April 29 2015 01:34 PM

Engaging new villains outperform Marvel’s favorite super straw men and women

Avengers: Age of Ultron

In the middle of a tense battle sequence late in Avengers: Age of Ultron, smooth-talking archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) senses that new recruit Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olson) is having second thoughts about joining the mega-super hero team. “None of this makes sense,” he says laughingly, attempting to assuage her fears by playing up the absurdity of their current situation. One could imagine a subtitle at the bottom of the screen that reads: “Hey girl. Don’t worry about logic. Just go with it.”

Many audience members around the world will be content to do just that. The latest entry in a seemingly never-ending line of Marvel mosaics is too big to fail. But that doesn’t mean it’s worth a damn artistically. With Age of Ultron, Joss Whedon has created the kind of non-descript throwaway genre film many feared its predecessor would be. It lacks stylistic and thematic identity from the beginning, guilelessly pandering to the lowest common denominator in order to progress overarching storylines toward future installments.

The first Avengers film used cinematic space to explore the tension between competing egos and superpowers. Age of Ultron’s opening sequence indicates just how banal this outing will be. The Avengers team made up of the Hawkeye, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) storm the gates of Hydra’s mountainous fortress housing a key research lab. Whedon tries to impress immediately by stringing together a single long take that gives each superhero an equal shot at mayhem. Despite the shot’s lack of cutting it’s more incoherent and unnecessary than anything in a Michael Bay movie.

Plot-wise, Age of Ultron revolves around the rise of a computer program-turned-monster that bears the film’s title. Initially produced by Tony Stark to protect the world, Ultron (voiced by James Spader) morphs into a destructive force by embracing its creator’s darkest tendencies, giving the Avengers a dangerous foe for the Internet 2.0 age. As voiced by the great Spader, Ultron often represents the only character of true inner conflict, constantly grappling with the inconsistency of its tech origins and apocalyptic endgame.

Two other new characters are thrown into the mix as well. Eastern European twins with equally potent skills, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Olson’s Scarlet Witch give Age of Ultron a jolt of unpredictability. A traumatic back-story provides these siblings with more compex subtext, allowing these talented young actors to break free of the cheap comedy and banter inhabiting many a scene.

When the famous archetypes aren’t arguing, gravity-defying camera movement lulls you into submission, creating the same numbing effect as the deadly deep sea anglerfish hilariously referenced by one babbling bad guy as the source of his worst nightmares. This throwaway scene has more depth than any of the groan-inducing romance between Ruffalo’s not-so-jolly green giant and Johansson’s tormented assassin.

Even more damning, Age of Ultron is snake-bit at times by truly awful dialogue. During a supposedly dramatic goodbye sequence one character tells her badass husband that she “totally supports his avenging.” Olsen and Johnson’s characters remain unscathed mostly because they refuse to engage in lengthy conversations with anyone, instead speaking volumes through sly action. Spader’s Ultron ends up being the only character with anything worthy to say.

This is Whedon’s greatest failing with Age of Ultron, which opens Friday, May 1, in probably every theater known to man. His film’s villains are far more interesting than the heroes because they are stricken with doubt and aren’t afraid to feel it through performance. The Avengers themselves simply won’t stop blabbering about how much doubt they are feeling. The difference is staggering.

There’s a running gag in Avengers: Age of Ultron about Captain America’s choirboy attitude toward bad language. He gets a lot of shit for it, but the film itself is equally prudish toward style and conflict. If only this super-sized clunker had a little more weird coursing through its veins.

Film reviews run weekly. Write to glennh@sdcitybeat.com.