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Avengers: Age of Ultron — 5/10

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015, Joss Whedon)

There’s only one name in the credits of the AVENGERS movies for screenwriter and director, but somehow they don’t feel like the sole personal vision of Joss Whedon, or any one person. Even more than the first installment (which was itself the sixth episode in Marvel’s theatrical TV series), AGE OF ULTRON feels like the product of a conglomerate; it’s a loud, messy, chugging, smoke-belching cacophony of computerized dust and foley effects. Whedon is the man who nearly killed himself making this monstrosity, and his sweat is on every frame of the movie: two hours and twenty minutes of hard work, aching with effort and sore muscles, endless rounds of notes and fixes, and compromises galore — but it’s the powerful odor of Franchise Stability that turns it into something impersonal and ultimately forgettable. Box office aside (which will indeed be gargantuan), this may be the biggest movie in history — it has the most shit happening for the most time, yet it’s only good when it slows down. Which isn’t often enough.

Paradoxically, AGE OF ULTRON feels too long at 141 minutes, but might have felt shorter (and a lot better) at three and a half hours. Overstuffed with plot to the point where I’m not even going to bother getting into it (at least they never say “tesseract” in it), it’s a piñata whose bat is a budget; whose candy is lights, colors, and exploding dirt; and whose birthday party is a comic book. If only it took the time to investigate its themes, it could have been more coherent and less like a headache-inducing Cuisinart. Because when its characters are just hanging out, it’s a funny and wholly endearing film. Downey has been the star of this franchise since its inception in 2008, but Chris Hemsworth wrestles the crown away in this one. The scarcely hidden anxiety on Thor’s face as he fears that Rogers might be able to lift the hammer is priceless, as is his petulant last-word greed in saying “But Jane’s better.” It seems Whedon has more fun when the stakes are low; the beats are allowed to breathe (even the charmless Jeremy Renner manages some good moments) and the actors get to use their faces instead of green screens.

Unfortunately, the stakes get high for most of this metal-clanging amusement park ride. As usual, no less than the fate of the human race is on the line, as entire cities are destroyed, massive ships ruin massive buildings, and the very fact of what it means to be a hero is questioned. This means chases and explosions, flames and robots, arrows and guns, swinging hammers and green fists. You’d think the best fights would be heroes vs. villains, but the best fight in this movie is Hulk vs. Iron Man.

And for most of the movie, Hulk is saddled with a botched romance with Natasha, completely pointless, sexless, and irritating. James Spader is having a blast as Ultron because he knows the tone this movie should take — but Ruffalo still thinks he’s in FOXCATCHER, and Johansson is at the mercy of a story that doesn’t know what to do with her. Also, what kind of a dick is Stark that he gives Don Cheadle an Iron Man suit but won’t even give Nat so much as a bullet proof vest? Same goes for Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, and Renner — they could all use a little armor, right? Thanks, Tony.

AGE OF ULTRON is a curious beast: it’s a massive, massive experience, raising the bar to unheard-of heights for all things blockbuster. Nothing has had more effects, more noise, more characters, more plot, more stakes, or more muscle. Even Michael Bay has to take his hat off. But when you take the heavy 3-D glasses off your bruised nose and emerge from the theater into the piercing sunlight of the real world, you don’t feel like you’ve been challenged to contemplate humanity, villainy, artificial intelligence, heroism, technology, or good will; you’ve been grabbed by a giant green monster, picked up by your ankles, thrown back and forth until you’ve nearly been given a concussion, and then been told that because you ate popcorn and saw a colorful light show, you had a good time. That’s not necessarily my idea of fun. I don’t need to see another AVENGERS movie. I just need some peace and quiet, and a drink.

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