Ah, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So named because each canonical entry into it expands what’s as voluminous as the noun itself. As the latest and arguably most anticipated installment, Avengers: Age of Ultron swoops in at the tail-end of the brand’s Phase Two initiative to middling success as our favorite band of heroes unites against a common enemy once more. Accidentally manifested on account of Sir Tony Stark’s overzealous preemptive tendencies, Ultron (James Spader) becomes an artificially intelligent force to be reckoned with as an inherent hatred of humanity spurs a desire to extinguish it. With twin siblings Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) posing an additional threat, moreover hindrance to the Avengers’ burgeoning anti-Ultron offensive, will the two parties overcome adversity and rally against the charismatic A.I. menace?
What hurts me the most in critiquing Joss Whedon’s second and final go with the Avengers’ mythos is how hamstrung it is by pandering to expectations. Steeped ceaselessly in fan-fueled perpetuity, the writer-director’s palpable wit can’t overcome how glaringly exploitative of famously favorable strengths Age of Ultron is. Including and limited to bouts of lukewarm, CGI-doused action and a plethora of character moment fan service, the end result is little more than a predictable resolution to a drawn-out large-scale shit show, of which comes packaged with a particularly high stakes nigh-doomsday scenario to set it apart from preceding set pieces.
As Spader’s agreeably titillating turn as the familiarly self-aware antagonist serves to do that and not much else, Whedon’s best attempts to engage via talky expository foreshadowing can’t infuse the proceedings with a multifaceted third-dimensionality. Although competently world-building in scope, key sequences brand Ultron as a means of further franchise posturing – an almost segue between chapters in the expansive and dependably lucrative niche Marvel’s carved out for itself within the medium. Character psyches are methodically explored – and lengthily at that – to varying degrees of success as said moments serve to negate overarching intelligence in favor of forced additional screen time for everyone’s respective favorites.
It pains me to say that this adherence to Marvel’s own refined and increasingly banal formula drags the film way down. Ultron is so reflective of its predecessors’ shared indistinct personality that it all boils down to one’s proclivity to geek out. There’s enough here for diehard fans to enjoy, and a few welcome additions by way of narrative setup and key players exude enough promise for future success. A-Squad fatigue has certainly set in by now, and although not incompetent, Age of Ultron too consistently suggests a total absence of creative freedom within the boundaries of the license it ascribes to. The star power is ever-present, however charismatic interplay and coinciding snark can only carry otherwise flaccid bombast so far.