I'm convinced that Marvel doesn't want me to review their movies anymore. Why else would they give me so little to discuss with each new outing? What began in 2008 as a thrilling little shot-in-the-dark called Iron Man has morphed into a nesting-doll of diminishing returns known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whose last good film was Iron Man 3. Though a much-maligned disappointment to fanboys, that film at least had balls and integrity behind it--unlike last summer's crowd-pleasing Star Wars rip-off Guardians of the Galaxy, and this summer's Avengers rip-off, Avengers: Age of Ultron.
In a nutshell, billionaire genius/Iron Man Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) recruits scientist/Incredibly Gullible Hulk Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to create artificial intelligence, using the recently recovered staff of Loki (a sorely missed Tom Hiddleston) before Thor (Chris Hemsworth) can return it to Asgard. That sentence is as hard to read as the premise is hard to stomach. Have none of these people seen The Terminator?
Anyhoo, before you can say "Skynet", the dynamic duo create a bright blue data-ball named Ultron (voiced by James Spader, doing his not-so-best to avoid sounding like Heath Ledger's Joker; almost every sentence is hushed and menacing, and trails off into a movie-trailer-narrator growl). This new life form quickly determines that mankind is a pest that needs to be exterminated, and his first act is to destroy Stark Industries' central computer, Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany). Ultron then proves himself history's most illogical omnipotent villain by slipping into a decrepit robot shell and threatening Earth's Mightiest Heroes. After a skirmish, he disappears into the Internet and, for some reason, does not send the world into a tailspin of chaos and irredeemable destruction within 3.5 seconds.
That turn of events would require resourcefulness on the part of our protagonists in the face of actual conflict. Remember, Age of Ultron opens in a Marvel Universe where Iron Man allegedly retired, and where the super-secret good guy institution S.H.I.E.L.D. was recently outed as having been run by terrorists. Marvel presses the continuity re-set button here, with the Very Big Consequences from previous installments serving merely as punch lines and reference points, rather than hurdles that must be cleared by the titular super-humans.
I'll admit that, last fall, when Marvel announced their slate of films through 2019, I quickly became skeptical about Age of Ultron. From the titles alone, it became clear that not only would these characters be around for another half-decade, but that the franchise-building would become even more relentless and unsatisfying. What chance does a dust-up with a killer robot on Earth have, after all, when there's a two-part intergalactic opus around the corner?* Yes, Avengers writer Joss Whedon has a reputation for killing off characters, but they're increasingly predictable and unimportant characters. All of the foreshadowing and fatalistic dialogue in Age of Ultron comes off as insincere; we know Captain America will be fine because Chris Evans has already signed up for Captain America: Civil War.
Pile on as many "new" characters as you like, the played-out structural archetypes are still in place. The Avengers has already become the Fast & Furious of comic-book franchises. With only a couple of exceptions, all the major (and minor) players from the interim stand-alone films (Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: Winter Soldier) pop up and blend in with fresh blood like Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and Vision (Bettany again, playing the humanoid and inexplicably less interesting form of Jarvis). Again, they're reference points, distractions for easily excitable geeks to call out--instead of questioning why they've spent two hours waiting for yet another city-destroying mash-up between their favorite action figures and an armada of faceless metal men.
Like all Phase Two Marvel movies, Avengers: Age of Ultron can only be considered "good" in a vacuum. A quarter of a billion dollars (pre-advertising budget) will get you state-of-the-art special effects, quality actors, and unbeatable production design. What it won't get you, apparently, is a script that's worth a damn to anyone who has paid attention to the series' previous nine films. From dialogue that's almost exclusively comprised of quips; to a villain whose motivations are murky at best and inconsistent at worst; to a cynical recycling of set pieces,** and a NyQuil-tired 9/11 allegory, this movie is guaranteed to work its shiny-object charms on first-time moviegoers and those who believe that simply adding chipotle sauce to a Whopper creates a brand-new burger experience. Personally, I feel like I've written this exact review at least four times, and am waiting with baited breath to once again marvel at a Marvel movie.
*The bisected Infity War, ostensibly featuring the Guardians and The Avengers taking on purple-planet-eater Thanos. Speaking of Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin, for some reason), the MCU's greatest threat has appeared in three films now, and his greatest accomplishment to date is picking up a glove.
**I guess Whedon thought literally no one had seen Superman Returns (yes, I realize that's DC and not Marvel).