Alright, I made it! I made it to my first destination! Let me go ahead and repeat all the bullshit I was saying coming to this point!
Remember when I was talking all that shit during the Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 2 reviews about how this movie right here, Avengers: Age of Ultron, threw fucking EVERYTHING that suggested that Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier would matter to the overall universe out the fucking window by the very first shot.
It’s maybe a bit more upsetting that the first shot is basically the single best shot in the whole movie (one of many that implies that Joss Whedon is slowly evolving more and more from a writer who can direct to a full-out director; such a shame that he’s too burnt out to want to have anything to do with Marvel Studios anymore). The first shot is a blast of pure energy, throwing us straight into the familiar good fight alongside our many Avengers – Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johannsson), and Thor/Thor (Chris Hemsworth) – all busting the straight fuck out through a fortress in a winding, busy element-crazy CGI shot that feels like a drunken Emmanuel Lubezki beast (even sloppy Lubezki knock-offs make me happy). It makes for a very exciting setpiece that gave me enough of a buzz to get over the fact that STARK BEING IN THE SUIT NEGATES THE VERY DECISION HE MADE AT THE END OF IRON MAN 3.
I mean, yes, I already stated I’m not too crazy for each movie in the series to be a stepping stone/trailer for the next movie in line, but for fuck’s sake if Marvel Studios is going to bother to suggest that promise, then deliver on those promises. Sure, the main premise of the film – Stark’s decision to invent an A.I. to take over the Avengers’ job for them, leading to the self-awareness and ego of Ultron (James Spader, never has an actor been so perfectly cast for a character only to be put to poor use) – actively demands that character development over Phase Two is ignored but holy shit, if they’re that dedicated to just having another product, no wonder this movie felt like a fucking obligation.
And I’m serious. It felt like an obligation. For Whedon, for the cast (Downey Jr. looking more and more bored within the role with every appearance), for the audience to show up, everyone who isn’t producer Kevin Feige. It retreads every single beat – character, comedic, arc, every single beat – from the first Avengers and unfortunately this time around it isn’t able to catch itself being as fresh 3 years past its expiration date. It’s bottom feeder Whedon-esque material and while I don’t hate everything Whedon has done enough (The Firefly franchise is much too wonderful), I don’t find it as enjoyable as James Gunn or Shane Black work and having to settle for this shows Whedon’s immense limitations as his primary golden talent: as a writer.
But hell, for a retread, at least this time around characters do have stuff to do for the most part. We’ve got each Avenger having their own primary stake in the conflict this time around beyond simply “saving the world”, even Hawkeye – who is probably given immense narrative and character compensation due to Renner being sidelined for the majority of the previous film. I mean, it ain’t perfect – Thor’s still wandering around a bit prior to the BIG BOOM climax of the film.
Speaking of characters, there are of course some newbies that don’t entirely work. James Spader as Ultron, the giant motherfucking robot who is unstoppable, ambitious, and hateful of humanity, is a matchmade in heaven, with his sly low tenor voice and ability to make every line sound like it slithers out of his gut in terrifyingly cynical manner (this was a John Hughes muse at one point, wasn’t he?). How disappointing it is to take this villain to becoming a very less than amusing extension of Tony Stark’s personality. Maybe he had to carry the weight from how sleepy Downey Jr. feels as Stark by now and it makes sense on a narrative standpoint, but having Whedon drop all of his leftover quips on the villain makes him less than menacing and more like a clown. But of course, Spader is no joker of an actor and he knows how to keep his character afloat. The same cannot be said of his little sidekicks, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff – played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olson respectively. They are paper-thin existences who only exist to be cannon fodder without any real personality behind them beyond trying to be caricatures of impoverished and persecuted Eastern Europeans and even faker accents from each of them that have more slips than a girl’s locker room.
Taylor-Johnson especially is my least favorite performance. I already hated the shit out of him but he plays Slavic victim of persecution the same fucking way Ansel Elgort plays cancer sufferer, with a shitload of smug white boy attitude that makes me think the guy has never heard of a third-world country in his fucking life. I mean, hell, if they were so desperate for such an obnoxiously egotistical character why not have him performed by Zlatan Ibrahimovic and have him actually be likable.
But of course, there are some shimmering lights that come in the way of introducing Paul Bettany to the MCU in a flesh-and-bone performance as Vision. The solemn gravity that Bettany brings to the lines that Whedon has written as pseudo intellectualism comes off as Shakespearean. It’s the opposite of Whedonisms bringing Spader down, it’s Bettany elevating that shit. With facial expressions that tell all even underneath the most believable make-up job I’ve ever seen, allowing Bettany full and free movement whilst giving him the façade of looking like he’s made out of actual metal.
But of course, we can’t all be Bettany doing backflips over the chewy dialogue or Renner being given well enough material, Samuel L. Jackson enters again feeling like an obligation to give the team their motivational speech after a due butt-kicking and once again it feels entirely reminiscent of moments in the franchise we already saw. Scarlett Johannesson and Mark Ruffalo deal with a romance subplot that isn’t too much of a chore until Johannsson has to recite lines of dialogue about her anatomy that kind of don’t seem like things Whedon really knows how to talk about (in fact, it quit him under a hail of Twitter fire that eventually forced him to leave the site). And Evans tries desperately to make it seem like he’s not reciting the same ideals he already did in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Anyway, some setpieces impressing me (including the Hulkbuster vs. Hulk being a proper mix of slapstick and monster rampage that I for once could smile at – even with its anti-climactic ending that punctuates it as fan service) and characters being able to be more involved doesn’t stop me from being disappointed from how Avengers: Age of Ultron is the most dismissive thing the Marvel Cinematic Universe could ever have done to itself – admitting that nothing in any of the characters’ lives matter if they get in the way of the next moneymaker and implying the worst to happen to Thor: Ragnarok and Captain America: Civil War, where we will have to watch characters skip over entire beats to undo their development in service to the plot.
It is one giant billboard to how Marvel Studios has now begun to lay its cards.