Another summer season, another superhero spectacular - these are the days (and nights) of our moviegoing lives. The one under review today, Marvel's Avengers: Age of Ultron, isn't half-bad, largely because of its director, Joss Whedon. Here's a guess: Some viewers will love it, others will hate it, and still others will yawn at its very existence. None of this matters because the most relevant thing about a movie like this is that its quality is almost entirely irrelevant. It was created to crush the box office, entertainment media and audience resistance, and mission, you know, already accomplished. In an age of lock-step entertainment, pushback isn't just immaterial; it is also suspect.
This is a familiar lament, especially from those of us who didn't grow up worshipping at the altar of Stan Lee et al. or don't watch movies based on brand affiliation. (Guilty!) It's a good question whether the big studios' dependence on comic books is hurting U.S. mainstream cinema and whether they can figure out how to survive without suckling at Marvel's great multiplatform teat. For a Marvel agnostic like me, the single most interesting thing about Age of Ultron is that you can sense that Whedon, having helped build a universal earnings machine with the first "Avengers," has now struggled mightily, touchingly, to invest this behemoth with some life.
He has and he hasn't - in a movie that is by turns a diverting and dreary blur of babbling and fighting that translates into faces in close-ups or bodies in longer shots. The gang's all here, of course, including the billionaire egoist Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.); the straightedge hero, Captain America (Chris Evans); the E.T. Viking with the hammer and hair, Thor (Chris Hemsworth); the token chick, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson); some dude with arrows, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner); and that computer-assisted leviathan, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Rounding out the A-listers is Samuel L. Jackson, who as Nick Fury brings a beautiful bald skull along with an Old Testament vibe and a black leather coat straight out of Shaft's closet. Jackson has a nine-movie deal with Marvel; he has two more to go.
If you're not acquainted with the intricacies of the Marvel universe, it can be hard to keep track of who's doing what to whom and especially why. In story terms, the movie - Whedon wrote Age of Ultron as well as directed - is outlandishly overpacked, taking place on multiple fronts against various foes both terrestrial and galactic. Whedon opens with one of those Bond-style blowouts that's so old-fashioned it even includes a Nazi-type villain, Strucker, whom German actor Thomas Kretschmann plays all too briefly with a sneer and a monocle. Strucker evokes the continental cads a la Erich von Stroheim and is meant to be a Mengele type whose work has produced a special set of twins: the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
Like much of the rest of the main cast, Olsen and Taylor-Johnson are appealing, attractive performers who usually show up in independent productions that probably cost less to make than this one's craft-services bill. Their newness to this world distinguishes them when the screen becomes too crowded; so do the intensity of their contrapuntal performances and the pathos of their characters' back story as refugees turned lab rats. Whedon is a sensitive director of actors, as he showed for years while shepherding "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." His characters banter and quip like screwball loons while parading their cultural literacy (here, someone name-drops Eugene O'Neill), but these are linguistic fig leaves for men and women who feel and hurt deeply.
The upshot here is a movie that lumbers along like a front-line tank, hauling the enormous weight of the entire Marvel enterprise along with it, only to routinely work itself into a frenzy of action and then (shades of the Buffyverse) chill out with scenes of relaxed camaraderie, challenging romance and domestic intimacy. A lot of effort has been expended so that the Hulk can make like a big baby with tantrum issues, tossing cars and whatnot around like toys, including in a disastrously protracted street brawl that stops the movie dead. Once the character reverts to ordinary form as Bruce Banner, though, Ruffalo lifts his every scene, as does Johansson, even if she doesn't have much to do but strut in her form-fitting costume and exchange meaningful looks with a romantic foil.