DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The blockbuster season begins with "Avengers: Age Of Ultron," the second film to bring together heroes from different Marvel screen adaptations to battle an enemy too big for just one. Here, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk and many others are united under the direction of Joss Whedon. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Two decades ago, film series became franchises. The new term, previously used for, say, Burger Kings, meant to appeal to studios' corporate owners. Then came the term tentpole, when a franchise is so successful, it can take care of a studio's overhead by itself and make a lot of smaller movies from a business standpoint unnecessary. Now comes the latest buzzword - universe - a tentpole franchise that spins off a whole constellation of other franchises and films, books, TV shows and games. It's the Big Bang of synergy.At the center of the universe stands Joss Whedon's "Avengers: Age Of Ultron," which seems less like a film than a collection of seeds for other films. As a piece of classical storytelling, it's a disgrace. But if you're a Marvel universe person - and there are hundreds of millions - it will thrill you to bits - all those characters, all those expensive special effects. It opens with the Avengers - Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye, Black Widow - in mid-battle, attempting to snatch Loki's scepter from Hydra-leader Baron Strucker. If that sounds like gobbledygook, well, the sequence looks like gobbledygook. And if you haven't been watching the TV show "Agents Of Shield," it's incoherent. But the sequence does introduce two fascinating super-beings to the Marvel screen universe - the brother-sister Maximoff twins, the dream-weaving Scarlet Witch, played by Elizabeth Olsen, and the hyper-fast Quicksilver, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Hold on, Quicksilver was in some "X-Men" movies, but that universe hasn't yet been linked to this one, so cosmic disconnect.Here's the thrust of this film - after the extraterrestrial invasion of the last "Avengers" film, Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, played by Robert Downey Jr., enlists Bruce Banner, a.k.a. Hulk, played by Mark Ruffalo, to create an interface for a planetary defense computer super-program. Stark says it will bring peace in our time - famous last words. What happens is said super-program, Ultron, voiced by James Spader with his built-in basso sneer, unexpectedly concludes that the only way to save the planet is to kill the people. Other Avengers, among them Chris Hemsworth's Thor, Chris Evans's Captain America and Don Cheadle's War Machine, are mighty peeved at Stark for his Frankenstein program.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON")
CHRIS HEMSWORTH: (As Thor) This could have been avoided if you hadn't played...
ROBERT DOWNEY, JR.: (As Tony Stark/Iron Man) No. I'm sorry.
HEMSWORTH: (As Thor) ...With something you don't understand.
DOWNEY, JR.: (As Tony Stark/Iron Man) I'm sorry. It is funny. It's a hoot that you don't get why we need this.
MARK RUFFALO: (As Bruce Banner/The Hulk) Tony, maybe this might not be the time...
DOWNEY, JR.: (As Tony Stark/Iron Man) Really?
RUFFALO: (As Bruce Banner/The Hulk)...To...
DOWNEY, JR.: (As Tony Stark/Iron Man) That's it. You just roll over, show your belly every time somebody snarls.
RUFFALO: (As Bruce Banner/The Hulk) Only when I've created a murder-bot.
DOWNEY, JR.: (As Tony Stark) We didn't. We weren't even close. Were we close to an interface?
CHRIS EVANS: (As Steve Rogers/Captain America) Well, you did something right, and you did it right here. The Avengers was supposed to be different than S.H.I.E.L.D.
DOWNEY, JR.: (As Tony Stark/Iron Man) Anybody remember when I carried a nuke through a wormhole?
DON CHEADLE: (As James Rhodes/War Machine) No, it's never come up.
DOWNEY, JR.: (As Tony Stark) Saved New York?
CHEADLE: (As James Rhodes/War Machine) No, never heard that.
DOWNEY, JR.: (As Tony Stark/Iron Man) Recall that? A hostile alien army came charging through a hole in space. We're standing 300 feet below it. We're the Avengers. We can bust arms dealers all the live-long day, but that up there, that's - that's the endgame. How were you guys planning on beating that?
EVANS: (As Steve Rogers/Captain America) Together.
EDELSTEIN: Joss Whedon takes the Avenger's universe seriously enough to introduce some big themes. Self-styled mad scientist Iron Man believes in a better world through technology. Captain America worries that every time someone tries to stop wars before they start, it leads to war and fascism, which he fought in World War II and sees again in Ultron. Thor and a new Avenger, Vision, decide humans' fatal mistake is thinking order and chaos are opposites, suggesting the Marvel future is in Buddhism. Happily, Whedon learned from such films as "Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid" how to mix adolescent hero-worship with smart-alec banter. His superheroes make super-heroic declarations, then deflate their pomp with shrugs and quips. The scenes that anchor the film are the loosest - demigods drinking, insulting one another, trying to pick up Thor's hammer. Whedon does everything well except action.Nothing he and his effects wizards do has the graphic punch of the best comics. But the Marvel aesthetic is bombardment. You're so blitzed by the sound and fury and sheer volume, you barely register what's missing. Scarlett Johansson somersaulted away with the first "Avengers" as the unflappable Black Widow. But here, she has a beauty-beast relationship with Hulk and becomes rather mushy, as does Mark Ruffalo, whose Bruce Banner when he's not the Hulk is a full-time mope. Downey is more than ever a little king and borderline unpleasant. But the forthright hunkiness of Hemsworth and Evans has its old-fashioned virtues. And Elizabeth Olsen makes the Scarlet Witch so charismatically damaged, she steals the movie.What bothered me most about "Avengers: Age Of Ultron" is that after its terrible start, I enjoyed it. Whedon created "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" and "Firefly." His own heart is so pure, he makes this corporate product seem benign. When his superheroes said the way to save the world was by coming together, I forgot that superheroes coming together make for the kind of franchise, tentpole, universe movie that I believe could swallow Hollywood more efficiently than Ultron.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. For the next five Friday nights, he's introducing the films of Orson Welles on Turner Classic Movies to mark the centennial of Welles's birth.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: What do kids in Little League want their parents to do at the game?
MIKE MATHENY: The overwhelming answer is absolutely nothing.
BIANCULLI: That means no screaming, swearing or even shouts of encouragement. On the next FRESH AIR, we talk with former Major League catcher Mike Matheny about coaching Little League, the subject of his new book. Matheny now manages the St. Louis Cardinals. Join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.