Another summer season comes another superhero spectacular — these are the time of our filmgoing lives. The one under review today, Marvel’s Avengers Age of Ultron, isn’t half-bad, largely because of its director, Joss Whedon. Here’s a guess: Some viewers will love it, others will hate it, and still others will yawn at its very existence. None of this matters because the most relevant thing about a movie like this is that its quality is almost entirely irrelevant. It was crafted to destroy the box office, entertainment media and audience resistance, and mission already accomplished. In an age of lock-step entertainment, pushback isn’t just immaterial; it is also suspect.
This is a familiar lament, in particular from folks who didn’t grow up worshiping at the altar of Stan Lee et al. or don’t watch movies based on brand affiliation. (Guilty!) It’s a good question whether the big studios’ dependence on comic books is hurting American mainstream cinema and whether they can figure out how to survive without suckling at Marvel’s great multiplatform teat. For a Marvel agnostic like me, the only most exciting thing about Age of Ultron is that you can feel that Mr. Whedon, having helped create a universal earnings machine with the first Avengers, has now struggled heavily, touchingly, to invest this behemoth with some life.
He has and he hasn’t — in a film that is by turns a diverting and dreary blur of babbling and battling that translates into faces in close-ups or bodies in longer scenes. The gang’s all here, of course, including the billionaire egoist Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.); the straightedge hero, Captain America (Chris Evans); the E.T. Viking with the hammer and hair, Thor (Chris Hemsworth); the token chick, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson); some dude with arrows, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner); and that computer-assisted leviathan, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Rounding out the A-listers is Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Nick Fury brings a lovely bald skull along with an Old Testament vibe and a black leather coat straight out of Shaft’s closet. Mr. Jackson has a nine-film deal with Marvel; he has two more to go.
If you’re not familiar with the intricacies of the MCU, it might be hard to keep track of who’s doing what to whom and why. In story terms, the movie — Mr. Whedon wrote Age of Ultron as well as directed — is outlandishly overpacked, taking place on multiple fronts against various foes both terrestrial and galactic. Mr. Whedon starts with one of those Bond-ish blowouts that’s so old-fashioned it even features a Nazi-type baddie, Strucker, whom the German actor Thomas Kretschmann plays all too short with a sneer and a monocle. Strucker evokes the continental cads à la Erich von Stroheim and is meant to be a Mengele type whose work has produced a special set of twins: the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
Like much of the rest of the main cast, Ms. Olsen and Mr. Taylor-Johnson are appealing, attractive performers who usually show up in independent productions that probably cost less to make than this one’s craft-services bill. Their newness to this world distinguishes them when the screen becomes too crowded; so do the intensity of their contrapuntal performances and the pathos of their characters’ back story as refugees turned lab rats. Mr. Whedon is a sensitive director of actors, as he showed for years while shepherding “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” His role banter and quip like screwball loons while showing off their cultural literacy (someone name-drops Eugene O’Neill), but these are linguistic fig leaves for those who feel and hurt deeply.
The upshot here is a movie that lumbers along like a front-line tank, hauling the enormous weight of the entire Marvel enterprise along with it, only to routinely work itself into a frenzy of action and then (shades of the Buffyverse) chill out with scenes of relaxed camaraderie, challenging romance and domestic intimacy. A lot of effort has been made so that the Hulk can make like a big baby with tantrum problems, tossing cars and whatnot around like toys, involving in a disastrously protracted street fight that stops the film dead. Though, once the character reverts to normal form as Bruce Banner, Mr. Ruffalo lifts his every sequence, as does Ms. Johansson, even if she doesn’t have much to do but strut in her form-fitting costume and exchange meaningful glances with a romantic foil.
These too-brief interludes of the Black Widow grappling with a complicated love interest modestly humanize the film, which helps a little with both its rhythm and scale, making it less of a monotonous special-effects blowout. Repeatedly, Mr. Whedon injects something alive into the mix, be it a woman’s fingers tenderly caressing a computer-generated wrist or children leaping into a father’s embrace. This assertion of flesh-and-blood vulnerability stretches to some narrative points, including a nod at the military industrial complex that is nearly touchingly pointless provided how much of this film has been dedicated to ensuring obliterating violence looks awesome. Even the villainous alien, Ultron, playfully voiced with mellifluous menace by James Spader, philosophically chews the cud about humankind.
Mr. Whedon chews over the same in Age of Ultron (war and people, what are they good for?) in his efforts to personalize the material while dutifully hitting all the genre notes. This Avengers doesn’t always pop the same way that the original one sometimes did, partly as its villain isn’t as memorable, in spite of Mr. Spader’s silky threat. And, as is often the case in these comic-book movies, most of the fights are interminable and fatiguing, though Mr. Whedon does fold in moments of beauty, that when the film slows down its pace with each Avenger centered in the frame both together and individually. This centering crystallizes the dynamic that is paramount to the Avengers story and also suggests the behind-the-scenes push-and-pull battle that Mr. Whedon has waged over two movies.