Saving the world, repeatedly, is exhausting work.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), aka Iron Man, and his superhero pals have, repeatedly, in various combinations saved humanity’s bacon in the course of a whole bunch of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. And now, with “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the toll of all that effort has become apparent.
Downey, the wisecracking spark plug of past Marvel epics, seems uncharacteristically subdued in his performance as though more than a little weary of playing the world-saving Stark. The thrill, is it gone? Seems like.
Certainly the effort of making “Avengers” movies has worn out writer-director Joss Whedon. “This was the hardest work I’ve ever done,” he recently told a writer from the online magazine Slate. After having written and directed “Ultron” and the first megablockbuster “Avengers,” he’s telling the world “I’m tapped out.”
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There’s so much going on in “Ultron.” So very many characters.
The first-stringers: Iron Man, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff/ Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).
The second-stringers: War Machine (Don Cheadle), The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders).
New characters: Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his twin sister Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and The Vision (Paul Bettany).
The villain: Ultron (James Spader) bringing to life via motion-capture technology a malevolent super robot.
The twins are very protective of each other, and Scarlet Witch’s power to cloud men’s minds and afflict them with disorienting hallucinations derived from their deepest fears is a key plot device. But the actors’ fake-sounding Slavic accents and unconvincing performances make them the weakest additions to the picture.
Spader, on the other hand, does great work performing, and particularly voicing, Ultron, the evil ’bot created by Stark in a misguided attempt to bring about peace in our time via high-tech means. The voice is confident, taunting, domineering all at once, making Ultron a most excellent and sinister adversary.
That’s a lot of folks for the audience to keep track of. All have been given back stories and complicated connections to one another. Like: a budding romance between Black Widow and the Hulk. Like the scientist-to-scientist big-brain bromance between Stark and Bruce Banner. Like the simmering hostility between Stark and Thor.
These connections are the subject of long expository passages salted throughout the movie to clue viewers in as to just who these folks are and what’s up with all of them. It’s necessary information, especially for those (surely a relatively small percentage of the audience) who haven’t seen the earlier Marvel movies or are unfamiliar with the comic books from which they’re derived. Still, even the cognoscenti will benefit from the updates.
Which isn’t to say “Age of Ultron” is just a lot of gassy palavering. Far from it. There are tons of fight scenes, from start to finish. Scenes of Iron Man zooming through the sky, of Cap hurling his shield hither and yon, of the Hulk hulking out, of swarms of CG robots getting belted around by our heroes, of Hawkeye firing his special explosive-tipped arrows. And yeah, what’s up with … arrows? In the midst of all the high tech? That question is actually the source of a pretty funny self-referential joke spoken by Hawkeye toward the end as he wonders aloud about the same thing. Arrows? Really?
There’s property damage galore, courtesy of the movie’s armies of special-effects artists. But apparently someone said something to someone about how the massive destruction in the first “Avengers” battle of New York probably killed mass amounts of innocent bystanders, a toll unacknowledged in that movie. Consequently in this one, the Avengers spend a great deal of time saving screaming citizens from all the havoc they wreak.
Despite significant helping of clever one-liners to lighten things, much of the sense of fun that has characterized past Marvel movies is missing this time around. If there’s one word that best characterizes “Ultron” it’s overkill. And it’s exhausting.