Writer-director Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron opens with the Avengers taking the fortress led by the evil Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), whose series of maniacal scientific tests yields out-of-control artificial intelligence. The sequence is the first in a long line of incredibly choreographed action set pieces that highlight the unique strengths of each Avenger. Whedon’s camera catches all the action in thrilling, seamless long takes and perfectly timed cuts to keep each part of this whirligig of a film moving. It’s an efficiently bombastic opening salvo that introduces us to twins Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), victims of Strucker’s experiments, while also showcasing our gang kicking a little ass before the plot proper starts up. Whedon captures the twins’ powers to exhilarating effect, with Taylor-Johnson’s fleet-footed post-adolescent easily knocking out both Captain America (Chris Evans) and Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner).
But while the writer-director takes considerable strides to make the narrative feel more nuanced and personal, his few sublime scenes of expressive melodrama are drowned out by the massive amounts of exposition and backstory that make up most of the dialogue and subsequently make Age of Ultron feel overworked. When the talk isn’t about the intricate plot and the characters’ mythology, it’s a whole lot of dick-centric jabs. In cases like the competition over who can pick up Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) hammer, there’s a vague sense that Whedon is in on the joke, but then there’s a plethora of other exchanges that don’t seem so tongue in cheek. The bro-isms that underscore these interpersonal relations might explain why Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff strikes up a romance with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a.k.a. the Hulk, the only male Avenger who isn’t consistently preoccupied with the size of his…ego. The growing relationship between Romanoff and Banner is the tender heart of Age of Ultron, and Whedon clearly thrills in the cheesy but heartfelt melodrama that builds between them. Unfortunately, as the film has approximately another half-dozen or so plotlines to tend to, this section of the story barely makes up a sixth of the narrative.
Another victim of this unwieldy bundle of plotlines is Ultron (James Spader), a stately robot overlord birthed out of the artificial intelligence Banner and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) found at Strucker’s fortress. Stark created Ultron with the intention of eventually replacing the Avengers, for when they begin to entertain the idea of having calm, family-centric lives, but he emerges as a pompous, humanity-hating conqueror who immediately declares war on the superheroes, with the Maximoff twins at his side. Ultron is written as a brutal paradigm of absolute belief, given a snarling, angry voice by Spader; he even sets a small, bombed-out church as the base of his operations. When he argues with Stark, he’s both commanding and convincing, even raising some tough questions about superheroes acting like gods. Whedon initially views the super-villain as a true believer trapped within his own certainty, but rather than fully explore that part of the character and his relationship to his creators, he settles for treating him as little more than a vague evil force flanked by a robot army.
Age of Ultron’s action is alternatively dazzling and hasty, and the Avengers’ first real face-off with Ultron in an abandoned oil tanker falls into the latter category. Hampered by a series of extended flashbacks and dreams brought on by Wanda’s powers, the sequence feels entirely expository, to give a flimsy glimpse at the desires and fears of our heroes. The subsequent visit to Barton’s home, where his wife (Linda Cardellini) looks after their children, is similarly meant to suggest that being an Avenger and a family man isn’t impossible, an issue that seems to be of distinct interest to Stark. Indeed, there’s an overall sense in the script that being a superhero is really just a job, which both lessens the inarguable amazement of the action and makes the characters come off as too overtly “cool,” to the point that certain Avengers often preen as if their everyday adventuring actually bores them.
The film’s chaotic reams of dialogue feel automated throughout, as in Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) last-minute drop-in to give a stand-and-fight speech, but at least Whedon navigates the visual chaos with a clear and fluid sense of each character’s purpose. Buried among the deluge of dude-bro joshing, the filmmaker offers a few one-liner gems, such as when Stark refers to a particularly hectic day as “Eugene O’Neill long.” The film unfolds in largely predictable ways, including the overextended climax on a floating hunk of fake Eastern Europe, but Whedon never makes any of this nonsense feel as if it’s out of place or forced into the narrative. There are even moments, such as that last sequence with the Hulk alone in a plane, where Whedon hits on something poetic, original, and unexpectedly touching, the feeling of a monster who’s tired of fighting himself even for the woman he loves. In its longer stretches of invention, both visually and narratively, Age of Ultron similarly struggles against the rigid formula that typifies the Marvel universe, but only does so up to a point.