Around the one-hour mark, a character says of the action in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” that from his perspective at least “things are going really well.” A considerable time later one of the heroic types opines that from his point of view, things are “not so bad.” An honest assessment of the movie is that both opinions are overly sanguine. Unable to escape the sophomore jinx, “Ultron” proves an inferior sequel that squanders the good will established by its predecessor. Of course, the initial “Avengers” was one of the best in the Marvel superhero series, so the standard was high, and it’s understandable that in crafting a follow-up Josh Whedon should have fallen short of it. But the best that can be said of the result is that it’s more of the same, just not as good–lots of sound and fury (along with some Fury) signifying very little.
One of the fundamental problems lies in Whedon’s choice of villain and his treatment of him. As in the comics, Ultron is a robot that aims at eliminating humanity—so much for observing Asimov’s first law of robotics (also set aside in the recent “Ex Machina”). But in Whedon’s reworking, he’s the creation of the evil Hydra organization’s Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), who’s taken down by the Avengers in the movie’s opening action set-piece (in which Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, played again by Jeremy Renner, is severely injured). During the melee Iron Man, aka Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) not only recovers Loki’s Asgardian scepter but downloads all the Baron’s cutting-edge work on artificial intelligence—the disembodied Ultron—which he transfers back to his own lab. There he enlists Bruce Banning, aka The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), to help him perfect the AI with plans to implant it in an android that could serve as a global defender.
Bad move, in more ways than one. After apparently vanquishing Stark’s disembodied butler Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany), Ultron (voiced with oily malevolence by James Spader) fashions a robotic body for himself and goes on a rampage, seeing himself as dedicated to Stark’s directive of “Peace in Our Time” but concluding that the mission involves ridding the world of the Avengers and then of humanity as a whole. There follow other action set-piece as Stark, Banner, Hawkeye, Captain America, aka Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Natasha Romanov, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) attempt to prevent Ultron from upgrading himself while being attacked by his army of robotic helpers and by two genetically-enhanced humans, twins Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who use their respective powers of mind-control and super-speed to foil their efforts until, learning of Ultron’s ultimate plan, they join the Avengers against him.
Everything comes to a head in the tiny eastern European principality of Sokovia, where they face off against Ultron and his metallic army in order to stop him from literally ripping the entire nation from the ground, levitating it high above the globe and crashing it back down to earth so that, like a meteor, it will cause a conflagration that will obliterate all human life. They’re joined in the effort by a newcomer, Vision, who represents Jasper’s mind in a newly-minted form, and now played with full-body makeup by Bettany. They succeed, of course, but not without cost.
The movie is peppered with bits of business designed to provide respite from the numerous special-effects sequences of battle—scenes set at Hawkeye’s farm, where his doting wife (Linda Cardellini) and darling children pine over his frequent absence; nightmares implanted in the heroes’ minds by Wanda while still in Ultron’s camp; hints of halting romance between Banner and Widow, who’s the only one able to calm him down after his bouts in Hulk mode; Samuel L. Jackson’s interventions as Nick Fury, dispensing advice and assistance even though S.H.I.E.D. is officially disbanded; another tiresome cameo by Stan Lee (this time as a veteran who gets drunk on some very potent liquor); and, of course the usual humorous bickering among members of the team, with Downey’s snarky interjections leading the way, some of it involving macho posturing over who can lift Thor’s hammer.
All of this is strung together with the efficiency now expected of Marvel’s superhero franchises, though none of it carries the energy of the better entries in the interlocking series; among the cast, all have settled into a comfortable vibe (including the returning Don Cheadle, Stellan Skarsgard and Anthony Mackie). If there’s a sense of lassitude among them, it comes from Downey, who comes across a bit tepid in delivering Stark’s snappy putdowns; it’s probably best that this seems the closing chapter of his Iron Man run. Meanwhile newcomers Taylor-Johnson, Olsen and Bettany (at least in bodily form) acquit themselves more than adequately. And of course technically the film is top of the line, with 3D relatively subtly employed in Ben Davis’ cinematography, though Whedon’s handling of the overly protracted fight scenes isn’t ideal and the sometimes messy editing of them by Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek doesn’t help.
Still, those are minor flaws. The major one here is Ultron himself. Even with Spader trying to add layers of snide cunning to the voice, he’s not a terribly interesting fellow—certainly not up to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. The artificial intelligence gambit is getting rather old anyway, and so are his flying robots that seem like mini-transformers; and the business of evolution passing man by and a higher life form that intends to eradicate humanity to make way for a better future isn’t exactly earthshakingly innovative. Simply put, in plot terms “The Age of Ultron” proves so derivative and repetitive that by the time it’s churning toward the three-hour point (which, happily, it never quite reaches), one has to wonder whether the Marvel universe isn’t reaching the point of over-saturation.
Of course, the audience doesn’t appear to think so: “Ultron” will be huge at the boxoffice and spawn heaven knows how many sequels (and, perhaps, reboots, like Spider-Man). But it’s definitely a disappointment, a picture that again demonstrates the old adage that you can go back to the same well only so many times before it begins to run dry.