By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
I soon found it wise not to check my watch while viewing director Joss Whedon’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Hoping that a sizable chunk of time was bringing me nearer to film’s end, I inevitably learned that scant milliseconds had passed between inquiries, which only added to the despair and boredom. Admittedly, there are a few good moments. But then a true optimist could probably say the same about a stay on Devil’s Island. So the short review is, unless you’re a diehard fan or video games are your second language, save yourself.
Too bad, because somewhere deep down, but obfuscated by cacophonously engulfing special effects, this exercise in big screen rambunctiousness possesses the same DNA that originally made comic superheroes such a pure and simple fantasy. Just as its ancestral pulp pages calmed and bolstered the hearts of a young readership anxious about spreading totalitarianism around the globe, this cyber age successor rummages about in the newest popular fear: artificial intelligence. Surely they’re going to get us…veritably bite the hand that created them, the ingrates.
Specifically manifested here in the, uh, personage of Ultron, the machine makes no bones—or should I say electrical circuits?— about its mission. He and his ilk plan to supplant humankind. After all, we are weak, merely mortal, and look at the mess we’ve created in the brief space of time since our ascension from the primordial muck. While I’m not sure what these metallic, would-be conquerors might consider politically correct appellation—cyborgs, robots, androids?—they’re all business.
Hence, if you want to keep intact a world that sees the importance of things like cotton candy, flights of fancy, baseball and, of course, love, well then, now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of their civilization. Happily, the Avengers, a motley group of superheroes, was formed to address just such situations. However, just as I found to be the case with organic chemistry, it’s not that simple. First of all, this Ultron guy, bereft of human morality, has the blindfolds firmly in place. He’s all Ultron über alles.
Secondly, our title champions, while decidedly on the side of good and noble, aren’t always, for various folkloric reasons, on the same page. They’re prone to funks. Like the Greek, Roman and Nordic gods they replaced as cultural icons, they come to us with full rafts of baggage; that is, common soap opera-like concerns that we lowly plebeians might identify with, and from which we’re supposed to learn a lesson or two. Thus, in-between everything coming asunder and all the powers that be colliding in repetitious paroxysm, they share their woes.
Poorly integrated into a slapdash script, such bleating plays all too sanctimoniously and hardly gains our empathy. While some of the tacked on backstory might please the sensibilities of true Avengers aficionados, I noticed that any such pause in the film’s frenetic hysteria caused much restlessness and chatter among the audience’s adolescent contingent. As for your auditor and the rest of the great unwashed who unexplainably found themselves in the theater where this was showing, it’s obvious said narrative can hardly balance a plot that unfolds like a runaway train.
Further affirming my out-of-the-loop status, in time I felt like a caroming pinball, slapped hither and yon by indifferent flippers and electron-charged bumpers, their random, punishing blows braggingly announced by sound-breaking din and percussion. Still, while the techno-madness all but exhausted my better judgement and patience, hints of the franchise’s root heritage—the glorious stuff of comic book hopefulness—beckoned. But that promise of true adventure, unequaled bravery and maybe even world peace stayed just out of reach…a nostalgic memory.
Glimpses of it are captured via portrayals that almost survive the morass encrusting them. It’s in the glib swagger Robert Downey, Jr. imbues his Tony Stark/Iron Man with; discernible in the grand virtue Chris Evans manifests in Steve Rogers/Captain America; humorously depicted in the braggadocio handsome Chris Hemsworth imparts as the mighty Thor; and seen in the way Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) attest to the all-too-human problems they’re capable of suffering. Psst! They’re a bit of an item.
Pity is, none of this seemingly random turmoil and clutter is a miscalculation. This is a market driven concoction carefully constructed to satisfy the palates of those viewers who need 4th of July-like fireworks to keep them in their seats. Of course, economic realities preclude a variation on the alternate endings Dickens penned for his readers. It would be nice, albeit elitist, if a well-written, less-is-more version of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” could also be provided, perhaps in the multiplex’s smallest theater, for folks who still enjoy a good story with their derring-do.
“Avengers: Age of Ultron,” rated PG-13, is a Walt Disney Studios release directed by Joss Whedon and stars Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson. Running time: 141 minutes.