The second thing that surprised me about the first Avengers movie was how small the stakes seemed. If there was something Whedon’s TV shows never seemed to be in short supply of, it was story elements that were of enormous personal stakes to the characters. Most often, Buffy saving the world took a backseat to how much the stakes were taking a toll on her personally. She didn’t just have to save the world, she had to do things like kill her vampire boyfriend in order to save it. The third act of the first Avengers is about nothing less than an alien invasion in New York City, and I really never cared all that much about it. There was never any sense of danger or impending doom. The stakes didn’t seem very high to the heroes involved, and the climax really didn’t offer much more than some really cool action beats of beloved characters kicking ass. To be sure, those action beats were pretty sweet, but I never felt like anything really mattered. Nobody ever seemed in any real danger despite the expected Whedon Major Character Death. Even the dispatching of the villainous Loki was more or less played as slapstick comedy, hilarious though it was.
I was hoping for greater stakes in the sequel, and I really never got them. That’s not to say that Age of Ultron doesn’t have a lot of crowd-pleasing moments. It most certainly does – a lot of them. It’s just not the home run I was hoping for, and with all the narrative leg work it has to do, maybe a homerun was never in the cards for it. Narratively-speaking, the movie needs to thread about 15 needles, and Whedon expertly pulls it all together. (All those years as a TV showrunner do payoff in the end.) But, sometimes, those threads feel more like boxes checked off a list than actual inspiration. Even the Major Character Death feels obligatory.
One of the issues I had with Iron Man 3 was how glib it all was. I mostly liked it, but if the characters never react to anything as if it matters, why should the audience care? I’ve kind of had that issue with everything Shane Black has ever done, from the Lethal Weapon movies through the overrated Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. We were supposed to believe that the events of the first Avengers so disturbed Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr. in the role he was most definitely born to play) that he couldn’t sleep without having nightmares. That idea continues as Tony and Bruce Banner are trying to develop the Ultron project, an artificial intelligence that would deploy an army of Iron Man suits to protect Earth from another alien invasion.
Of course, Ultron becomes self-aware immediately upon completion, builds a body for itself, and via the internet can be anywhere at the same time. Even though it’s never really explained (There simply isn’t enough time in a feature film for it.), Ultron is insane and full of rage. He’s aided by the Maximoff twins, who have been given special powers by Hydra scientists experimenting with the Infinity Stone in Loki’s scepter. Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson play Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, respectively, and they exhibit much (Much!) more screen presence than they did last summer in Godzilla. The bad news is the “Time in a Bottle” scene in the last X-Men film blows away anything Quicksilver does in Age of Ultron.
The most stunning part of all this was how dull Ultron is as a villain. The Marvel movies are still looking for their Heath Ledger Joker, that classic villain that really pulls everything together. Maybe Thanos will eventually be that for them. I thought James Spader pulled of a nice bit of vocal work in the role, and Whedon does give the robot some fun dialogue. But, it’s just kind of staggering to me that Whedon, who I would assume at this point can create memorable villains in his sleep, has written Ultron in such a lackluster way. Buffy had The Master, The Mayor, Spike, Drusilla, Glory, Dark Willow, and The First. Even the nerds from Season Six were pretty interesting foils, at least conceptually. Angel had the mind-bogglingly brilliant, evil law firm Wolfram and Hart, not to mention vampire hunter Holtz. Hell, even a flawed show like Dollhouse was able to come up with a way above average nemesis in Alpha. Despite having some nice one-liners, Ultron really doesn’t add up to much of a bad guy, despite being almost totally indestructible. Almost.
The not-so-secret weapon the Marvel films have always had is their casts. Clearly, these folks relish working together, and it’s remarkable how actors chosen to front different standalone movies over a period of several years have such great chemistry together. There are four multiple-Oscar nominees here, and it shows. We love spending time with this cast. The best news of all is Whedon has really expanded Clint Barton’s roll this time, and Jeremy Renner gets a lot to do. He’s terrific. Paul Bettany graduates from being the voice of Jarvis to taking on the corporeal (I learned that word from Buffy.) form of the Vision who doesn’t show up until the third act.
Age of Ultron is that rare animal, a long movie that probably should have been longer. It’s essentially the season finale for Phase II of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so there’s a lot of stuff that needs to be stuffed into it. I had read a rumor a while back that the film was clocking in at a Michael Bay-like two hours and 40 minutes. The final cut comes in at around two hours and 20 minutes and feels like all the fat’s been sliced away, like a Don Winslow novel. There’s not a lot of room for character beats, and I think the film might be weaker for that. I think Ultron himself would be a better character, if he were given more time onscreen to just monologue, not unlike the Buffy villains of old.
Maybe it’s the nature of being the team-up movie, that they’re always going to have so many loose ends to tie up and story arcs to finish (and future movies to stash Easter eggs for) that they may never really be the most satisfying movies Marvel is making. There’s no doubt that The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy from last year were both better films. Still, there is a lot of fun to be had, and Age of Ultron ends with the promise of a different configuration of Avengers. Seeing a new team interacting will likely be a lot of fun. The Infinity War story will be split into two films; maybe they’ll have the time to let things breathe and let the characters have more room to roam.