In classical science fiction tragedy, the creations of man inevitably come to reflect the worst aspects of their creators. Perhaps the most magical thing about the contemporary film industry is that this pitfall is largely avoided; films can have artistic merit even though they are often designed to serve the greediest of corporate agendas. That something so pure can come out of an institution so cynical is nothing short of a marvel
Creator and creation are at the center of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the latest offering from perhaps the most commercialized and most prolific cinematic engine in history. Following the destructive events in The Avengers, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) comes to the conclusion that his Iron Man act will soon be insufficient to protect the Earth from external threats. This leads him to create the titular Ultron (James Spader), an artificial intelligence designed to protect the world—although it, in the classical fashion, embodies the very worst of Stark as a person. It is arrogant, obsessed with the bottom line, and so convinced of its own righteousness that it will cause massive devastation before shifting from its course. Upon invention, it hopes to trigger an extinction-scale event that will leave only the fittest humans left standing, forcing the Avengers to reassemble and make shitloads of money once again.
And this is where the creation begins to reflect the creator. Fan service, the concept of introducing new characters from and referencing the comic books, is (despite its name) a pretty one-sided relationship in favor of the studios. Fans get to geek out at the nod toward their knowledge of the source material, while the studios get to throw in free advertising for future products. It’s like self-reflexive product placement. It’s pretty overwhelming, and also draining. One can’t help feeling a bit fatigued at this point, no matter how well put together the movie is.
Ultron is certainly an enjoyable ride. The action is well paced and executed, even if the sheer volume of it is numbing by the film’s end. Director and screenwriter Joss Whedon, unlike his counterparts in the DC Comic film complex, knows the key to these films’ success is to keep them light and fun. In between all the talk of human extinction and the hubris of scientific endeavor, this is a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The real knock on Ultron is simply that we’ve been there before. The plot is little different from any other Marvel film produced thus far, the character arcs hit all the same beats from before, and Whedon’s deliberately clunky dialogue starts to wear on the audience’s patience.
Once again, all of this is not to say that Ultron is not a good film; it is very fun and well crafted. The question is how much longer this can last. After almost eight years of Marvel movie madness, the illusion is starting to wear off. The films are slowly beginning to betray the commercial forces to which they are beholden.