The most enticing moment in Avengers: Age of Ultron is successful because it is so elusive, and it may very well be the worst moment as well. When it begins, we are informed that the titular superhero smack-down squadron and consummate bickerers are off to Africa. We know we are going to Africa because the characters essentially say “we are going to Africa”. Smash-cut to a helicopter shot of a derelict shipyard. We know this is a shipyard because there are ships. It is also, one would assume, on a coast line, for that is where ships tend to reside. At this point, everyone’s favorite quasi-military font appears in lower screen with text that informs us, in as many words, “Shipyard, Off the Coast of Africa”, in case we were wondering if the ships were, in fact, airplanes, or whether they were docked in Nebraska.
So hand-holding and inelegant this text is, and utilizing the form of on-screen text which is already the laziest and least elegant storytelling mechanism in all of cinema, that it almost must be an intentional self-parody. All of these big time beat-down films rely on techniques like these to show us a story happening, and then to doubt us, and then to tell us what is happening all over again in case our eyes had deceived us, as though we audience members in our infinite wisdom could not figure out in fact that the image of unmoving ships placed right after we are told “Africa” is in fact, an image of ships docked off the coast of Africa. It is a comic, delicious moment nearly avant-garde in its laziness. It’s the sort of moment that asks the mind to wander: “why is this text here? It is providing no new information anyway, but movies like this are supposed to have military text every time they change location, so if that is what you want, here you go…”
Whether intentional or not, the scene signals something: Whedon stopped caring, either giving in to ineptitude or playfully amusing himself behind the scenes whenever he could. Maybe he lost interest. Maybe his passion flew away with the antiseptic, corporate Hollywood machine. Maybe, after being given the fan-boy lifetime achievement award and utilizing his reward, a trip to the superhero movie store and carte blanche to direct to his heart’s content, the thrill wore off. The militial text is just the last flicker of his mind attempting to stave off darkness.
Or, perhaps, it’s just the most overtly incompetent non-decision in a perfunctory, trivializing motion picture, and it is my mind, not Whedon’s, gallantly searching for hidden meaning or beautiful accidents to save itself from that which has been wrought upon it.
Either way, Whedon has his cash prize, and this second Avengers film, which ought to have been a victory lap, reveals that the race itself was too tiring, too deadening, for the runner Whedon to show-off once more. Late 1990s nostalgia is all the rage now; he should just announce new episodes of Buffy and spend his time in his heart-and-soul TV land. Certainly, and he has almost said as much explicitly, his heart isn’t in this Avengers film.The most obvious problem is its retread cred, and villain excepted, Age of Ultron does not invest much energy in doing anything besides retelling its predecessor. As it stands, the Avengers are on mission to recover a magical spear, a McGuffin for them to commence their favorite past-time of in-fighting as they clean house. Eventually, the spear serves as a means to unleash Tony Stark’s ego. Stark (aka Iron Man, played by Robert Downey Jr in sleep-walk mode), specifically, uses the spear to create an AI that will, he assumes, protect the world when the Avengers cannot. Naturally, and because this is a movie and AIs are evil, it backfires, and Ultron (James Spader) is born. From here, things follow the expected path of fight, bicker, fight, bicker, comic interlude, rinse, and repeat as our heroes attempts to oust Ultron in the infancy of his plot to annihilate the entire human species.
Which frankly, would be just fine and dandy, assuming the specifics of the fighting and bickering were up to snuff, but there is a distinct malaise over all involved. Whedon has always been something of a functional director, ceding ground to his slightly too programmatic characters and letting them do the talking. Here, however, his characters fluctuate wildly between general indifference and sudden spurts of necessity, as if the script told them now was their big moment. Thor (Chris Hemsworth, suitably swagger-speckled throughout) out and out leaves to go to another film mid-way through before returning just in time for the big finale. Stark (Robert Downey Jr) is in a lover’s quarrel with Steve Rogers/ Captain America (Chris Evans), again presumably to set up next year’s Captain America: Civil War. All of which gives the film the distinct air of an appetizer for a barrage of main courses to come in the next few years, something only lessened when the new characters (Pietro Maximoff, aka Quicksilver, played by Aaron Taylor Johnson sans thick neck, and Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch, played by Elizabeth Olsen sans character) are largely underutilized in a cardinal case of the film trying to do too much and succeeding at too little.
There is a funereal vibe coursing throughout the whole picture, stopping its life-blood in the cradle and frosting over everything in decay. Again, this would be fine if Whedon was particularly interested in plumbing the darker regions of his material without stopping just before things get too challenging. Too often, superhero films make the mistake of equating darkness with depth, and they try to split the difference between gun-toting fireworks shows and haunted character showpiece in ways which service neither.
Last year’s second Marvel film, the surprise hit The Guardians of the Galaxy, avoided this confusion by galvanizing its own chipper identity in spirited dialogue and off-the-wall direction, touching down to earth only when absolutely necessary to stave off its candy-coated high. The company’s other 2014 release, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, tried, sometimes succeeded, and ultimately struggled due to its self-serious ode to quavering paranoia-thriller genius. The problem: it never stopped to check itself and ask whether having its serious adult cinema drama was compatible with eating its corporate action packaging too. Age of Ultron fumbles similarly, but to an even greater magnitude. It desperately wishes to go after Stark’s technocrat egomania and corporatized brand of wishful world governance, which would be great if the film actually wished to seriously indict him or turn him to the dark side. Since it doesn’t, all of the would-be depth has the air of diaphanous window dressing and nothing more, a petty distraction from the film’s largely soulless core.
In all of its existence, Age of Ultron rises above competent and obligatory for one scene and one scene only: a deliriously good party scene that captures the Avengers themselves chilling out in a mixture of their own shaken-not-stirred self-confidence and playfully embittered camaraderie. This scene relies on the natural chemistry of the actors, Whedon’s skill with a pen, and the latent screwball comedy trappings of much of his writing, and it pulses with more energy than a hundred explosions.
This party also has the benefit of housing the introduction of Ultron in his physical form (Spader, by the way, is categorically the best thing in the film, giving a performance that is smug, self-mocking, and sinister in equal measure). Here, Whedon gets to dial things back to his pg-13 horror roots, and it is the freshest, liveliest bit the film has to offer. So, not a film without ornaments by any means, and even at its worst, it is nothing less than fine and functional. It is an ostentatious functional, sure, but for once the ornaments are just a little too faded to hide the relatively plain tree underneath.