April 30, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Earth's Mightiest Millennials

Grade: B –
Director: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Don Cheadle
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hr. 21 min.

The true conflict driving Avengers: Age of Ultron (hereinafter Avengers 2) isn’t the titular troupe of titans versus the titular James Spader-voiced, Tony Stark-conceived humanoid answer to a global SDI. No, it’s the battle between the insatiable craving for summer whiz-bang BOOM and the distinctive character development that once distinguished the Marvel Cinematic Universe but now seems to only hurtle its serial storylines toward a climactic who-knows-what. To borrow a phrase from another comic book movie milieu, “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Something similar can be said for superhero sequels.

Amid the incessant drumbeat of quips and clobbering, Stark / Ironman (Robert Downey Jr.) embraces his full-fledged inner Dr. Frankenstein, crafting an A.I. named Ultron that decodes its directive to protect the planet as ridding it of puny humans. Suffice it to say when it comes to artificial intelligence, Avengers 2 is to Alex Garland’s recently released Ex Machina what Transformers is to Selma on race relations.

Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is now the Hulk whisperer, an Ann Darrow to the not-so-jolly green Kong (Mark Ruffalo). Clint Barton / Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) gets a bucolic backstory, a farmstead full of younguns and firewood that needs choppin’. The new Maximoff twins, quicksilver Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and telekinetic Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), need re-education after their harsh Eastern European upbringing and Hydra-experimentation. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is homesick or something.

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) also shows up, as does War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Idris Elba, and Stellan SkarsgÄrd, and Anthony Mackie. Even Paul Bettany, the voice of J.A.R.V.I.S., finally gets a body.

Once again, this assembly must overcome their internal insecurities. Once again, the alpha Avengers must stave off mankind’s annihilation along with the destruction of entire city, while finger-wagging Captain America (Chris Evans) and the others busy themselves with cannon fodder and needing “to get these people to safety.” Indeed, as the powerful Ultron yearns to evolve into an omnipotent cyborg named Vision, his army of mechanical clones are somehow susceptible to a single strike from an arrow or handgun.

Great action movies balance heft with heart. But here our heroes, coursing with spirits and testosterone, close down a party by seeing who can lift Thor’s hammer—metaphor alert!—and only mention CEO Pepper Potts and Nobel Prize-winner Jane Foster to compare significant others. And as for the women who do make the cut, Natasha is both barren and branded an aggressive flirt, an Asian scientist (Claudia Kim) only has goo-goo eyes for Thor, and Wanda cowers in fear until a pep talk from Hawkeye unleashes her latent Scarlet Witch.

“They’re a mess,” says Barton’s pregnant wife (Linda Cardellini), referring to the avenging heroes and not their conflated yet cursory narratives. As summer flicks go, Avengers 2 isn’t a bad movie, just a confounding one. I giddily enjoyed the Hulk tangling with Stark’s colossus Hulk Buster armor as much as the next fanboy. But the film elucidates why this Marvel collective was and is best built on its sturdy standalones, where the principals and plotlines have room to develop. It was fun to see Earth's Mightiest Heroes band together in the first Avengers. This time around, they’re just getting in each other’s way.