At some point in the mess that is Avengers: Age of Ultron, the titular heroes retreat to a bucolic, isolated farm, owned by the archer known as Clint Barton/Hawkeye. Serving as the place where he stashes his kids, and inexplicably Linda Cardellini (unfortunately relegated here to a doting housewife), the Barton ranch sequence encapsulates everything right and wrong with this super-sequel from Joss Whedon.
This section of the story provides a much-needed reprieve from the frenzied yet strangely uninvolving action (which dominates much of the film’s 2.5 hour run time). Yet, it also showcases a rather strange treatment of its female characters and how, despite the presence of an iconoclast like Whedon, the film is very much the sterilized, corporate limp noodle one would expect from the Walt Disney Company, which exists only to set up additional sequels. This is so obvious that when Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) asks if the point of the Avengers fighting is to “end the fight and go home,” one can’t help but laugh. Of course it isn’t… asshole.
For any 20-something who has grown up in the age of digital technology, Age of Ultron will be a disconcerting experience, one whose subtext about the rise of hostile tech feels especially potent in this particular movie-going epoch. One of the consequences of the market becoming saturated with these heavily digitized blockbusters is that they ultimately lose what once made them unique. Age of Ultron is no exception to this, possessing digital effects that are anything but special.
This is brutally apparent in its opening scene, an unbroken shot that features a pitched battle in the woods between the Avengers and Hydra, the fictional terrorist organization that decimated SHIELD during the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Now, when I was thirteen I might have marveled at this piece of computerized wizardry; yet, in 2015 I barely was able to remain conscious. From the weightless movements of CGI’d heroes to the disturbing lack of stakes, the opening moments of this $250 million dollar behemoth leave you not with a feeling of elation or excitement but a deep hole in the pit of your stomach.
As far as plot goes, Age of Ultron is both distressingly simple and simply distressing. Its large brushstrokes are understandable enough, yet the thematic nuances are often obtuse, much to the viewer’s chagrin. Basically, the proceedings involve Tony Stark, in all of his characteristic hubris, creating a sentient planetary defense system in three days which then proceeds to go rogue. Dubbed the “Ultron Program” and given life by the instantly recognizable voice of James Spader, this computer program thinks and acts like a wayward child with immense egomania. You long for him to be given a good spanking, if only for the fact that his master plan (which involves, you guessed it, world destruction) is so utterly boring.
Things become a tad spicier when Ultron enlists the help of the Maximoff twins, known as Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch in the comics (embodied here by Aaron Taylor Johnson and Elizabeth Olson respectively). Super fast and strong, Johnson’s Quicksilver is a powerhouse in terms of his abilities, and the actor does strike up a mildly engaging quip-fest with Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. However, it is Olson’s Witch who feels more substantial to the overall plot, spending a good portion of the film creeping up behind various Avengers and provoking visions of their greatest fears. These hallucinations vary in their quality, with almost all of them having a feeling of abridgement. They do however help justify Scarlet Witch’s presence, at least more so than Quicksilver, who is unjustifiable.
This is a feeling that hangs over much of the film’s cast. Beefcakes like Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Captain America (Chris Evans), both so good in their own films, are largely sidelined here. This is due to some interesting albeit unsuccessful choices by Whedon on where he chooses to take his story. To help illustrate this, I must return to the Rockwellian fantasy that the Avengers retreat to and which I mentioned in this review’s opening. There we see how the quieter beats of the movie have been co-opted for bizarro purposes.
One of these is an outlandish fauxmance between Scarlet Johanson’s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk, which frankly comes out of nowhere. There are moments on the farm where the performances, paired with Whedon’s writing, almost manage to sell the audience on this development, especially when Banner and Natasha parse their collective sense of alienation. Even with strong beats like this one, there is still something that feels off about characterizing the film’s one female superhero in this fashion. It’s not that Black Widow doesn’t deserve to have some semblance of a personal life, it’s just that it feels icky to have her paralyzed by unrequited love during the film.
This uncomfortable depiction of women is exacerbated by the script’s treatment of Cardellini, whose character exists to apparently wash dishes, rear the children and tell Hawkeye that she totally supports his “avenging.” Of course, both these women fare better than Gwyneth Paltrow’s unflappable Pepper Potts, who doesn’t appear at all in the film and is reduced to nothing but a jokey comment that Downey Jr. makes through a shit-eating grin.
The other major subplot in the film is the evolution of the Hawkeye character, who in the first Avengers was the plaything of Tom Hiddleson’s Loki. Similar to the Black Widow story arc, I don’t have anything against the film giving us a take on Hawkeye’s life beyond the quiver; I just didn’t want this take. Everything about the character’s personal life, not to mention his insecurity regarding his place on the Avengers, is utterly banal, so dreary and indistinct that I would have preferred to watch one of the Barton cows chew its cud.
These moments of quiet character building are essential to a production like Age of Ultron, where the audience must be given the occasional reprieve from the blitzkrieg of action, if only to keep them sane. What’s so disturbing is that these moments have typically been Whedon’s specialty. They are the kind of material that turned Buffy into the show it was, allowing it to transcend its monster-of-the-week format.
And make no mistake, Ultron is a TV monster-of-the-week, simply enhanced by $250 million dollars. Although Spader tries hard in the vocals department, Ultron never becomes anything of substance. This renders the Avengers’ confrontations with him rather listless, particularly a punch-up between him and Cap on top of semi-truck (which anyone familiar with the comics knows should have been over in like five seconds).
The saddest part is that it probably couldn’t have turned out any other way. Until major studios break their obsession with putting out a half-dozen superhero films a year, individual movies will probably always feel somewhat disposable. This may be a tired criticism of the MCU by now, but that may be because it chronically seems to apply.
Similar to the original film, Age of Ultron postures as being the end times for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It flirts with being a ground-shaking event that will permanently change the course of the MCU. This may turn out to be the case, with the events of the film still being felt in still-to-come entries like Captain America: Civil War. But right now it seems like the opposite. Age of Ultron isn’t a seismic shift in this particular cinematic universe; it’s hardly a hiccup.