Avengers 2: There May Just Be a Pop Epic Somewhere Inside Marvel's 'Disappointing' Age of Ultron Mega-Hit

For what's turned out to be one of the biggest hits of all-time -- likely finishing its first release run at number 6 on the all-time worldwide box office list and number 8 on the domestic box office list -- the not especially felicitously titled Avengers: Age of Ultron has gotten a lot less love and devotion than the numbers would suggest. And the numbers themselves, at least in some circles perhaps predisposed to backlash against the ongoing success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, are a tad disappointing.

Naturally, some important spoilers ensue.

Yes, with its Japan opening over the weekend suggesting it will end up with something under $1.5 billion in worldwide box office, Avengers 2 is ending up within at least distant hailing distance of The Avengers. But its domestic performance, which will end under $460 million, is a far cry from the first film's stunning $623 million. And the worldwide performance will end up bested both by 2015 rivals Jurassic World and Fast & Furious 7. With the Star Wars reboot, initially expected to be the Avengers only real box rival this year, still waiting in December.

When I first saw Avengers 2, as it opened at the beginning of May, I liked it and found it intriguing. I also found it busy and a bit frustrating for all its franchise-building business and repeated action.

Then, a month ago, I watched it three times in a row in the theater, including a 3D showing, which I usually don't like. I found that I liked the film a lot better, not that I disliked it at all before. I also found that depths and connections, which the film only hinted at the first time round, seemed much richer than before. But I also realized that my mind was not only remembering and connecting more, it was also filling in some gaps that the present version of the film does not.

The bright picture of the Marvelverse's near future darkens in Avengers: Age of Ultron. It's the end of the path Tony Stark started them on.

Clearly, there's more to Avengers 2 somewhere, perhaps enough to turn a good movie into a near-pop epic. And it turns out there will be a director's cut available when the film is released on disc and digital download in September.

Should this nearly hour-longer version have been released theatrically in the first place? Perhaps, especially if Marvel wanted moviegoers to take to Avengers 2 anywhere near as much as they did in 2012 to The Avengers, in which all the characters have room to breathe and scenes play out. But perhaps not if they're in business to maximize profit. Fewer showings per day, and all that. And this is an ADD era.

Maybe the movie should have tried to do less. As it is, it does so much that the central storyline, gripping and relatable in the Marvelverse, loses focus and impact. That's Tony Stark, in his angst and hubris in the aftermath of the first film's near apocalypse in New York, reverting to arrogant form in secretly creating the Ultron program.

Tony just wants what many of us want: A sustainable global security architecture imbued with a sense of justice. Kinda like Franklin D. Roosevelt's conception of the United Nations. Except with artificial intelligence and robots, absent the trappings of democracy.

As Nick Fury tells him in their farmhouse confrontation, Tony didn't hesitate for a second before he just went for it. Tony's ongoing fear of the unknowable threats he glimpsed in space as he let go of that redirected nuke in The Avengers joins with his post-traumatic stress and inherent arrogance to make a megalomaniac. And a very dangerous one, at that, albeit with the best of intentions.

The movie exists because the supposed best and brightest -- not to mention the brightest light and biggest star of the Marvelverse -- makes a horrible series of mistakes that not only backfire but nearly cause humanity's annihilation.

Big stuff. And it's in this version of Avengers 2. But it's muted by all the other stuff going on, much of it moving building blocks into place for future movies, some of it intriguing things writer/director Joss Whedon wanted to do.

Whedon spoke before Avengers 2 was finished of wanting to make The Empire Strikes Back of the Marvelverse but fearing it would be more like Iron Man 2.

Like Avengers 2 in the Marvelverse, Empire Strikes Back is a transitional portion of the Star Wars saga. The most critically revered and I think easily the best of the Star Wars films, Empire Strikes Back represents a darkening of the Star Wars universe, previously rather bright and, at times, even effervescent. It was also the lowest grossing film in the original trilogy.

