The Avengers return for the summer’s first major blockbuster but there’s little new here – if you liked the first, you’ll like this one as well (7.5/10)
There are a great many difficulties when it comes to adapting any sort of story between mediums. In the case of comic books, the adaptation must take special care in retaining the original’s sense of wonder and excitement while adjusting the more archaic elements like the catch-phrases and dialogue. In the more specific case of the Avengers, director Joss Whedon’s take on the franchise has been light-hearted and spirited, a sleek, cool re-telling of a comic book series that began when editors realized that each of the individual heroes was far too boring to warrant a series of their own. The trouble is, sometimes, the source material’s soul comes into conflict with the director’s vision for the adaptation – for instance, it would be simply uncomfortable if this modern interpretation of the Avengers began using the same catch-phrases and dialogue that they did when their story first began – and yet, remove too many of these signature moments and in the end, your adaptation will feel hollow and plain. Whedon’s most valuable asset as director for an adaptation like this one is that he is particularly well-versed in reshaping a work into something that is palatable for everyone without removing its essence. When The Avengers opened all the way back in the summer of 2012, it was the ultimate summer bonanza. Aliens, superheroes, explosions, Samuel L. Jackson – it was a total romp and it did all that while still capturing the core of the various characters. What more could you ask for from a summer blockbuster? That’s the intimidating question that Whedon has had to both ask and answer. Intuitively, there are only two real routes available to him: switch things up or return with more of the same. Of course, the two can and have been mixed together but watching Avengers: Age of Ultron, it’s clear that Whedon opted for the latter more than the former. While there is certainly some wisdom in notion of not fixing something that isn’t broken, the result is that Age of Ultron ends up feeling a little flat and muddled compared to its predecessor though on the whole, it could still be the summer’s preeminent blockbuster.
Whedon’s approach with this sequel feels a lot like a paint job; for all intents and purposes, it’s the same story but with a shiny new coat of characters and plot. Fundamentally, however, the film still suffers from the same deficiencies as its predecessor and while that conversely means that it retains most, if not all, of the elements that made The Avengers so incredibly successful, human nature is such that the exacerbated weaknesses in this sequel seem more readily apparent than any of its strengths. The biggest problem with Age of Ultron is that the movie’s titular villain, Ultron, never really feels like a credible threat. The story does generate some degree of tension, centred around the various characters’ internal conflicts, but one never gets the sense that these intra-team disagreements ever justify the epic scale of the external conflict. In fact, to the contrary, the moment the team’s internal issues are resolved, all tension vanishes from the story and you know exactly how the film will end. Whedon tries his best to prove the audience wrong but his measures are too little, too late and far too transparent. Yet, what the story lacks in entertainment value, the characters and cast more than make up for. Whedon had already demonstrated a strong understanding of various characters’ voices in The Avengers and he wastes no time leveraging that understanding in this film; some of the most entertaining scenes feature the heroes not doing anything at all. Whether it’s lounging in a bar or idly chatting away between missions, those moments carry with them hours’ worth of character development and often, it feels like the action detracts from the development. This is not to marginalize or look down upon the importance of the film’s action sequences, indeed, they are some of the film’s finest segments, but rather to question the way Whedon chooses to deploy the vast resources at his disposal. It often feels like the film would jump into an action sequence just to keep the audience’s attention rather than when the story really calls for it.
The film’s character driven moments are undoubtedly among its best and that is partially because Whedon once again opts to distribute screen time somewhat equitably amongst his star-studded cast. Of course, not all characters benefit equally from the screen time they receive, but it avoided the larger problem of ignoring a character entirely. One of the characters that benefits the most from the attention is Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, who spent most of the first movie under Loki’s influence. Renner’s dry, world-weary sense of humour is perfectly suited to the similarly jaded-but-not-quite Hawkeye, who often must serve as the grounding force on a team filled with living legends, troubled geniuses and a god. On the other hand, some of the cast excel at doing more with less – neither Chris Hemsworth’s Thor nor Chris Evans’ Captain America are really the central characters of the movie, but both actors are able to get great mileage from their time on screen. Hemsworth especially has really grown into his character since the first Thor movie half a decade ago and has some hilarious moments that play around his character’s status as a god and his divine forbearance. On the other end of the spectrum however, we see the Black Widow get shafted somewhat in terms of character development. A particularly telling quote comes from Scarlet Johansson herself, in relation to the first movie: “She’s not in the cast simply to be a romantic foil or eye candy. She’s there to fight, so I never felt like I was the only girl.” Well, you have to wonder how she felt about every bit of that statement being reversed this time around.
As fun as Avengers: Age of Ultron is, sooner or later, these movies are going to begin running into the same trouble that their comic-book counterparts did: at some point, this whole idea of bigger, better, faster is going to run out; at some point, there is not going to be a threat credibly large enough that it makes sense for small group of maybe five people, no matter how strong, to handle it. Sure, this time it was a near indestructible robot but what about next time? Will it be some sort of other worldly alien? No, we’ve already seen that. Will it be a demonic being of some kind? No, we’ve seen that too. What about an indestructible robot teamed up with a demonic being and otherworldly alien? That sounds amazing – until, you wonder what comes after that. The trouble here is that this type of plot is inherently unsustainable, there is no being backwards; you can’t fight Loki in one movie and then go back to handling something like an international mafia the next. Luckily, with the advent of the Civil War story line, it seems like Marvel has answered the next most pressing question of what next.
Chris Evans – Captain America
Robert Downey Jr. – Iron Man
Chris Hemsworth – Thor
Mark Ruffalo – The Hulk
Scarlett Johansson – Black Widow
Jeremy Renner – Hawkeye
Elizabeth Olsen – Scarlet Witch
James Spader – Ultron