There may be no strings on Ultron, because AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON needs them all to support its limp, spineless body. This is a movie whose greatest strengths are its very downfall, which is unfortunate because it is everything a superhero movie can aspire to be.
Joss Whedon has become unhinged. He used to be a legend, a champion of the nerds, now reduced to a punch line for a joke that you walked in on halfway through. The entire running time of AGE OF ULTRON I kept waiting for the movie to stop trying to sell itself and get to its point, but that never comes. It’s like a really, really, really, really long trailer — there are a lot of trailer moments, big action set pieces, witty one-liners, flashy splash panel frames, but nothing really there at the end of it but a giant caption reading “Written and Directed by Joss Whedon” which might as well say “Coming soon to theatres near you at some point in the vague and distant future, maybe, if we ever get around to it, but it’ll be awesome we hope.”
Let’s talk about the basic plot. Tony Stark makes a giant artificial intelligence called Ultron that’s supposed to do The Avengers job of avenging for The Avengers so they don’t have to. It’s the ultimate weapon to achieve world peace, until it develops its own ideas about what peace means. Of course, since world peace can only be achieved through a weapon, and of course since weapons only lead to war. Everyone knows this including some of The Avengers themselves, but Tony Stark is Tony Stark and so… well, that’s the plot. It’s simple, it doesn’t require a bunch of exposition, and it’s effective.
Then there’s a romance subplot, a what’s-really-going-on subplot, some behind the scenes subplots, some good old fashioned buddy-buddy conflict, and your usual run of the mill in-jokes designed so that all the nerds in the theatre get just a little bit more enjoyment out of the movie than anyone else. There’s enough material in this film for MARVEL to start a TV series about the every day lives of each of its characters and still have time left over to continue its global domination in the superhero blockbuster market. DC still can’t manage to lock down a director for Wonder Woman, or write a decent script.
But AGE OF ULTRON is just so… empty. While the first AVENGERS had one of the worst first acts ever, at least Whedon knew when to play his cards so that by the time the movie gets going it’s also one of the best times I’ve ever had in a theatre. AGE OF ULTRON doesn’t suffer from the first act problems its predecessor did. Instead it just suffers for the entire run time, building up to a crescendo that never arrives.
Here’s an example, the aforementioned splash panel sequences. Whedon makes a true comic book movie and he does so with a little too much glee. No action movie has ever been framed like this before. Almost every other scene is taken right out of a comic book, designed to maximize visual stimulation in a way that is incomprehensibly overwhelming, and it’s a delight to see, for a while. However, like I said, no action movie has ever been framed like this before… for a reason, because it means nothing. Nothing motivates the camera or the framing or the things filling the frame because none of it matters. All that matters is getting the eye candy. This could be a really good porno movie. Or a really bad porno movie.
MARVEL has done something right lately. IRON MAN 3, CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY were all some of the best work the company has produced. They took superheroes to a new high, giving them not just incredible action and great characterization but gravitas and relevant meaning. AGE OF ULTRON is supposed to be about teamwork, I think, but it doesn’t touch on anything GUARDIANS didn’t. “We’ll do it together,” somebody says several times, in case we missed that point. Thanks for spelling it out for us, Joss.
Whedon is about as subtle as a drunk with a banjo at his best but he goes about it so earnestly that he succeeds. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER was always at its best when it wore its heart on its sleeve because that’s when it was able to really matter. This time, he abandons the heartfelt meaning for references to things nobody else understands. I’m not even sure if reference is the right word. The movie could be a series of vignettes that are all meta references to each other in a weird meta spiderweb way while the whole thing adds up to a meta reference to something else. Dan Harmon would be proud but at least Harmon would make the meta the point. Whedon just feels like he thinks he’s being cool.
But let’s not get all down on the movie. It is glorious at times. Sure, there’s no HULK SMASH, and although James Spader is no Tom Hiddleston, he’s pretty impressive as Ultron, really turning the CGI character into a personified being. It’s remarkable that the most interesting character is actually just a giant conglomerate of special effects.
All the pieces are there for AGE OF ULTRON to be the pinnacle of superhero movies except for its whole. I left the first AVENGERS giddy with the highlights flashing through my mind. I left the second one just trying to remember how it had started. I hate the idea of turning off your brain to watch a movie, but if you don’t want to feel like you’ve wasted two and a half hours doing nothing but flooding your visual cortex with over saturated colours and hyperkinetic stroke-inducing dizziness — not that there’s anything wrong with that, if that’s all you’re looking for then this is the perfect movie — then you’re going to need to turn your brain off for this one.