Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015)

or (the wholly expected tedium of escalating epicness) (spoiler notice)

This is the movie that broke Joss Whedon. It was so hard to make, with so much riding on it – not just the expectations of legions of fans, but the continued, steam-rolling success of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) – that after finishing, he couldn't even look at the film without seeing the flaws and compromises he had to make. He resigned his position as top creator at the studio. Sometimes, that's the toll of art. Looking at Avengers: Age of Ultron, you can't escape the feeling it was a sign of a monolith falling apart.

Coming off 2012's rather spectacular The Avengers, which Whedon also directed and which propelled him to A-list directorhood, the blockbuster had big shoes to fill and a laundry list of duties. It had to tie up the threads presented in the preceding Captain America, Iron Man and Thor films, develop a host of characters in meaningful ways and introduce a bevy of others. Leave it to Whedon to provide whip-smart one-liners and droll back-and-forth while the plot hops along at a brisk pace. It's why we fell in love with this franchise in the first place. And in some, important areas the story fulfills its purpose splendidly. There's an interesting, unforeseen romance between Black Widow and Hulk, fraught with impossibilities. There are a few moments where we delve into the inner lives and fears of all the cast, exposing their weakness and allowing us precious time to relate to them. There's even a quiet moment or two when we enter the private life of someone we'd have never expected to warm up to: Hawkeye, and his secret family.

But then there's never the room, the space, to enjoy all this. To simply soak it up. Following the laws of escalating epicness, Age of Ultron stretches its action scenes beyond comfort. They're long, dizzying and out of control. Impossible to read at times, as there's rarely a second the camera stays still to register what is happening and who is whizzing by and smashing into which building and how did they get there and when is this going to settle down? You can tell a film has too much insanity going on, when a bout between Iron Man in his hulkbuster armor and the green man himself is a throwaway note, sandwiched between two other dazzling team fights. At some point, it all becomes noise. Visual and aural noise – meaningless and bizarre as soon as you take but a single step back.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier made the promise that MCU films could deliver spectacle while also being meaningful, personal and yes – despite three helicarriers crashing down on Washington D.C. – restrained in theme and character. In contrast, Age of Ultron shows the breaking point of this style of ensemble comic book hero films. It's a better made X-Men: The Last Stand, yet for all the love and work Joss Whedon poured into it, he wasn't able to make it any more of a whole. None of the good elements work, because they lack the time to breathe and resonate with the audience. Every time something promising happens, it's frantically washed down with another action sequence or yet more revelations for future story lines.

It's always been the amusing fact that the stand-alone, single-hero MCU films do and say more interesting things about their characters and worlds than the big Avengers centerpiece did. It was pure thrills and trivial entertainment. Age of Ultron shows how true this is. By wanting to incorporate everything, it does justice to nothing. By saying a lot, it speaks of little. It's so much fun, but so tiring. This movie might not have broken just its director, but the very genre. I shudder to think how painfully loud and crowded a third Avengers movie will by necessity be.

Roderick Leeuwenhart






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