Avengers: Age of Ultron is an overwrought film. It’s got a thirst for destruction, a heavy-handed villain, and four-five-six-too-many characters to juggle. It is also a hell of a lot of fun, an exercise in expertly-crafted blockbuster filmmaking with a few wicked jokes and just a tinge of exhilarating pathos.
In this follow-up to director Joss Whedon’s well-received original Avengers, our superheroes have gone through the ringer in a series of intervening Marvel Cinematic Universe attractions. Don’t worry, I haven’t seen a single one of these stand-alone films (including a supposedly bad Thor and an apparently excellent Captain America) and I, too, was able to piece together the frenetic plot on hand here.
Essentially, after being dealt a hard blow in an opening battle, the Avengers get their hands on one of the six infinity stones tossed around in Marvel’s earth-and-space odysseys. Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) wants to delve into artificial intelligence by going ahead with his Ultron program, which would, as he says, “wrap the world in a suit of armor.” But uh-oh! A.I. is too intelligent and takes on robotic form, Ultron himself (voiced by James Spader). Add into the mix the villain’s ability to travel the world through internet connections, his enlisting of a brother-sister duo, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) wronged by Stark in the past, and a dastardly plan to kill off the global population in an effort to “evolve” life on earth, and you’ve got Age of Ultron.
It sounds clunky, and in some ways it is. But Whedon deftly pieces together the film’s many disparate, globe-trotting parts, crafting interesting action sequences and emotionally-satisfying character beats in the midst of the lengthy runtime. It doesn’t hurt, either, that this truly is Ultron’s film: he is a frightening, dynamic villain worthy of the epic surrounding him.
Age of Ultron can often feel like a plot-based excuse to get from action sequence to action sequence. Save those mechanics, however, the quieter in-between bits, as well as the loud, somewhat over-long smackdowns, are genuinely satisfying, focusing largely on our central six superheroes: Iron Man, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).
Some of the film’s best scenes revolve, as always, around the established relationships between this motley crew of misfits. One particularly amusing moment sees them all attempting to pick up Thor’s mystical hammer in a collegial, drunken atmosphere. When the newly created Ultron unexpectedly crashes the party, there is a charge of genuine terror and anxiety. You can almost hear the groan: “Just when we were starting to have fun…”
Another set of scenes takes place in a farmhouse hideaway where the secretive, underused Hawkeye finally gets some depth, revealing he has a wife (Linda Cardellini, reliably solid in a couple of emotional moments) and two kids. Seeing these super-beings in a relaxed environment allows time for several other emotional undercurrents to come to the surface, too. Chief among them are a long-brewing frustration between Iron Man and Capt. America, who chop wood together in an amusing but tense battle of brawn, and the romantic attraction between Black Widow and the Hulk. Johansson and Ruffalo have an easy chemistry, complicated by their difficult lives, and their scenes together are tentative, sexy, and refreshingly underplayed.
The slower bits are a nice change of pace, but Whedon does a nice job with the film’s lengthy scenes of violence as well. Bolstered by the addition of several new super powers—Quicksilver’s super speed, which catches each of the characters off-guard at one point or another, and Scarlet Witch’s sneaky powers of telekinesis and dream implantation (at least I think that’s what she was doing)—there are a couple of inspired set-pieces, made better by excellent sound design and seamless special effects.
One, a two-parter taking place in a fictional coastal African country, makes great use of the nightmarish visions caused by Scarlet Witch, who twitches her fingers and emits red sinews of thought. By the middle of the scene, she’s got Black Widow picturing herself as a ballerina-turned-assassin back in Russia, Thor convinced that he’s gone to Hell, complete with a scene of creepy, devilish debauchery, and Captain America seeing visions of his old love in an eerily empty 1940’s dance hall. Worst of all, she has The Hulk right where she wants him: imagining that everyone, especially his teammates, have turned against him. Crazed and on a rampage, the green giant trashes a nearby city (the scene was filmed in Johannesburg) until Iron Man, donning a massive version of his mechanized suit, subdues him. Their raging back-and-forth blows are thrilling and funny, and the Hulk, unlike in previous incarnations, feels truly unnerving in his might.
Other scenes, including a doozy of a chase through Seoul by motorcycle, train, jet, and truck and the climactic final battle, when Ultron sets thousands of powerful, flying robots on the superheroes, are also thrilling. There are elements of been-there-done-that to it all, but also a lightness-of-foot I did not feel in the city-crushing chaos of the previous film’s finale.
Better yet, Ultron’s kill-them-all brand of evil has a palpable vitality. As voiced by Spader, this suped-up robot is charming, slimy, and bitingly sarcastic, a loose-cannon whose intelligence and wit are unparalleled. He has no feelings for human beings and he is quick to act. He’s also got a penchant for a sickening sense of humor, his jokes leaving an acidic threat in the air. Though that energy gets somewhat lost amidst the action, he still leaves plenty of an impression.
A couple others share his MVP status. Elizabeth Olsen makes a fiery, conflicted Scarlet Witch, and her physicality and powers, which could come across as hokey, are filled with strength. Likewise Black Widow, who once again stands apart form her male counterparts; though she has no real “powers” to speak of, she is exciting to watch and delivers a consistently solid emotional performance. Finally, The Vision (also Paul Bettany), a late-in-the-game addition to the crew whose creation is needlessly confusing, is a fascinating presence. Part human and part synthetic metallic material, his red and green suit/skin and flowing gold cape provide some of the most aesthetically vivid moments in the film.
Marvel’s game plan is unique in that we already know what films and additional superheroes lie ahead. Their phase three, which will begin next spring with Captain America: Civil War, promises to bring in Black Panther, Doctor Strange, and Captain Marvel, among others. It will also contain two more Avengers films, one year apart: Infinity War, Parts I & II.
Aside from confirming that we will all soon suffer from franchise exhaustion, this trajectory also indicates that Age of Ultron is a firmly in-between entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Still, the film benefits from its smartly-etched character additions and a satisfyingly dangerous villain, not to mention Whedon’s characteristic sense of humor and a firmer grasp on crafting thrilling action than he exhibited in the Avengers’ last outing.
True, Age of Ultron won’t appeal to everyone, and it won’t bring anyone into the Marvel fold who isn’t already on board. But it does stand on its own as a highly entertaining, sometimes thrilling film, and another chance to hang out with some of the most well-developed superhero characters on screen today.