In a twisting world where we are buffeted from pillar to post by a 24-hour news cycle of revenge and regret and when the line between good and evil is vaporized by context … there, rising from the chaos of the sea floor into the glittery ocean spray of universal succor is Avengers: Age of Ultron, bringing joy and delight to the peoples of the world—it truly is the My Little Pony of movies.
Art can be so … so draining! having to explore new ideas, new lives, new plots. The creators of Ultron know we don’t want to be bothered. The planet’s a hotbed of war and famine, and didn’t they just release a whole new level of Candy Crush? Who has time to invest in something new? The thoughtful people behind Ultron know all we really want is the last Avengers movie decked out in this year’s CGI fashions … and, bless them, they certainly delivered.
With the Iron Mans, Thors, Captain Americas, Hulks, and the previous installments in the series, there are 10 movies set in the Marvel Universe. It would be inhuman to expect a new plot every time, and it’s touching, too, how steadfastly Hollywood clings to the old formula. There may be a whiff of formaldehyde about the whole enterprise … but is that any reason to toss it out in search of something new? How ungrateful!
No one can accuse Joss Whedon of turning his back on the past. He’s returned as writer/director of this outing, and while less charitable souls might accuse him of artistic grave robbing, I say his work is a an homage to past superhero movies. Did you like a particular scene in Iron Man 2? Well why not enjoy another viewing, this time in 3D? Thrilled by that certain sequence in Thor? You’re gonna love it even more when the volume’s turned up to 11!
It all begins timidly enough—a blisteringly brutal yet curiously bloodless battle in Eastern Europe with whole armies of extras going after our heroes. A more pedestrian filmmaker might have wasted time with long scenes explaining who these people are and what they’re so mad about. But Whedon and company understand that you’re probably just finding your seat, letting your Facebook friends know you’re at the theater, and showing everyone on Instagram what the Avengers souvenir popcorn bucket looks like. He’s not going to bore you with a lot of people on-screen yakking away … especially when you’re trying to talk on the phone! So out come the tanks and bombs and planes and the first offerings from the special effects department.
And it’s against this backdrop that Whedon reintroduces us to old friends and their special powers: Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) is flying around while talking to his GPS as The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) grunts and breaks things. (He’s strong all right, but I think his real superpower is in finding a pair of shorts that can stretch from size 36 to 148 without busting a seam. Talk about a miracle fiber!) Chris Hemsworth’s Thor swings his big hammer in all sorts of lethal ways without ever getting tangled in his hair extensions, and Captain America (Chris Evans) wears a shapely unitard and carries a flying shield that seems akin to a Frisbee on meth.
And then there’s Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye. Here’s where Whedon really shows us how much he cares. While most of the Avengers can fly and possess other-worldly skills, Hawkeye shoots arrows. That may be a tank carrying a nuclear payload, but here comes Hawkeye with his trusty bow and arrow, kind of like an annoying kid at a child’s birthday party. Most other directors/writers would have mothballed this character, but Whedon believes in Hawkeye, and so what if it feels like Bring-Your-Kid-to-Work Day at Avengers, Inc.
Speaking of underwhelming powers, Scarlett Johansson playing Black Widow is back as well. All she really does is wear form-fitting tights and kick people, but Marvel and Whedon must have heard that womenfolk go to movies these days, so they oughta throw the chicks something.
Somewhere in the middle of this skirmish, Whedon introduces a brother and sister act, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch: He (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) runs fast, and she (Elizabeth Olsen) can both read minds and move objects telepathically. (Hawkeye would probably say she’s a show off.)
So What Really Happened?
And here we are, near the end of this review, and you’re probably trying to figure out why I haven’t talked about the plot yet. If you’re wondering that then you clearly don’t understand the gift that is Avengers. I haven’t ignored the plot because I’m afraid of revealing spoilers (I’d never do that to Whedon), but because—and that’s is the miracle of this movie—there isn’t one.
During the battle in Eastern Europe, Iron Man/Tony Stark picks up a magic crystal he uses to create new life, and this new entity (the Ultron in question) tries to destroy the world. Imagine! The whole world! And there’s the proof of Whedon’s genius. Every single person in the movie is absolutely shocked this evil thing is out to destroy the world. Like it’s never happened before, like it didn’t happen in the last 10 movies they were in. Sure, almost anyone can alter a hem line, but it takes a master like Whedon to make the world forget you were wearing the same dress last season.
And that brings us to the marvel of this Marvel movie: In the last 90 minutes of the film, Whedon strips everything away and gives us what we crave … plot disappears, logic evaporates, and humanity vanishes, literally. It’s an hour and a half of relentless violence and destruction via computer generated graphics; nothing we see on-screen exists in the real world; it’s one computer program fighting another. Occasionally a star drops by to deliver a line or throw something at a bad guy, but you know on those days it was just an actor standing in front of a giant green screen while Whedon sits off camera telling him or her to look left, look right, and snarl.
There’s a brief coda near the end where we learn that a few of the cast are leaving the franchise; some of them are looking a bit silly leaping tall buildings in a single bound. And that’s why those new characters (and a few others) were introduced—to populate the next installment. Whedon (like Stark) has created a new entity that has begun to perpetuate itself.
The man’s a bloody marvel … and I love Big Brother!
Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based writer and critic.