During the press tour for Avengers: Age of Ultron - a press tour marked by an uncommon number of wrong turns by the participants - writer-director Joss Whedon admitted almost in so many words that making the film was exhausting and no fun and he wasn't happy with the final product. It helps to know that, but it's easy to guess something like that was the case: more than any other film yet made in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an eleven-film franchise marked above all by the commercial slickness and uniformity of its products, Age of Ultron feels helplessly obligatory and formulaic.

In the three years since The Avengers came out and made utterly silly amounts of money, the studio's "Phase 2" of movies have all tried to push into new territory, even if it's all within the limits of the most obviously corporatised filmmaking in contemporary Hollywood: Iron Man 3 dug down into character details and flashed some acerbic, Shane Black flair, and 2014's one-two punch of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy saw the franchise at its most seriously consequential and then its most beguilingly sugary and breezy, ending in what could easily be defended as its two most self-contained, satisfying achievements since it kicked off. Even poor Thor: The Dark World tried to expand the scale and grandeur of the series' universe, no matter how badly it fumbled every aspect of carrying out that task. And here's Age of Ultron, and it is the most disappointing thing possible after that run of four movies: it's a straight-up retread, soullessly grinding its way through most of the exact same things that worked before in the hope that they'll work again, only all of the individual elements were more novel and more impressively achieved three years ago. There's too much of Whedon's personality bleeding through, in good ways and bad, to write it off as an impersonal non-effort, but damn, it does manage to feel perfunctory.

The film begins in medias res, which is probably the best thing it ever does; re-introducing the six-hero team of the Avengers by showing them as the exemplars of self-consciously iconic kinetic moviemaking. Honestly, get as far as the end of this sequence, and Age of Ultron seems to be setting itself up to be a much better work of popcorn cinema than the original - while the "Avengers diving across the screen in slow-motion" shot heavily pimped in the trailers isn't a patch on the "360° around the Avengers" shot heavily pimped in the trailers for the original, there's no other respect in which sequence isn't an improvement on all the action in The Avengers: the CG-aided long takes are wonderfully woven through the action and the location, the way that the characters' zingy quips punctuate the action feels perfectly like the way dialogue and violence interact in a comic book, and the characters are each showcased doing something specific and important. I had a better idea of why the archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) was even a member of the Avengers within Age of Ultron's first ten minutes than after the whole running time of the last movie.

It's not true that the film never matches this moment again, though this is absolutely the peak as far as action goes. The lack of context for what's going on - and we'll eventually receive an explanation, but not till after it's all over - means that the action really doesn't feel like anything but raw, untethered spectacle, making it hard to care beyond the momentary rush of adrenaline and the sheer pleasure of onscreen momentum. Which, to be sure, I don't regard as a problem. But motivating its action sequences never gets much easier for the film, no matter how much plot it packs them in, and there's nothing to follow that's as impressively mounted or stylistically ambitious (and we're not talking about off-the-charts ambition even in this case). The big sprawling climax, which enormously resembles the big sprawling climax of The Avengers with a paint job on the bad guys and different backgrounds, is clumsily paced and littered with moments for the action to stop to show us the heroes patiently saving civilians - a pointed riposte to the destruction-happy Man of Steel (or at least, the moralistic dialogue that happened around Man of Steel), but one that could be easily handled with about a quarter as many cutaways, which only really serve to inelegantly stomp the film's rhythm to the curb.

But let's back off from the climax. There's a lot of movie to get through before that point, some of it fun, much of it dismayingly samey and forced - Whedon's habitual quips have maybe never, in all of his writing, seem so joylessly fitted into a movie that doesn't quite know what to do with them, and delivered by actors who seem so annoyed at having to speak them (Renner is the only recurring cast member who could even arguably be accused of giving his best performance in his role in this particular entry). The best moments are the quietest, character-driven ones; the ones in which Natasha "Black Widow" Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce "Hulk" Banner (Mark Ruffalo) fence around their mutual attraction (though there's a tone-deaf scene where she discusses her biological past that's an especially weird choice coming from somebody as proud to declare himself a feminist as Whedon), or the film's obvious, maybe even objectively best scene, where the heroes get drunk in Tony "Iron Man" Stark's (Robert Downey, Jr.) high-tech superbuilding, goof around with casual camaraderie, get into the best dick-measuring contest in any recent movie, and make terrible decisions. These parts of the film are marvelous. The parts that aren't are the ones where the actual plot tries to do anything, with Stark making one of those terrible decisions, and creating an unbeatable sentient robot named Ultron (voiced and motion-performed by James Spader), who does what super-intelligent movie robots will do, and decide that to preserve peace and harmony, he must destroy all humans.

Everything to do with that whole deal is just a pointless retread of The Avengers with Spader's sarcastic, self-aware performance making for a great character - it's the best performance in the film - and yet another in the long line of lousy Marvel movie villains whose plots are too convoluted and huge and generic to take seriously or remember clearly. The film doesn't manage to take advantage of the one strength afforded by the somewhat cumbersome "shared universe" conceit, and draw on our awareness of how the characters have changed and grown in their own movies - Stark, Romanoff, and Steve "Captain America" Rogers (Chris Evans) don't seem nearly as nuanced or complex as they did the last time we saw any of them, and they don't seem particularly interesting purely in reference to this film: Stark gets the first two-thirds of a really deep and dark character arc that the movie pointedly fails to follow through on. The film's new characters, twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) are inconsistent and plain, with motivations that vanish three-quarters of the way through the film, and comically awful Eastern European accents preventing either actor from doing much of interest with the roles. The film cares not a whit for psychology, even though it keeps pantomiming as though it does; it mostly wants to fit colorful personalities into situations and fights that have come to feel increasingly routine as we see the same basic plot beats from every other Marvel movie play out (I swear to God: I don't care how bland or ineffective it might be, I want just one of these movies to end with a final setpiece that doesn't take place in the sky).

I have to say one thing in the film's favor, though: it didn't really strike me as overstuffed - at least, it didn't feel like it had the wrong running time. Perhaps the wrong things were pulled out to carve it down, leaving such obviously dangling plot threads as basically everything surround Thor (Chris Hemsworth), easily the character left with the least to do in this film, as he busily disappears for what feels like a whole act to go set up his next film. Due in 2017, because try as one might, it's hard not to have the whole ungainly mess of upcoming Marvel releases lingering on one's brain. For example, the whole time I was watching Age of Ultron, I kept thinking about how much I wished it would just skip ahead to next summer's Captain America: Civil War already, which feels like its going to be consequential and character-driven in all the exact ways that Age of Ultron signally isn't. It's just one more damn world-ending plot foiled by characters doing exactly what we expect them to do in action sequences that are shot, edited, and scored like a whole bunch of other action sequences in the last few years, only with more of a palpable sense of exhaustion. It's a thoroughly competent movie, sure; but its competence is so routine and mechanical as to leave the thing overwhelmingly dull.

Reviews in this series
Iron Man (Favreau, 2008) | The Incredible Hulk (Leterrier, 2008) | Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010) | Thor (Branagh, 2011) | Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011) | The Avengers (Whedon, 2012) | Iron Man 3 (Black, 2013) | Thor: The Dark World (Taylor, 2013) | Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo Brothers, 2014) | Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014) | Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015) | Ant-Man (Reed, 2015) | Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016) | Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016) | Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gunn, 2017) | Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts, 2017) | Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017) | Black Panther (Coogler, 2018) | Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers, 2018) | Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018)