Like any long-time comic book fan worth his salt, I was as excited for Marvel’s The Avengers as anybody. And boy, did it deliver, packing everything we wanted to see of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes with Joss Whedon’s trademark wit, a ton of action, and…wow. But the thing that surprised the most about it was how much better the film got when the action slowed down, and this array of colorful, conflicted, and contentious characters battled verbally rather than with magic hammers. Whedon must have realized it too, because Avengers: Age of Ultron has more of such moments. Actually, it has more of everything. More connections to the broader Marvel Universe, more fights, more team squabbles, more romance, more more more! But is it necessarily better?
Given that The Avengers is the third highest-grossing film ever with $1.5B, the goal probably wasn’t to be better, but to at least be just as good. And in that, Whedon has definitely scored a direct hit. ‘Age of Ultron’ is definitely bigger and more of a big wet kiss to comic book fanboys than ever, which I certainly won’t complain about. It also continues along a similar trajectory as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, exploring the impact of extreme measures in pursuit of global security. In this case it’s Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) rather than Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) who is the overzealous one, using his billionaire genius to design a peace-keeping system that will protect the entire world. Unfortunately, the artificial intelligence does what all of them do, which is turn evil and seek to destroy its creators. You’d think someone as smart as Stark would know that by now.
This comes after an awesome pre-credits sequence designed purely in James Bond-style, dropping us right into the thick of the action. This blistering splash page on steroids has the team ransacking a HYDRA base, taking on the likes of monacled villain Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschman), and encountering his powered sibling sidekicks, Pietro “Quicksilver” Maximoff and Wanda “Scarlet Witch”Maximoff (played by Godzilla’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen). What are their powers? To quote the returning Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), “He’s fast, she’s weird”. Her “weirdness” triggers something within Stark, a terrible vision of the future in which he’s utterly failed and the world paid the price.
With the keys to artificial intelligence in his grasp, Stark sets out to make sure that future can never happen. He wants to build a “suit of armor” around the world, to create an impenetrable defense system that will allow the Avengers to go their separate ways and retire in peace. That’s the goal in the end, right? To not need the Avengers, anymore? With the help of fellow nerd Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who occasionally moonlights as the enraged Hulk, they set out on their plan only to have their arrogance create the robotic Ultron (voiced by James Spader), who figures the best way to save the planet is to get rid of the pesky humans.
So basically Ultron’s plot is to destroy everything. Nothing new there, so the bad guy is probably the least interesting thing going on in this film. From a visual standpoint, Ultron looks tremendously cool with his shimmering metallic body and towering presence. It doesn’t hurt that his dismissive attitude is a total fit for Spader, who has long relished playing such characters. There’s a lot of mumbo jumbo about the motivations of man and machine, but there’s nothing too complex to contend with. Certainly it’s nothing on the level of Ex Machina, and who would expect it to be? Stuff needs to get blown up! There are cameos to be had!
Whedon’s film gives fans everything they want and then some, plus stuff they didn’t know they wanted but will come to love. For instance, the steely and secretive Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is given an expanded role here, and we even learn a thing or two about his home life. Perhaps the most interesting development is the budding relationship between Banner and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who spend the bulk of the film trading awkward sexual double entendres. For Ruffalo, he’s basically playing the same sexually repressed man he was in Thanks for Sharing. He’s all jittery at the very idea of cutting loose emotionally. Some of their banter is pretty forced, and Whedon’s characterization of Black Widow isn’t up his usual standard for female characters, but there’s real fun to be had in that dangerous romance. Cameos by War Machine (Don Cheadle), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), plus a trip to the African nation of Wakanda where the Black Panther reigns are not only fun but show that Marvel cohesiveness that keeps audiences coming back for more. We even meet a brand new hero in the android Vision (Paul Bettany), who is basically the antithesis of everything Ultron stands for. Vision’s appearance is probably one thing too many. He deserves far more screen time than there is possibly room for here.
The bloom is a little off the rose in other ways, too. Much of the novelty is gone, the sheer energy of seeing these Avengers assembled for the first time isn’t there anymore, and that’s something Whedon simply can’t recreate. He tries to put a fresh spin on the complicated team dynamics and their inner struggles, but it never comes across as fresh. Much of it seems like a means of teasing the upcoming ‘Civil War’ rather than having an impact on the current film. While it adds a touch of psychological depth to glimpse into the Avengers’ worst fears, it doesn’t inform their actions here and now. What’s more, Whedon’s trademark humor is often misplaced in what is a fairly dark story. Well, dark for a Marvel movie anyway. As the second chapter of a four-part story, ‘Age of Ultron’ is in a weird place. It needs to establish the framework for future movies while establishing itself as a standalone effort, and it doesn’t completely gel.
On the other hand, Whedon does a better job handling the mega sized battles than a guy like Zack Snyder could ever hope to. The sheer insanity of the opening fight is nothing compared to the finale, with a half dozen Avengers squaring off against hundreds of Ultrons in the middle of a war-torn country. The brazenness of Whedon’s direction is palpable, and it’s amazing to see how far he’s progressed as a blockbuster director. What’s more, he manages to ramp up the scope of the action without losing sense of the stakes, which is something that plagued Snyder’s Man of Steel. The destruction in ‘Age of Ultron’ has real consequences, and we’re never allowed to forget that fact.
Avengers: Age of Ultron has its problems, but on a visceral, pure enjoyment level audiences are going to walk away more than pleased. It’s biggest success is setting the stage for the future, and that’s what these Marvel movies have come to be about: what’s next?