Watching Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron is like listening to a Coldplay album. It’s well put-together, often impressive and sometimes enjoyable, and it doesn’t linger in the mind or the imagination. It’s movie pulp, entirely appropriate for a comic book adaptation. It seems clear Whedon knows all this, which might make him some kind of subversive genius – Age of Ultron cost around $300 million to make. The best moments (the parts everybody talks about) are the silly (and inexpensive) ones – affectionate winks at the source material and meta jokes about the ridiculous constructs of a franchise tentpole.
Steven Spielberg created the summer blockbuster with Jaws (1975) and George Lucas refined the concept with his first Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983). Those movies were audience gateways to deeper interest in their sources/inspirations and provoked wider interest in movies in general. Setting aside the marketing tie-ins, they were recognizably movies, genre exercises in a decades-long tradition. Today’s blockbusters don’t feel like movies anymore – they are products calculated, sanitized and tested by corporate overlords more insidious and world-threatening than anything appearing onscreen (modern documentaries provide scarier villains than any superhero film.) Although Avengers: Age of Ultron has more fun with the formula than many of its brethren, it’s still too busy, loud and beholden to its connected franchises (the “Marvel Universe,” which demands continuity and ongoing marketability.) It’s not designed (and seems unlikely) to spur interest in anything except Marvel’s products.
When I tried to watch The Avengers (2012), I couldn’t get past the part where Cobie Smulders, in a skin-tight jumpsuit, utterly failed to explain the “blah blah stargate transform apocalypse thingamajig blah blah yawn…” Whedon brings her back for Age of Ultron, in what I’m pretty sure is an unintentionally hilarious bit. This time she stumbles through what sounds like the same speech, except now she’s in high heels. To be fair, Smulders is the only member of the cast who doesn’t seem to know how to deliver the high dork lines, and she’s offset by a surprisingly great Linda Cardellini – surprising because Cardellini plays a superhero’s stay-at-home wife and somehow nails the line “You know I support your Avenging…” (It’s a takeoff on Brad Bird’s The Incredibles (2004) which Whedon had to fight to keep in the movie – the overlords apparently didn’t want the distraction.) I also liked Elizabeth Olsen’s witch, the only character I actually cared about; I kept hoping in vain to hear Stevie Nicks’ Rhiannon on the soundtrack, a wouldn’t-that-have-been-the-shit miracle even Whedon couldn’t sneak in.
I was a fan of Whedon’s Firefly TV series, not so much Buffy the Vampire Slayer or its spinoffs. As a movie director, Whedon’s improved significantly since Serenity (2005), a leaden, bloated continuation of the Firefly story. In that film and the first Avengers, Whedon showed no great sense of how to stage action scenes (he does better in the new one.) His best work is the cheap stuff – Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, created in 2008 as a video webcast during the Writer’s Guild strike, and the black & white Much Ado About Nothing (2012), filmed with friends at his home. He says he’s done with the Avengers series, which is probably for the best – fanboys will still line up for the next installment, and Whedon will be free to make entire movies instead of slipping clever, subversive bits into the piles of money that now dominate multiplex screens.
Richard Brody, an incisive film critic I enjoy reading, suggests that Whedon’s first Avengers movie was a post-9/11 allegory and the new one reflects uneasiness about government surveillance. (Brody rejects the standard “dumb action movie” dismissal and insists that summer blockbusters often display significant mastery of craft.) I can see Brody’s points, but I think superhero films tend to explore such themes lightly; one might also argue that Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) was about intellectual resistance to Nazism. I liked the emphasis Whedon placed on keeping civilians safe in this film, but the heroes’ moral quandaries carried little consequence. At the end of the day, victory was achieved, as it always has been in this type of film, by pummeling/shooting the enemy and blowing up stuff. Still, I laughed a lot and the time didn’t feel wasted. If I didn’t come away thinking deep thoughts or loving movies more, I didn’t hate myself either. Which, come to think of it, makes Age of Ultron slightly better than Coldplay.