More Definitely Means More in Joss Whedon’s ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’

Joss Whedon and his heroes and villains epic offers more this time around -- more characters, more plot points, more action -- and a few reasons for concern.

You want bigger (if not necessarily better)? You want more characters, more villains, more comic book toys and gadgets? Well, Marvel’s latest entry in the billion dollar blockbuster franchise, Avengers: Age of Ultron, has all those things, and as you guessed by the previous sentence, it has a lot “more”. More talking. More important sub-textual plot points. More dream sequences. More Marvel Universe tie-ins. More possible spin-offs. And perhaps most importantly, more problems for the team walking in to take over from an exhausted and spent Joss Whedon.

The Russo Brothers will indeed have their work cut out for them when it comes time to tackle the two-part Infinity Wars project. The footprint Whedon has left on this series is immense. If you have told the man responsible for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Serenity back then that he’d one day be dealing with the most famous superheroes of all time, redefining the possibilities of the genre while creating films that would go on to make billions with a capital “B”, he’d more than likely laugh at you. Now, he’s done just that, setting the bar so high that DC and other fringe members of the Marvel pact can only sit back and stare in jaw-dropping wonder.

The second time around, we lose the novelty but not the nerve. Whedon is still pushing the boundaries here, invoking romance, comedy, sci-fi, and a little horror, all while bringing balance to his two hour plus epic. Most of it works (especially the potential love story between Black Widow and Hulk). But there’s also a feeling of having to overachieve for the sake of the audience. Marvel itself has schooled the rest of the competition on how to make a “proper” comic book film, and now it too has to live by such amplified rules. Last time out, the Avengers had to face an alien invasion. This time around, it’s all out human annihilation via… well, let’s not spoil things right just now.

Ever since thwarting Loki and his plans for interplanetary domination, The Avengers — Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) — have been after the villain’s powerful scepter. When they locate it in a far off Eastern European mountain village, they come face to face with Hydra leader Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) and mutant twins Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson). A battle ensues.

After achieving their goal, Iron Man’s Tony Stark and Hulk’s Bruce Banner use the staff as a means of experimenting with artificial intelligence. Hoping to create a means of securing world peace, they instead unleash something known as Ultron (voiced by James Spader), an amalgamation of robotics and attitude. As with most thinking machines, this creature decides that the death of all mankind is the only way to bring calm back to the planet. Using Quicksilver and Witch, Ultron begins to build a massive robot army while trying to create a “human” alter ego for himself. The results backfire, and a new Avenger with the mind of Stark’s AI assistant J.A.R.V.I.S., now calling itself Vision (Paul Bettany) is born.

The rest is a rush to save humanity, that former mountain lair now part of a E.I.E. plot to wipe the planet clean. We get several sensational action sequences (including an amazing mid-movie smackdown between Hulk and Iron Man in his Hulkbuster armor), and a final√© that leaves its characters with room to grow. Toss in a bunch of pre-Infinity Wars cameos (everyone is here from Anthony Mackie’s Falcon to Don Cheadle’s War Machine), a revelation about Hawkeye’s home life, and at least five different moments when Dr. Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff make cow-eyes at each other and you’ve skimmed the surface of what Age of Ultron is.

As the middle film in a proposed trilogy (albeit one divided into four parts), Avengers: Age of Ultron is no Empire Strikes Back. Luckily, it’s also no The Matrix Reloaded. Instead, it’s a strange bird, a compelling comic book entry that seems sideswiped by the brand’s recent success. Guardians of the Galaxy is more fun. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a more serious take on the material. True, Whedon does step up and deliver, but that word “more” keeps getting in the way. Fans will go away more than pleased. But as an artistic statement, as a chance to showcase what Marvel has done so well over the last few years, it falls a bit short.

That’s because the Avengers: Age of Ultron is both an ensemble and an attempted stand-alone. If you walked into this movie knowing nothing about the history of these particular superheroes, you’d be able to follow things, but you’d also lose a lot of the depth and dimension the other titles provide. Thor is such a minimal presence here that we need his two solo outings as well as the first Avengers film to understand his importance. On the other hand, nothing offered up by Universal’s Hulk reboots can surpass what Whedon does with the character. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is so fully formed that he could survive anywhere. Renner’s Hawkeye, however, apparently needs an entire subplot to justify his presence, and it’s still not enough to make his character wholly compelling.

And then there is Ultron, a clever combination of diabolical plotting and superhero satire. Spader’s voice is perfect here, mocking the entire gang while doing the same exact thing he is making fun of. For Whedon, A.I. (as illustrated by both the robot fiend and his far more compassionate counterpart, Vision) doesn’t mean dull. Instead, both beings question the motives of their “human” masters and make sure the audience understands their confusion. Apparently, motive is what separates man from machine. The superheroes are all about saving humanity. Ultron, and to some extent, Vision, want to understand why — and the answer better be good, less their superior computing power determine otherwise.

Enjoyable and entertaining without the “wow” factor that came from discovering this material and these characters the first time around, Avengers: Age of Ultron shows some growing pains on the part of Marvel. It will still make fans happy while paving the way for the rest of the superhero slate the studio has on tap for the next few years. It’s not the groundbreaking effort of the first Avengers, but it doesn’t have to be. Marvel is making an entire mythology right up there on the silver screen while guaranteeing the eye candy everyone craves. You wanted more, you got more.

RATING 8 / 10