|Directed by||Joss Whedon|
|Produced by||Kevin Feige|
|Written by||Joss Whedon|
RATING: ** (out of four)
I'm not kidding. As the primary villain in this film, Ultron, despite being voiced by the wonderfully cast James Spader, was a character of inexplicable motivations, acute lack of anything that made him remotely interesting, and woeful lack of menace that posed a believable threat to the Avengers. He was dull, weak, and highly overrated.
If that doesn't sound like Hillary Clinton, I'll eat the next Infinity Stone.
Yes, Avengers II: Age of Ultron was a comprehensive disappointment, more of a glorified television episode than anything worthy of the big screen. The reason why is best illustrated by the fact that I feel no urge to recount the plot in this review, because there really wasn't one. It was all action - sometimes spectacular - and little or no story, logic, or character development.
Let's begin with the aforementioned principle antagonist. Ultron originates as an A.I. (artificial intelligence) created by Tony Stark to be the brain of an army of Iron Man-like drones (kind of the perfected version of the "Hammer Drones" from Iron Man II) designed and intended to, in essence, do the Avengers' job for them by pre-empting internal threats and protecting Earth from external alien invasion (e.g. the Chitauri attack on New York City in Avengers I). After the team destroys the last Hydra base, where the latest Hydra leader, Baron Wolfgang Von Strucker, has been experimenting on "enhanced" humans (Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, aka Quicksilver - not the same one as from last year's X-Men: Days Of Future Past - and Scarlett Witch) using Loki's scepter and its Mind Stone, one of the six Infinity Stones, Stark repossesses the scepter. (How Hydra got hold of that stick when the last we saw of it was Black Widow closing the Tesseract portal with it in Avengers I is unclear, although one supposes that it was a consequence of the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America II: The Winter Soldier. But I digress.)
Stark and Bruce Banner ask Thor's permission to scan the Mind Stone before he takes it back to Asgard, and Thor foolishly acquiesces, or there'd have been no movie. Their scans seem to indicate that there is an alien A.I. in the Mind Stone that is vastly more sophisticated and powerful than even J.A.R.V.I.S., Stark's personal A.I. After they wander off for a "We Kicked Hydra's Ass!" victory party at Avengers Tower (formerly Stark Tower - and yes, Cap could have used his teammates' help in Winter Soldier, just as Thor could have in Dark World and Stark in Iron Man III. But again, I digress), the alien A.I. appears to ambush and destroy J.A.R.V.I.S., takes over several of Stark's battle suits, and crashes their party, informing them that his mission is to save the world, and in his estimation, the biggest threat to Earth is humanity in general, and the Avengers in particular.
Sounds like Ultron is an environmentalist, doesn't it? Oh, and "Bwa-ha-ha-ha."
There's not much else to tell about him. He grabs the scepter and uses it on the inventor of an advanced synthetic tissue technology (Dr. Helen Cho) to try and force her to create an android body for him, complete with the mindstone in its brain. He fails due to the betrayal of the Maximoff twins, whom he initially scoops up as allies, playing on their animus for Stark (because their parents were killed by Stark weaponry, a rehash of the first Iron Man film), but who - well, Scarlet Witch anyway, who is, among other things, telepathic - sense "Bwa-ha-ha-ha," as you'd think Ultron would have anticipated. He creates an army of his own drones, which the Avengers mow down like the Jedi did Count Dooku's drone army in Star Wars Episode II. He uses the remaining global supply of vibranium (what Cap's shield is made of) to create a machine beneath the Maximoffs' hometown to try and lift the latter into orbit and then drop it back on the planet, intending to create an extinction level event like an asteroid or comet strike and wipe out humanity. The problem with that being that a loosely held-together piece of the surface would mostly burn up on reentry, and whatever didn't would be moving at a small fraction at best of the velocity of an inbound asteroid or comet, lacking anywhere near the kinetic energy needed to produce the results Ultron was seeking. Which illustrates that for a fantastically advanced alien A.I., Ultron wasn't the sharpest knife in the ol' drawer.
I suppose you could say that Ultron's witless one-dimensional villainy was at least somewhat leavened by his Stark-esque wisecracks, but that just seemed to confuse and diminish the character even more. In fact, the most compelling depiction of Ultron would have been a Frankenstein's monster motif, but the irreverence of the Tony Stark character made that angle prohibitive. Still, they should have attempted it if they wanted Ultron to be a compelling movie-caliber bad guy - it would have further developed Stark's character as well - but Joss Whedon quite evidently isn't nearly that ambitious a story-teller.
