Offering an opinion of Avengers: Age of Ultron is like reviewing Chex Mix. According to what stand-ard should one judge this mixture of breakfast cereal and pretzels and croutons and salt? Even if you find it bland or uninteresting you’ll probably have a few handfuls anyway. And if you love it, you love it uncritically and unreservedly—until, perhaps, you eat too much of it and then feel a little sick.
The point is that it would never occur to you to come up with a defense of Chex Mix, an argument for Chex Mix—and the only arguments against it are probably nutritional (empty calories) or something having to do with the exploitation of workers in the Andes (empty socialism). Chex Mix is an industrial product designed to please your taste buds for a few seconds, nothing more. Is Chex Mix good or bad? It’s neither. It’s both. It’s nothing.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is also an industrial product—the latest product off the assembly line since Marvel Entertainment merged with Disney. In other words, if you like this sort of thing, you’ll like it; if you don’t, you won’t, but you’re unlikely to be offended by it, and you won’t remember a thing about it in a day.
The oddity of Age of Ultron is that, even though it is an industrial product, it was written and directed by a man named Joss Whedon, whom science-fiction and fantasy fanboys revere for his creativity and invention. He performed the same duties on the original Avengers and has said in interviews that he was disappointed by the compromises he had had to make in that film and that he consequently really went to town with his own vision with this second one. I find it impossible to understand what that could possibly mean, though, as the sequel is even more rote than the first one, and far less energetic.
Assembly lines function when the products that roll off them are either identical or use many of the same elements. Age of Ultron has the cast of the original Avengers, plus a few new croutons (Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch). It has much the same plot as Captain America: The Winter Soldier (effort to preempt all war turns into potential global Armageddon). It has the requisite drunken hang-out scene. It also has the requisite “giant alien robots that look like reptiles.” And it has lots of offhand cutesy comic dialogue spoken by the superheroes, even as they are battling to save a city in a sequence in which tens of thousands of people are dying around them.
Age of Ultron is a second-tier effort for Marvel, sort of like a second-tier musical from the MGM golden age—which is to say that it has everything the other Marvel movies have, but it’s overstuffed, the big numbers just aren’t quite good enough, and there’s no chemistry between Gene Kelly and Vera-Ellen. When they’re not quarreling in a trumped-up manner so they can have a big fight scene, there’s a lot of stagy banter between the superheroes (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, Hulk, I Can’t Believe I’m Seriously Typing These Ridiculous Names in a List).
Age of Ultron has the misfortune of being the first Marvel movie since Guardians of the Galaxy, the amazingly high-spirited and witty action-adventure comedy that would have been a tough act for anything to follow. Guardians suggested Marvel had discovered how to do interesting and unexpected things, even as the production line moved relentlessly ahead. (Another 11 Marvel-Disney superhero movies are due for release over the next four years, a feat of long-range planning without precedent in the history of the entertainment business.)
It was as though a really clever chef had gotten hold of the assembly line, added some spices and flavors to the Chex Mix, and changed things up for good. But Age of Ultron suggests that Guardians of the Galaxy was a fluke. It’s likely going to be plain old Chex Mix from here on out.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.