Artificial intelligence really is a doozy–every time you turn around, it seems another robot has turned rogue on its well-meaning maker and needs to be put down. Who better to do the job than Marvel’s delightfully imperfect and thoroughly lovable Avengers, and who better to be responsible than … Tony Stark? Besides demonstrating the clear dangers of a lack of communication, Age of Ultron improves on its excellent predecessor in essentially every way and manages to add in a bigger heart and a greater sense of groundedness in the process, making this a prime example of what a summer superhero film can be.
The family keeps getting bigger.
Of this sequel’s many changes, the one that most sticks out to me is the drastic change in pacing: while the film’s otherwise excellent predecessor felt a little too cleanly divided into acts, making its structure excessively transparent, Age of Ultron’s story moves at a cheetah-like pace and doesn’t stop to explain itself to newcomers, either to the Avengers series or the numerous Marvel story lines that surround and connect to it. Viewers who are familiar with the world of Captain America, for example, will be served well in this story’s beginning moments. Most of the first Avengers’ ties to Thor have all but vanished, but you may wish to see that film anyway, as some of its characters and objects still remain relevant. Fans of the X-Men (and apparently of Guardians of the Galaxy) may appreciate some of the new character introductions as well.
The action begins as soon as Age of Ultron opens, with the heroes launching a furious assault on a Hydra facility that guards an awfully familiar scepter. It also guards a pair of individuals who weren’t in the first film, being the twins known as Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. The former is incredibly fast, while his sister’s powers are magical and often manipulative. Between the two, her abilities are much more interesting for what they do for the story, because while Quicksilver running to and fro seems like genre-standard stuff, the Scarlet Witch is capable of inducing hallucinations and minor psychoses. Hence, a number of her scenes lend Marvel the impression of experimenting with psychological-thriller (a la Moon) and even light horror territory, and these make for brief but appetizing tastes I hope this studio someday revisits.
Tony “Iron Man” Stark has a genius plan to secure the world’s future safety so the Avengers won’t need to fight forever, and he enlists Bruce “The Hulk” Banner to get involved. The plan? Program and bring online Ultron, an AI meant to lead Stark’s mechanical Iron Legions to defend Earth. The problem? Ultron gets his own ideas almost as quickly as it took me to type this paragraph, and he readily concludes that a peaceful Earth is one untainted by the presence of mankind. The concept of a superhero planning and working for a life and world where he is no longer needed is a good one, and it’s something I wish the film would have explored in more detail, similar to what The Dark Knight Rises did. As with the original Iron Man, Stark finds himself fighting against his own creation, now wildly out of his control. The normally super-confident Tony does get a few honest soul-searching moments as he ponders his responsibility and its depths, which reflect not only on him but on the rest of his crew, which still includes the Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Black Widow, and Hawkeye but now has a few surprises thrown in.
I don’t trust a guy without a dark side.
The amount of infighting is kept to a minimum, which is doubly surprising given that it made up a large portion of the first Avengers’ character development, never to mention that it would have been very easy and understandable for much of the cast to rebel against their ally for his highly questionable actions. Nevertheless, these people feel just as human and “optimistically imperfect” as ever, perhaps more so. Fans of the first film might remember that the arrow-handling Hawkeye didn’t really get a great deal of character development, and while he still doesn’t per se, he does get a very nice family subplot that makes him feel more relevant to the story while also serving as a reminder that heroism is more than just an endless series of fights. Romance is explored for several characters but is never made a foremost priority, which in a weird way gives these relationships a much greater sense of believability.
In the bigger picture, Marvel’s shared universe keeps taking valuable and important steps toward maturity. These are heroes with consciences, some overly rationalizing and others broken and wracked with guilt. They do have to take steps to avoid collateral damage and fear its consequences for others, and while the film doesn’t cross all the way into gritty Nolan territory or into the ends-justify-the-means excuses of Watchmen and its ilk, Ultron presents a world that in large part distrusts the Avengers as a force for safety. The movie doesn’t go into extensive detail, but parallels can easily be drawn toward questions about whether and how much people on the “receiving end” of military and police interventionist tactics feel about such involvement, and whether these people ultimately feel (and are) any more safe for having their new guardians around. There are some beautifully human touches in the form of heroes making sure civilians and their families are kept safe and out of harm’s way, even when that means taking personal risks to secure thorough evacuations of danger zones.
Bruce Banner and especially Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff receive the bulk of the most interesting character development, with the latter getting a brief scene that has me imagining a hypothetical mix of Black Swan and the child-assassin film Hanna. Her level of importance hasn’t been consistent among Marvel’s previous works (compare the first Avengers film to Iron Man 2), but at this point Romanoff and her portrayal by Scarlett Johansson feel more than substantial enough to merit her own film.
