This has been said elsewhere, but the impressive thing about Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron is how writer/director Joss Whedon takes a narrative that is absolutely packed with superheroes and their backstories and all the action in between, and never lets it all feel like it’s too much. At this point, another film of this magnitude could have easily devolved into a rambling, incoherent, 141-minute-long mess, but Whedon is able give each of these notable characters his or her moment to shine, imbuing them, every one, with legitimate emotional agency. Or so it seems: Whedon’s is a delicate juggling act, and it’s his nimble chops that are why Age of Ultron is yet another in massive, exciting success from the comic book studio.
In the wake of everything he and the Avengers have seen and encountered—threats from other galaxies, 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. So Stark’s efforts don’t end well, their result being Ultron, a sinister AI robot (who’s voiced to creepy perfection by James Spader). This new villain decides that Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are the greatest threat to peace on said Earth, and he also happens to be the greatest enemy the superhero team has ever faced. Along with his magnificent cohorts—Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo)—Iron Man tracks Ultron across the world, attempting to neutralize the threat.
Unlike many big blockbuster action movies of late, Age of Ultron attempts to dig into the moral grey area of this kind of vigilante justice. After an early squabble wrecks the fictional city of Sokovia, the chaos and ruin the heroes helped cause weighs on them. Ultron eventually singles out the Avengers as the origins behind so many of humankind’s problems—and maybe he’s not wrong. Iron Man and Black Widow and Captain America are each doing what he or she thinks is right, but they find little to no agreement on what is or isn’t the correct approach. It’s a perilous path they follow together.
Age of Ultron gives damn near every member of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (hereafter: MCU) an appearance, like Don Cheadle’s War Machine and Anthony Mackie’s Falcon and JARVIS (Paul Bettany), Tony Stark’s digital butler who evolves into android The Vision. But it also introduces some new players that may be around for a while, like 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), or, as Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) describes them: He’s fast and she’s weird.
Using one of her “weird” powers, Scarlet Witch pushes the heroes to the brink. They’re changing, moving on, getting depressed and existential dealing with their real identities. Bruce Banner (Hulk) and Natasha Romanov (Black Widow) have a burgeoning romantic thing going on that they can barely handle; Steve Rogers (Captain America) tries to figure out where he fits in the world; Thor (Thor) is, basically, homesick; and, perhaps strangest of all, Hawkeye has the most going on, and is, in many ways, the glue keeping these tenuous partnerships together.
Age of Ultron may be almost two and a half hours long, but, like the last installment, its pace is smooth and fluid, transitioning seamlessly from scenes of high, sweeping action to quiet moments of introspection and conversation. Everything is measured and natural, propelled by Whedon’s trademark snappy dialogue, which now is even better-tuned to the personalities of his team. One could easily lament that there is too much going on in this film; granted, more Ultron would have been welcome, accompanied by more of Spader’s delightfully sinister delivery, because though he’s “the greatest enemy” the Avengers have ever been pit against, and though he’s in the title of the movie, he gets the short end of the stick when screen time is concerned. And that’s keeping in mind that there is a lot of screen time overall.
This sequel is definitely less accessible than its predecessor, and while general audiences will undoubtedly enjoy it (with the box office receipts to prove it), this is seemingly even more specifically aimed at comic book fans, featuring numerous moments that primarily exist to further the expansion of the MCU. A side trip to the fictional African nation of Wakanda serves to set up the impending Black Panther movie; scenes are obviously designed to establish the discord within the group, which will boil over into Captain America: Civil War next year; and there are even glimpses of turning, divided public opinion, like at the end of the first Avengers, which feels like yet another way to gain some traction after this big blow-out.
It’s become par for the course by now, and there really aren’t any intrusive Easter Eggs or plot points in this film that wouldn’t make sense outside of a thorough knowledge of the MCU, but it’s easy to see how in the future, all of this franchise-baiting could distract from the individual craft and visceral fun of the film as a single unit. Because Avengers: Age of Ultron is big and brash and crowded and overplotted and nothing super surprising happens, but considering the scope and scale Whedon was up against, the film flawlessly sets the stage for Phase 3 of the MCU, which is maybe all that humanity could ever ask for from its greatest heroes.
Director: Joss Whedon
Writers: Joss Whedon
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Release Date: May 1, 2015