Good news and bad news come with the second Avengers movie. When the first film came out three years ago, there was still a freshness to Marvel's presence in theaters, particularly in snagging Joss Whedon to pull off the seemingly impossible task of pulling together several superstar heroes who had their own franchises. The first film skillfully delivered both big summer spectacle and intelligently crafted character moments.
Avengers 2, despite Whedon's comments that he was pursuing something different, keeps much of the feel of the first, just without Loki and Coulson, and with only an all-too-brief inclusion of Fury. Even though Loki is not here, his wand (and the infinity gem inside) continues to be a nuisance. But in reading interviews, one wonders whether that "sameness" comes from Whedon's work or from Kevin Feige's (president of Marvel Studios) editing.
In the new category is James Spader's take on Ultron--as well as the contributions of Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Quicksilver (Aaron-Taylor Johnson), and the Vision (Paul Bettany). I appreciated having a villain that wasn't an alien, and it was about time they added another heroine to the cast. The Ultron plot has the enemy arise from within the Avengers fold, as Tony Stark and Bruce Banner (as opposed to Hank Pym in the comics) consciously embrace their "mad scientist" roles and unleash an artificial intelligence that ultimately has a different vision of attaining "peace in our time."
Some would also include in the "new" category the romance between Black Widow and Bruce Banner--and there were some special moments--yet every film has placed Natasha in a different flirtation, with Hawkeye in the first Avengers and with Steve Rogers in Winter Soldier. The film also continues similar gags; this time Stark in Hulk-buster armor gets to punch Hulk silent as Hulk did Thor and Loki in the first film.
The best similarity is the group banter. Whedon throws the characters together and has them go after each other, even as they try to work together as a team. The writers among us appreciate the sly wit and dry humor, allusions like Tony Stark's to Eugene O'Neill, and the critique of current politics, particularly the theme of policing the globe (but that was in Winter Soldier too).
The repetition of form and style creates some problems. With a film with as much hype and money behind it, most people won't mind, just as millions tune in weekly to their favorite formulaic TV shows. Yet as with so many of the comic-book-inspired films now, parts of the formula are getting too familiar. The villain surges forth and breaks the team apart. Retreating for a pep talk, the team finally rallies and pursues the villain to foil the final destructive endgame, losing one of their team in the battle.
Whedon's dialogue raises the bar on these tropes, and as spectacles go, these are impressive. The chaotic action sequences frequently lost me, but the occasional parallelism, lining up the characters in a heroic pose, helped temper that. The moves were both fun and familiar.
All of these clues lead to the final bad news/good news, depending on how you look at it. Because Whedon is painfully aware of the formulaic, he will not be writing or directing the next Avengers films. His creative vision gave artistry to this franchise, but now he feels another film would only be more of the same, just bigger. He wants to get back to creating something of his own. Those of us who have loved his work in the Marvel Universe will find that bittersweet, but we can find excitement in seeing his imagination unfettered again.
I'm not certain I'll follow the Avengers franchise into its next installments, but I'll certainly be looking for what Whedon dreams up next.