Avengers: Age of Ultron is at once too much and never quite enough

If the Marvel fan base, like an elephant, is large but easily startled, Roy Andersson's minimalist vignettes in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence ask the viewer to endure discomfort.

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Avengers: Age of Ultron (12A)
dir: Joss Whedon

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (12A)
dir: Roy Andersson

The multiple-superhero blockbuster The Avengers – titled Avengers Assemble in the UK, presumably to throw any Emma Peel enthusiasts off the scent – made more than $1bn worldwide in 2012. Not what you’d call walking-around money, unless you’re walking around Fifth Avenue. Disney, then, will know that any deviance from the formula in the follow-up, Avengers: Age of Ultron, must be minimal. The Marvel fan base, like an elephant, is large but easily startled. So the deal is much as before. Each superhero gets several moments of goofy comedy, plentiful combat and one pang of emotion. Like a magnificent cake sliced into too many slivers, the movie is at once too much and never quite enough.

The cherry on top is usually the wisecracking Tony Stark, also known as Iron Man, but Robert Downey, Jr takes his customary ironic detachment to extremes: what was once laid-back has grown almost listless. Dr Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) becomes the pistachio-green Hulk whenever his temper is inflamed, though the triggers now include inconvenience and surprise: shoved off a cliff as Banner, he bounds back from the abyss a moment later in full Hulk bulk. In between transformations, he is cultivating a romance with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), whose leather catsuit will be catnip to any Emma Peel fans who didn’t fall at the first hurdle. Only Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), a hotshot archer, has much of an extra-curricular life, with his family and his farmhouse to fall back on. It is here that the gang – also including Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) – hide out while plotting their next move against their latest foe, Ultron.

Despite the name, Ultron is no washing detergent. He won’t shift stubborn stains, unless you count the human race as one, which, unfortunately for us, he does. It’s disappointing that, with the sly, insinuating voice of James Spader, Ultron, who begins life as malicious software, incarnates himself in a cyborg body that is very 1980s, very Terminator. We know he is a bad egg by his initial inability to recall the word “children” – no small thing in a film in which family is synonymous with strength.

Take the encouragement that Hawkeye receives from his wife. “You know I totally support your Avenging,” she tells him. Aww. Depth in this genre will always come fourth after action, comedy and costumes, but it’s something. Frustratingly, there’s no time to dwell very long on Black Widow, who reveals that she was sterilised back in her assassin-training days (“It makes every­thing easier – even killing”). The writer-director Joss Whedon can write a wicked one-liner but he skates over this topic and doesn’t seem to notice he has linked the one female Avenger to the subject of fertility; if Tony Stark has a low sperm count, we certainly don’t get to hear about it. Convenient, too, that Black Widow ended up with Banner, who has no intention anyway of passing on his volatile genes. (That’s a relief. Can you imagine the cost, in slammed doors alone, of raising an adolescent Hulk?) Then again, other avenues exist for the sweethearts: Avengers: Adoption, for one.

In Whedon’s movie, the camera never stops moving. In A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, it never starts. To say that its 72-year-old director, Roy Andersson, specialises in gallows humour would be to understate his film’s proximity to the grave. There isn’t a plot so much as a series of tableaux linked by characters (two gloomy joke-shop salesmen), colour scheme (seasick green, frostbite blue, tombstone grey) and music (an oompah band, parping against the odds). Each minimalist scene, be it 30 seconds or ten minutes long, is filmed in a static shot without cuts, zooms or close-ups. Whether we are watching a man suffer a heart attack while opening a bottle of wine, a dancer patiently thwarting the attempts by his teacher to caress him mid-rehearsal or the armies of Charles XII commandeering the staff of a Gothenburg café to their cause, the aesthetic is the same. Whatever the levels of suffering or absurdity, the camera and the characters receive it all impassively. That’s the joke.

The picture, the winner of the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival, completes a trilogy about being human but feels less profound than its predecessors, Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living. There’s no doubt that Andersson is one of the most original film-makers alive. Diminishing returns can be a risk, though, even when repetition is part of the point.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?