The Avengers: Age of Ultron

The most dramatically compelling conflict in The Avengers: Age of Ultron isn't between The Avengers and the eponymous villain, but between writer/director Joss Whedon and the required conventions of a Marvel movie. Moreso than in any other Marvel film released to date, Age of Ultron feels like a full-fledged battle between art and commerce, as Whedon struggles valiantly to make one of the year's most massive blockbusters feel intimate, personal, distinctive and profound. He doesn't always win that battle, but it's a compelling fight – thrilling when he wins, and a little heartbreaking when he loses.

Despite the fact that the film opens with a blustery action scene (The Avengers are raiding a well-guarded castle in an effort to recover Loki's scepter – what is it with this franchise and its omnibus of MacGuffins?), this is a quieter, wearier movie than most of the other Marvel flicks. There's talk of retirement, of “one last job,” of moving on to the next thing. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man) is laying the groundwork for his exit from superhero life, Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Rush) feels an urge to return to Asgard and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, Lucy) explores the notion of settling down with the bashful Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher) – though that whole “turning into The Hulk” thing complicates that last desire.

The castle raid leads to the discovery of a highly advanced artificial intelligence, and Stark immediately suggests a proper use for it: it could be the core of a global defense program. Stark has been working on such a program (dubbed “Ultron”) for some time now, and now he'll actually be able to launch it. Too bad he doesn't run this plan by most of the other Avengers. When Banner (who reluctantly aids Stark's efforts) suggests that the launch of a global defense program should be a group discussion, Stark shrugs it off: “I don't want to listen to the man-wasn't-made-to-meddle medley.”

Predictably, we're reminded that man wasn't meant to meddle. Ultron (voiced by James Spader, The Blacklist) - who quickly builds himself a grinning robotic shell - has a little too much free will, and offers a different interpretation of “peacekeeping” than Tony had in mind. In Ultron's view, world peace will require the extermination of The Avengers... and probably the rest of humanity, too. Unforunately, Ultron's design is so elegant that the notion of fighting him seems almost futile. He has access to every bit of knowledge available on the internet, and he's pretty competent when it comes to figuring out how to use that knowledge. Still, The Avengers are The Avengers, and they must fight. “We'll lose,” Stark sighs. “Then we'll lose together,” Captain America (Chris Evans, Snowpiercer) replies.

Ultron is one of Marvel's more intriguing villains, mostly by virtue of not being yet another generic alien or corrupt businessman in a suit. He's an advanced A.I., but his personality is modeled on that of Tony Stark. As such, Ultron often feels like Stark's dark shadow – a mass murderer with a full arsenal of breezy quips at his disposal. His vast intelligence is both enhanced and undercut by his ability to feel intense emotion: he flies into a rage when one character compares him to Stark, and often takes action for purposes of amusement or revenge rather than deadly efficiency. He also shares Tony's god complex, quoting Jesus and invoking the tale of Noah while plotting humanity's extinction.

Disappointingly, most of the actual battles against Ultron are tedious. Whedon is a terrific writer, but he's not a great action director (or even a very good one), and his work in that department feels even less inspired than it did in the first Avengers flick. You can feel his fatigue as he goes through the required motions: okay, let's destroy another city, now let's have these characters punch each other, now let's fight a swarm of robotic minions controlled by a single hive mind. While the action scenes in The Avengers were aided by an air-punching sense of joy, the scenes in this film come with the weight of a more serious context. Alas, that tonal switch makes Whedon's technical shortcomings far more evident than before.

On the flip side, the film's quiet moments are as good as anything Marvel has ever produced – maybe better. There's an extended stretch of the movie in which the characters hide out in a remote location, discussing life, Avenging (their term, not mine) and moral quandaries. It's terrific stuff, and Whedon gives himself room to contemplate a number of compelling ideas. The sequence also brings some much-needed dimension to Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, The Bourne Legacy), formerly the least compelling member of the team. He's the most human character of the bunch, and this time he's granted real humanity.

Early in the movie, all of the Avengers are given haunting visions by a new character known as Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene). The visions are intended to provoke internal conflict, but instead the dreams simply rob the team of their confidence. They feel that the end could come at any moment, and Whedon sets such a persuasively foreboding tone that we'd be convinced too if we didn't know that all of these characters are slated to appear in future Marvel movies.

Not that the film is without humor, mind you. Whedon's dialogue is still an absolute pleasure to listen to, whether he's serving up throwaway quips (“Language!”) or extended soliloquies (Ultron gets quite a few). One of the film's best scenes involves the whole gang getting drunk and attempting to lift Thor's hammer (Thor's smugly satisfied reaction shots serve as a hilarious punchline each and every time). There's even more of Whedon's distinctive personality built into this movie, and a number of ensemble-driven scenes have the fizzy charm of his better Firefly episodes. The hangout scenes are great enough to make you wish that Whedon and these characters were given their own TV show – just imagine the fun we might have with an episode where the whole gang visits Asgard. Once again, Whedon demonstrates that he absolutely gets these characters while still infusing them with bits and pieces of his own personality (if there's one major inconsistency between the Avengers movies and the other Marvel flicks, it's that everyone – even Tony Stark – is roughly 50% wittier in these movies).

The film handles its core characters rather well, but everyone else is trapped in an exhausting competition for screentime. It feels as if someone (Whedon? Kevin Feige?) decided that every major character in the Marvel universe needed to appear at some point, so we've got Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders, How I Met Your Mother), Falcon (Anthony Mackie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), War Machine (Don Cheadle, Iron Man 2), Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell, Captain America: The First Avenger), Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard, Thor) and Heimdall (Idris Elba, The Wire) making return appearances, new superpowered characters played by Spader, Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (he's playing Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch's dour, superspeed-enhanced twin brother), new human characters played by the like of Linda Cardinelli (Bloodline), Claudia Kim (Brain) and Andy Serkis (King Kong)... the list goes on and on. It's so crowded that Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury – theoretically a major part of the team – is reduced to a brief cameo appearance this time around. I'm not saying that this world has grown too big, merely that there are too many pieces on the table for a 141-minute movie. This is particularly evident during the film's closing scene, a moment that should excite us but instead leaves us underwhelmed.

Word has it that filming Age of Ultron was an incredibly stressful experience for Whedon, and there are moments when you can feel his frustration onscreen. There's a great movie here, but it's trapped under a pile of uninspired setpieces and extraneous cast members. It's a messy, ambitious film that has different strengths and weaknesses than its predecessor. The Avengers was Whedon giddily enhancing and personalizing the Marvel formula. Age of Ultron is Whedon fitfully resisting the Marvel formula. Like The Avengers, he doesn't seem quite willing to accept the fact that resisting an all-powerful machine is futile.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron

Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 141 minutes
Release Year: 2015