Will 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' Break More Than Box Office Records?

The season’s first superhero blockbuster is here, but beyond the prospect of surpassing the earnings of the previous installments, it fails to excite.

Avengers: Age of Ultron Written and directed by Joss Whedon; with Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Aaron Tailor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgard, Thomas Kretschmann, Andy Serkis, Julie Delpy, James Spader (as the voice of Ultron)

The arrival of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” at Israeli theaters announces the arrival of summer – if not yet in the full fury of Middle Eastern heat, then at least in the American cinematic sense of endless noise, action and special effects. I don’t particularly enjoy either the summer weather or the season’s rapid series of splashy entertainment products, which will at some point be opening on a weekly basis. I’ve learned, however, to bow to the inevitable, while also hoping that in all that cinematic sound and fury I might find at least one movie with a bit of originality, inspiration and vision. That hope shrinks with every passing year. While every apocalyptic battle is tremendous and every showdown between good and evil is yet another struggle to maintain our fragile existence, a superhero movie with something new to say is becoming an increasingly rare prospect.

When “The Avengers” first appeared in 2012, bringing together several of Marvel Comics’ superheroes for a joint adventure, it was a fun development. There is something entertaining, even stimulating, about creating an encounter between mythical characters, whether they come from legend or comics (the latter really being an extension of the former). Eventually, however, the sense of fun gave way to the feeling that such an encounter could have been put to much better use than it was by Joss Whedon.

Whedon wrote and directed “The Avengers” with a prosaic efficiency that helped fulfill its financial goals: the movie still holds the record for third-most lucrative picture of all time. However, I doubt I would remember a single scene or image from it if not for the fact that I still encounter it sometimes on one television channel or another. “The Avengers” was a heavy, clumsy picture, and – except for a few minutes – it lacked that feeling of play and occasional irony that I would have expected from a truly satisfying get-together of familiar superheroes.

I hoped, therefore – and hope, as they say, springs eternal – that the sequel might make up for these flaws. But it does not. “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” once again written and directed by Whedon, is a little better than “The Avengers” – already a compliment – and it contains certain narrative and visual inventions that deserve respect. Once again, however, Whedon has made a prosaic picture, causing what should be the movie’s most engaging peak moments to sink into dullness. Clocking in at 141 minutes – about an average length for the summer blockbusters about to descend on us – “Age of Ultron” is exhausting to watch. I won’t say that I crawled out of the theater, but I didn’t exactly exit in a sprightly walk. Mostly I left without that sense of elation that a good movie, even a good superhero movie, can leave behind. I remember almost nothing of what I saw except for a sense of excess, an over-abundant assault that failed to rise beyond the predictable.

 

More frustrating than enjoyable

Lovers of comics and superhero movies will probably fixate on every last detail of the plot, which reunites the old gang with the addition of a few new superheroes and villains. I won’t say anything here about the story, for fear that any synopsis will damage the bit of sophistication that does exist in the plot. I’ll let the genre’s aficionados follow it on their own, and I wish them success and enjoyment. It may be my own limitation as a film critic, but in a movie of this kind, unless the plot is surprising and extremely elegant, I rarely make much of an effort to follow it, because such an effort comes at the expense of focusing on what really interests me, which is the movie’s design vision (if it has one). Since “Avengers: Age of Ultron” reveals such vision only in tiny scraps, I spent most of it caught between trying to follow the plot –which I pretty much gave up on – and trying to get swept away by the visual energy, an attempt that eventually became more frustrating than enjoyable.

But all this hardly matters, since the most prominent question about this movie will be whether it will outperform “The Avengers” at the box office (yes, probably). Some superhero movies make me curious to see the next installment in the series – “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” from 2014, directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, being one example. “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” by contrast, did not fill me with anticipation for the last two chapters in this story, not even when it was announced that the Russo brothers, and not Whedon, will direct them. The last two movies are scheduled for release in the summers of 2018 and 2019; and who knows what might happen by then anyway.

Is there any point in discussing characters and actors in this case? Yes and no. Characters and performances are part of any cinematic viewing experience, even in the case of summer blockbusters. In that sense, too, “Age of Ultron” is thoroughly mediocre. Some of the characters are better than others, and the large cast performs as it is supposed to, no more and no less. In any case, the actors don’t really have a chance of showing more than one dimension of their character whenever they appear on the screen. The result is amiable, occasionally bland, and sometimes just bizarre (such as cameo appearances by well-known actors in roles so small that they can’t even really have the limited impact intended for them).

The summer of 2015 is here, then, and its first movie joins the long list of undistinguished seasonal products we’ve encountered in the past few years. But the endless hot months are still ahead of us; surprises are possible. And anyway, when has summer ever been easy to get through?