By Michael Phillips
When I say “Avengers: Age of Ultron” won’t disappoint a majority of its pre-sold, culturally obligated fans around the world _ the world perpetually on the verge of extinction in the Marvel universe _ you know what I mean. You know what the movie promises, and would be foolish, or inept, not to deliver.
Action, relentless and assaultive. Wisecracks, numerous, pretty sharp and evenly parceled out among Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Mark Ruffalo (Hulk), Chris Evans (Captain America, though his are fewer, and squarer), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye) and so on. Three years ago, writer-director Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” turned out to be a sprightly wallop of an all-star superhero blockbuster.So why does the new one seem, I don’t know … a little … small?
It’s a strange thing. These are some of the biggest movies in the galaxy, both in terms of production budget and grosses. The scale of the mayhem couldn’t be much crazier if it tried. In one scene, an entire Eastern European city is loosed from the ground and levitated by the antagonist (Ultron of the subtitle) with malicious, species-ending intent.
Humanity looks like a bad bet against the wily metal ‘bot voiced by James Spader, a creation of Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, and one of those secret projects that got out of hand in the name of preemptive strikes and strategic defense initiatives.
Entertaining as much of “Avengers 2” is, especially when it’s just hanging out with the gang in between scuffles (the “Guardians of the Galaxy” lesson, learned), Whedon’s picture meets expectations without exceeding them. Now that so many “Avengers” club members are busy with their own franchise management, the ensemble “Avengers” movies have everything going for them and more. Whedon has said in interviews that he wanted the second “Avengers” bash to be “bonkers.” I suppose it is, here and there, especially when the mesmerizing, mind-clouding Wanda Maximoff played by Elizabeth Olsen (Aaron Taylor-Johnson is her twin, the superfast Pietro) messes with our heroes’ heads and the movie enters one subconscious nightmare vision after another.
The first half’s by far the stronger, with Whedon nicely in command of his ever-expanding team. The romance between Black Widow and the Hulk, complicated by the latter’s rage tendencies, carves out a goodly portion of the scenario. Fruitfully, so does the increased focus on Hawkeye (a bit of a write-off in the earlier “Avengers”) and his family life. The secret weapon in “Avengers 2” isn’t Ultron, or the glowing souvenir-shop tchotchke that brings the mystical floating Vision (capital V-Vision, played by Paul Bettany) to life. No, it’s Linda Cardellini, supremely honest and un-self-consciously lovely in close-up, in her farmhouse-idyll scenes with Renner. “You know, I totally support your avenging,” she tells her husband, before he zooms off with his teammates again, and while that line is one of Whedon’s better turns of phrase, Cardellini rightly refuses to deliver it with a wink.
Whedon remains a more interesting writer than director; I can’t put my finger on it (a tough thing to admit on deadline), but is it something in his series television training, even though that training led to some great notions and giddy mashups on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” that confines Whedon’s visual sensibility? The action is plentiful and edited, within an inch of a given sequence’s life, for moderate-to-medium clarity and maximum painless pain, if you get the contradiction. But increasingly in the second hour, the close proximity of ravaged, weeping extras and another round of quips gets a little weird. And the fights grind on.
Three years ago at “The Avengers,” the crowd was giggling and already mentally preparing for a second go en masse. A similar pumped-up vibe filled the air at the “Guardians of the Galaxy” screening I saw. Both of those pictures were a tick up from this one. On the other hand, all “Avengers 2” had to be to be successful was “not stinky,” and to offer moviegoers unlimited breadsticks. Or wait. Am I mixing up this Marvel with the newest Olive Garden?