Avengers 2: The Age of Ultron -- Too Many Characters Trumps The Fun Factor

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Avengers 2 Age of Ultron Fan ARt made by dDsign of DeviantArt.com

By now you know the main players: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo and Jeremy Renner are back in “Marvel’s The Avengers 2: The Age of Ultron,” reprising their roles as Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Thor, Hulk, and Hawkeye, respectively. The S.H.I.E.L.D. brass, Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill are also back, along with Anthony Mackie as The Falcon and Don Cheadle as War Machine. Idris Elba appears as Heimdall but Tom Hiddleston does not reprise Loki in this installment.

That’s already a rather ponderous list and we haven’t even got to the bad guys yet.

Look, “Avengers 2” is fine. There’s some great action sequences, some surprising character development and it’s a Marvel movie, so it’s going to do huge money no matter what I say here. The thing is, much like the comics themselves, it’s hard to really keep things tight and moving along when you have so many characters vying for screen time. Team comics like The Avengers and Uncanny X-Men have always had a focal character to revolve a story around, because that’s just about the only way to keep the plot moving. It could be a story that puts the spotlight on something Black Widow and Nick Fury did in their early days in the espionage game that comes back to haunt them. It could be a Wolverine or Storm or Cyclops driven story—the rest of the team in either case will be present and contribute but the driving force behind a story will be one or two central characters.

Joss Whedon is a brilliant Hollywood creator. His resume speaks for itself. When “Avengers 2” was over I felt somewhat underwhelmed. Perhaps it was because the first Avengers film and Jim Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” was so much fun. “Avengers 2” was entertaining, but I don’t know if I would call it fun. There’s much less humor in it than in either of those other large ensemble pictures. That’s not to say there aren’t some laughs to be had, but it’s a much darker, more somber film than its predecessor. It also seems a bit unfocused, because there doesn’t really seem to be a central character to build the story around. Yes, there are a couple of Avengers who are directly responsible for creating a mad killer robot, but just because they launched the film’s antagonist doesn’t mean it’s necessarily their picture. Sure, it’s meant to be an ensemble movie, but I really think the narrative would have been stronger if there was a distinct point of view.

Speaking of mad killer robots, let’s bring on the bad guys. James Spader voices Ultron, the self-aware artificial intelligence that quickly comes to realize that the only way to achieve “peace in our time” is to eliminate the species that sows discord and violence, namely ours. Ultron is aided early on by a pair of genetically altered super-twins, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, aka Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. The Scarlet Witch is played by Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen from TV’s Full House. Aaron Taylor Johnson, who played the title character in Mark Millar’s “Kick-Ass” movies, plays the speedy Quicksilver (a different one, obviously than what we saw in last year’s ”X-Men: Days of Futures Past”). They volunteered for augmentation by HYDRA, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s opposite number, and originally side with Ultron who utilizes Wanda’s powers of mental manipulation to lock the Avengers into fantasy worlds in their own minds. If you’ve ever read the Avengers comic you know that the twins won’t be on Ultron’s side for long. I almost forgot—one of the subplots involved Ultron trying to create a perfect vessel for his artificial intelligence. The Avengers intercept it and try to fix their mistake by doing the same thing again, only this time they transfer the J.A.R.V.I.S. program, Tony Stark’s A.I. assistant, into the android form. Thus the Vision is born and longtime J.A.R.V.I.S. voice actor Paul Bettany gets one of the best makeup jobs I’ve seen in a movie in a long time. The Vision looks tremendous, but the need for the character seemed a bit of a stretch.

Spader exudes that same sly menace he displays on NBC’s The Blacklist. Ultron’s personality is much more human than, say, C-3PO or similar big screen robots. Unfortunately, he’s a killer robot. So was the Terminator. So were many menaces to the human race going back to the earliest days of sci-fi motion pictures. Killer robots are just flat-out uninteresting to me, no matter the degree of human personification they are given, perhaps even less so, because if you can make an extremely human-like robot, why make the character a robot at all? Just use a human and be done with it. Ultron builds an army of robots imbued with his consciousness, but again, they’re just robots. Hulk smash puny robots. So does a well-placed Hawkeye arrow, or a vibranium shield. After fighting Loki and an alien invasion in the previous film, a killer robot and his killer robot army seemed like a major step back in terms of threat level. Vision’s creation gives the team an impetus to get to Ultron’s new body before he can download himself into it…with cables…because he didn’t think to use Wi-Fi or Bluetooth? If he used Charter, it probably wouldn’t have worked regardless. But I digress…with the twins’ defection, the bad guys just weren’t bad enough for me. I didn’t see any reason why Hulk or Iron Man couldn’t have handled it alone. Loki’s staff is another piece of the puzzle, but without Loki present it seems like a missed opportunity to really put the Avengers and the world in peril.

Whedon will be the first to admit that this was a difficult, unwieldy film to do, and despite my lack of interest in the antagonist “Avengers 2” is a cool superhero blockbuster. It’s just unfortunate that there were so many parts and many of them weren’t given enough time to be relevant. Don Cheadle and Anthony Mackie aren’t given much to do—Falcon’s barely in it and what little dialogue he has seems to underline the issue. Jackson and Smulders have had more to do on ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. than they do here. I know this is all going to culminate with the big Marvel universe-spanning epic against Thanos, but along the way the Marvel film honchos need to understand that less is more. I think “Guardians of the Galaxy” was pushing it with all of the characters they squeezed in, but many of those came in steps along the path of the central story. “Avengers 2” has most of them working together all the time, and that makes for a very crowded plotline. There are character developing sub-plots that don’t seem to get fully resolved, and Vision’s is perhaps the most glaring. I don’t remember him even being involved in the endgame. Maybe he was, but I was probably a little lost from trying to file in my head all of the other plot intricacies. I worry that it’s only going to get worse—Spider-Man, Ant Man, Doctor Strange and Black Panther should all have movies by the time the heroes finally face the mad Titan, and the Marvel TV characters could likely be included as well for the grand finale (if you haven’t already seen it, you must watch Daredevil on Netflix—trust me). If this film suffered from too many characters, I can't begin to imagine how they'll make it work when there's twice as many more!

What “Avengers 2” lacked in jocularity it made up for in action. Personality exploration was a little uneven and in some cases just flat-out surprising, but I’m an old comic diehard, and I know the movie universe is a continuity of its own. Still, it was a shame that the script didn’t let Jeremy Renner show off his natural sense of humor. Renner is a darn good actor and very funny. As excited as I am for Doctor Strange and more Guardians, I’d be thrilled to get a Hawkeye or Hawkeye/Black Widow movie that lets the street-level heroes be a little more natural.

If I were to rate my top 5 Marvel movies to this point, I'd probably go "Guardians," "Avengers,' Captain America 2," "Iron Man," and "Avengers 2" in that order. Hey, being my number 5 isn't bad. It could always be much, much worse. It could be “Batman vs. Superman.” Even with zero expectation of “The Fantastic Four” being any good, I still say, “Make mine Marvel!” There is a very short scene early in the end credits, but no shawarma served at the end this time.

Grade: 
4.0 / 5.0