Three years ago, this website anointed the masterful blueprint that Marvel Films used to conceive, build, and deliver “The Avengers,” the centerpiece of what is now regarded as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as a “dream come true.” Never before had such an expansive undertaking of world-building in cinema ever led to something that ambitious and huge. “The Avengers” did not disappoint and drew near-universal rave reviews from both hard-to-please true blue geeks and fanboys and hard-to-please true blue cinema aficionados and movie snobs. It was an event that earned the right to call itself the normally overused and misplaced terms of “never before seen,” “groundbreaking,” “revolutionary,” and “game changer.”
Even amid the celebratory euphoria for what become the third highest grossing film of all time, plenty of people wondered what Marvel could possibly do to keep that momentum, continue to impress its critics, and, some day, top what becomes such a monumental peak. Since 2012, Marvel has succeeded in those three challenges. Their individual films have branched out and gotten deeper. Last year was perfect for them with the masterful entries of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” The former has been called Marvel’s best pure film yet and the latter was called its most fun one yet. Those two showstoppers were the perfect lead-ins to what we have today, “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” a huge blockbuster ready to break records as it opens this weekend everywhere at your Chicagoland movie theater locations. Raising the stakes and swinging for the fences like a good film sequel should, Joss Whedon’s latest Marvel film pays off the studio’s Phase 2 initiative with both a new level of groundbreaking effort beyond the first peak three years ago and a continued dedication to the master blueprint of a grander big picture.
In a thrilling pre-credits sequence where the Avengers, in full-team mode, are attacking a highly fortified Hydra research base nestled in the fictional Eastern European coniferous forests of the nation of Sokovia, we learn very quickly that things have fast-forwarded dramatically since we last saw these heroes in both their 2012 team film and their individual movie efforts since. There is no half-hour “getting to know you” lead-up about where everyone has been since the Invasion of New York and the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. or how they are here and back together. Exposition is written in the briefest shorthand and it’s straight to business.
The base is run by monocle-wearing Hydra leader Baron Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) where he holds in his possession Loki’s jeweled scepter, Chitauri artifacts, and the mysterious Maximoff twins, Pietro and Wanda (“Godzilla” spouses Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen). All were last scene in the post-credits sequence of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Victorious in this opening round, Strucker is apprehended and the scepter is retrieved, but not before the team tangles with Pietro’s super-speed and Wanda’s hypnotic powers of telepathy and telekinesis that leave Hawkeye (Jeremey Renner) seriously wounded.
Upon further analysis by Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), the two scientists find that the jewel in Loki’s scepter contains a cognizant form of artificial intelligence. Ignoring the potential evil of what was once wielded by their arch villain and wisdom of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Tony sees an untapped form for an A.I. greater than J.A.R.V.I.S. (voiced by Paul Bettany) that could run his planned “Ultron” project, a vast peacekeeping drone program of armored robot soldiers that Tony thinks can be an ever-present protective force for the planet to safeguard against the next time a huge alien threat comes to Earth.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) fills us in later that the scepter jewel is the Mind Gem, one of the six famed Infinity Stones of vast power. We’ve seen three other gems in different forms: the Tesseract in “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “The Avengers,” the Aether from “Thor: The Dark World,” and the Power Stone from “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Anyone who has heard about the dual-film next sequel (and anyone who stays into the credits of this film), will know that these little buggers will all weigh heavily in the future against a purple guy who likes floating space furniture and sounds a lot like James Brolin.
Back to the present trouble at hand, when that artificial intelligence of the Mind Gem is released (voiced by James Spader), it consumes J.A.R.V.I.S. and roots itself inside of Tony’s robots to gain a physical form. Ultron is now active with a sinister mind and agenda of its own, calculating that the only way to make the planet literally peaceful is the extinction of its biggest problem-causer: humans, starting with our heroes. His next step is recruiting Pietro and Wanda to join his cause with their revealed past beef with Tony Stark. With regrouping and some help from plenty of allies, the Avengers get ready to meet this new threat.
First and foremost, the voice and performance capture work of James Spader to embody this villain is utterly brilliant. Spader is one of those actors with an intoxicating verbal tone and way of speaking that you would pay to see and hear read the phonebook. Short of being a throwback Bond villain, this is a perfect role to suit his talents. Spader’s Ultron is so deliciously rich in a quirky, yet imposing evil that you can’t take your eyes off of him. Whether it is pontificating against Iron Man’s greed, Captain America’s morality, Thor’s nobility, or twisting the knife of metaphorical guilt deep within the Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), each of Ultron’s clashes feel wholly driven and unique from each other.
