‘Age of Ultron’ is an unexpectedly smart wild ride
The two things that have best served Joss Whedon, the writer-director of The Avengers and now it’s sequel, Age of Ultron, in his mission to bring the Marvel Comic Universe into the Marvel Cinematic Universe probably are, first, that he is as much a nerd as the fanboys who are his target audience; and second, he’s got a liberal arts background that he applies to counteract all the visual chaos. It would be exceedingly tiresome to sit through 140 minutes of Dolby Digital bonecrunching if there weren’t at least a few lines of dialogue to keep the brain active.
Whedon has the bona fides to get smart on his audiences. After the runaway success of the mega-budgeted 3D extravagance of The Avengers, his follow-up film was a black-and-white micro-budgeted adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. It was a terrible movie (it just didn’t have the right tone and casting was bad), but it proved Whedon has a literary bent, which also informs the Ultron screenplay when. So, if you find yourself scratching your head when Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) jokes about “restoring the doctrine of prima nocta” or doffing off lines like, “today has been Eugene O’Neill-long,” don’t take it personally — it’s just Whedon’s way of showing the critics that he knows this may be comic book, but one made by a well-read guy.
But it is still a comic book. The VFX are often dizzying themselves, so in the quieter, more expositional scenes, Whedon employs the hard angles and dramatic compositions of a graphic novel. It gives the character more of a sense for an interior life, especially when he’s juggling upwards of a dozen established characters, including the introduction of three new ones: Super-villain artificial intelligence Ultron (James Spader) and his minions, supernatural twins The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). In many ways, the movie belongs to them, especially Spader and Olsen.
Spader’s oily voice has well-served him over his career, but ever since the TV show The Blacklist, he’s shown he’s at the top of his game portraying elegant but ruthless criminals. His Ultron, an android created via motion-capture technology, has a spidery way of sashaying that seems both effete and menacing. And Olsen’s otherworldly face conveys a much creepier sense than you typically get from mystical mutants; when she waves her fingers and glares wide-eyed at the victims of her spells, it’s less Jedi mind trick than Macbeth’s weird sisters.
Ah, Shakespeare again. Ultron is an introspective actioner, moody when it’s not ballistically destroying urban centers. There’s a maturity to it, even though the climactic sequence feels strained and overlong. Eh, who cares? It delivers on most fronts, covering the waterfront from nerd to geek. That’s a range, right?
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 1, 2015.