This has been said elsewhere, but the impressive thing about Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron is how writer/director Joss Whedon takes a story that is absolutely packed with superheroes and stories and action, and never lets it get weighed down. This could have easily devolved into a rambling, incoherent, 141-minute long mess, but Whedon is able give each of these notable characters their moment to shine and imbue them with legitimate emotional weight. It’s a delicate juggling act in the midst of nearly nonstop action, and is a huge reason why Age of Ultron is another in a long line of massive, exciting, fun movies from the comic book studio.
In the wake of everything he and the Avengers have seen and encountered—threats from other worlds, gods showing up on Earth, that sort of madness—Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) attempts to create an artificially intelligent “suit of armor around the world.” His goal is to keep humanity safe from threats we can’t even imagine yet. Because we all know how this sort of endeavor goes in movies, that doesn’t end well, and the result is Ultron, a sinister AI robot voiced to creepy perfection by James Spader. This new villain decides that Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are the greatest threat to peace, and he has also happens to be the greatest enemy the superhero team has ever faced. Along with his cohorts, Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Iron Man and friends track Ultron across the world, trying to neutralize the threat.
Unlike many big blockbuster action movies, where huge battles and rampant destruction are par for the course, Age of Ultron attempts to dig into the moral grey area and ambiguities inherent in this kind of vigilante justice. This isn’t just evoking 9/11 style imagery to play on your emotions, Whedon tries to make it mean more. After an early squabble wrecks up the fictional city of Sokovia, you can see how the chaos and ruin they cause weighs on the heroes. At the heart of these questions lies the idea that, while Ultron has singled out the Avengers as the problem, maybe he’s not wrong. They’re doing what they think is right, but with little to no agreement on what is or isn’t the correct approach, this is a perilous path, and, as Tony Stark discovers multiple times, the answer is not always clear, and not always the same for everyone.
Age of Ultron gives damn near every member of the Marvel Cinematic Universe an appearance, like Don Cheadle’s War Machine and Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, but it also introduces some new players that may be around for a while. Twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), also known as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch (though they’re never referred to by these monikers due to rights issues), show up on the scene and figure prominently in the story. As Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) describes them, he’s fast and she’s weird. Paul Bettany also evolves from Stark’s digital butler JARVIS to become The Vision.
One of Scarlet Witch’s powers is that she can get into your head, read your mind, and manipulate your thoughts. She uses these skills show the respective Avengers their greatest fears, and, among other things, is a big reason why each and every one of them is pushed to the brink. They’re changing, moving on, and internalizing all of these external ethical debates and more. Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanov have a burgeoning romantic thing going on that they don’t know how to deal with, Steve Rodgers tries to figure out where he fits in the world, and Thor is, basically, homesick, while others have their own issues with which to contend. Perhaps strangest of all, Hawkeye is actually interesting this time around. I know, I’m as surprised as you, but it’s true. He has the most going on, and is, in many ways, the glue keeping this tenuous partnership together. The line of the movie also belongs to him, though I’m not going to give it away here, it’s too good.
Age of Ultron may be almost two and a half hours long, but, like the last installment, the pace is smooth and fluid, transitioning seamlessly from scenes of high, sweeping action to quiet moments of introspection, reflection, and conversation. Everything is measured and natural, propelled by Whedon’s trademark snappy dialogue, which allows the individual personalities to shine through, and this continues to be a big reason why you connect with these characters and these movies. The film is full of all of the things you’ve come to love about Marvel movies.
One of the biggest complaints about Age of Ultron is that there is too much going on, and while I’m not 100% on that team, it’s an understandable point of view. I would have loved more Ultron just to hear Spader’s delightfully sinister delivery, he’s in the title but gets the short end of the stick, screen time wise. This movie is definitely less accessible than its predecessor, and while general audiences will still enjoy it, this has a decidedly more comic book vibe. While there may not be a ton of Easter Eggs, there are a lot of elements specifically aimed at comic fans, which I love, but may put some people off.
There are also numerous moments that primarily exist to further the future expansion of the MCU. A side trip to the fictional African nation of Wakanda serves to set up the impending Black Panther movie, there are scenes obviously designed to establish the discord within the group that will boil over into Captain America: Civil War next year, and you even see glimpses of turning, divided public opinion, like we saw at the end of Avengers. Again, I’m fine with all of this, it’s become par for the course, and none of them are super intrusive, but it’s easy to see how they can be a distraction.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is big and brash and a total blast. Nothing super surprising happens, the movie may be a bit crowded for some, and we could spend days dissecting the intricacies of the plot. But considering the scope and scale, it still has a flow and pace that keeps you moving and never hangs you up. Not perfect, but a lot of fun, Age of Ultron sets the stage for the impending Phase 3 of the MCU and certainly provides a number of interesting, exciting avenues for the future. [Grade: A-]