The tone of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” can be heavy and grim at times compared to the rah-rah fanboy fest of the first team film from three years ago. If this second team-up is intended be the “Empire Strikes Back”-level middle chapter to a larger importance yet to come, then, by unwritten sequel rules, the raised stakes of heavy-and-grim-flavored implications are all completely allowed and welcome. We’ve done enough cheerleading. It is totally OK now to compel us towards something bigger than cheap thrills.
Beyond Spader’s very dark villain, a huge component to this heavier tone is the bountiful increase in personal character dynamics given to each lead hero. Thanks to Wanda’s mental attacks, we become privy to layers of onion peeled back from each character. The revealed, fleshed out, and acted upon character directions and revelations range from never-before-seen relationships, unspoken passions, new personal motivations, and more. Instead of everyone getting just their prerequisite cool highlight reel moment on the battlefield, they now also receive a bedrock emotional anchor away from the fight. Without spoiling anything, these delectable new wrinkles hit very strong with terrific palpability and satisfaction. Unlike most mindless blockbusters that try to reach this scale, we are served true character development in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” that keeps these familiar heroes from becoming repetitive cartoons.
All of that is the power of Joss Whedon as the writer and director. In one hand, he can artistically create eye-popping spectacle that will still make you cheer. The fight scenes are phenomenal and earn the dazzle you expected to see with your ticket price. The camerawork, editing cuts, and ballsy special effects work may feel fast at times, but they never reach a Michael Bay level of senseless noise. In the other hand, Whedon then chooses outstanding moments to slow it all down and hit us in the gut with one of those rich character developments. Yes, the film is probably over-packed on some level with many people and events to keep track of, but nothing, in this writer’s opinion, is worth shaving or sacrificing. Accept this film as a full meal that takes time and planning and not some protein bar or energy drink for disposable consumption.
Lesson #1: Man wasn’t meant to meddle with certain things—Between Oppenheimer and the Manhattan project in real life and Dr. Frankenstein in the fictional realm, the inquisitive species of man has always sought to learn more and dive deeper. Our intelligence is one of our greatest strengths, but our ambition and perceived invincibility has gotten us in trouble before where we fail to contain what we tried to tinker with. The inventive Tony Stark can’t help himself. When he gets an idea or has an epiphany, he runs with it and breaks the rules. Extracting the artificial intelligence and thinking he can control it for some greater good is a prime example of this lesson and his own warped hubris.
Lesson #2: Everyone creates the thing they dread— This killer quote comes from the quizzical and prophetic mind of Ultron and it is a notion that takes Lesson #1 to a larger level. In the villain’s eyes and opinion, man creates their own destruction in every single way. Essentially, we cause our own inevitable death, demise, or replacement, being either our life choices, careless behavior, or even the simple fact of creating our own offspring that go on to replace us. Through the planted magical visions exposed by Wanda Maximoff, we learn a little bit about what each hero fears and dreads. We learn what makes them tick and there are villains that seek to exploit that.
Lesson #3: Wits and will trump technology and firepower—Stark has provided the “Avengers” with all of the hot technology possible between costume modifications, a swanky headquarters, and endless resources. In the wrong kind of fight, none of that flashy stuff will help you. What powers you then is what’s in your gut and between your ears. Wit is different from intellect. Wit can discern and problem-solve past the plain logic of intelligence. Will is different from physicality. Strength of mind and strength of heart can beat muscles when used the right way.
Lesson #4: What true heroes are willing to sacrifice their lives for—Within the film, this list is classic and simple. Our Avengers are willing to give their lives to save the general public, the innocent, the weak, their peers, the defeat of evil, and the establishment of peace. Our heroes seek safety in every step of their teamwork. This isn’t new ground being tread in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” but it stands up proud in stark (and possibly purposeful) contrast to the theoretically horrific and unchecked destruction found in other recent superhero/genre films like “Man of Steel,” “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” or the “Transformers” franchise where property damage and destruction leads to thousands of off-screen and unspoken casualties. Whedon and company portray grim without the body count and with a moral base bound by the truest ideals of sacrificial heroes.