Rich Heldenfels


 



 


 



 



 





There are a couple of ways that audiences for Marvel movies are challenged. One is the need to keep track of an ever more extensive narrative spread across movies and TV. This week's "Agents of SHIELD,'" for example, included a scene that set up events at the beginning of "Avengers: Age of Ultron." And "Agents of SHIELD" earlier built on the events in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." If you miss something, well, you miss out. I saw "Age of Ultron" on Monday, but the beginning made much more sense after I saw Tuesday's "Agents of SHIELD."



At the same time that we have to keep up with the narrative, our expectations for Marvel movies are raised by improvements in previous Marvel work. The first "Avengers" movie set a high bar in terms of the managing of a lot of characters and spectacle in a single film. "Winter Soldier" then demonstrated that you could have spectacle and action while considering some big ideas (in this case, about what people will accept in the name of peace and security; is Hydra OK if having Hydra in charge creates a calmer world?). Along another track, Netflix's "Daredevil" brought a deeper level of grimness and violence to the Marvel world -- it's far more akin to DC's "The Dark Knight" than Marvel's "Iron Man" -- than the most recent movies had generally allowed. ("Daredevil" also fits somewhere in the Marvel timeline, as the keen observers of the "Battle of NY" newspaper headline in "Daredevil" have recognized.)



I bring all this up to explain why, although I mostly enjoyed "Age of Ultron," in the end it felt just OK: an addition to the Marvel narrative and, inevitably, a setup for stories to come -- but not really a thematic or dramatic advance over the earlier films.



In fact, thematically, it covered familiar Marvel ground: as with "Winter Soldier," we are again dealing with what people (and creatures) will do to achieve "peace in our time" (the ironic phrase associated with Neville Chamberlain's accommodation of Adolf Hitler before World War II, although Chamberlain actually said "peace for our time"), and the marginal difference between men and monsters when you look not at their deeds but their motivations (which was also an element of "Daredevil"). 



Add in the sometimes overly complicated fight scenes, what amounts to a make-good for Hawkeye, at least one disturbingly sexist note, and an unnecessary 3D version (which is what I saw) where the darkness-through-the-glasses-lens at times made the image too murky, and there's an argument to be made that "Age of Ultron" is a big disappointment. But, as I said, I still had fun.



The pivot for the film is the discovery via Loki's scepter of a force which Tony Stark wants to harness to create humanoid peacekeepers for the world. Going forward without the consent of the Avengers as a group, he inadvertently unleashes Ultron, which blends with Tony's own JARVIS to become a hugely powerful creature who decides that the way to bring peace to the world is to wipe out the Avengers and the rest of humanity. (The new Ultron is, after all, made up partly of Tony's own consciousness, and Stark both wants peace at almost any price and has clashed with the other Avengers.)



The remainder of the movie involves the global duel with Ultron along with the establishing of several new characters, notably twins Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, who have their own reasons to hate Tony. There are also moments of debate among the characters, an attempt to remind us of the importance of humanity via a reveal about Hawkeye's life outside the Avengers, and more discussions of who's a monster, especially where the Hulk is concerned. (The Hulk is also closely connected to Black Widow. And she wonders at times if she is a monster because of a moment in her past which argues that a woman is judged by old, sexist standards no matter how many butts she kicks or motorcycles she rides.*) 



The battle is often entertaining, especially in a scene near the end which finds all the heroes battling together in a tight space. Director Joss Whedon, in his Marvel-movie swan song (the Russo brothers are on board for the next "Avengers" movies), knows how to make a fight scene work.



James Spader, as the voice of Ultron, is consistently entertaining in his Spader way -- his snarky tone is a consistent reminder of Ultron's roots in Stark and Stark's snark. Elizabeth Olsen makes a good entry as Scarlet Witch, and there are fun cameos by characters from across the Marvel universe. But I wanted more. "Age of Ultron" is merely fun. The first "Avengers" and particularly "The Winter Soldier" said we can be offered more.



*The movie also dismisses a couple of other women characters from previous films in a bit of dialogue noting their absences.