The contrast with Loki from Avengers I couldn't be more, well, "stark".
Now let's go down the Avengers' roster:
Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.): My impression from the end of Iron Man III was that, having come to grips with how his super hero ego trip ("I am Iron Man!") endangered the woman he loved (Virginia "Pepper" Potts) and that he still couldn't save her (but the Extremis with which she'd been injected did), he'd given up being Iron Man. The symbolism of his destroying all his battle suits, having the mini arc reactor and shrapnel surgically removed from his chest and tossing the former into the ocean seemed to clinch it. Indeed, I was wondering if Stark would even still be an Avenger in Age of Ultron.
But there he anachronistically was. Which made his "retirement" from the team at the end of the film all the more arbitrary. Although his presence in next year's Captain America III: Civil War seems to tell you all you need to know about this "retirement". Just seemed to be a character regression to me.
There's not much else to tell. Stark was his usual wisecracking irreverent self. He'd invented new gadgets for the team (the Ultron drones, the "Veronica" orbital weapons platform, his thumb drive A.I.s for his battle suits). And he still very much kept his own counsel, which is how the Ultron crisis came to be.
I did sort of like his "my girlfriend is hotter than yours" back and forth with Thor. And the wood-chopping scene with Cap planted the seeds for Civil War. But I have to wonder how the Avengers can recover from losing his scientific and mechanical genius, which James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) sure as shinola isn't going to replace.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth): Nothing much new from the Crown Prince of Asgard, but nothing to dislike or object to, either. His Scarlett Witch-induced hallucination warns him of Ultron's cataclysmic endgame, and a bigger picture that will play out in the two Avengers III: Infinity Wars pictures. And I did enjoy the post-party scene where everybody took a turn trying to lift, or even budge, Mjolnir. But otherwise, Thor was just kind of "there".
Bruce Banner/Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo): In Avengers I, we saw that Banner was doing everything in his power to avoid having another Hulk "episode"; at the end of that film, we saw him turning his Hulk persona on and off at will. In Age of Ultron, we see him going back to needing outside stimulus to "Hulk up" and Black Widow to calm him down and return him to normal. I wish Whedon could make up his mind.
Banner has a Scarlet Witch-induced hallucination as well (the whole team does), although we never get to see what his is. But it not only Hulks him up but sends him on another rampage through downtown New York City that Stark has to stop with his "Hulk-buster" battle suit (where "Veronica" is utilized). This revives Banner's fears about "the other guy" hurting innocent people and prompts his departure from the team, which would be understandable and commendable if he wasn't still able to turn the Hulk off and on at will like he was at the Battle of New York. Now I suppose he'll become the David Banner of the old Bill Bixby 1970s TV show, wandering around trying to "find a way to control the raging spirit within him". As with Stark, his loss is going to be a difficult hole for the Avengers to fill.
Choosing not to fill Black Widow's hole in the shower will probably haunt Banner for all his remaining days as well.
Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans): At the end of Winter Soldier, Cap was off to search for his old friend Bucky Barnes. Yet here he is still leading the Avengers (whose help he could have used when S.H.I.E.L.D. fell, or locating Barnes, who'd make a nice addition to the team, but I digress). Again, I don't really get it.
Cap is the same old Cap. They even do a recurring riff on his distaste for "colorful language," which is not bad and true to his "ripped, ass-kicking Howdy Doody" character. Steve Rogers is a character who almost can't change and develop precisely because the nature of who he is requires him to remain true to that character. Which detracted from the aforementioned wood-cutting scene, where Tony Stark told him that he "doesn't trust anybody who doesn't have a dark side," and Rogers retorts, "Well, maybe you just haven't seen mine, yet." Nothing ever comes from that remark, although, again, that may be planting the seeds for next year's Civil War.
I do have to mention Cap's one-on-one bout with Ultron in Seoul, in which Rogers doesn't win or even get the upper hand by any means, but does hold his own far better than he should be able to against a far bigger, stronger, deadlier, and more intelligent being. This further underscored what a lame, underwhelming villain Ultron was.
