Thank God for actors – the real ones who are paid vast sums to be mere movie stars but who need, every now and then, the things that real actors crave. Witty, pithy, eloquent lines to say, for instance, along with actual human emotions to convey, the more complex the better.
If it weren’t for them – and writer/director Joss Whedon’s all-too-infrequent desire to please them – “Avengers: Age of Ultron” would have been close to unwatchable for me. As it was, the entire first third of the 141-minute movie struck me as being big (make that BIG) and busy, busy, busy with CGI and FX and cartoon expostulations and absolutely nothing resembling a story you could give a flying petunia about.
It was only when the Avengers were under attack from an artificial intelligence named Ultron and had to hide out that I actually began to get a little interested in all the violent cartoon action hoo-ha. What all the Avengers wind up doing is going to the small farmhouse of Hawkeye, aka Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), who, it seems, has a wife and a couple of kids (with a third on the way).
It will be a “safe house” for them. They can chill out in private, eat homemade middle-American grub, play with some adorable preteen kids and bask in middle-American domesticity. And the actors can all leave their exclamation-point expostulations at the door and deliver something that ever-so-vaguely resembles real dialogue.
There are, in this overlong CGI-and-action fest, other moments festooned with real wit and a bit of emotional freight. I particularly liked the subplot of the Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and the Hulk, aka Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), being so deep in each other’s psyches and affections that they actually talk about running off together. But, as all Marvel Comic readers have known for many years, the Hulk’s rage-a-holic nature makes his existence in human society extremely problematic for the human species. And that’s something Bruce, in his incarnation as a mild-mannered scientist, deeply regrets and tries agonizingly to deal with. “Where in the world wouldn’t I be a threat?” he asks poignantly, if not quite poignantly enough.
There’s plaintiveness, to be sure, in all that, but you have no idea how much more could have been made of it if the movie weren’t so absurdly jam-packed with tedious stories, uninteresting plot twists and fight scenes between men and CGI figures.
Except for a few moments of human and/or comic relief in 141 minutes of comic book action, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is a story with too many moving parts, all of them going nowhere.
But, as befitting the summer’s first blockbuster, consider the cast assembled for the all-star team of superheroes and villains: Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Johansson (the Black Widow), Ruffalo (the Hulk), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Renner (Hawkeye), Chris Evans (Captain America) and Elizabeth Olsen (the Black Witch). And while they were in the nabe, Samuel L. Jackson, Idris Elba, Paul Bettany and Cobie Smulders dropped in to say hello. Supposedly, Julie Delpy and Josh Brolin, as well, but you can’t prove it by me.
I enjoyed immensely the languid decadence of James Spader’s voice as Ultron, too.
Let’s face it, these Marvel blockbusters are gravy trains for actors. Lots of luck trying to find meat. All you get is an occasional tiny scoop of mashed potatoes to constitute an actual narrative meal.
And a megaton of CGI, battling and efforts at world domination.
So here’s the plot: In his indefatigable effort to marry idealism and meddlesome tinkering, engineer Tony Stark, with Bruce Banner’s help, invents a program to ensure world peace called Ultron. Unfortunately, Ultron, quite logically, decides that humanity is the enemy. (“You want to protect the world. But you don’t want to change.”) So he wants to render the avenging superheroes extinct and start over entirely.
Almost as much fighting and empty destruction as a Michael Bay “Transformers” movie ensue.
That doesn’t mean it’s entirely witless. I liked Captain America’s prescription for the proper wartime ethic among his fellow Avengers – “You get killed? (Pause.) Walk it off.” I also liked Mrs. Hawkeye reassuring her husband that she supports his long absences from home and hearth in their farmhouse while fighting to preserve the world. “You know,” she says soothingly “that I totally support your avenging.”
Well, somebody has to, I suppose.
Whedon knows how to crack wise. I’d have liked about 10 times as many of those wisecracks and one-tenth of the battles.
Some of the CGI is admittedly splendid. You’ve got to love a superhero movie where the villain floats an entire city in mid-air just so he can have the pleasure of dashing it a few thousand feet to its doom. But there’s too much muchness here, way too much.
It made me think of a book about to be published: comic scholar Jon Morris’ “The League of Regrettable Superheroes” (Quirk, 255 pages, $26.95), in which the author scours actual comic history for the likes of Doctor Hormone, Invisible Scarlet O’Neil, Mother Hubbard, Nightmare and Sleepy, Zippo, Bee-Man, the Legion of Super Pets, Maggott and Squirrel Girl.
After a while caught up in the Avengers’ noisy frenzies, I longed to see those superheroes on screen. I might be with Mrs. Hawkeye then; I’d support their avenging 1,000 percent.
THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner
Director: Joss Whedon
Running time: 141 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments.
The Lowdown: Tony Stark invents Ultron to enforce world peace but he turns on the Avengers and everyone else.