What happened to Marvel films? They haven’t been around long enough to show this much wear and tear. The first Iron Man movie came out in 2008–that was only seven years ago. It hasn’t even been a decade yet. Come on. This is getting completely out of hand.
Or maybe it isn’t. In retrospect, maybe Marvel films aren’t really all that they’re cracked up to be. With the lone exception of the aforementioned Iron Man, the first Avengers, and to a lesser degree, Guardians of the Galaxy, I’m not entirely sure that they’re particularly great. Good, yes. But great? The jury’s out on that right now.
I’ll probably feel a little differently about the Marvel Cinematic Universe tomorrow when the initial buzzkill fades, but right now I’m left simmering within the disappointment of Avengers: Age of Ultron. How could a two-and-a-half hour movie chock full of superheroes feel so incredibly tiny and shallow? Nobody’s asking for high art here. Silly pop escapism is the ultimate highlight of our annual Summer blockbuster season, but it requires a certain amount of self-awareness. Tongue in cheek, sly winking, wise-crackin’ goodness–take your pick. The first Avengers had all of this, and it was a total blast. Age of Ultron doesn’t even try.
It’s easy to blame all of this on formula, and you know what? That’s what I’m going to do. In my review of Guardians of the Galaxy I briefly touched on the “Marvel formula,” and to quote a much better series, the force is strong with this one–if the “force” in question is predictable hodge-podge. We’ve seen all of this before. The Avengers fighting amongst one another? Yup–there’s a scene where Iron Man goes head-to-head with the Hulk. Mind control? A new character named Wanda Maximoff plants friggin’ nightmares into her foes. Snarky bad guy who wants to destroy the world? Replace Loki with a robot named Ultron, and we’ve got that too.
This would all be completely tolerable–welcome, even–if it were balanced out with some fun. That’s the beauty of successful comic-book movies: even when times are really tough, the characters seem to be enjoying themselves. Iron Man 2 was a shameless retread of Iron Man 1, but it was entertaining. Thor: The Dark World wasn’t all that different from Thor, but it was a heck of a lot funnier. So on and so forth. Age of Ultron replaces the goofy, good-natured nonsense we’ve come to expect from Marvel films with semi-serious, melodramatic nonsense.
Don’t get me wrong–there are things worthy of appreciation. Despite having unfinished and incoherent sidestory, Thor is monumentally entertaining throughout, though his scenes tend to be far and few between. The playful rapport between Tony Stark and Steve Rodgers/Captain America crops up every now and then. Cameo appearances from supporting characters like James Rhoads and The Falcon are effectively jovial. Hell, there’s even a wee bit of character development for Hawkeye–a concept unheard of in massive meetup films like this one. And to its credit, Age of Ultron does seem to exist in a vacuum–you don’t really need to be well versed in Marvel lore to follow along, an issue that tends to plague installment-based franchise offerings. You may not understand a few things here and there (I’m still lost when it comes to those pesky “infinity stones”), but you’ll get it for the most part.
The problem here is that these good moments are inconsistent, and Age of Ultron spends far too much time trotting around in perpetual darkness that simply doesn’t exist. A lot of this has to do with Ultron himself–he’s just not that great of an antagonist. And it’s a damn shame, because he could have been. There’s so much one can do with the concept of flawed, self-aware AI (see: Ex Machina), but it’s completely wasted on predictable doom and gloom.
As for a motive, well, it’s pretty lame. Ultron spends some time on the Internet, and comes out of it hating the Avengers. Yup. That’s pretty much it. To make matter worse, he doesn’t even earn his wings. He hasn’t lost anything. Nothing is truly driving him to do the things that he does. He quotes Pinocchio like scripture, but it’s completely in vain: a good reason for this isn’t given. Besides, Pinocchio had passion. Ultron has bad one-liners. Loki had daddy issues. What’s Ultron’s problem? Bad memes? Give me a break. If it weren’t for James Spader’s excellent voice-over work, the character would have been a complete waste.
I apologize for the snark–I’m generalizing all of this, of course. Truth be told, Marvel films have suffered through lame bad guys before (Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron Man 3, The Incredible Hulk), and Ultron probably isn’t the worst of them. Either way, he’s a missed opportunity–a theme that sums up everything about the rest of this film. The bar for comic-book adaptations has been raised considerably since the inception of this genre, and Joss Whedon’s latest just isn’t up to snuff. Age of Ultron isn’t necessarily a bad movie, it’s just a pretty bland one.
On a final note: don’t bother paying a premium to see Avengers: Age of Ultron in 3D. It does nothing exceptional with the format.