Following The Avengers was a can’t win situation. That film was one of the most successful films, comic book or otherwise, in the history of cinema. It set box office records and was a critical darling. And it was epic in scale, a film that balanced a whole cadre of A-list actors and changed the face of film forever. Any sequel would have a hard time matching the original in any of these categories. FBOL Head Honcho Rich Drees thinks Joss Whedon came close this time around. I think the follow-up is somewhat disappointing.
The film is definitely bigger this time around–both in number of characters and in the stakes the heroes face. But Whedon’s approach to dealing with this increase in size seems to be doing a checklist of what the sequel “needs.” Does each member of the A-List cast get a “moment” in the film? Check. Is there a boatload of attention given to the characters who do not have their own solo films? Check. Every character have at least one witty Whedonesque quip? Check. Do we touch on all that has come before? Check. Do we tease what is yet to come? Check. Does Whedon introduce the characters he grew up reading into the film universe? Check. Is the risk facing the heroes more dire that in the last film? Check. This workman-like approach to the film makes for a mostly solid movie, but one lacking most of the fun and the joy of the original.
What’s most disappointing about this is that there is a better film in there if only Marvel and Whedon didn’t want to make it so big. The new characters (Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch and Paul Bettany’s Vision) are cool, but really they are unnecessary to the film and the way they are featured really doesn’t make sense. Ultron doesn’t really need the twins, and the twins really do not have to join Ultron to achieve their goals. The reason for the Vision’s creation doesn’t make all that much sense under close examination and comparison to what came before it.
Don’t get me wrong, as a die-hard fan of the Avengers comic books, it was a thrill to see them on the screen. It’s just that the time introducing these characters could have been better spent on driving home other plot points. Whedon is a consummate professional, so he gives you everything you need to follow the movie, but what he gives you is the minimum amount he can and still get his point across, and usually only once. Nuances are pretty much lost. Go to the bathroom or to buy popcorn at the wrong time an you’ll miss important important plot points, because Whedon doesn’t really revisit them that much. He can’t. He has to motor through the plot to get where he needs to be.
Another pet peeve of mind is the portrayal of Ultron in the film. Comic fans know Ultron as a villain cut from the same cloth as Doctor Doom and Magneto–equal parts William Shakespeare, Peyton Place and Snidley Whiplash. That kind of “referring to oneself in the third person” kind of megalomania doesn’t translate well to the big screen, so I knew enough to expect a different version of Ultron here. But one of Ultron’s expressed motivations (He has at least three, we’re never told if they are subterfuges to fool his compatriots or just an evolution of his point of view) is that to have peace in our time he must kill all those that make war, namely, all of humanity. That is cold, brutal logic that only a robot with a computer brain could come up with.
So when Ultron starts cracking jokes and showing concern for an associate he accidentally hurt, it makes that motivation that unbelievable. Forget how the way he trips over himself apologizing to the associate he maimed acts in contrast to his desire to kill every living being, the act humanizes him. I found it hard to buy the cold logic needed to come to that ultimate solution from a character so…human. What we needed was an Ultron more like HAL 9000. What we got was Johnny Five at a club with a two-drink minimum.
What is frustrating is that even with all of its flaws, there’s a lot to love in this film. The acting is top notch. There is a lot of excellent fan service here (I squealed in joy more than once during the film). The battle scenes are epic and beautifully shot. And Whedon really sells the idea of a shared universe as a number of supporting characters from other Marvel films make appearances. I really wanted to love this film. But the more I think about it, the less i like it.
The film opened to the second highest opening weekend of all time. That would be good news, except that it is second to the first film. It will still make money hand over fist, but it is likely to not match the grosses of the original. When a sequel under performs, it is seen as a missed opportunity. That pretty much sums up what this film is.