I'm too old for this shit, and here's how I know: I'm starting to feel like Pauline Kael did when she complained that Raiders of the Lost Ark was edited by a Cuisinart. For 12-year-old me, the pacing of Raiders was ideal. Kids and comics fans everywhere doubtless feel the same way about Avengers: Age of Ultron, even though the latter features roughly 5,000 times as many cuts, punches, explosions and quips as Spielberg's 1981 blockbuster, all compacted into a not drastically longer running time.
For Marvel fans who know the film's sprawling ensemble like members of their own family, this sequel to The Avengers (and the Iron Man films, and the Thor films, and the Captain America films) must feel like a reward. For the semi-initiated viewer, it's more like experiencing a hurricane of story beats and Spandex. The instant you begin to appreciate one of the subtler moments in Joss Whedon's screenplay, everything flies apart in another weightless flurry of animated action.
There is a plot, one that viewers will find perfectly coherent provided they don't need a primer on Hydra, the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D., or Tony Stark's (Robert Downey Jr.) troubled identity as a weapons manufacturer with a peacekeeping mission. The story hinges on that last conundrum. Spurred by paternalism and a troubling vision of the future, Stark uses a gem recovered from his enemies to create the world's most powerful artificial intelligence, which he hopes will shield humanity from alien attacks like those seen in the first Avengers.
Naturally, Stark's Frankenstein's monster, called Ultron, has the sinister glee of James Spader (who provides the voice for a series of robotic bodies) and its own agenda. Ultron exhibits a twisted version of Stark's own wit and arrogance, which don't seem so charming when they're turned against the human race.
The Ultron threat precipitates various crises for the other Avengers, because no superhero film these days is complete without anguished reflections on what it means to be a superhero. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) frets over the uncontrollability of his Hulk alter ego, while Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) experience disturbing memories and visions induced by a new antagonist (Elizabeth Olsen) with mind-clouding powers.
With more than a dozen backstory-endowed major and supporting characters, Age of Ultron feels like a Wagnerian opera if Wagner had lived long enough to discover CGI. Insofar as Whedon's direction and scripting make all this muchness comprehensible, he has undeniably achieved something. (Some of the film's funniest lines poke fun at its own excess, as when a character follows a wonky description of the powers of Olsen's character and her twin brother [Aaron Taylor-Johnson] with the SparkNotes version: "He's fast and she's weird.")
Age of Ultron's compression and pacing reflect the current economics of cinema: Turning a profit means offering a nonstop ride thrilling enough to entice global audiences away from their private screens. As for the subtleties buried in the din, fans will have years to savor and dissect those in YouTube clips. To ask the movie to slow the hell down would be to ignore those realities.
Yet Guardians of the Galaxy managed to do just fine at the box office with a comparatively poky pace. Ultron's finest moments — such as Stark's debates with his evil AI double, or a climactic speech delivered by Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) — make us wish for the less frenzied experience it might have been.
Trying to process the movie's flood of verbal and visual information, I hit my own generational wall. The question is, will younger audiences eventually hit one, too, or will filmmakers keep giving them more, faster, louder, sooner? After 20 years more of this, only an Ultron might have the processing power to grasp the intricacies of the Marvel universe — but would he care?