As I watched the bloated, but entertaining, spectacle of “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” I thought back to the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), “Iron Man.” Released in 2008, the story about a man and his suit of armor now seems like a quaint exercise in storybook simplicity compared to what Marvel’s films have become.
Boiled down to its core elements, “Age of Ultron” would be a film about a man, his friends, and a robot that runs amok. But because Marvel insists on stitching together all of its MCU films (which now total 11) into a tightly woven patchwork quilt, it’s that and more.
Way more. Characters from other Marvel films and television shows drift in and out of the movie, serving only to muddle the plot. The main characters take diversions meant to set up their next films, serving only to further muddle that which is already muddled. (If you can explain the point of Thor’s detour to a magic pool, email me.) Only the growing tension between Captain America and Tony Stark seems like it belongs in the film, even as it sets up an epic battle between the two superheroes in next summer’s “Captain America: Civil War.”
There are other problems with “Age of Ultron.” The action scenes, for all of their kinetic bluster, feel like an obligation. As is standard procedure in a MCU film, something evil threatens to destroy the world, and the Avengers assemble to stop it. Super-powerful beings pummel each other into submission, innocent bystanders are saved, and the insurance industry goes bankrupt from covering the damage inflicted on buildings and infrastructure. While a few of the action scenes are well choreographed, the visuals in many cases are a muddy blur, making it hard to see what’s going on.
All of this said, “Age of Ultron” still finishes in the black. When the action clicks, it really clicks, and is fun to watch. The opening scene, in which the Avengers storm a Hydra outpost, is a reminder of why MCU films are as entertaining as they are. (This sequence really pops on an IMAX screen in 3D.) Then there’s the humorous banter that runs through the film. Some might think the wisecracking makes it seem like the Avengers aren’t taking the threats they’re facing seriously, but lines like “[He’s] ... multiplying faster than a Catholic rabbit” (Nick Fury on Ultron) and “Have you been juicing?” (Stark to Ultron) not only bear the trademark wit of writer and director Joss Whedon but are also delivered with impeccable timing.
Then there are the character specific scenes, some of which take place at Hawkeye’s safe house during a mid-flick breather for the superheroes. Although these portions of the film have the substance of a greeting card, I liked watching romance blossom between Black Widow and Bruce Banner, I enjoyed seeing Hawkeye as a family man, and I thought the dream sequences were a clever way of revealing what heroes often have to hide.
I wouldn’t say Marvel’s films are getting old, but they certainly are overstuffed and increasingly routine affairs. Only “Captain America: Winter Soldier,” which was partly inspired by the political thrillers of the ‘70s, stands out as singular and unique. Fortunately, the writers and directors of that movie are working on “Civil War,” and have already signed on to write and direct the two-part “Avengers: Infinity War.” If they can bring the same quality and inventiveness to those three films, the MCU could not only move in creative new directions but also thrive rather than sink deeper into ennui.
For that to happen, studio meddling must be kept to a minimum. During the production of “Age of Ultron,” Marvel executives interfered in the artistic process. For example, when Whedon wanted to cut the magic pool sequence from the movie, the suits insisted he leave it in, as it sets up the next Thor film. Even though test audiences said the scene confused them, the powers that be still thought they knew better, and even threatened to remove two of the best parts of the film (the safe house scene and the dream sequences) if Whedon didn’t comply.
No matter how good the upcoming films are, though, I’ll still be longing for Marvel to return to telling simple stories that aren’t weighed down by obligation.
Two-and-a-half stars out of four. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action, violence, and destruction, and for suggestive comments. David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at email@example.com.