Marvel Studios has made a lot of bold creative choices over the last few years. The intergalactic weirdness and overt comedy of Guardians of the Galaxy. The 70s-esque paranoia-thriller vibe coursing through Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Pairing Tony Stark up with a mop-headed kid for a large chunk of Iron Man 3‘s running time. None of these seem like easy decisions on paper, but each paid off by allowing those movies to feel unique and playful, while still fitting into the Marvel Cinematic Universe at large. Avengers: Age of Ultron, however, is the first Marvel movie in a while to feel overly formulaic. The Avengers assemble. The Avengers fight amongst themselves about some stuff. The Avengers regroup to beat down a couple of hundred disposable bad guys swarming a large city.
Had the new additions this go-round made more of an impact, perhaps the repetitiveness wouldn’t have been so notable. But while the core group is as fun to watch as always, the new players surprisingly don’t bring much to the table. That starts with Ultron himself, an advanced form of artificial intelligence created by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) that goes rogue, escapes from Avengers HQ and decides to wipe out humanity with the help of hundreds of robot bodies. To his credit, writer/director Joss Whedon tries to make Ultron a multi-faceted villain, but the killer robot’s mood swings and strange, flighty personality quirks never add up to a compelling character. Age of Ultron might have been better served had Ultron been more of the menacing, straight-forward threat the film’s trailers (and the casting of James Spader) promised. He doesn’t get to interact with our heroes all that much, and his plan to destroy humanity is dumb. You might argue back at me that it’s appropriately comic-booky. But be warned, I will side-eye you and say, “Nope. Just dumb.”
Two other new faces on the scene are Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), super-powered Russian siblings better known to comic-book readers as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. They initially align with Ultron because of a tragedy in their past they blame on Tony. It’s a simplistic but serviceable backstory, although one that Whedon never properly pays off. Wanda gets a bit of revenge by using her psychic powers to mess with Tony’s mind early on, but the Maximoffs’ beef with Stark is casually dropped from the film once the they realize teaming up with Ultron maybe wasn’t the best plan.
In fact, lots of stuff with Tony is casually dropped in this movie. After the Ultron catastrophe, which obviously doesn’t sit well with Captain America, Stark goes outside the team again to create yet another over-powered A.I. humanoid called Vision. This all sounds great in theory because it could lead to the type of heavy friction and discord that could split the team and lead nicely into the upcoming Captain American: Civil War. Except everybody gets over this stuff very quickly, leading to a happy ending not terribly dissimilar from the first film. Age of Ultron needs a massive Empire Strikes Back-esque shake-up in its closing moments. Instead, it settles for a mild recalibration.
Speaking of Vision, he’s the most interesting of the new characters. Paul Bettany (upgraded from playing the voice J.A.R.V.I.S.) plays him as calm and curious, though in full command of unspeakable power. And yet when he shows up in the movie’s final third, he doesn’t have the impact as the Hulk did in the original Avengers once Cap gave the “Hulk Smash” order. That film built to an epic climax, one of the most fun sequences to ever appear in a comic-book movie. Age of Ultron builds to a climax that looks far too similar. And instead of crowd-pleasing little moments like Hulk throwing Loki around like a rag doll, we got lots of shots of our Avengers rescuing people on the side (in response to Man of Steel‘s wanton destruction, I’d guess). It’s a noble attempt at balancing heroism with just fucking shit up but not all that fun to watch.
The movie also seems recklessly patched in parts just to get all the pieces to fit together. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) takes this weird detour to some mystical lake just to provide a bit of Infinity Stone exposition. And, at one point, Ultron has infiltrated the entire Internet, leaving you thinking, “Well, this isn’t good.” But then it’s magically taken care of by Vision in like two seconds using a vague “blue code beats orange code” CGI screen graphic.
This is a lot of complaining about a movie I’d still classify as “good.” The original cast clearly continues to enjoy playing these parts. Jeremy Renner gets a lot more to do as Hawkeye this time and delivers in spades. A fair amount of the early action is thrilling, including the big Iron Man vs. Hulk throwdown, and there are a healthy number of laughs and worthwhile little asides sprinkled throughout. Bits set up in the early-goings get paid off wonderfully later on. (Think: Thor’s hammer.) When this thing is playing on pay cable three times a week next year, I’m sure I’ll end up re-watching it and enjoying large swaths of it.
But, ultimately, Age of Ultron is one of Marvel’s weaker efforts. No, it’s not Iron Man 2 bad, and I’d likely take it over the first Captain America. But that really might be it in terms of its place in the MCU. As far as this year’s big tentpoles go, it’s not as satisfying as last month’s Furious 7, and it’s also probably my least favorite Joss Whedon joint ever. (I actually find myself glad that Whedon, perhaps my all-time favorite screenwriter, will be leaving Marvel to return to his own universes.) So despite Age of Ultron being a moderately entertaining summer blockbuster, you can’t help but to walk away from the theater disappointed because Marvel’s stellar track record has you expecting so much more.