SPOILERS shall follow…
There comes a time where the continuation of a thing starts to lead to diminishing returns. This happens to everything, be it person, place or interconnected cinematic universe; no matter how brightly we burn the candle, the wick can only last so long. The journey that Marvel Studios started all the way back in 2008 with Iron Man has been a helluva fun ride for movie lovers and comic fans alike, with the studio defying the odds and having the quality generally operating on an upturned curve with each successive release. But the question must be asked: how long can they keep it up? How long can they juggle all these disparate franchises and characters together across same landscape before the foundations start to shake and the whole thing comes tumbling down? Is it time for scales to realign themselves, as we the fans gowtih each new release from “Breathless Anticipation” to “Cautious Optimism”?
Well, I’m happy to report that Avengers: Age of Ultron is not the feather that tips the scales in that other direction for the MCU. Marvel and writer/director Joss Whedon assemble their team once more, and after the monumental feat of bringing together all their superheroes for one single, super-movie, are now faced with an even bigger task; that eternal question, “what’s next?” Where do you go after assembling the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes together for the first time in cinematic history and have them save the world by staving off an alien invasion? You can either take the safe route and go even bigger - essentially giving the audience the same thing - or you can scale it back and make the stakes more personal. Keeping true to the Marvel vision of “characters first, everything else second,” Whedon wisely opts for the latter, and gives the Avengers a threat that not only threatens to destroy the entire world, but their own team from the inside out.
I don’t envy Whedon’s task of juggling all these characters and giving the A-list actors who play them enough beats so they don’t feel like glorified cameos, but he pulls it off. All the old favorites return, leaping to life via an awesome singe-take shot that culminates into the first of many compositions throughout the film that are the perfect cinematic evocation of a comic book splash-page. They all get their own arcs and they all have something to do, but Whedon decides to put the emotional focus on the characters who don’t have their own franchises to return to, the most effective of which is the budding romance between Bruce Banner and the Black Widow. It at once comes out of nowhere and yet makes total sense: the two are eternally lost, damaged goods, and understand each other in a way that none of the others ever could - an idea perfectly visualized by the “lullabies” Widow gives to calm Banner’s raging, green other half. Mark Ruffalo is easily the most talented actor of his generation, and Scarlett Johansson isn’t far behind… ensuring that these scenes hit like a ton of bricks when they show up throughout the movie.
Also getting the lion’s share of the emotional weight is Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton/Hawkeye, who you might remember last time as the guy who got possessed by Loki almost immediately and was basically a zombie for the first two-thirds of the film. Whedon makes up for giving him a bit of the short shrift last time around by taking us into Hawkeye’s personal life. A raid in South Africa by the team goes bad, forcing the Avengers to go into hiding, and Hawkeye takes them to his own personal safehouse: a place out in the middle of nowhere where he raises a family with his wife and two kids when not Avengering. It’s a revelation that comes as a shock to his team-mates just as much as it does to the audience, and was precisely what was needed to humanize this otherwise stiff character. These scenes with Barton’s family were so effective I found myself dreading the moment Renner runs back into the fray to rescue a trapped child - seriously, I would have been pissed if Hawkeye bit the big one here. And if you’re the focus on the non-franchisers would lead to some unequality in the division of narrative labor, fear not: Cap, Thor and Iron Man are every bit as involved in the plot, and all get to kick just as much ass in the action scenes and Whedon’s crackerjack repartee as the others. It’s precisely those scenes that are at the heart of what these movies are all about: seeing these characters bounce off each other and work together. Stark and Banner’s science bros, the party scene where they all attempt lifting the hammer, the small, one-upmanship rivalry between Stark and Barton… as great and as pure comic book as the action scenes are throughout, it’s the character moments that will keep us coming back again and again.
Of course, it would get a bit stale if it was just the original five members throughout, and so we get the new characters of Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, played by Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and it’s here the film stumbles a bit. The characters themselves are fantastic, and the actors portraying them are as equal to the task as the original team-members, but their development is lacking - making the twins feel like an element shoe-horned into the movie rather than feeling like a natural part of the story. Their story especially feels cut down to the bone, as they go from Hydra flunkies to Ultron’s minions to Avengers at the drop of a hat; a few more scenes devoted exclusively to them and what they’re all about would have made them flow into the story much more naturally. For the most part, the filmmakers are successful in incorporating them as new recruits to the team (with one especially nice moment between Quicksilver and Hawkeye), but a little bit more with them would have made all the difference.
