A horrible future looms before us in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” with machines making war on humankind in order to take over the earth. Yet that’s not nearly so depressing as the other battle taking place on screen, in which computers take over movies to make war on cinema.
Adapted from the Marvel comics, the film was written and directed by Joss Whedon, a human being with wit, feeling and an appreciation of art. Here and there, he tries to let us know this, like a prisoner sneaking out a coded message: A wisecrack here, an expected cultural reference there, a few bars of Maria Callas singing “Casta Diva” over the sound track. But amid the massiveness and din, these little smothered attempts are at best pathetic, an attempt to trick the devil while inside the devil’s pocket.
“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is supercharged and lifeless, frenetic and stone-cold dead, a barrage of action scenes that look fake, yet make you wonder if fake is the new real. It was once a mark of shame to make scenes that reminded audiences of computer screens, but look out, that may be the coming aesthetic. Meanwhile, every so often, between bombardments, there’s a gesture in the direction of explaining things — a few glibly spoken lines in scientific jargon. But it’s a safe bet that no one watching really knows what’s going on.
Yet here’s the thing: Maybe we’re not meant to know. Maybe all we’re supposed to understand is that there’s a bad computer making war on some exceptionally strong humans, and then let the games begin. Bring on the destruction. Bring on the quick cutting – a new shot every second. Whedon may think he’s given us a vision of the apocalypse, but there’s no need to worry about the end of the world. The real worry here is the end of filmmaking as art.
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We begin, as all bad action movies do, in the thick of conflict. The Avengers – a band of various superheroes – are fighting somebody, but you don’t exactly know who right away, but does that really matter? Just the sight of them ought to inspire a rooting interest, just as the mere spectacle of things blowing up should stir the blood – or at least that’s the idea.
Soon the arch villain is revealed. It’s Ultron, a rogue robot, operating out of Sokovia, a fictional country in central Europe. Ultron is the ultimate in artificial intelligence, able to think and reason like a human, but with an ambition to eradicate human life from the planet. The Avengers are the only obstacle between him and success, and so he takes the war to them.
The battle scenes in “Age of Ultron” are especially interminable, because every super hero must get a chance to do something. So we get Captain America (Chris Evans) throwing his shield, Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) riding a motorcycle, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) losing his temper, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) swinging his hammer, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) shooting arrows and Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) making jokes. Each time Downey speaks as Iron Man, we get a close-up of him, supposedly from inside the Iron suit. The sight takes us out of the moment, as it looks like nothing more than an actor on a soundstage spouting bland one-liners into a camera.
In addition to the usual crew, there are two new additions, the brother-sister pair of Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who moves fast, and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who makes what looks like Tai Chi gestures that cause things to explode.
So, as you can see, that’s a whole lot of shtick to cram into each action scene, but don’t worry, Whedon takes his time, so that everyone gets a fair chance to bore the audience to death. It doesn’t help that they’re all fighting the same creature. Ultron has spawned an army of mini-Ultrons, so we get to see lots of actors kicking and flailing against an easily imagined blue screen.
The first half of “Age of Ultron” is mired in tans and browns. No matter what the interior or exterior – from outdoor scenes to Hawkeye’s farmhouse – everything has a tan murk about it, darkened further by the 3-D glasses. Later, things switch to violet before brightening up for the finish. Without being specific, incidentally, the ending is flat, because the story lacks a single focal point of tension. The movie is about 90 percent commotion, and you can’t really identify the climax until the commotion stops. At that point, you can say, “That last thing. That must’ve been it.”
Whedon has talked about retiring from the “Avengers” franchise with this installment. I hope he does. At this point, we can still say he’s too good for this kind of movie – but not if he does it again.
By the way, “Age of Ultron” is not the only film out there warning of the threat of artificial intelligence. The other is “Ex Machina,” which is just as bleak about humanity’s prospects, but offers hope for cinema’s future: It delivers more excitement and more chills with just four characters, a single location and a fraction of the budget.