Superhero movie fatigue is a real thing, and I’m afraid your correspondent has come down with a case of it. Sure, there have been dribs and drabs before, in the grim solemnity of Zack Snyder’s joyless Man of Steel or the endless recycling of the Spider-Man franchise. But amidst all the clutter, the Wolverines and Ghost Riders and Green Lanterns, the Marvel movies have been an oasis (y’know, Thor movies aside). Iron Man gave us a hero with real dimension, acted sharply by Robert Downey Jr. and directed with intelligence by Jon Favreau. Captain America: The First Avenger had a golden glow of nostalgia and a giant heart at its center. Joss Whedon injected the series with a shot of genuine wit in the first Avengers — he insisted that blockbusters could be (in fact, should be) funny, a notion taken up well by Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. He’s back at the helm of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, which has several thrilling action sequences, a great many good jokes, and an unshakable sense that everybody is just going through the paces.
It opens with a sequence of its heroes quite literally storming a castle. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) are retrieving Loki’s scepter from its resting place in an Eastern European Hydra research base, where they not only find it, but also Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his sister Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), who’ve got powers of their own. (“He’s fast and she’s weird,” summarizes Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill, and sadly, the characterizations don’t delve much deeper than that.)
Once Stark and Banner crack open the scepter, they discover a kind of super-intelligence that Stark tries to manifest into a protective AI that would render them moot. It gets out of control, of course, taking the form of Ultron (voiced by a growling James Spader) and attempting to take over/destroy the world; our heroes must save it, and there’s your movie.
Look, a lot of this works, and well. The Marvel team apparently got the memo about the monotony of their fake-out deaths; when a key character dies in the third act, they thankfully stay deceased. (Unfortunately, said third act reveals that they haven’t figured out how to fix their films’ other consistent weakness.) Whedon also took some hits — many of them self-administered — for the camerawork and compositions of the first Avengers, and there’s noticeable improvement here, starting from the opening shot, a breathless all-in-one that reintroduces the entire team in mid-action. Most of the big action set pieces play, in fact; there’s a motorcycle/truck/plane chase that niftily intermingles its simultaneous action, and there’s something daring about the way Whedon pauses another action sequence as Wanda (aka Scarlet Witch) transports several of our heroes into stylized flashback/nightmare visions.
Those moments underline the writer/director’s interest in keeping a human focus on his characters — in fact, they’re rarely (if ever) referred to by their superhero names. But such gestures can’t help the picture from frequently collapsing under the weight of all its mythology and franchise responsibility. Supporting players from other properties turn up, less like necessary components than special guest stars doing jokey cameos in a Cannonball Run movie. Basic narrative elements — like where the hell Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury is through most of the movie — are left unexplained, presuming better retention than some of us casual admirers (as opposed to superfans) can muster up. Sorry, I can’t clear the week before each new Marvel movie to revisit the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe and two seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. thus far, and you just can’t pay me enough to keep track of, or care about, these “infinity stones” that they keep babbling about.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with throwing in in-jokes and Easter eggs for the fans; what fun is a “Cinematic Universe” otherwise? But the best of the Marvel movies work because they can appeal to a broader audience than that, and in the case of Avengers, much of that appeal came from the pleasure of Whedon’s snappy dialogue. Age of Ultron’s biggest problem is how self-conscious it is about its humor. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great lines here (my favorite comes early, when a baddie barks “NO SURRENDER!” to his troops, they bark “NO SURRENDER” back, and he immediately turns to his underling and confides, sotto voce, “I’m going to surrender…”). But the sense of the writer pushing his whiz-bang deconstructive funny thing is so strong that, in spots, it’s like we’re listening to a Whedon cover band. And this is particularly problematic when it comes to Ultron, who gets so many vocal eccentricities and clever little lines that it effectively deflates whatever limited danger he poses as a super-villain.
But Age of Ultron’s flaw boils down to the typical dilemma for comedy sequels (and, when you get down to it, Avengers was a comedy): the inability to replicate the unexpected. The thrill of fusing the Whedon wit with blockbuster filmmaking is gone; it’s now part of the machine, the way they do business in the MCU. It’s another superhero movie — a good one, above average even, but nothing special. And if these movies are going to keep going for as long as Hollywood intends (and that’s a very, very long time indeed), they have to at least figure out some variations on the same old thing.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is out tomorrow.