The Superhero Film Bubble Continues to Grow With ‘The Avengers – Age of Ultron’

As deft in its dialogue as it is predictable with its action sequences, Age of Ultron is a frustrating experience, forever hinting at depths that it can’t be bothered to explore.

A sturdy piece of inessential workmanship, The Avengers: Age of Ultron begins where it ends, with Joss Whedon shooting the works. In “Sokovia,” another made-up slice of the Balkans, the Avengers are assaulting a mountain fortress controlled by Hydra. That would be the world-spanning network of bad dudes discovered at the end of the last Captain America to have infiltrated the S.H.I.E.L.D. network. It’s not entirely clear what their motivations are besides being evil. Perhaps they’re ticked off at not having quite as cool a name as Cobra Command.

The gang’s all here, deities and beasts like Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), super-suited heroes like Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans), and regular old humans like Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Between Cap’s magic shield, Hawkeye’s all-purpose arrows, and Iron Man’s ability to fly anywhere and do anything, they’re cutting through the Hydra lines like a warm knife through butter. The Avengers trade quips as they leap, dart, and crash their way through the snowy Sokovian woods. All in a day’s work.

What’s the purpose of all this seamless teamwork? A couple of the usual gleaming MacGuffins. Some Hydra baddies with grim faces and vaguely Germanic or maybe Russian accents (one even has a monocle) are doing terrible things with Loki’s scepter. The Avengers get there in time to get the scepter but not to stop the escape of two Sokovian twins with custom-built superpowers. Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) have had it in for Tony Stark ever since their family was killed by Stark family munitions. Later on, a pesky Stark-created artificial intelligence named Ultron (voiced by James Spader) will get his hands on the scepter and start creating an army of robots to do what every villain in the Avengers films wants to do: destroy the world. There’s also another one of those all-powerful Infinity Stones that keep cropping up whenever a Marvel film needs a reason for people to start smashing things up.

The best thing that can be said about Avengers: Age of Ultron is that it moves more swiftly and more enjoyably than its fun-free predecessor. Everyone ends up in a gigantic air-borne set piece that rumbles on three times as long as necessary, but at least the script sets us up for why it’s happening, unlike the alien ex machina conclusion of the first film. Whedon dashes the between-action moments with light comedy and the glimmerings of a romance between Black Widow and Hulk. Like Jon Favreau in the first two Iron Man films, Whedon brings his A-game to the dialogue scenes, understanding that if we don’t connect with characters before they’re in danger, we won’t care when they are in danger. It’s the sort of formula that used to be de rigueur in the movie industry, but now seems like a quaint relic from a time before CGI took over everything.

It’s a bad time to be a regular old human being on the silver screen. The Marvel and DC empires, along with the surprisingly agile newcomer Lego, have inserted their tentacles into seemingly every aspect of the business like a virus hatched by one of their bad guys. The release dates, story beats, character introductions, product rollouts, and marketing pushes for the overpopulated Avengers team, along with ancillaries in the X-Men universe, the Justice League films, and all the scattered pinpoints of comic-book light (Guardians of the Galaxy, the upcoming Suicide Squad) are now adding up to an entertainment juggernaut that feels either like the dawning of a new era or a bubble about to burst.

With Marvel having plotted out its films through at least 2019, it’s possible to see an entertainment future fully dominated by origin stories and reboots, youth-skewing TV shows and X versus Y showdowns, most of them accompanied by timpani-heavy Hans Zimmer scores and breathy trailers promising — again and again — the end of human life as we know it. Who knows? Maybe by 2020, even NPR will be on board, podcasting superhero adventures in old-timey serial format, with narration by Ira Glass and a soundtrack by the Kronos Quartet.

Come to think of it, that might be good challenge for The Avengers franchise. Whedon had bigger creative and technical hurdles to overcome with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. But he’s already said that he won’t return for future Avengers installments. This leaves hope that he might return to more quick-witted, and honestly entertaining, work like his Much Ado About Nothing adaptation. Robert Downey Jr. as Hamlet? Chris Hemsworth as Henry V? Maybe Chris Evans could play Richard III.

More likely, though, the Avengers films will grind on into the cross-pollinated Captain America versus Iron Man storyline that this entry all too clumsily establishes. More Infinity Stones will be found, more threats to Earth vanquished in the nick of time. That sound you hear is the bubble getting near to bursting.

RATING 5 / 10