The Sky is Falling (Again): Age of Ultron

In accepting the responsibility of returning to direct a second Avengers flick, geek prince in chief Joss Whedon must surely have conceded that he was on a hiding to nothing. Directing the sequel to the third highest grossing film of all time, not to mention once more providing the concluding chapter of a so called Marvel phase, brings with it a staggering array of challenges to be met and lofty bars to be cleared.

To his credit, Whedon does it, admirably enough.

Still, if ever a film groaned under the weight of brutally lofty expectations, it’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron. This second entry in the Avengers franchise has already been dealt the unceremonious task of serving as the connective tissue to the much hyped Infinity War whilst also standing alone as a satisfying narrative.

Juggling a massive slate of characters and funny book continuity efficiently, if not always satisfyingly, Whedon’s Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) swansong is overlong, suffers occasionally from its inability to best serve its stacked cast, and has a by now rote third act. But, it packs enough scruffy charm, winking humour and mighty superhero biffo to drag you along in its wake.

It’s telling that a two-point-five hour effort feels rushed and occasionally confused; character arcs are sketched where they might otherwise have been left to breathe, moments of heroic grandeur and sacrifice feel abbreviated and unearned, truncated to serve the vast collection of mythologies being explored.

Briefly, then, to plot.

We pick up in media res, those Avengers cats (remember them?) going after Loki’s stolen staff and its Infinity Gem, currently in the possession of fascist Hydra boffin Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann).

Like all conscientious goose-steppers, the Baron’s been up to no good creating super people (‘Miracles’) for his own dastardly schemes; in this case it’s the Maximoff twins, being speedster Pietro, AKA Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and the probability manipulating, reality warping Wanda (the Olsen that is not Mary-Kate or Ashley), AKA Scarlet Witch.

After a solid, Bond inspired to-do, the Avengers (spoilers, guys) nab their man and decamp to home base to celebrate another successful bastard vanquishing.

As promised, in the interest of keeping this potentially labyrinthine plot synopsis relatively snappy, it turns out Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) dreams of a day the team can disband, having deferred world policing duties to his drone army, soon to be equipped with artificial intelligence and known as the Ultron Program.

What could go wrong?

I’m sure you’re with me on this one.

In quick succession, Ultron (James Spader) becomes self-aware, essentially omniscient, and decides the best way to save humanity is to wipe it out and start from scratch.

Can’t blame him, right?

Essentially a petulant, narky teenager, Ultron conscripts the Maximoffs, who have their own personal beef with the way the Avengers, and, more specifically Stark, operate, and sets about…well, that would be telling.

Suffice to say, allegiances are tested, portents are portended and we’re subjected to a full slate of Whedonisms, some of which veer disturbingly close to under servicing the characters in favour of the roughly sketched plot mechanics.

There’s a scrappy momentum to Age Of Ultron, a flippant inertia that papers over its triter contrivances and ropey plot (yet another MCU third act concerned with shit falling out of the sky, Marvel? Can we retire that ‘trope’ stat, guys?).

With so many characters and storylines in play, elements of the film inevitably come off as threadbare. The Hulk/Black Widow dynamic is over egged, Thor amounts to little more than a glorified pinch hitter, the fan service is laid on indecorously, and inevitable bridging material for Phase Three (a necessary evil of almost Sisyphean dimensions) is artlessly deployed.

Ultron himself, in command of yet another army of faceless drones (hi there, Chitauri), veers dangerously close to being a lightweight antagonist, all cute snark and goofy master plan (again, shit falling from the sky you guys, sort it). Age of Ultron embraces its second film status and veers into darker avenues than its relatively light antecedent.

With this outing, Whedon’s palette is more subdued (all ashen greys and gun metal blue), the stakes more pronounced. Sure, it’s still the Avengers, but there’s an even greater focus on collateral damage and civilian peril, perhaps a direct riposte to Man of Steel‘s sociopathic carnage.

Still, leaning on the 9/11 imagery feels tawdry, even nearly fifteen years on — can we retire this shit, along with the drones and the — I hate to harp on — ‘sky is falling’ business, Hollywood?

In the definite ‘plus’ column, and admittedly inspired by behind the scenes contractual chess, Age of Ultron boldly reshuffles the Avengers dynamic, sidelining certain characters for the time being, and giving us a line up that features, wait for it, two whole black guys and two women (and a…well, that would be telling also). This about face into more equitable representation is refreshing, and happily pays off the establishment of the broader tapestry of the MCU, giving the viewer a sense that anything really could happen.

Occasionally reaching the operatic heights of the marble tableau that informs its credits, Age Of Ultron, inevitably, plays out as anticipated.

Having announced a half decade of films following in its wake, Marvel has done Whedon the disservice of giving we, the ever hungry audience, the equivalent of a very efficient support act before the true ructions of Phase Three — effectively neutering an otherwise admirable effort in anticipation of the superstar headline act (you know who I mean).

While Age Of Ultron fails to scale the giddy heights of the original (a mad bet paid off handsomely), it works hard to clear those lofty bars, and, while definitely a flawed effort, there’s enough here to recommend, with marked reservations.

Of course you’ll see this. The question is, will you want to see it again?

Originally published at www.hopscotchfriday.com.