Like Empire Strikes Back, Avengers 2 marks a dark turn in the Marvelverse, in this case a dark turn which began with a PTSD Tony Stark in Iron Man 3 and which heightened with last year's Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

I wondered before Avengers 2 opened if the darkening of the Marvelverse, always more brightly hued and humorous than the Dark Knight Trilogy, would prevent the new film from surpassing The Avengers.

With the great expansion over the past few years of the studios' ability to penetrate the international marketplace, Avengers 2 had seemed likely to best The Avengers in worldwide box office even if, as also seemed likely, it was not as big a pop phenomenon in North America. But it's coming up short, following the very likely drop of more than 25 percent in domestic box office performance from the first film.

The darkening prospect of Avengers 2 and its inherent lack of resolution as a transitional picture are big parts of that result, as is the "busy-ness" of all the business the film takes on.

All the busy business drawing from the main storyline makes Avengers 2, as Joss Whedon evidently feared, more than a little like Iron Man 2. In that 2010 sequel to the 2008 pop classic that was the first Iron Man (both films directed by Jon Favreau), an intriguing conflict between Tony and his might-have-been Russian doppelgänger is frequently derailed by campy interludes with a Stark rival and by the showy introduction of Black Widow.

Though I've since come to absolutely love Scarlett Johansson in the role, she was at the time being hyped in the media as the hottest woman in the world. I found it all a bit much.

In retrospect, seeing all these movies fitting together, there's much of Iron Man 2 I love. And in any event, Avengers 2 works better as an individual film than Iron Man 2. It just needs less. Or more.

Since much of what we have is now already in our heads and seems truncated, I want more.

In The Empire Strikes Back, only Luke has a vision foreshadowing events. In this film, Tony, Natasha, Thor, Cap, and Banner all have visions induced by the Scarlet Witch. Only Tony's seems like it might be complete.

What does not seem stinted on in this version of the film is the action. Of course, that's bread and butter for its bottom line. If anything, though, there may be too much action. Especially with the big climactic battle.

There's not much I don't like in how Marvel uber-producer Kevin Feige and company put these films together. With the notable exception of these big battle scenes near the end of each film. (I'm someone who would like a film full of scenes like the terrific Avengers cocktail party scene in this picture. That's where having an outstanding cast across the board, and clever, often heartfelt, writing, really shows up. That said, it would be hard to say I'm not an action fan.)

Even in the first Avengers, the big battle at the end seemed a little too long. And that was to save New York, with the crowning scene which redeems Tony's self-absorbed anti-hero into a truly self-sacrificing hero.

Here the battle's to save a fake place, a fairly generic East Euro city called Sokovia -- not to be confused with the classical guitarist Segovia -- which would actually play better as a Balkans locale. So why not make it a real one, with Stark's weaponeers back in the day imprinting the Maximoff twins with fear and hatred after selling to all sides in the post-Cold War ethnic conflicts?

With the truncated visions, and the obviously foreshortened presentation of the charmingly bittersweet Natasha-Banner relationship, big chunks of rich characterization and motivation are lost in the service of the film's velocity. But if the stuff on screen doesn't bring the audience along in full engagement as it whizzes by, the purpose is diminished.

Despite it all, we do know why Tony leaves the Avengers. We're not so clear on why Hawkeye steps away, though the wonderful sequence surprisingly introducing his wife and kids, Mad Men's Linda Cardellini and company, allows you to infer his reasons.

But what is up with Thor leaving?

The Avengers wrap up their Manhattan cocktail party by seeing who is worthy enough to lift Thor's hammer.

Of course, he has to go back to Asgard for the next big Thor movie. But in this movie, his motivation is pretty hazy.

Also given short shrift is Thor's remark to Tony about him being the only real unknown in the Avengers mix. I think I know what that means and I don't want to spoil it, but it zipped by so fast that most people missed it. As did the Norse rune left behind on the ground after Thor's fiery departure. Nobody even notices it. Not only is its meaning a mystery, it's a mystery that zipped by so fast that it doesn't exist as a mystery.

As did Cap's dream sequence. Tony tells Cap he doesn't trust a guy without a dark side, but what little we see of Cap back in the '40s with an always very welcome British agent Peggy Carter is actually pretty weird and dark. What does it mean? We haven't a clue.

