Avengers exhilarates, frustrates
On my coffee cup at work I have a sticker I was given my first day. It reads my name, and asks for an interesting fact about me. I'd written, "movie critic."
A co-worker saw this, excitedly informed me he had just discovered Buffy and Firefly, and asked me what I thought about writer and director Joss Whedon. I told him that I'd seen and read little of the man's work, but from what I had experienced — The Avengers, The Cabin in the Woods, his first arc on Astonishing X-Men, the odd Buffy episode I could force myself to sit through — he was amazingly talented at writing decent characters and hip dialogue, but showed a weakness at coherent plotting.
Of course, Whedon has his hard-core loyalist audience, many of whom passionately believe the man can do little or nothing wrong, and, as this guy's eyes widened and his jaw dropped, I knew I'd tripped across one of those very loyalists.
But I stand by that opinion, and Avengers: Age of Ultron has done nothing to change it whatsoever.
The plot, in a very simplified nutshell, follows the ragtag group of Marvel superheroes as they battle Ultron, an artificial intelligence that Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) upload into the Stark Industries computer system because of Stark's dream to use it to create a world-policing network of independent Iron Man robots. Ultron interprets Stark's goal as requiring an extinction-level event to force humanity to evolve for the better, a goal that, for whatever reason, requires the elimination of the Avengers.
In the comics, Ultron was impervious to damage because he was made of the indestructible metal adamantium. While plenty destroyable in the film, the character has been updated to allow him to transfer his consciousness through the internet, literally able to possess any number of robots at once.
There's a lot to love with the film. The now-familiar major cast of the Marvel Cinematic Universe all do well for themselves, with Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) and Jeremy Renner (Clint "Hawkeye" Barton) given meatier emotional material to work with than the previous entry. Paul Bettany gets to step outside of the voice-only role of Stark's computer, JARVIS, and appear in the flesh as the android Vision, a role he fulfills ably. Newcomers Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) have an adequate amount of newbie importance, though their new non-mutant status will, of course, irk comic fans. Comic fans will probably already know that this is result of a comic book/movie rights tussle between Marvel and Sony, which is too complicated to get into here.
The huge effects setpieces are impressive, with a knock-down, drag-out battle between the Hulk and the massive Hulkbuster Iron Man being a particular high point. During the fight Stark calls the Hulk "Bruce Banner," and, when he sees doing so has just enraged the Hulk further, mentally notes, "I forgot, don't mention Puny Banner, don't mention Puny Banner." Yep, Whedon's wit is still intact.
Yet, also intact is his seeming inability to craft a really coherent plot underneath all the effects and witty banter. The A.I. that Stark decides to upload into his system is one they find in the crystal on the alien staff Loki used to mentally dominate people in the previous film. Why Stark would want to upload an alien A.I. of far advanced technology with potentially aggressive tendencies is beyond mystery, leaning into the realms of stupidity.
Ultron's own motivations are logical in much the same way, say, Skynet's would be in the Terminator franchise, but it's unclear how he arrives at his conclusions. His personality is also unsteady. Sometimes the character (performed by an exceptionally gravel-voiced James Spader) is cold, chilling and sinister, while other times he's more flippant and sarcastic in a way reminiscent of Stark. There's a suggestion that he may actually have elements of Stark's own personality lodged into his own, but that's never quite clear, either. The wild personality fluctuations can be off-putting at times, and Whedon and crew would have probably been better off to leave him leaning more toward the sinister mastermind of the apocalypse than an 8-foot metal monstrosity that uses phrases like, "As if."
As it should be with a film with such an overgrown sense of proportion, the final showdown between the forces of good and evil is set in an apocalyptic situation that pushes the notion of absurdity into audacious glory. Yet, even then there are odd issues. There's a massive angry green humanoid smashing the hell out of robots in a limited space… so where is he?
Finally, while the film's climax and conclusion should be rousing, Whedon and crew bring their high-flying, ridiculous final act crashing down into moroseness by concluding some of the ongoing subplots in bizarre ways, and one major event not only ends on a down note but isn't even concluded in any proper manner. This doesn't completely kill the buzz of over the top spectacle superhero antics, but it sure as hell puts a severe damper on it, and, when the film in question is a beastly two and a half hours long, ending on sour, dissatisfying notes just isn't a good idea. A cliffhanger can be a good thing, or some sort of "until next time" sequence; in this case, Whedon just seems to be shrugging and saying, "Whatever, let the next guys deal with it, I'm outta this franchise."
Whedon is supposed to have a three and a half hour cut of this beast sitting around waiting for its inevitable home video release. Maybe that will clear up a lot of its irritating issues. Until then, like the previous entry in the franchise, this latest Avengers outing is big on spectacle, wit and heart, but scarred by a weird inattentiveness to plot coherence.