Natasha Romanov/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson): I'll give Whedon credit for trying to effect some character development to Black Widow. We do learn more about her background in "Leviathan," the Soviet equivalent of Hydra, including the fact that they sterilize female agents so that they cannot be distracted by love, romance, or the vestigal maternal instinct. It does leave Romanov with nothing else but her career, and therefore very lonely.
Because of and based on that, I could see her wanting to form a romantic attachment. Why she would want to form that romantic attachment to Bruce Banner is at least a little baffling, but I could have accepted that if there'd been anything in the first Avengers film that remotely hinted at it. Indeed, the Hulk tried to kill her on the helicarrier, not exactly an expression of affectionate endearment, and which was a little extreme, even for Klingon foreplay, it seems to me.
But then it begs the question of whether any man could fall in love with Natasha Romanov when there's simply no way he could ever truly trust her. We saw that early in the final battle scene in Sokovia when she kisses Banner and then shoves him off that precipice in order to turn him back into the Hulk. And after Banner departs, the same Black Widow who was almost plaintively appealing to to him to run off together not only is training new Avenger recruits along with Cap but doesn't appear to miss Banner in the slightest. So what was that whole seduction about? Unlike the Stark-Rodgers wood-cutting debate, I can't see any MCU story-arc purpose to it. It was just screenplay five-knuckle-shuffling.
Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner): The only successful bit of character development in the entire cast, and for a character who retired from the Avengers at the end. Kind of symbolizes the whole movie, if you ask me.
Barton, we learn, has had a secret wife and children, hidden at an undisclosed farm by S.H.I.E.L.D. (and which Hydra apparently never discovered or didn't care about enough to wipe out). That alone provides sufficiently believable motivation for his departure from the team. But that wasn't all of it, as he also felt like the weak link (along with Black Widow), which he pretty much was. His lone "power" (which is more of a preternatural skill) is his hand-eye coordination. He sees himself, as he says to Scarlett Witch during the climactic Battle of Sokovia, as "a guy who shoots arrows" on a team of "gods," and who was compromised and used against his teammates in Avengers I. Which makes the fact that he was the only Avenger not mind-raped by Scarlet Witch a nice touch.
Finally, the wound he suffers in the opening battle against Hydra underscores to him that it's time to hang up his quiver while his family still has a husband and father. So good for Hawkeye, even though the Avengers are unlikely to miss him in the least.
So, little or no character development, considerable character regression, and no compelling villain to raise the Avengers' collective game. And no real plot to speak of; just a series of stupendous action scenes sandwiched between occasional head-scratching expositional exchanges, all leading to a preposterous and ill-considered jeopardy premise. And the Avenger that was reputed to be killed off - Quicksilver - technically never got the chance to become and Avenger at all, although his sister will be one going forward.
Lastly, there's J.A.R.V.I.S./Vision (Paul Bellamy), whose demise at Ultron's hands I never really bought, and who comes back in the body meant for Ultron, complete with Mind Stone. I suppose that his gaining a body, becoming an Avenger himself, and his ability to pick up Mjolnir (I'm assuming because of the Mind Stone) constitute character development, and could lead to great things to come. I'll leave him in the "jury's still out, but I'm optimistic" category.
It does have to be said, though, that had Whedon written the story where J.A.R.V.I.S. turned heel on the Avengers and became Ultron rather than the latter being conjured out of nowhere, that would have been a much more wrenching blow for Tony Stark and a much more compelling story - the conflict of saving J.A.R.V.I.S. versus saving millions from Ultron, the genuine doubt of whether Stark could have made that agonizing call and been able to live with the consequences either way, and the conflict with his fellow Avengers if they'd made that choice for him. Would also have provided an eminently believable reason for his departure either way. Alas, it was not to be, and became a huge missed opportunity.
Parting questions: The "age" of Ultron lasted for....what? A few days? A week at most? Has S.H.I.E.L.D. been effectively reconstituted at the new Avengers HQ in upstate New York? Is Tony Stark's "retirement" from the Avengers just pertaining to his participation as Iron Man, with his "consulting" and technical and financial backing still intact? I have to think that'll be the case. And are Vision, Scarlet Witch, War Machine, and Sam Wilson/Falcon adequate replacements for Stark, Banner, and Barton? One thing's for sure: The new team is going to be a lot less interesting and entertaining.
Just like Age of Ultron.