Director Joss Whedon takes a big stick to the over-stuffed piñata of Marvel Comics’ characters and successfully empties out all the candy, but leaves a landscape strewn with plastic wrappers and the promise of a pounding headache
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Two stars out of five
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downie Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Elizabeth Olsen, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Paul Bettany, James Spader, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgard and Samuel L. Jackson
Directed by: Joss Whedon
Running time: 141 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG- 13
By Katherine Monk
As far as failures go, it’s spectacular. Joss Whedon’s final whack at the piñata full of Marvel superheroes called Avengers is a colourful explosion of eye-candy wrapped in plastic.
And like cake-stuffed kids at a birthday party hungry for one more fix of an addictive franchise, the fanboys and fangirls will scramble to the multiplex in a mad frenzy to be first in line when Avengers: Age of Ultron opens in North American theatres after racking up a quarter-billion US in international box-office.
The anticipation is well deserved. Since Iron Man’s introduction in 2008, we’ve seen nothing but a run of action-packed victories from a cast of winning contenders—including two Thor outings, two Captain Americas, three iterations of Iron Man and an Avengers opener from 2012 that holds the number-three spot on the all-time domestic chart.
This new adventure was tasked with pulling all the loose ends together and birthing some of the established Avengers characters, such as Quicksilver (Aaaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who help us kick off this new escapade with an epic battle.
Throwing us headfirst into the chaos, director Joss Whedon marches us to the frontlines of a new battle between the Avengers, fresh from the destruction of New York City, and Strucker, an evil robotics genius who’s been hard at work turning the power of Loki’s stolen scepter into a weapon of mass destruction.
Obviously, anything from the celestial kingdom of Asgard—where Thor and several other pin-up superheroes live – has unfathomable power. Controlling the scepter and its stone is crucial to the safety of planet Earth, so the first ten minutes of the film unfold like the last act of a traditional war film. In fact, it even looks like a traditional war movie because we’re in the woods of Europe, closing in on Strucker’s (Thomas Kretschmann) castle.
When the good guys finally win the day, they find the scepter, but they also see what Hydra—the evil organization that infiltrated S.H.E.I.L.D in the previous film – has been working on: Robots, great big robots made from indestructible materials featuring circuitry sophisticated enough to think.
They also stumble into Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, who at this moment in the film’s tortured time line, are serving a darker power. Mutant twins from a fictional Slavic country, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff don’t possess the golly-gee-whiz attitude that we tend to equate with squeaky clean Captain America, or the heroic profile of Thor.
These two are mischievous, and they use their powers with rebellious purpose, so when they are freed from the shackles of oppression, they become free agents.
Fans of the comics will already know these two eventually join the band, but Whedon uses their indecision as a dramatic dilemma, and one of the more human reflections of the central theme, which is the nature of free will.
Do we really have the ability to choose between good and evil? If we have the capacity to make moral choices, where does that internal sense of right and wrong come from? These are gigantic questions, so Whedon gives us a larger-than-life piece of scrap metal and advanced electronics to help us do the reckoning.
Ultron (James Spader), the big villain in this piece, actually creates himself. A self-assembled and sentient collection of after-market robot parts salvaged from Strucker’s castle, Ultron awakens in the middle of a comic scene back at Avengers tower.
With a brain hacked from Tony Stark’s own artificial intelligence program J.A.R.V.I.S, a body fashioned from indestructible parts and the ability to self-replicate, Ultron is a commanding foe. He’s also the modern take on Frankenstein’s monster, showing us the dark side of science – and of all the thematic flotsam and jetsam floating through the frames, this is the one that had the best chance of holding an impossibly large collection of characters together because every one of them has been affected by some brand of all-knowing power, from Steve Rogers’ genetic rearrangement at the hands of the military, to Bruce Banner’s own scientific ego.
Whedon deserves a medal for playing with this doppelganger idea and casting James Spader as the shadow side of Robert Downey Jr. The scenes between Ultron, the unstoppable id force, and Iron Man – the still-evolving super ego – are the strongest in the film, but like everything else that’s worthy about Age of Ultron, they get lost in a blistering barrage of addled battle sequences and high-end visual effects that fragment your attention span.
There’s just too much going on, and too little explanation, for us to care. Even a romantic subplot between Hulk and Black Widow feels forced, and Johansson and Ruffalo are two of the most likable characters in the franchise.
By the time Samuel L. Jackson strides into the frame in the final act to explain everything we missed as former S.H.I.E.L.D head Nick Fury, the pounding sugar crash has already started and the ground is covered in colourful litter. Yet, like all comic books with great characters, we’ll still be waiting for the next one with a clammy fistful of bills and a heart full of high expectations.