Marvel Studios has a villain problem.
That's not a new observation, mind you. There have been rumblings and grumblings about it for awhile now (including here), that while the various colorful heroes who are front-and-center for these comic book spectacles are spot-on both in terms of how they're depicted and how they're played, they're rarely given antagonists that can match them in commanding the screen. Sure, Tom Hiddleston's wayward god Loki is a very notable exception to this rule, as is Vincent D'Onofrio as gargantuan crime boss Wilson "Kingpin" Fisk on Netflix's superlative Daredevil series.
And yet, even with brilliant actors like Jeff Bridges, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Eccleston, and more having filled out Marvel's bad guy ranks at one time or another, Loki and Fisk are the outliers rather than the norm. And now here comes Avengers: Age of Ultron, Marvel's much-anticipated follow-up to their 2012 blockbuster The Avengers, to serve as exhibit A in this argument. The film takes a performance by the impossibly charismatic James Spader, and purposes it in service of an impossibly dull CGI automaton. It's a bit perplexing that Ultron manages to get so much right except for the very villain whose name is in the title.
Let's rewind a bit and talk plot. Picking up from threads left dangling after both the previous Avengers go-round and last year's Captain America: The Winter Soldier (the arguable high point of Marvel's grand interconnected experiment), Age of Ultron hits the ground running right from the moment that trademark flipping-pages logo starts, with the titular team of costumed cavorters tracking down remnants of the evil Hydra organization in the far-flung reaches of the world. After taking possession of some of their technology, Iron Man (a.k.a. Tony Stark, a.k.a. Robert Downey Jr.) decides to repurpose it towards a global peacekeeping program called Ultron, that he's tried unsuccessfully to develop in the past.
Of course, faster than you can say "Ex Machina," the program achieves sentience, and as tends to happen, it decides the globe would be much more peaceful without all those inconvenient human beings hanging around and causing trouble. This looks like a job for the Avengers! Lucky for us, Marvel has them all locked into longterm contracts for contingencies exactly like this, and soon enough Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), and company are back doing the "Earth's Mightiest Heroes" thing.
Also along this time are newbies Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, a pair of super-powered twins played by Aaron Taylor Johnson and Elizabeth Olson (last appearing together as a married couple in last year's Godzilla), and a mysterious entity called the Vision (Paul Bettany, who finally gets some actual skin in the game after voicing Stark's computer JARVIS five times now). Ten pictures into Marvel's Cinematic Universe, Age of Ultron is at its best when it expands the boundaries of that universe, using our extant goodwill for these characters and their supporting players to allow their different franchises to feed into and out of each other like tributaries and lakes.
Benefiting the most from this approach are actually the characters who don't currently have their own series, with Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) getting a plum storyline that sure feels like returning writer/director Joss Whedon's apology for Renner's "brainwashed stooge" turn for a big chunk of the last Avengers. Also getting more to do this time is Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner (a.k.a. the Hulk). Ruffalo's previous turn as the conflicted scientist was one of the unquestionable highlights in a movie full of highlights, and he continues to impress this time. Although there seem to be some legal issues preventing another Hulk solo flick, it'd be a shame if the parties involved couldn't put their heads together and get it figured out.
So, circling back around, the heroes are all great in Ultron. I loved their performances, I loved their arcs, and I loved how the overall Marvel ball was advanced through them. Where it stumbles then is with the baddie. While Ultron eventually ditches the confines of a Stark drone for a custom alien-designed number, there's simply no depth to his Big Evil Plan (™). Also, despite the "bigness" of the threat, it never really feels as immediate as it needs to, and as a result he's never particularly intimidating. I realized it was a problem when, in the middle of the big third act brouhaha, I simply lost interest in what was happening onscreen. If four Transformers installments have taught me anything, it's that it doesn't matter how many computer effects you dress things up with if I don't have a rooting interest in the central conflict.
Contrast this with the aforementioned Daredevil (which I just finished watching this past weekend, perhaps inadvertently ruining me for some of this big scale smashy-smashy stuff in the process). For as "ground-level" as the series is, often involving little more than bone-crunching fistfights, I cared about the protagonists, understood the antagonists, and was thus completely invested in the stakes. The Avengers franchise, meanwhile, has now given us two movies in a row climaxing with our heroes pounding away at nondescript hordes of unidentifiable drones. Maybe the Daredevil comparison isn't the most apt, given the very different tone it's going for, but nonetheless, it's meant to exist in the same world and should thus be a valid point of discussion.
Now, just to be clear, I enjoyed this latest Avengers. Yeah, it didn't blow me away like the first one, but that's probably understandable given that there wasn't the same "Holy crap, it's an actual Avengers movie! I haven't wasted my life!" factor at play. As I've said before, the Marvel Studios operation is so polished by now that we can always expect a certain baseline of quality from their various productions, and this is certainly no exception. Also working in its favor is that we already have a roadmap for the future of the Cinematic Universe laid out in front of us, with Ant-Man arriving later this summer, and Captain America: Civil War coming a year from now. In that sense, and perhaps somewhat appropriately, Age of Ultron works by simply being another cog in the machine. B+