Assembling once more after various solo outings, the iconic heroes avenge again in Marvel’s Age of Ultron. Though it shares a name with a 2013 saga from the comics, here director Joss Whedon gives the film its own story, and it has much more to offer than the previous outing. While the fun of the first film remains intact (in fact, there’s even more humor in this one), the drama takes this sequel in a new direction.
The film opens with the heroes already united and in the process of an incursion into the fictional, pseudo-Slavic country of Sokovia to retrieve a dangerous scepter (it’s Loki’s; if you’re following all the details, see the Thor films), and stop a human experimentation project. Here we see two subjects of these experiments: twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, respectively, in the comics). They’re introduced initially as sympathetic antagonists, as their parents were killed in a bombing caused by weapons owned by Stark Industries, the corporation owned by Tony/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr., giving another brilliant performance).
But the scepter, at least in this film, is more or less a MacGuffin. Within it is an artificial intelligence that serves the basis for Tony’s plan to “build a [proverbial] suit of armor around the world.” If that sounds police state-ish, it should be an indicator of the character’s political positions, which will become important in next year’s Captain America: Civil War. Called the Ultron defense program, the A.I. (voiced by James Spader) proves just a bit too advanced when it takes matters into its own hands, determining that peace on Earth can only be achieved with the eradication of humanity. This is a scenario that sci-fi has covered many times before, but it gains new depths when juxtaposed with this cast of characters, and we get a further demonstration of the vastly different viewpoints of Tony and Steve/Captain America (Chris Evans). Again, this is buildup for the upcoming clash between the heroes in 2016.
As I was watching, I realized that despite all the winning ingredients, it amounted to a recipe perhaps not suitable for all palates. And yet, the audience was an incredibly diverse assortment of young and old, Marvel fan or otherwise, etc. Admittedly, despite its fast-paced action and clever one-liners, Age of Ultron is as “comic book” as you can get. This movie is brimming with fan service, readily apparent in scenes that offer slow-motion closeups of the Avengers leaping into action; obvious eye candy for superhero fanatics. And from the perspective of such a fan, these are very well done, and look like they were pulled right from a panel in an issue of the comics. Years ago we would never have thought it possible that these characters would migrate to the big screen in such a vibrant and faithful way, so what might come off as lacking in substance to some is, for us, incredibly rewarding.
For some, this sort of flashy material that populates the film might be a drawback. But the more casual watcher might also have failed to pick up on Joss Whedon’s ability to insert deeper questions beneath seemingly simplistic scenes. And with all the eye-dazzling CGI, those questions are indeed buried; it’s up to the viewer whether it’s worth grabbing a shovel. But they’re there, and they provoke thoughts about civil liberties, utilitarianism, and – though it’s a little on the nose – artificial intelligence.
Cast and characters
Anchoring the film is, as always, Downey Jr., but credit is owed also to Ruffalo. Evans is a bit underwhelming, though likely because of his dutifully faithful portrayal of the ‘morally perfect’ and increasingly tiresome Captain America. Hemsworth is always fun as Thor, while Johansson and Renner were given much more to do this time around as Black Widow and Hawkeye, leading to some pretty enjoyable scenes.
I missed the presence of Tom Hiddleston (a.k.a. Loki – referenced but not seen in this movie) and his ineffable ability to simply stand and chew scenery, but in retrospect, there was really no place for him in this one. As it was, the sequel was overstuffed with characters including numerous cameos, though Whedon managed to prolong this juggling act without dropping the ball.
Spader’s portrayal of villain Ultron was fine, even witty, but the character was lacking in menace. Marvel has always had a problem with having good antagonists in its movies and Ultron was not necessarily any kind of exception. The story surrounding him was very good; but the execution of it was problematic. Simply put, this robot never really felt like a threat. I wasn’t looking for a Heath Ledger performance, but I feel there were moral shades of grey, especially from the standpoint of an artificial being, that were not fully explored here. If they had been, it would have made him more compelling. I would cite this as the film’s single fault: in pursuing this story about an A.I. being and his view of the world, they unspooled a long, complicated thread – and then proceeded to snip it abruptly, dialing Ultron back when he was just getting interesting.
Another character issue was the one surrounding Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). Neither her personal tragedy nor her powers were given enough screen time, and this was all the more regrettable because I felt that she had a strong presence and I very much enjoyed the character.
The main takeaway from Age of Ultron, however, is this: a few years ago, people wondered how films like Thor or Iron Man would translate to the big screen. Since then, these eclectic characters have twice been put together in a legitimately fun and engaging wham-bang summer superhero flick, and that, despite whatever other deeper undertones may or may not be present, is the primary strength of a Marvel movie. The Avengers have made us accept the regular adventures of an armored man, a thunder god, and a green rage monster without batting an eye. And that’s okay. I think it’s a sign that we’re becoming less cynical, and learning to enjoy our time at the movies once again.
No one can predict whether Age of Ultron will age like wine. With so many competing superhero films out there, it’s hard to know which ones will stand the test of time. But this is a solid and massively entertaining entry in the series, and at the very least, the one big blockbuster of 2015 that you should probably take the time to see. With so many more installments on the horizon, and now with the upcoming integration of other characters (Spider-Man, Daredevil, Ant-Man, Black Panther) into this shared universe, now, perhaps more than ever, is the best time in history to be a comic book fan. For everyone else, follow along and try to keep up!
“Avengers: Age of Ultron”
Directed by Joss Whedon
Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Elizabeth Olsen, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Samuel L. Jackson, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, James Spader, with cameos by Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgard, Andy Serkis, Josh Brolin
Photo: Avengers newcomers Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). | Film Facebook page.