By Jarrod Jones. Summer doesn’t really start until June, but Avengers: Age of Ultron would beg to differ.
June? Pfah. By June, the whole lot of us will be daydreaming of Captain America’s righteous shield as we choke down a Star Lord/velociraptor team-up in Jurassic World. By June, May 1 will feel like last year. So soak it up, folks, because Age of Ultron is about as big as summer is likely to get. (Marvel Studios’ other superhero offering, July’s Ant-Man, seems designed to be a suitable digestif after gorging on all this movie.) With a tentpole this big, the only thing the remaining summer offerings can do is hide in its shadow. By the time August rolls around, we’ll have descended all the way into the dirty doldrums of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Goosebumps.
Fortunately, the welcome familiarity of the Marvel brand makes approaching Age of Ultron feel so durned cozy. And because the whole world finally recognizes the Avengers as household names — even that purple-y dude with the arrows (Hawkeye, duh, I knew that) — these movies have become bona fide events unto themselves, where folks spend over a year emotionally preparing themselves for the glee that’s to come, and the years hence arguing over their general worth. (It feels like most of us are still contesting if Iron Man 3 was actually any damn good.)
Avengers: Age of Ultron is the epitome of these movies, a monstrous special effects bonanza overflowing with serious marquee talent and a director whose name is in fine standing with the general populace. And because blockbuster wunderkind Joss Whedon punched his ticket with The Avengers, all that’s left for the man to do is knock out a movie that will please both fans of the quickly expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the producers who shrewdly tossed him hundreds of millions of dollars to make it.
And it’s almost impossible to avoid getting caught up in it all. Marvel’s endeavors have ensured that we are all neck-deep in superhero lore, whether we find it on the big screen, ABC, or now Netflix: look out at the New York City skyline alongside billionaire tech-guru Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and try to not think to yourself, “Daredevil is out there right now.” But that’s the rub about Age of Ultron. Because Marvel’s universe has grown to such monolithic proportions, it can’t help but gaze lovingly at itself. Well-meaning cameos from Don Cheadle’s War Machine and Anthony Mackie’s Falcon — plus pop-ins from the likes of Andy Serkis, Linda Cardellini, and Julie Delpy (which, ???) — make the viewer wary that even Rocket Raccoon could be right around the corner. Even at two and a half hours, ain’t nobody got time for that.
Maybe that’s why we find the team functioning at the peak of their collective might at the beginning of the movie. With all this juggling of characters, gravitas, and spectacle just moments away (not to mention the introduction of James Spader’s silky-smooth Ultron, among three others), there isn’t time for that majestic assembling we all enjoyed three years ago. The hassle of getting all these titans into a shared space is the furthest thing from Age of Ultron‘s mind. Now the movie finds itself in the unenviable position of trying to find something new to do with all these toys. It succeeds until it doesn’t.
There’s the future to consider, and Age of Ultron spends much of our time considering it. In its search to keep each member of the Avengers busy (there’s nine of them now, mind), Whedon’s screenplay creates prickly tasks for the team’s Big Three — occasionally-shirtless Thor (Chris Hemsworth) daydreams of Infinity Stones while Iron Man looks like he’s purposefully provoking a civil war with Captain America (Chris Evans) — and the new kids don’t fare much better either: Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver weaves in and out of the film almost as fast as his phony Slavic accent, and twin sister Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) throws around a lot of swirling reds while the movie spins its wheels.
And then there’s the small matter of Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), a fellow who has tamped his anger down so low that he’s effectively become Tony Stark’s doormat (all Tony has to do is give our Dr. Banner some playful eye contact and he rolls right over). As a matter a fact, the Hulk — the MVP of The Avengers way back when — proves to be the movie’s wild card, and not in a good way: he can’t decide if he wants to trade smooches with poofy-lipped Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and his ‘roided-out alter ego becomes public enemy number one after a decidedly overlong battle with Stark’s Hulkbuster. Whedon’s film never adequately decides what’s to be done about this Incredible Hulk. It shuffles him around until he’s finally tossed aside.
That’s only necessary, considering Avengers: Age of Ultron is the most Disney Marvel’s been since the House of Mouse absorbed the House of Ideas way back in 2009. The savagery of Ruffalo’s Hulk has no place in a film that has such a defensively sterile plasti-sheen to it. Even James Spader’s Ultron has the aura of a twenty-first century Disney villain: his venom is diluted with so much comedic smarm that when he actually appears onscreen (which isn’t often), he’s there more for the novelty rather than the menace. (“Oh, for God’s sake!” he tsks in the middle of the film’s climactic battle.) In the end, Spader’s Ultron is about as sinister as Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent. He’s a bad dude, sure, but all he really needs is a hug.
Which makes it fitting that Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye turns out to be the film’s beating heart. He’s a family man with a wife, two kids, and a picket fence; a salt-of-the-earth fella there to supply fatherly advice to Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff when the going gets tough, and the one guy who turns out to be the only character with something to lose. That leaves the rest of the team to trade barbs as the anxious emotional wrecks they are. (“They’re a mess,” a character observes to our favorite archer, to which he heroically replies, “Well. They’re my mess.“) With an armada of superheroes only managing to bludgeon our eyeballs, it took the dude without powers to give the film one of its few true bullseyes.