Seconds into the film, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is already overdoing it. It opens with an assault on a H.Y.D.R.A. base, and the team is kicking ass, but with the exception of a fantastic shot straight out of “Kung Fu Panda 2,” it’s underwhelming, a more elaborately choreographed and at the same time less thrilling version of the battle sequence at the end of “The Avengers.” The ‘bigger is better’ mentality is to be expected, but what isn’t expected, or appreciated, is the “Transformers”-like fixation it has with breaking stuff (as in entire cities) for no reason, and worse, there are no consequences for doing so. On top of that, writer/director Joss Whedon’s normally snappy dialogue is woefully lacking. Whedon has said that he’s walking away from the Marvel universe after this (Joe and Anthony Russo, who directed “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” are taking the reins on the next two “Avengers” movies), and after seeing “Ultron,” it makes sense; from the looks of things, this movie killed him.
Inside the aforementioned H.Y.D.R.A. base is a gold mine of military weapons, both mechanical and human, created by Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann). He’s used Loki’s scepter to give orphaned twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, respectively) superhuman powers, namely (and again, respectively) super speed and all sorts of telekinetic abilities. The Avengers do not get any of H.Y.D.R.A.’s data, but they do acquire the scepter, and in studying it, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) gets the brilliantly stupid idea to convert the scepter’s alien power source into an artificial intelligence that will work to achieve world peace, an idea he’s had for years but has never been able to perfect. This time, it works, and the new consciousness, which he had nicknamed Ultron (voiced by James Spader), has a plan for peace on Earth. Unfortunately, his plan involves the extinction of mankind.
Wanda can get people to see things, namely their worst fears. We see the nightmares of everyone she touches, except for Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who goes on to do the most damage: he terrorizes a large city, the very thing he spent years of his life in exile in order to prevent. Of all the nightmares that the audience absolutely has to see, this is the one. Instead, we get Hulk’s reaction to his visions without context, which culminates in a ridiculous street fight between Hulk and Iron Man that does tens of billions of dollars’ worth of damage (though it admittedly has a good laugh halfway through). Everything about this is wrong, and the opposite of what Whedon normally stands for as a storyteller. Just one line explaining that Stark will pay for everything, or that the Avengers are losing the people’s trust, would do. We get neither.
Whedon doesn’t frame the argument for bringing Ultron to life in a sound manner, either. Yes, Stark is blindly arrogant and thinks that he knows better than everyone else, but not even that mentality rationalizes what Stark does here. This is more than arrogance; it’s infantilism, the spoiled kid who screams, “I want Ultron!” until his parents give him his precious thing just to shut him the hell up. It’s a high-concept version of Roger Ebert’s Idiot Plot theory, and it’s shocking to see Whedon succumb to it.
To his credit, Whedon goes to great lengths to humanize his protagonists, and he focuses most of his energy on the supporting players. This was a canny move, because by and large, people are indifferent to the supporting cast, but they are all Avengers in the end, so it would be wise to give someone other than Stark, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk, or Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) a moment in the sun. Whedon’s other canny move is Ultron’s decision to upload his consciousness into the interwebs, so he can literally be everywhere (it does not take him long to develop a mechanical body for himself, and only slightly longer to build a near-endless number of soldier bots), and that makes him a formidable opponent. There is also a terrific bullet cam battle royale shot in the movie’s final fight sequence that will have the Wachowskis high fiving each other. Oh, and Olsen’s Wanda/Scarlet Witch is a badass of the highest order.
The whole is less than the sum of the parts, though. “The Avengers” soared courtesy of a deft blend of action, smarts, and humor. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” isn’t necessarily dumber, but it is less funny, and thanks to the perfunctory dialogue, it feels duller. It’s like visiting someone who has a hyperactive child, and then visiting them again after the child’s been taking Ritalin. It’s the same child, the same brain and personality, but one of them is wild and spontaneous, and the other is more mannered and emotionally flatter. Now the parents want to show you some home movies of their kiddo. Which videos do you want to see, the pre-Ritalin child or the post-Ritalin child? Yep, same here.(2.5 / 5)
This originally ran April 30, 2015 on Bullz-Eye.com.