In theaters Friday, May 1
3 stars (out of 4 stars)
It aims to please. And, for the most part, this superhero extravaganza hits the bull’s-eye with all the precision of Jeremy Renner’s arrow-slinging Hawkeye.
Or put it this way: You won’t find any moments of introspection or wounded psyches here. Writer-director Joss Whedon knows that fans of this Marvel franchise crave the dessert buffet of colorful set pieces, razor-sharp characters and a geekified inside jokes.
So let’s dig in. Once again, the Avengers — Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man) Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) Mark Ruffalo (The Hulk), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Chris Evans (Captain America), and Renner — unite to save the world from global massacre. (When you assemble all that talent for a movie, it’s of little use to have them running around to save cats in trees.)
The impossibly convoluted story goes a little something like this: Tony Stark (Downey) builds an artificial-intelligence machine, dubbed Ultron (James Spader), in hopes of keeping “peace in our time." Don't let the snark fool you: He means well, he does! But the robot goes rogue and develops a god complex. Forget helping mankind — Ultron wants to make the Avengers extinct. It annihilates J.A.R.V.I.S., Stark’s other A.I. program, and declares war. Then it creates its own synthetic creation, named Vision (Paul Bettany, also the voice of J.A.R.V.I.S. Confused yet?). Ultron also gets an assist from revenge-seeking twins Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who have the powers of speed and creepy magic, respectively. To quote Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill, “He’s fast, she’s weird.”
As you might have surmised, this plan entails an exorbitant amount of special effects–laden cartoon violence and destruction. Heck, the gang chases down a few bad-bots before Ultron is a glimmer in Stark’s eye. Though the sequences pop on the screen visually, they don’t pop in terms of making a lasting impression. An indecipherable action scene in Asia, for example, seems shoehorned for the sole purpose of appealing to the overseas market. And the making-things-go-boom climax is a virtual copy of the 2012 ?original. Really. Take away those New York City skyscrapers and you won’t know the difference.
The film flies higher when it stays grounded. As the superheroes take refuge in a safe house, it’s a welcome relief to see them settle down and get their emotional bearings. A new character (played by Linda Cardellini) is introduced here and has an immediate payoff with one of the guys, while an old friend turns up to deliver a much-needed verbal kick-in-the-butt. In even quieter scenes, a genuinely heartfelt and sexy romance brews between Johansson and Ruffalo.
The crowded cast is more of a necessary annoyance. Second installments by design are transitional — i.e., an excuse to infuse newer and younger stars with the stalwarts. And this franchise in particular has unlimited growth potential. Face it: 50-year-old Downey is not going to play Iron Man forever. (Not to alarm anyone, but it’s been 28 years since he and Spader appeared together in Less Than Zero).
So enjoy these original Avengers while we still have them. Boy, do they have charm to spare. This cast sparkles together, tossing off glib one-liners and ribbing each other like comedy vets. Watching each of them attempt to lift up Thor’s powerful hammer, Mjolnir, at a party is hampered only by the thought that the outtakes must be even more sublime. And surely no other spectacle this year will include a character bemoaning the high rent in Brooklyn. That kind of nimble chemistry can’t be faked with CGI.
Indeed, if you’re going to spend 141 minutes in a movie theater, you might as well spend it with people you like. And that is what we want from our blockbusters, right?