The Blacklist’s James Spader gives an incomparable performance as Ultron, whose cold aura immediately outweighs the smug elitism Thor’s brother Loki bore throughout the first Avengers, even if Ultron’s motivations aren’t all that interesting for a viewer who’s seen “destroy the world to make it pure” plot lines often enough before. In utter contrast, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch is given a fascinating characterization and back story, and a good deal of screen time, but her acting feels emotionless (until one of the film’s last scenes, which is delivered very well) and leaves a great deal to be desired. Quicksilver, though acceptable, is given little to do of importance and isn’t hugely pushed to develop as a character. Ultimately, while the film engages in some very compelling structure and thought experiments, it doesn’t fundamentally commit to questioning or reinventing a basic superhero formula–which is just fine when it’s all so exquisitely executed.
Hulk? Consider the ethical implications of who you are and what you do. Then smash.
As should well be expected, Age of Ultron utterly shines in its many fights and does a tremendous job of keeping all of the team members and their new friends and foes well involved. The few “wait for Heroes A and B to get along again so the story can continue” sequences are justified and are handled with a skillful touch that shows off a bunch of cool toys while demanding moral accountability from its heroes, perhaps even more so than usual. Ultron’s final plan substitutes blatant symbolism in the place of creativity, but it does serve as an excuse for some extremely impressive effects that repeatedly caused me to question what I was seeing.
It’s hard to go wrong with a good motorbike scene, and Natasha’s has become one of my favorites since Carrie-Anne Moss’s turn in The Matrix Reloaded from a decade ago. Several other standard battle scenes contain plenty of impressive marketing-ready slow-motion shots, and all of these fights feel just the right length. While the plot could have been more in-depth, it never feels aimless, and the story and the fight scenes understand and respect each other’s place, resulting in a film that largely lacks “gaps” of waiting for something important to happen.
The sheer frenzy of the globe-trotting narrative, which demands a lot of attention to keep up with, displays a wide variety of settings, cultures, and ethnicities including not just eastern Europeans but also Koreans and Africans, all of whom share degrees of importance in the story. While some of the film’s attempts to raise its own stakes feel insincere (“you didn’t kill X main character the last time around, and you’re not going to do it now”), Ultron still does an excellent job of emphasizing the saving of innocents over and above simply fighting the bad guy, even if the ultimate story-ending solution feels a bit anticlimactic compared to the visual spectacle and moral self-examination of much that comes before. The cinematography itself is gorgeous, and while I didn’t bother watching the film in 3D (large segments of the first Avengers simply felt too dim to make the extra charge very enjoyable), the movie boasts plenty of gorgeousness on its own.
Age of Ultron refuses the temptation to delve into The Dark Knight’s intensity of writing, but some elements of the tone (despite the plentiful comedy) and the soundtrack feel similar enough. From a content-appropriateness perspective, the use of questionable language is infrequent but is played for laughs throughout the film, and there’s a noticeable amount of sexual humor and alcohol use to be found. Sexuality and the question of children are actually important for some of the characters, making for some remarkably mature storytelling and personal development. That said, there are no offscreen eye stabs like in this film’s predecessor, even as the fight scenes in themselves are powerful, intense to the point of feeling nearly as brutal as Spider-Man 2, and occasionally bloody. The film in the end restrains itself for a teenage audience and tells a somewhat mature yet thoroughly entertaining story that is well worth enjoying.
Conclusion: No strings on me
Avengers: Age of Ultron leans toward being popcorn, but it comes with an utterly wonderful aftertaste and is easily digested. Many times throughout the story, the film exhibits what I sincerely hope are growing pains, as certain late events feel almost as tragic as the pivotal close to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (despite in these few instances lacking enough character development and carefulness of pacing to really drive the point home), which I’m hoping will set the stage for riskier and more mature storytelling as Marvel continues the extensive development of its cinematic universe.
While the movie–which has a fairly beefy running time as is–doesn’t extensively examine every question that could be raised or altogether is raised about its themes and implications, the film deserves a great deal of credit for bothering to ask these questions at all without coming across like it’s heading for a pointless “there are no answers” cop-out. Ultron isn’t the most menacing or compellingly written villain, but he perfectly channels James Spader’s calm and confident persona for some of the most impressive proxy acting I’ve seen since Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. His film is not the most challenging summer movie you’ll ever watch, but it doesn’t need to be. Its plentiful vigor and excitement sustain themselves well enough on their own, and those should be enough of a viewing reason for anyone. (There is a mid-credits reveal, but there’s not very much at the end. That full-team sculpture is nice, though.)