For all the speculation and secrecy surrounding each new Marvel flick prior to release, these films are spoiler proof. Centered around a macho-man with insecurity issues, each joint introduces a new glowing rock that must subsequently be retrieved. The baddies give chase, witty banter is exchanged, and a forced reference to another Marvel property excites the fan boys. Finally, something threatens to either emerge or fall from the sky, requiring our hero(s) to save the day, no matter the property damage. The structure of their plotting is almost as predictable as their utter box office domination: films geeks often refer to May as the start of the summer movie season, but perhaps we should just rename that 4 month period after the comic book studio itself. Since Iron Man exploded onto the scene almost exactly 7 years ago, Marvel has managed to kick off the sunny set all but twice, and has produced the highest grossing summer entry for 3 straight years now, with Ultron almost certainly extending the streak. These things are critic-proof, fatigue-proof, and failure-proof on just about every imaginable level. If you were chomping at the bit to see the new one, you probably already have, and if you don't have the taste for cape-wearing and city-leveling, you've probably already decided to pass. There's an ever-dwindling middle-ground between those two polarities; if you happen fit into that mysterious group, this review is for you.
Although these team-up movies are meant to receive their backstory from each character’s most recent individual installment, Ultron mostly plays like a strict sequel to The Avengers, opening with Earth’s Mightiest Heros battling together as if New York happened just yesterday. The wise-cracks are flying, the resentments have been tempered, the teamwork is inspired, and yet, despite all their joint success, the group is set to disband. The action has always taken an emotional toll on Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has been has been in the ass-kicking business for far too long, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) was basically freelancing in the first place. Dissolving the gang would seem to put the whole world at risk, but Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has a plan; create artificial intelligence by using the alien technology located inside the spear Loki wielded through-out the first film. The billionaire’s hubris is proven foolhardy when his creation, dubbed Ultron, comes to life with the voice of James Spader, and the mustache-twirling deviousness of a Bond villain. Avengers... ASSEMBLE!!!
The secret to the success of the original Avengers flick was in its plot: it didn’t have one. Sure, there were aspiring world conquerers and a slew of aliens that needed besting, but for the most part, the 2012 smash spent its time palling around with the troops. It told funny jokes, established their relationships, and made time for hero-on-hero battles that resembled an 8-year-old playing with action figures after school. Though the spirit of that film exists here as well, the agenda is much more bloated; many of the periphery players from other Marvel franchises appear in brief roles, while Ultron even makes time to introduce Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and The Vision (Paul Bettany). It's Spider-Man 3-level overload, but credit writer/director Joss Whedon for never dropping any of the many balls he's juggling. It feels like a stretch to say the auteur completely sticks the landing, but considering how many different character arches and plot points are scattered across the film's 141 minute runtime, Ultron is remarkably consistent in the fields of comprehension and engagement.
It's nice to see the studio push forward into more complicated, knotty storytelling, but just as their steady strengths are on display here, so are their stayed weaknesses. Disney has already announced the conglomerate's next 11 projects (dating to mid 2019), and detailed casting news that all but assures none of our favorite world savers will be meeting their demise anytime soon. Even on screen, the danger seems mild at best; the hoards of robo-clones Ultron creates through undisclosed means function in almost the same quantity-over-quality fashion as The Avengers' Chitauri, and are perhaps even easier to cut in half. No one's saying it's not fun to kick it with Captain America and the Hulk for a few hours, but a real adversary would take these movies to a different place entirely. When Jeff-Bridges-dressed-up-as-an-iron-clad-Stay-Puft-Marshmallow-Man is one of your company's most memorable troublemakers, you've got a problem. Ultron's fun, and Spader is obviously having a blast in the sound booth, but he never feels truly threatening, and his inverted altruism and game-changing intelligence feel half-baked at best. The action set pieces can also prove frustrating, creating a cacophony with their rapid cuts, and complete and utter abandonment of spacial reasoning. Whatever you do, don't attempt to grasp where one Avenger is in relation to the next during the climactic battle; you'll give yourself a migraine.
But none of what I'm saying really matters, does it? This thing is more powerful than you or me, and as a few melees set in less fortunate parts of the world might be boldly suggesting, its global domination is thorough to the point of being tyrannical and wanton. You probably know 20 people who've already forked out their $12 as if it was a communion offering, and even if their hunger for the product is insatiable, it's clear that thirst doesn't always extend to the creative team. If The Avengers was all about how fun it is to wield superpowers, then Ultron argues that it's an out-and-out bummer, and one would be forgiven for speculating that certain folks both in front of and behind the camera might be buying into the movie's thesis. There will be more Marvel movies of course, some inspired, some phoned-in, some creative, and some hamstrung by studio demands. They will make better pictures than Ultron, and they will also make worse: at the end of the day, this one's just kind of keeping the seat warm.