At other points in the film, Cap gazes all too briefly at Hawkeye's bucolic homestead -- the sort of Americana setting one could see Cap in -- and elsewhere remarks that he's not the same man who went into the ice 75 years ago.

That's pretty interesting for this great iconic character. But he doesn't elaborate, and no one follows up.

With the crush of major characters in this movie, even the title villain gets a little short-changed in his own movie. As in Iron Man 2, Ultron is, apparently, another would-be Tony Stark doppelgänger, a very intriguing notion that needs to breathe more.

Incidentally, why is it the Age of Ultron, anyway? Yes, that's what it was in the comics (with a pretty different story), but those were a series. This is one movie, just a matter of days in Marvelverse time, far too brief to be an "age."

One thing that does pay off late in the film is the wonderful early sequence in which Thor challenges his colleagues to lift his mighty hammer. (Whedon evidently dropped off Twitter after being unfairly savaged for an obscure Tony Stark historical joke that is sexist. It's not only entirely in character for this rogue, it's a way for the character to acknowledge and make fun of his being an arrogant dick. Literally.)

Only Cap is able to briefly dent Thor's smug confidence that only he is worthy enough to wield the hammer. The sequence is very funny and telling.

Later, a new character, created by Ultron and Tony, a melding of Tony's Jarvis AI assistant and a synthetic human/alloy hybrid body called the Vision, nonchalantly lofts the hammer in the course of things.

With just a little echoing of the Iron Man hot rod red and gold design motif Jarvis helped create, the Vision looks like a great new Avenger.

He agrees with Ultron, before finally dispatching the villainous mistake's last incarnation, that in the long run humanity is doomed. For two powerful artificial intelligences, both alter egos of a sort to Tony Stark, to agree on this is quite intriguing for the Marvelverse. But it goes by too fast, as does Vision's observation that the beautiful does not have to last in order to have great value.

The creation of this evidently healthy new life form of great power and insight is a big deal in the Marvelverse, not to mention a harbinger of what may happen in the not terribly distant future in the real world, as I discussed last week. But it loses its impact in this seemingly rushed version of the film.

By the way, we are now 11 movies into a Marvel Cinematic Universe that debuted in 2008 and we still have not been told why the Avengers are called the Avengers.

It's a little odd, too, because -- despite Mrs. Hawkeye's perfectly droll remark to her husband that she totally supports him in his avenging -- the Avengers are not about avenging.

Nick Fury thrilled fanboys across the world in Iron Man's add-on scene when he showed up at Tony Stark's fabulous Malibu pad to say he wanted to talk to him about "the Avenger Initiative." But he never said why he called it that, either then or in the first Avengers movie when he brought the team together.

Tony mentioned the name to Loki when he confronted him at his fabulous Manhattan pad, but again didn't explain the name, saying only that if they couldn't protect the Earth they would damn sure avenge it.

So I looked it up, and it turns out that the name goes back to the first Avengers comic book in 1963.

After their adventure, Ant-Man -- who we'll finally see this month in, well, Ant-Man (with Mad Men star John Slattery again playing Howard Stark, father of Tony Stark) -- tells the pick-up group of rather motley superheroes that they should be a team. Iron Man agrees. So does Thor. Hulk says he's in, too, whether the others like it or not, but what are they going to call themselves?

Wasp, Ant-Man's future ex-wife, says the name needs to be something "colorful and dramatic, like the Avengers." That's it, says Ant-Man, and so it was.

The Avengers come together in very different fashion in the movies. But the name is, as Wasp said back in '63, "colorful and dramatic."

That's why I named my little boat the Avenger back in the day. Not because of the Marvel comic books, which I didn't read, but because it was the name of a space ship at the end of The Puppet Masters, the old Robert Heinlein novel that first turned me on to science fiction as a kid.

Too aggressive a name for a boat, you say? Not when it has rocket launchers and machine guns, it ain't.

Besides, it's a very cool name. Going back 237 years, there have been nine major Royal Navy ships that carried the name Avenger.

And now a second very big movie, one that I suspect is going to deepen into something quite special in its longer version.

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