Despite the “Avengers” series’ guaranteed billions in box office for years to come, writer/director Joss Whedon won’t be returning after this latest entry. One might ask: What filmmaker and certified geek wouldn’t love the chance to helm the ultimate superhero franchise indefinitely, one that sends moviegoers into a delighted, money-burning frenzy?
Well, one who prefers art to commerce, perhaps. I don’t know Whedon, but I am familiar with much of his work, and it feels safe to say that he’s more comfortable creating geeky, verbose TV shows that reflect his irreverent sensibilities than in manufacturing the perfect ticket magnet.
His “Avengers” films, especially this latest one, “Age of Ultron,” are handsomely made and exciting, but Whedon’s not a visionary cinematic storyteller on the level of a Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight” series). Nor is he a conscienceless pursuer of the dollar like Michael Bay (“Transformers”), which explains why he would not want to indefinitely continue as the director-for-hire of one of cinema’s most profitable franchises. Whedon’s main priority here has to be accessibility, and with that, profit, a concern fused into the film’s DNA.
“Age of Ultron” is a marked improvement over its predecessor, better paced and committed to giving mainstream audience what they want. Even at 140 minutes, there’s so much going on that it rarely drags. Superheroes come in and out at a rapid pace. The team members trade playful barbs and make ironic references to their own powers and abilities. They engage in serious but shallow philosophical debate on concepts such as robots, chaos, and war, without going so deep as to accidentally provoke a single audience member into intelligent thought.
This time the team battles Ultron, a menacing computer program voiced by James Spader. In the realm of movie supervillains, Ultron is more interesting than most, a sentient robot whose supreme intellect coexists with surprisingly human traits, such as frustration, fear, and an expressive face that gives him unexpected depth for a machine. Ultron’s mockingly self-described “evil plan” is boilerplate, but his unusual personality ensures that he isn’t.
Yet, Marvel’s movies have always been about the heroes, and we spend most of our time with the eponymous squadron of demigods and their resilient human friends. As expected, stalwarts Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) are out in front. But special attention is paid to the characters without their own franchises, such as Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), as well as newcomers Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). This smart strategy makes the “Avengers” series feel like more than a mere extension of the “Iron Man” and “Captain America” movies. There’s even some emotional resonance in the quieter moments, as well as a pervasive sharp wit, but those moments inevitably give way to noise and destruction.
Fortunately, the film’s myriad, lengthy battle sequences represent some of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s best. Opening with an assault on a terrorist compound and closing with a battle over a floating city, the filmmakers deliver on spectacle and the promise of each hero having a turn to trash dozens of bad guys.
Between the action scenes and the quieter moments, there’s much to enjoy. But Whedon, presumably against his ideals, never goes too deep, making the overall film somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Concepts such as apocalyptic dreams and conflicts over individual roles in the group are teased and conveniently abandoned. Character after character make appearances simply to advertise other Marvel series. Interesting conversations are halted so that future films can be teased. Even with 140 minutes at his disposal, Whedon has so many corporate boxes to check that the script never fully seems to be his own.
It’s great business and good entertainment, but questionable art. Whedon’s done his job well, and perhaps he’ll be missed, but cinephiles should understand his decision to move on.