In the way of vapid spectacles, created to generate ungodly revenue and maintained by an unreasonable sense of hype, there are worse entertainments than “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the latest box-office explosion from Marvel Studios and the sequel to the superhero recruitment promo “The Avengers.” Consider the boxing match this past weekend between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. It was the fight of the century right up until the first punch was thrown. The rest really is history: something from the past that will be vaguely recalled by some, if only for the price of the Pay Per View ticket. “Age of Ultron” won’t break your bank, but its true cost is still brain damage.
The little intelligence the film does possess is largely artificial. It takes the form of Ultron, a wise-cracking robot designed by Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) to replace the Avengers as Earth’s mightiest heroes so they can settle down and live normal lives. It’s a good plan, but Ultron takes it a little too far. His idea to protect the human race is by eliminating it. Conceptually, that makes him an ordinary villain, and visually he’s less interesting than a Terminator. But as voiced by James Spader, a point of view starts to emerge: the pure rage of an illegitimate child. He’s Frankenstein’s monster, except he’s shiny, metallic and has unlimited Internet access.
The last point might seem flippant, but it’s actually key to writer-director Joss Whedon’s aspirations. In between the pervasive city-levelling, Hulk-smashing, and the cacophonous blurs that we now call action scenes, Whedon’s script hints at the collateral damage brought about by the mixture of an aggressive foreign policy and advanced technology. The super twins Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) join with Ultron because their hometown once was bombed by missiles manufactured by Stark Industries.
In its quieter moments, “Age of Ultron” is about the enemies we inadvertently create. But instead of mining that political resonance, Whedon relegates it to a plot point. Like Ultron, the twins are just weapons of more destruction. Scarlet Witch, who can read minds and move objects with her own, does provide the director the opportunity for some real visual razzle-dazzle. When she reveals Stark’s greatest fear in a vision accessible only to him and the audience, the effect is powerful until it’s wasted a few minutes later in a stiff exposition scene. The image itself would have sufficed.
In general though, Whedon’s compositions rarely reveal meaning, and his action is only occasionally thrilling. That’s a tough truth in a genre wholly dependent on elaborate set pieces. Apart from the startling shot of a landmass ripped from the Earth and then hurled back toward it like a meteor, “Age of Ultron” doesn’t offer much in the way of novelty. The sequence works because it’s in tune with contemporary blockbuster maximalism, but also because it carries some symbolic weight: that our demise will likely start from within, not from abroad. In a more just world, this particular type of movie would blow itself up too.
A version of this review appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on May 7, 2015.