Superhero bro-down

Cool action moves, bro.

Cool action moves, bro.

Rated 2.0

The movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are designed to be self-perpetuating sequel machines, soulless products whose only purpose is to set up the next several films in a never ending series of sequel machines. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Marvel “solo” movies like Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier conquer the global box office, and the Avengers movies serve as de facto victory laps/bro-outs. That’s a solid formula, for printing money and hypnotizing a generation of helpless youth into believing that these films count as entertainment if nothing else, and Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn’t deviate from the formula for a second.

As the film opens, the Avengers—the superhero supergroup comprising Thor, Captain America, Iron Man/Tony Stark, Hulk/Bruce Banner, Black Widow and for reasons still unknown, an archer—have assembled for their own victory lap, a final assault on the evil Hydra syndicate (see: The Winter Soldier; or don’t, it was lousy and life is short). Inside the Hydra compound, Tony discovers a powerful energy source, which he uses to create the artificially intelligent global defense system Ultron. Tony envisions it as the omnipresent protector that will allow the Avengers to retire from the business of world-saving, but when Ultron comes online, the robot redefines his protocol for world peace as an assault on all of mankind.

Ultron is voiced by James Spader, but his theatrical personality comes straight from his creator Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Every one of the Avengers smirks and quips and mugs like they’re starring in Ocean’s 14, even as the earth is literally getting ripped apart underneath them, so it would have been nice if at least the evil robot wasn’t jokey and smug. The character of Ultron holds the germ of an interesting idea—an all-powerful manifestation of Stark’s militarism and privilege absent any of his humanity and compassion, it takes Ultron mere seconds to diagnose an extinction-level event—but interesting ideas cannot survive in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and so it perishes.

Ultimately, Ultron becomes a fairly standard-issue effete and condescending Marvel villain of incomprehensible motivation, just another symptom of the victor’s malaise that permeates the film. At times, it gets downright ugly—a valid complaint about superfluous female characters in the Marvel universe turns into a leering joke. In the next scene, Black Widow tends bar for the fellas while flirting with Mark Ruffalo’s Banner (neither of their characters got a solo outing since The Avengers, so they’re paired up like extraneous characters in a fading sitcom). In the scene after that, we get a rape joke, followed by a lot of sexually charged banter about lifting Thor’s hammer. We get it, guys—you hate women.

Instead of bucking the system, writer-director Joss Whedon dutifully serves up more of the same bubble-brained gibberish and wanton destruction. Whedon is pretty much locked into an overarching storyline and house style here, but in an attempt to underline the theme of teamwork, he shoots a lot of the action scenes in a single shot with the entire group fighting together onscreen. It’s an impressive use of special effects (or maybe not, I don’t even know anymore), but nothing seems tangible, and the stakes feel bizarrely low for a film where the characters are fighting over the fate of the planet.

All that, and Age of Ultron is still a step up from 2012’s The Avengers, which was barely even a movie, just two-and-a-half hours of insipid prologue. The action here is cleaner, the motivations are clearer and it’s even kind of sort of about something, for a little while, until its quasi-topical themes of governmental overreach and drone warfare succumb to the inevitable Marvel light show. Of course, the whole point of Age of Ultron is to introduce another of the Marvel “infinity stones,” a group of mysterious gems that possess the awesome and unfathomable power to do things that we don’t need to know about for another few films. It’s the perfect crown jewel for a movie that serves as its own MacGuffin.