Without a doubt, Avengers: Age of Ultron delivers on action, adventure, characterization, and wit. It’s probably a little less “new-user friendly” than its 2012 predecessor, which means key story points may end up confusing some in the audience who aren’t particularly acclimated to Marvel Comics-style storytelling. But once again, writer-director Joss Whedon does an impressive job balancing spectacle with small moments, delivering a movie that makes you care about all of the members of the dysfunctional superhero team—even the CGI ones.
Set a few years after The Avengers, we discover right off the bat that the team has gotten back together to take on the remnants of Hydra, the evil organization that had infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. and brought about its downfall in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier (which may well be the greatest superhero movie ever made—it’s certainly Marvel’s best thus far). Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is along for the ride to recover the Staff of Loki, which has fallen into the hands of Baron Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), Hydra’s current leader. Strucker is using the staff in his experiments to create super-powered humans he can control. Thus far, only two subjects have survived the experiments: “The Twins,” more formally known as Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, respectively). During the showdown with Hydra’s forces, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) gets a taste of Wanda’s mind-control powers and experiences a horrifying vision of the future, one that compels him to complete his secret project: Ultron, an Artificial Intelligence program that would protect Earth from otherworldly threats and perhaps even render the Avengers unnecessary. Working with fellow scientist Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Stark forges ahead, using an unorthodox power source that leads to the successful launch of Ultron . . . who immediately builds himself a towering, invulnerable robot body—with countless spares—and promptly decides that humanity has had its day and must be wiped out of existence.
That’s about all I can tell you without getting into spoiler territory. Suffice to say there’s a lot going on in the film. Some might even say there’s too much going on. Certainly the plot is not as streamlined or as straightforward as that of the original Avengers movie. But there is a deepening of the characters that is wonderful to watch. Downey’s Stark is even more arrogant and self-righteous now. Ruffalo’s Banner has become so fearful of the destruction he can cause as the Hulk—and as seen briefly in the trailers, he’s absolutely right to be afraid—that he dismisses the notion of ever finding happiness, of ever falling in love again.
Which is a bummer for Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), because she’s developed a real affection for the mild-mannered scientist—and she may now be the only person on Earth who can calm the big green guy down. Captain America (Chris Evans) is doing a fine job leading the team, but after discovering in The Winter Soldier that he couldn’t trust many of his colleagues in S.H.I.E.L.D., he fears that he’s living that experience all over again when he learns of Stark’s secret activities.
Of all the Avengers, the one who probably gets the most attention is Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)—perhaps Whedon was trying to make it up to Renner for giving his character such a limited role in the original film. We are given a glimpse into Barton’s civilian life that surprised even this lifelong comic-book reader and former Marvel staffer.
Other denizens of the Marvel Cinematic Universe show up in supporting roles, most notably Cobie Smulders as former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and current Avengers ally Maria Hill, Idris Elba as Heimdall and Stellan Skarsgard as Dr. Erik Selvig (both from the Thor movies), Don Cheadle as James Rhodes/War Machine (from the Iron Man movies), and Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/the Falcon (introduced in The Winter Soldier). Expect to see more—a lot more—of these last two.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen are fine additions to the cast. There’s nice chemistry between them, perhaps owing to the fact that they played husband and wife in last year’s Godzilla. As Pietro (whose codename, Quicksilver, is never uttered onscreen), Taylor-Johnson exudes much of the arrogance of his comic-book counterpart. Note that Evan Peters played the same character in last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, though it was a completely different interpretation—and, I must say, Peters’s version was more fun. But Whedon does something with Pietro that should raise plenty of eyebrows, among both longtime fans and the uninitiated. Olsen’s Wanda (codenamed the Scarlet Witch, also a name never used in the film) displays both menace and vulnerability. My only real quibble is that her powers are not fully explained, other than the fact that she can manipulate minds and move objects without touching them. But it seems there’s more to them than that. I did appreciate the fact that the siblings both speak with European accents, which is only appropriate, given their backstory.
I also have to mention the Vision, played by Paul Bettany, who has voiced Tony Stark’s “Jarvis” AI program since the first Iron Man movie in 2008. Here, we finally get to see Bettany in the flesh (with a lot of CG assistance), as a highly advanced android developed by Ultron. The Vision doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but he’s used extremely well and I took an instant liking to him. It’s actually quite remarkable just how quickly and easily he fits in to the storyline and how well he meshes with the other characters.
I must also note that Whedon goes out of his way to show the Avengers taking the time and making the effort to protect and rescue as many innocent bystanders as possible. I can’t help but think this is a sly little stab at Warner Brothers, who, in 2013’s Man of Steel, depicted Superman—Superman, of all characters—never once showing any concern for the people of Metropolis as he engages in a skyscraper-toppling battle with General Zod that surely killed thousands. Clearly, Whedon believes it’s important to have heroes who can truly inspire hope. Good on him.
There’s a bit of an Empire Strikes Back feel to Age of Ultron, especially at the conclusion, where several plot threads are left unresolved and a new status quo is put in place. With the steady flow of Marvel movies coming over the next few years, featuring many of these characters and leading up to the third and fourth Avengers films, it won’t be too long of a wait to find out what happens next. Given Marvel’s track record thus far, it should continue to be a fun ride. Fun, and at times, as with The Winter Soldier, downright spectacular. Age of Ultron doesn’t quite surpass The Avengers, but it stands tall among the Marvel films and is a fitting end of one era and an intriguing start of a new one. Be sure to stick around during the end credits, during which you’ll get a brief tease of what’s to come.
© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2015.