth of some bullsh*t tie-in. You just wish they’d let him roll out into the flats and take this Ultron story to the end zone (GRR, FOOTBALL).
The basic story (no spoilers) is that Tony Stark is trying to create a bigger, badder version of his British talking house, Jarvis, called Ultron, a powerful AI that will be able to control an army of automated Iron Men and protect the Earth from space-type sh*t, leaving the Avengers free to chill on a beach somewhere watching Natasha Romanov crush coconuts between her powerful thighs. Only, wouldn’t you know it, when Ultron actually does whir to life, he wakes up pissed, confused, and with a hard on for murdering his creator, as if he retained a little too much of the existential abyss from whence he came. Now, this story is actually f*cking awesome. It contains a kernel of interesting philosophy – “Every time someone tries to win a war before it starts, innocent people die,” Captain America says – but it’s mostly just a jumping off point for a villain who looks and sounds cool (an evil, misanthropic AI version of Tony Stark, pissed at its own existence and existence in general) and offers a memorable image. Basically, the perfect superhero mix.
Unfortunately, there’s also some crap about Hydra, two new characters with obnoxiously inconsistent powers (Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch), Loki’s Mind Stone, the Infinity Stones, SHIELD, War Machine, The Falcon, Andy Serkis… blah blah blah blah blah blah. These commercials are neat, but can we go back to James Spader as the awesome evil gravel-voiced deathbot, please? People in the crowd would cheer every time the movie introduced some character they recognized, and a lot of the time that seemed to be the only reason that character was there. Guys, what are we doing here? Are we telling a story or rewarding brand loyalty?
To put it another way, there comes a point at which Marvel needs to stop worrying about who’ll be pissed if they don’t mention the infinity stones and start communicating why we should give a sh*t about the infinity stones. Not that I don’t understand the weight of those expectations and empathize, somewhat. I can already hear the sound of a thousand outraged fanboys hurriedly logging in to scream at me in the comments section with a copy and pasted wall of text about the infinity stones and why they’re important to the larger Ultron universe, and why was I even watching this if I haven’t read Hank Thorsonssen’s landmark infinity stone quadrilogy? But look, some of us actually want to be told a story, not just reminded of storylines through an elaborate cross-platform synergistic teaser campaign. HEY, REMEMBER THANOS? HE’S HERE, GIVING YOU THE THUMBS UP FROM THE CORNER OF THE FRAME! ISN’T THAT AWESOME???
There seems to be a lot of pressure for Avengers: Age of Ultron to more than just a movie, which really hampers its ability to be a movie.
Also, does every single superhero movie have to be about global destruction? A bad guy wants to destroy the Earth and the good guys have to dismantle his giant macguffin pointed at Earth? How many times do we have to watch this? This past decade has seen an arms race between superhero movies where the stakes had to be constantly raised, which I thought had reached its logical, comical conclusion in Thor 2, where it wasn’t just the Earth or the Universe at stake, but the fabric of reality itself. After that I hoped we’d go back to smaller stakes, but instead the needle has stayed pinned at “global destruction” for about 10 movies now.
The good, self-aware Joss Whedon, equally adept at human moments and kablooey porn, peeks through in Age of Ultron just often enough to make you long for what could’ve been. Like a scene where Hawkeye gives a comrade a pep talk in the middle of a battle: “Sometimes you think to yourself: ‘this is ridiculous, we’re fighting an army of robots, and I have a bow and arrow,'” an acknowledgment that nearly justifies Hawkeye’s entire existence. Sadly, there’s no such moment for Cobie Smulders as Agent Maria Hill. It’s almost as if someone said, “Hey, you know what this movie about an evil AI bot, a Viking God, and a robot man with rocket hands needs? A smartly-dressed business lady perennially walking through corridors reading rap sheets.”
If they were going to stick a Law & Order character in The Avengers, I’d just as soon it’d be Ice T. Every once in a while Agent Hill gets to pull out her tiny pistol and shoot at something, and in the midst of indestructible God-men chucking nuclear warheads at each other you kind of wish someone would say “Jesus Christ, lady, don’t you have TPS reports to file or something?”
That’s the problem with Age of Ultron: there’s a great story in there – Ultron! A fun subplot about Thor’s hammer! – but it’s so overstuffed that you inevitably leave just as focused on the unnecessary as on the good. In Marvel’s push for continuity, they’re starting to neglect coherence.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.