My snobby resistance to comic-book-based movies having been gradually worn down by the fact that there are so darn many of them out there in the cinemaplexes these days, I’m beginning to get a bit more of a handle on how to compare one to another. That doesn’t mean that I have any grasp at all of the deep, broad and complex Marvel canon, so my review of Avengers: Age of Ultron isn’t going to be able to enlighten anyone about how scandalously it diverges therefrom. No matter; those to whom such things are important already saw it on opening night and won’t be looking to the likes of this reviewer for any guidance.
The up side of such ignorance is that I was therefore able to watch the movie in a sort of critical vacuum, unburdened by a true fan’s righteous indignation about plot holes, lost or merged characters or divergences from venerable storylines. It’s probably heresy to say, but despite the fact that it’s clearly the middle placeholder in a trilogy, I actually enjoyed Age of Ultron somewhat more than its 2012 predecessor.
While the sequel seems to be getting mainly positive reviews, I’ve already a spotted a few articles online following the “Six Reasons Why the Original Was So Much Better” format. Just for kicks, I’m going to list six of the things that I liked more about this installment.
1) The lead characters seem all to belong in the same movie this time. While director Joss Whedon has been quoted as saying, “The joy of the Avengers is they really don’t belong in the same room,” and the personality clashes among them are a big part of the fun, in the 2012 Avengers they didn’t even seem to speak the same language a lot of the time. Here, although much of the plot conflict arises from an enemy infiltrating their minds and sowing mistrust and dissension among them, there is still much more of a sense of the existence of a team, and not just random threads from a bunch of incompatible stories. It’s like the characters are settling into their roles more.
Although fans of Tom Hiddleston are mourning the absence of Loki from this film, it actually helps quite a lot not to have so many scenes of two Asgardian gods confronting one another in stilted, fakey-sounding medieval Norse accents. Even Thor (Chris Hemsworth) seems more relaxed trying to pass as a normal Earthling, and a nightclub scene wherein the other male Avengers are vying to see who can pick up his magic warhammer is one of the funniest bits in the movie. Lest we forget, the funny bits are what distinguish the Avengers franchise from the rest of the same-old, same-old superhero world.
2) It has a tad less in the way of smash-‘em-up battle sequences and more in the way of humanizing backstory and heart-tugging relationship development. This may strike some action fans as a weakness, but I’ll trade off a bit of adrenaline rush for more emotional engagement with the characters any old time. We discover, for instance, during a period in Act II when the Avengers need to lie low and lick their wounds for a while, that one of them has a family whom he has carefully kept secret. There’s also a burgeoning, tentative romance between two of them that has some fans howling with outrage over its implausibility, but that elicited a heartfelt “Aaawwww” from the audience more than once at the screening that I attended. We want these tormented Marvel antiheroes to catch a break and find a little happiness now and then, don’t we?
On the other hand, we also don’t want them to encounter too much in the way of happily-ever-after, or this wouldn’t be the Marvel universe, where having to overcompensate for something in your dark past makes you what you are, way more than any superpower. Whedon goes to the trouble of establishing one such character’s origin story quite persuasively, only to kill said character off by the end, which seems a bit confusing (especially since other branches of the franchise seem to have the character alive and well). Then again, death is never so final that a little time warp or alternative-universe plot twist can’t fix it pronto in a sequel.
3) The dynamics of the Tony Stark/Bruce Banner relationship often occupy center stage. This is important not only because Robert Downey, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo are the two most compelling players in the Avengers acting stable, but also, in this storyline, because Stark needs Banner to be his better angel more desperately than ever. The usual irony of the ethical and sensitive Banner having to play the role of the manipulative, amoral Stark’s conscience, even while he struggles with his own Jekyll-and-Hyde nature, gets piled here on top of the fact that the main bad guy is a product of Stark’s own experimentation with artificial intelligence – with Banner as his enabler, leading to a split with the rest of their team. Their scenes together are packed with terrific dialogue, and the tension between them gets acted out in a mordantly funny mano-á-metal-suit battle when the Hulk loses it whilst surrounded by innocent civilians.
4) Speaking of that main bad guy, Ultron, he’s pretty funny too – even though, as a cyberthreat to the planet, he seems considerably less scary than the brilliant hacker in Blackhat. (In fact, if you want true scariness on the cyberterrorism-thriller front, you can’t do better than Ed Snowden’s real-life revelations in Citizenfour.) James Spader does a great job of embodying this evil robot guy as naïve, fey and whimsical in his approach to world domination, even if he can inhabit the entire Internet at will. At heart just a Pinocchio who wants to be a Real Boy, he likes to sing snatches of “I’ve Got No Strings,” sounding a bit like HAL from 2001 on wacky weed. Plotwise, Ultron may be only a setup for the introduction of Vision as the newest Avenger and the return of Thanos as the Bad Guy Supreme in the third installment, but he’s fun while he lasts.
5) Paul Bettany will be getting more to do from here on in. In the Avengers/Iron Man franchises, the excellent-but-underutilized actor has heretofore only delivered the calm, measured, ever-so-slightly-snarky voice of JARVIS, Tony Stark’s electronic assistant, data repository and frequent rescuer. He’s sort of Alfred the butler to Iron Man’s Batman. But in Age of Ultron, JARVIS is at first incapacitated (very bad news for Stark Enterprises and the good guys in general), then gets an opportunity to demonstrate his own ingenuity in a crucial way. His reward is to be recycled into the generation of Vision, whom Bettany portrays in the flesh and not just as a voice actor. Sorry if that’s a spoiler, but it’s kind of what this whole movie was set up to make happen, and anyone who’s a Marvel fan at all knew long ago that it was in the works. In any case, Bettany is always great fun to watch, and reason enough to come back for Avengers III.
6) Did I mention that it’s funnier, even though it’s somewhat more serious and downbeat in tone overall than the first movie? This is directly related to Item #1. The team here seems to be less about rubbing one another the wrong way than about getting into a comfortable rhythm of friendly needling. The running joke of Captain America (Chris Evans)’s prissiness about swearing gets a lot of mileage, but holds up amusingly. Zingy one-liners are salted liberally throughout. These are the moments – not the cities being blown up, unless you’re 12 years old – that make Marvel movies worth the price of admission.