The amazing thing about Avengers: Age of Ultron is that it’s reasonably enjoyable while feeling less like a movie than an epic sowing of seeds for multiple Marvel properties. Perhaps only Joss Whedon — fanboy, scholar, hack, pop visionary, humanist — could satisfy both nerd-do-well Comic-Conners and corporate masters so thoroughly. He has managed to locate the epicenter of the “universe” universe.
That’s the new Hollywood buzzword: universe. First came franchise, a term once reserved for 7-Elevens and gas stations, which, when substituted for the previously used series, would make businessmen salivate on cue. Then came tentpole, meaning a franchise so huge it could take care of a studio’s overhead by itself — and make a lot of smaller poles (i.e., movies that neither cost nor stand to earn that much), from a financial standpoint, irrelevant. (In publishing, profits from blockbuster authors underwrite the “mid list,” but Hollywood blockbusters are ends in themselves.) The “universe” is that rare Marvel, DC, Star Trek, or Star Wars: a tentpole franchise with the potential to spin off a whole constellation of other franchises in films, books, TV shows, games, and so on. It’s beyond huge. Synergistically speaking, it’s the big bang.
Age of Ultron opens mid-bang, as the Avengers — Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye, Black Widow, and others — attempt to snatch Loki’s scepter from HYDRA leader Baron Strucker. I didn’t have a clue what was going on: As both storytelling and storyboarding, the sequence is a disgrace. There is one nice moment. Iron Man, a.k.a. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), thinks there might be a door in a cave wall and says, “Please be a secret door, please be a secret door, please be a secret door,” and as he pushes and it opens, says, “Yay” — no exclamation point, the teeny throwaway amid millions of dollars’ worth of computer-generated pandemonium the perfect distillation of Downey’s charm. The sequence also introduces two striking “enhanced” beings to the Marvel screen universe, the brother-sister Maximoff twins: the dream-weaving Scarlet Witch of Elizabeth Olsen and hyperspeed Quicksilver of Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Hang on: Wasn’t Quicksilver in some X-Men movies? Turns out he was, but that universe hasn’t yet been linked to this one. Cosmic disconnect!
Here’s this movie’s thrust. Thoroughly shaken by the extraterrestrial invasion of the first Avengers, Stark tells Dr. Bruce Banner, a.k.a. Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), that he’s going to create an interface between the all-powerful Infinity Stone from Loki’s scepter and a computer program, thereby giving birth to “Ultron,” the ultimate planetary defense system. It will bring, says Stark, “peace in our time” — famous last words. What actually happens is that Ultron takes the voice (and built-in basso sneer) of James Spader and the ridiculous bodybuilder physique of Mr. Cyborg Universe and decides (rather too quickly for the narrative, I think) that the only way to save the planet is to kill all its humans, which means starting with their protectors, the Avengers. He then enlists the Maximoffs, savoring in particular the Scarlet Witch’s talent for messing with people’s heads, destroying them from the inside.
Whedon takes the Avengers universe seriously enough to pack Age of Ultron with Big Themes. Entrepreneur and self-styled mad scientist Stark rejects what he calls “the man-wasn’t-made-to-meddle medley” (nice line), holding even when Ultron becomes his Frankenstein monster to his quest for bigger and better technologies. This unnerves Banner (a shrinking violet when he’s not a green, 50-foot slab of beef) and incenses Captain America (Chris Evans), who worries that every time people try to stop a war before it starts, they start a war — the preemptive use of power leading to the kind of fascism he was created to fight. In a late, nihilistic bit of dialogue, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and a new team entity, Vision, decide that humans’ fatal mistake is “thinking order and chaos are opposites” — suggesting the Marvel credo is Buddhism, which isn’t the worst foundation for an action series.
As he proved in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and other shows, Whedon can find the perfect balance between adolescent hero-worship and smartass banter. (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid must have loomed large for him.) His characters make superheroic declarations and then deflate their own pomp, the jokes stopping just short of camp out of respect for the underlying myths. The scenes that anchor Age of Ultron are the loosest: demigods drinking, goofing on one another, competing to pick up Thor’s hammer as if it were Excalibur. Whedon does everything well except, alas, action. He gets by (the Marvel house style is bombardment), but still, nothing he and his FX designers do has the graphic punch of Sam Raimi or Tim Burton at their (increasingly rare) best, or Brad Bird. One problem is the speed, which is too fast to savor all the spatial-temporal variables. The best bit is in slow motion, a showstopper (there was one in the last film, too) in which all the Avengers spin in and out of the frame as the camera weaves among them.
Biggest disappointment? Scarlett Johansson — who nearly somersaulted away with the first Avengers as Black Widow — is forced into a Beauty-Beast relationship with Hulk and becomes rather mushy. So does Ruffalo. The slight hesitation in his style still works for a man who fearfully monitors his own emotions, but the script makes him into a full-time mope. Downey — apart from that “yay” — is getting to be too much the Little King and is borderline unpleasant. Jeremy Renner gets to show a soft side — Hawkeye has a wife and kids in a sweet little country house — but he’s more interesting in volatile parts, like his scary psycho in The Town. On the plus side, the forthright hunkiness of Hemsworth and Evans has its old-fashioned virtues, and Olsen with her lemur peepers makes the Scarlet Witch so charismatically damaged she steals every scene. Last year I caught her Juliet in the worst professional Shakespeare production I’ve seen. Her verse speaking was fine, she moved simply and well, and she managed to seem real opposite an emotional no-show of a Romeo. I was sold, and still am.
Though a mess by all conventional narrative standards, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a fascinating case study in the rules of “universe” storytelling. Chief among them is that a film may not be self-contained — it must constantly allude to worlds outside its own. Marvel fans want extra characters, extra subplots, in-jokes that pander to their supposed breadth of knowledge. They don’t want closure. There is nothing better than an ending that is also a beginning: The sequel must be signaled because the universe must always live in their fantasies.
Whedon’s heart is pure enough to make this far-reaching commercial strategy seem benign. When his superheroes declared that the way to save the world was by coming together, I almost forgot that superheroes coming together make for the kind of franchise tentpole universe movie that threatens to crowd out the films I care about most. The “universe” could take over the world more efficiently than Ultron.
*A version of this article appears in the May 4, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.