Sooner or later, the truth about Joss Whedon had to emerge. He’s the poet of pulp, the godfather of television’s new golden age, and the best tough-guy dialogue person working since Howard Hawks. (Watch an episode of Firefly if you don’t believe me.) But, as this Avengers sequel makes abundantly clear, Whedon may not be the shepherd Marvel wants to lead the fanboy flock from meadow to cash cow. He did the job, made some money, but clearly his heart was not there.
And it’s not like it is beneath his dignity. Whedon’s done vampire slayers, space-horse operas, and even an episode of Glee, but it feels like he’s working too hard here at making a shopworn theme seem compelling. He keeps the screen, though often dark-toned, full of surprises, including dazzling, overcomplicated battle extravaganzas orchestrated with more players than a Mahler symphony orchestra in a story of heroes confronting a foe Tony Stark (Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr.) created while dabbling in God’s workshop. Moviemakers seem to think artificial intelligence is the latest McGuffin, but by now, the paranoia seems pat, running from Terminator to Ex Machina to exhaustion. The villainy of Ultron, though, absolute seems puny, as the Hulk might say. The film may have a dazzling finale over a floating city — it certainly has a nice romantic twist — but it doesn’t have much Whedon in it.
There are some touches, and the movie’s high points are all his signature moves: the banter, for instance, concerning Thor’s magical hammer, or the running joke about Captain America’s prudish disapproval of strong language. But Whedon’s forte has always been making you feel good about feeling bad, and this stuff is far too upbeat. (The big film bummers glide by.) It’s not a bad film, like, say, Ang Lee’s Hulk, but Whedon is trying to make too many people happy. What’s left is the feeling that he lost his own interests in the bargain.