The big bad this outing is, of course, Ultron, played to evil perfection by the silken-voiced James Spader. The actor’s take on the villain is fantastic: Ultron is hilarious, heartfelt and downright terrifying at times, and Spader walks that shifting tightrope of tonality like a pro. The greatest villains are the ones who have a point: Ultron was designed by Tony Stark to be a suit of armor around the world, a vast Artificial Intelligence network to ensure world peace, and the android correctly calculates that the biggest obstacle to such a thing are the little ants stomping around and building their anthills upon it. Utilizing the cold calculations of a machine, Ultron decides that the human race’s time is up, and sets about to kickstart their mass extinction. This may make the villain sound like a robotic, emotionless killjoy, but Spader inverts all of that by giving Ultron just as much personality as any of the Avengers. Ultron is essentially Tony Stark’s “son,” and thus he inherits his father’s witticisms and ironic sense of humor.
The father/son dynamic, or I guess more specifically the theme of the older generation being usurped by the new one, is further enhanced by the addition of Ultron’s creation, the messianic Vision, played by MCU stalwart Paul Bettany. Bettany has been there from the beginning as the voice of J.A.R.V.I.S., and seeing him step in front of the camera for one of these movies is a pure delight - the actor has been wasted in much of the starring roles he’s gotten in the last few years, so getting to see him strut his stuff in a big movie like this feels like it’s been a long time coming, and his work as the Vision is unparalleled, and the central conflict of ideals between him and his master makes the movie far more than just another CGI slugfest. Where Ultron looks at the human race and sees only doom and ruination, the Vision sees the same, but through a different lens. They’re two sides of the same coin, with Vision representing the beauty of an impermanent life, and Ultron being the existential doom of said life.
If those characters suffer from anything, again, it’s abbreviation. Ultron shows up nearly fully-formed in the first half-hour, after a rather unconvincing montage of Banner and Stark working to develop his AI. Thor basically comes out of nowhere (or rather, a half-hearted thread that doesn’t give the thunder god all that much to do) and jumpstarts the Vision’s new body with nary an explanation in sight, and it’s not long before the android joins the team and everybody goes off to fight Ultron once more. This incompleteness of character is not the fault of Whedon, who I believe is one of the best story and character structuralists in the business, but rather the need to bring a movie in under two and a half hours. The bones of the movie work, but that’s just what they are: you can see how they all connect into a larger whole, making the structure of the story sound, but there’s just not enough meat and tissue there to make it move as well as it should. I think I’m crazy for even suggesting this, but the movie really needed to be three hours long - that way we could get more scenes with the twins, more scenes with Ultron so he feels like a presence, and more scenes like the Vision staring out over the cityscape after his “birth.” Coupled with the fine work done with the main Avengers, and we would have had a movie that didn’t show its seams quite as much.
My chief complaint for the whole film boils down to wanting more, but of course, we’re going to get more: Marvel’s slate is set through 2020, and the Scarlet Witch and the Vision and everyone else who felt like they didn’t get enough time to gestate will all return at some point, to further grow and develop across Marvel’s growing web of interconnected storytelling. Many are beginning to belabor the continuity of such an endeavor, complaining about the films not being able to stand up on their own, but I’m not so quick to point the naysaying finger. Time and technology have changed the way we view movies, and the idea of a continuing universe of narrative across multiple features is just another example of that. There’s no rule that says a story should be contained to just one two-plus hour long movie, and perhaps the definitions of just what a movie is can be changed to fit something else entirely. That’s a scary proposition, for sure, but I’m not so sure it’s a fundamentally bad one. Much like the dual perspectives of Ultron and the Vision, I suppose the cinematic experience Marvel presents will rest solely with the individual’s own perspective on the matter. Personally, I can’t wait to see where they take it next.