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Review: 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' is just a bunch of stuff, and sometimes things

The first sequel to the sixth part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe does not bode well for the next 10 or 20 or 30 years of the franchise.

‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’
Director:
Joss Whedon
Stars: Robert Downey Jr., James Spader
Rating: PG-13
1 Globe (out of 5)

In “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” there is a lot of stuff. There are, give or take, 10 superheroes, plus another three or four humans who are just good with guns. There’s a robot who wants to kill all humans — no, not Bender from “Futurama,” but Ultron, an 8-foot-tall colossus who can pass around his consciousness from one thing to another. Ultron has legions upon of legions of smaller robots — in other words, he has a lot of stuff — and he’s voiced, awesomely, by James Spader, whose every arch utterance is in itself a form of fun stuff. It has more names than four Woody Allen movies, and thinks nothing of treating Stellan Skarsgard, Andy Serkis and Julie Delpy like more mere stuff.There are three cities utterly destroyed, one while lifted into the sky, plus another couple set pieces that are more or less just stuff happening. Some of this stuff is momentarily amusing, some of this stuff is momentarily thrilling, but the important thing is they are momentary, delighting briefly before it’s on to the next block of stuff.

This also describes the first “Avengers,” but that thing had more focus and wasn’t nearly as monotonous and noisy. It took time for mano-e-mano duels, even brief, delightful ones, like the fit of Hulk-on-Loki action. There’s very little of that here, and most of the character business has been silenced for the greater good. This time the all-star team has to deal with some Bad Idea Jeans shenanigans: Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) has tried to create a being to bring peace but has instead created a malfunctioning, and therefore psychotic, program that becomes Spader’s Ultron. The villain quickly decides to rid the world of not only the Avengers but also all of humanity, who are, he keeps reminding us without ever giving a better explanation, dumb or something.

Their strategy involves banding together and finding strength in numbers — in other words, in compiling lots of stuff. It’s going to take a lot of stuff to beat all the stuff that Ultron has, but perhaps they can amass more stuff than the stuff he has. This ensues for 2 ½ hours, although the “more is more” principle does not, happily, apply to length, which is a hair shorter this time than the first. Still, it feels longer because most of the length is just stuff happening, and sometimes things. There is some business about the team (again) bickering and not agreeing, but this isn’t presented through action or character. Our heroes tell each other, via dialogue that’s the equivalent of a simplified Wikipedia page, that they have to get over their issues and form a team. That they do, although sometimes the detente breaks, though it’s rarely clear why. Delving into character relationships is simply the kind of stuff this film is just not into.

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The director is once again Joss Whedon, who was clearly brought onto this wing of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to pummel them into a shape. He’s a proven whiz with dwelling on characters over spectacle, and even though he’s effectively doing the inverse with these films he’s still able to pepper each repetitive, in some cases endless action blob with not just quips but little character moments. It’s impossible (well, maybe not) to hate “Avengers 2” when one of our beloved, iconic good guys is flinging off an observation, and sometimes even some deep philosophical s— about the nature of evil. But this time even these are just things — shiny distractions that will hit then move aside for still more stuff. The action set pieces follow a motorik rhythm: for a couple minutes thing blows up, then someone makes a joke or does something that surprises us, repeat. At times it feels like it’s a few handfuls of terrific actors away from being a “Transformers” entry.

It’s up to the viewer to knife through the thicket to find the worthwhile. There’s a fairly amusing mid-film respite that gifts taciturn bow-and-arrow artist Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) with some surprising backstory. (Hint: it involves a happily now-ubiquitous former “Freaks and Geeks” star.) Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner is apparently now hooking up with Scarlett Johansson’s reliably badass Black Widow, yielding some retro-style banter — but even that thread is given a non-resolution that seems to half-assedly echo “Empire Strikes Back” but ultimately exists to simply set up fodder for some later installment. At one point Banner’s green alter ego is brainwashed into tearing up a city, and it feels like self-reflexive commentary on films like this that thoughtlessly rough up urban landscapes, causing untold damage and misery for mere audience delectation. Then it goes and destroys two more cities.

The mood is fraternal and fanboy-servicing; it’s even all-inclusive. “If you’re fighting with us, you’re an Avenger,” one of them crows, which even goes for former bad guy associates, like a pair of twins, one with psychic abilities (Elizabeth Olsen), one who can just run really fast (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Not that they need any more bodies. Even the film’s yen for endless clones has become increasingly apt at this stage, as the Marvel films will — long as humanity never contracts serious Marvel fatigue — one day be as numerous as Ultron’s army of killer bots.

They're even all roughly the same, with minor variations. In the more enjoyable solo episodes (and even in group efforts like “Guardians of the Galaxy”) all that change are the faces/superpowers. Each follows the same trajectory, leading to a boffo, protracted climax, each indistinguishable from the last. It’s like a series of ouroboroi, every episode existing to set up more films that will play almost exactly like the one that birthed them. But frankly if these films are here for the next 10, 20, 30, 100 years, may they be more like the more manageable “Captain America: Winter Soldier” and less like this, which has so much stuff adding up to so little that it makes the threat of many more years of these things seem like a grim prospect indeed.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
 
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