Halfway through Avengers: Age of Ultron, the eponymous robot waxes poetical and says to a few of his cronies, “Everyone creates the thing they fear.” It’s possible that this line was added by the writer and director, Joss Whedon, as an indication of how he felt about this movie.
In many ways, Ultron is not exactly a movie. It’s the most recent entry in a franchise, a two-and-a-half-hour teaser for what’s coming next year and the year after and the year after. Mark Harris of Grantland dwelt on this aspect of cinema last year, pointing out that the studios that produce movies like Ultron are not in the business of creativity and originality – even if some of the movies they produce end up being creative and original. Marvel, Disney, and whoever owns the rights to the DC Comic universe are in the business of good business, where the future looks like more of what’s worked in the past.
I don’t want to be overly dramatic. As Harris points out, sequels and franchises have always existed in Hollywood. But the fact remains, for the average moviegoer to continue enjoying the stories of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he or she will have to be there each time a Marvel movie releases. The studios know this, and so they know they must tease the next thing. They must point the viewer to the future, or risk losing them altogether.
Despite all that, Ultron is piles of fun. No, it’s mountains, planets, galaxies of fun. If you already love the Marvel universe, with its aliens, mutants, and radioactive heroes, this movie will please you mightily. It’s bigger and sprawlier than any movie has any right to be. On the other hand, if you haven’t seen any of the other Marvel films, feel free to skip this one, too. Or, do what this guy did, and bring yourself up to speed.
Marvel movies have never been large on plot, and Ultron is no exception. As far as I could tell, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner, a.k.a., the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) develop a defense system for planet Earth based on artificial intelligence, some gee-whiz computer plyometrics, and a little bit of magic from the blue scepter that appeared in the first Avengers movie. The artificial intelligence (voiced by James Spader) becomes more intelligent and less artificial than either of them could have ever imagined, and chaos ensues, as it tends to do. The resultant battle leads the Avengers – Iron Man, Hulk, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) – across the world, from a fictional African country (Wakanda) to a fictional eastern European country (Slokovia), with brief stops in New York City (not a fictional place) and at a farm house in rural somewhere. The conflict culminates on a giant hunk of rock floating in the sky, with Avengers battling killer robots all the livelong day.
Joss Whedon is, at heart, the director of small, personal films, and he manfully wrestles a bit of breathing space out of the middle of the action. We get more of the sarcastic, self-referential asides that we loved in the first Avengers. We get a few more scenes of superheroes being themselves, without having to punch anyone, and these scenes are great. When the Avengers lie low in a safe house, they have to wait in line for the shower. The superhero genre is fast approaching a parody of itself, and Whedon decides to embrace that dynamic by making the characters question their own situation. (Hawkeye is always making fun of himself for carrying around a bow.) And it works. I would watch a movie about the Avengers going to the zoo if Joss Whedon wrote it. We want to see these human moments – we have to – because otherwise, the film becomes nothing more than dozens of indestructible beings smiting one another.
It’s tempting to say that the Marvel movies are about spectacle, and in a way they are. But spectacle isn’t enough, even in a summer blockbuster. There must also be excitement. For a film about the end of the world, Ultron lacks tension. There is hardly any build-up, even less payoff. There’s no patience. There are, in one sense, no actual scenes. Ultron seems more interested in entrances and poses than arcs or endings. The comic book hero is one meant to be put up on a platform, effigized. The closing credits of Ultron are superimposed over sweeping shots of a marble statue of the Avengers battling their foes. One character in the film even calls them “gods.” Despite all of the hullaballoo, the final product is strangely lacking in wonder. All the computer-generated stunts on the floating rock zip past us without any weight or impact. In fact, in the IMAX theater where I watched Ultron, the biggest gasp of the afternoon was purely a character moment involving Thor and his enchanted hammer. The battle scenes were loud and terrific, but nothing came close to the excitement of those three seconds.
It’s increasingly clear that one day, it will be impossible for most people to watch a Marvel movie without an encyclopedia handy. For those of us who aren’t die-hard Marvel comic book fans, keeping up with the interconnectedness of the whole thing is starting to feel like a chore. Ultron wallops the audience over the head with reference after reference, most of which mean nothing to half of us. Characters appear and disappear, without any indication of their importance to the broader story. With each successive movie, the world grows and grows, always adding new unknown elements to the mix. Questions multiply. But don’t worry, you can get all the explanations that you desire… in the next movie.
Eventually, the Marvel cinematic universe will be a completely alien world, a fantasy with only the barest resemblance to our own. This is the price of a superhero film, I suppose. Perhaps Ultron was right after all, and Joss Whedon has helped create the thing that will destroy his movie. We shouldn’t blame him though. It’s what we asked for.