Summer is icumin in, loude sing “kerblam”!
If it is May, it must be time for groups of comic book characters to save the world from certain destruction, and to do it while destroying much of the planet as they do so. Imagine my surprise when the latest Avengers movie, Age of Ultron, was nothing of the sort.
Just kidding, of course that’s what it was. The film begins with an attack by the Avengers on the hideout of Baron von Strucker in the imaginary eastern European country of Sokovia, where they meet a pair of hostile genetically-engineered super twins, Pietro and Wanda Maximof (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, whom my wife refers to as “the non-Olsen-twin Olsen”), known to Marvel comics fans as Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, and they also discover the defeated Loki’s scepter. Ironman Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), with the help of Bruce “the Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo), takes the scepter back to Avengers headquarters and finds that it contains a gemstone that holds an artificial intelligence program (yeah, I know, just go with it). Stark is able to create from this the “Ultron” program (voiced by James Spader), which he designs to be a peacekeeping system, powerful enough to defend the entire world so that, presumably, the Avengers won’t have to.
As it turns out, though, this Artificial Intelligence has a mind of its own. Ultron believes that the Avengers themselves are one reason there is no peace on earth, and determines that they must be exterminated. And while he’s at it, he figures if he can just get rid of people in general, think how peaceful THAT would make things. And so of course, Ultron is off to destroy all human life on the planet.
That means, of course, that the world’s greatest heroes—Iron Man and the Hulk, Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)—have to team up to stop Ultron before he can make good on his nefarious plans. For good measure Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, and a few other folks from the Marvel universe show up, and it also plays out that those crazy kids Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch finally realize they are helping the guy who’s going to kill everyone and join the good guys. There are a few other surprises along the way, and I won’t play spoiler for them, but that pretty much is the plot. There is a lot of science –fiction sounding mumbo-mumbo, none of which is really intended for us to follow, we just need to nod our heads and accept it. The details of the plot aren’t really what’s important here.
As for the characters, one thing that writer/director Joss Whedon (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, who was also responsible for the first Avengers movie in 2012) has going for him is the fact that several of the characters—Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Thor—are already familiar to the audience through their own movies, or series of movies. That means that he doesn’t have to spend much time giving us background—except a bit for Black Widow and Hawkeye, who get a nod toward characterization. For the most part, though, we get snippets of interaction between a few of the characters (a budding romance between the Hulk and Black Widow, a glance of the home life of Hawkeye, a glimpse of Iron Man’s conscience, of Captain America’s regrets) many of which could be fruitful to follow up on. But there’s no chance to do that.
Because in fact the audience isn’t here (or at least the producers don’t believe the audience is here) to follow the plot or to relate to the characters, except to laugh at the occasional wisecracks, some of which—the allusion to Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, for example—aren’t references many viewers are familiar with. What the audience is really here for is to watch all of the explosions, the fights, and the computer generated effects, almost all of which involve explosions, fights, and the destruction of large portions of every city the characters visit. The film is 141 minutes long, and it feels like a good half of it is spent on one major fight or another. As my wife so often tells me, ”you are not the intended audience,” but it does strike me that if this is what the audience wants to see, wouldn’t it make more sense for them to simply play a video game rather than spend ten to fifteen dollars or whatever it is to watch the 3D version of this stuff.
Whedon is a cultural force to be reckoned with, but he’s being asked here to invest in the crazy Hollywood mantra that “more is more.” How can you have a coherent movie with what, nine major stars? Each vying for enough screen time to make their participation in the movie worthwhile and to create something memorable about their character in the three minutes that they’ve got between the destruction of this building and the explosion in that one? A fascinating aspect of this film is the Red Witch’s ability to cause the characters to experience waking dreams, which reveal something about their hopes and fears—which would have been a fascinating thing to explore, but is shunted off almost before it gets off the ground for another big battle scene.
Oh Whedon does manage to squeeze in a few moral questions that linger in the smoke somewhere amid the rockets’ red glare and the bombs bursting in air. The chief question here is, in fact, the one that Ultron raises: are the Avengers truly peacemakers, or do they cause as much destruction as they prevent? Ostensibly, the Avengers take this criticism to heart, and spend a good deal of time in the final and nearly interminable battle scene trying to save citizens of the Sokovian city from the destruction that is coming (for reasons not completely clear, the city needs to be destroyed), Underneath, though, there are at least three different cities in this film that are brought to rubble by various battles, so that Whedon, in what has been billed as his last go at directing a Marvel movie, seems to have left the answer to this question, and to the question of the value of such films, ambiguous. Maybe, like the Eugene O’Neill joke, it’s his way of saying, “Look, I know what I’m doing here, and I know what the genre requires of me. But I’m leaving you with the question.”
There’s a lot of cleverness here. Just not enough to raise the movie above its genre. Two Jaqueline Susanns.