A few years ago Whedon wrote and directed the first Avengers film (entitled Avengers Assemble in the UK to avoid confusion with TV's wonderful The Avengers). That film was a personal favourite of mine, and possibly the greatest comic book movie of all time.
Now Whedon has written and directed the sequel, with the unwieldy and uninviting title The Avengers: Age of Ultron (I've seen the movie and I still couldn't tell you who or what 'Ultron' is... at a guess, the bad guy). Whereas the first Avengers was a magnificent movie, this one is — at best — sort of okay.
Whedon's gift for witty and pointed dialogue is still in evidence, but his ability to assemble (no pun intended) a drama seems to have abandoned him. Age of Ultron has acres of plot but no story. In other words, there's lots of incidents but none of them amount to anything emotionally or intellectually.
There's also some careless construction. The Scarlet Witch (no relation to Johansson) is set up as possessing the ability to psychically influence people's thoughts — to get inside their head and monkey with their minds. But late in the movie she is suddenly revealed to also have major telekinetic powers (as in Carrie — or more especially The Fury) where she picks up buses and stuff like that. Yup, with her thoughts.
This isn't established or even hinted at earlier, so it comes across as abrupt, baffling and unconvincing. Perhaps people familiar with the comic character can take it in their stride, but for anyone else it's likely to be a disruptive surprise and an annoying distraction. Always avoid sloppy writing, folks. It jolts the audience out of that dream state we aspire to create.
But Joss Whedon also has a substantial talent for characterisation and this is still somewhat in evidence here, most notably in the relationship between Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).
There is genuine chemistry between these two and the possibilty they might kiss provides what little suspense there is in the film. Best of all are the tender moments where the Widow calms the Hulk and gets him to revert to human form. In the dialogue this is described as singing him a lullabye. But actually all she does is wordlessly and gently caress his giant green hand. It's a touching and effective moment.
The film also wakes up towards the end with the uprooting of a city and an unexpected rescue mission. But by then it's too little (or perhaps too much) too late. There are some other incidental pleasures to be had. The ever-excellent Elizabeth Olsen is on board now, though saddled with a silly Eastern European accent as the aforementioned Scarlet Witch. And Paul Bettany, who has always been under-utilised in the Iron Man movies as a bodiless voice has now been cleverly upgraded to a proper onscreen presence as The Vision — one of Marvel's most visually interesting superheros with his red face and green costume.
Also, there is the splendid casting of James Spader as the voice of Ultron, the bad guy (I checked).
No pipsqueak post by me in my little blog is going to stop Age of Ultron steam-rollering (is that a verb?) through the multiplexes as a monster summer hit, but I do want to go on record as saying that this is the most disappointing sequel since the second Matrix movie.
(Image credits: All the posters are from Imp Awards.)