AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON Isn't Perfect, but It's Close Enough
Going into the screening of Avengers: Age of Ultron, I was kind of dubious. It’s a sequel to a beloved movie, and those are always hard to pull off, plus previews had shown about 37 different villains, which is death for a movie. In addition, there were rumors of about 15 different plotlines for the various characters. It seemed impossible for even the patron saint of geeks, Joss Whedon, to pull off. Luckily, I didn’t need to worry. Age of Ultron does a lot, but it mostly does it very well.
[Update: This paragraph contains a vague description of the first seven minutes of the film. Two separate editors who have seen the film do not think it contains spoilers, but skip it if you really don't want to know.] The movie wastes no time, beginning in the middle of an assault on a HYDRA stronghold believed to be storing Loki’s scepter. We quickly learn that the whole team — Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye — have been working together to mop up the remnants of HYDRA for awhile now, and they are an incredibly efficient team. There are some set pieces that they have clearly practiced before, and their ability to manage the Hulk’s destruction is fairly impressive. They capture the scepter almost immediately (one of the secondary villains is dispatched with so quickly it was a laugh point at my screening), but not before Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) works her magic on Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), showing him a vision of his worst fears brought to pass. Less than 48 hours later, those fears have given birth to Ultron.
Don’t let any glimpses of Ulysses Klaw or Baron von Strucker fool you, Ultron is the only villain in this movie. Like most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avengers: Age of Ultron is the next chapter in the story of Tony Stark, who, let’s face it, hasn’t been dealing well with his newfound knowledge of the infinite threats to mankind. And now with S.H.I.E.L.D. out of commission (I guess that since they all still think he’s dead, Coulson hasn’t been in contact), the Avengers are funded and operated by Stark Industries, privatizing world security and putting the burden of peace even more squarely on his iron-reinforced shoulders. Ultron is made to lift that burden, but he is also made out of that fear. I’ve heard rumblings that other film writers think Age of Ultron is too bleak, but given the arc of Marvel’s Phase 2 films, I don’t see how that bleakness is avoidable. It is a natural continuation of the themes explored in Avengers, Iron Man 3, and The Winter Soldier, and given that next up on our screens is Civil War, I think Marvel fans can expect more of the same.
Ultron is the truly terrifying villain that Marvel has needed, and James Spader is so wonderful in the role that I cannot imagine anyone else playing it. Spader’s aura of innate superiority and self-assured snobbery serve the character well. He doesn’t necessarily want to hurt people (well, except for the Avengers), but he can’t help it if mankind isn’t strong enough to adapt and survive. If Ultron is the embodiment of the worst of Tony Stark, the film’s other sentient android, the Vision, is something else entirely, and again, the role is cast perfectly. I’m not going to say anything about how the Vision comes to be, because it is too interesting to spoil, but Marvel is really lucky that they brought on Paul Bettany way back when the MCU wasn’t even a thing.The Vision has a monologue that is probably the most difficult scene in the film to pull off, and Bettany’s propensity for delivering every one of his lines like it’s Shakespeare lends itself very well. Spader and Bettany’s shared screen time is some of the best stuff in the movie. They are nothing alike, and yet they understand each other in a way that none of the other characters do. It is one of the loveliest things in the film.
Acknowledging the film’s darker edge is not to say that Age of Ultron is no fun. One of the joys of the movie is the team’s highly developed camaraderie. Captain America begins the movie with a tiny moment of fussy prudishness that no one will let him live down, just like you with your best friends. This is a group of people that love each other, despite the philosophical differences that are beginning to crack the surface. As far as acting goes, Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, and Scarlett Johansson have played these roles in four or five movies now, and they inhabit their characters in a way that comes from that kind of long familiarity. Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye had very little to do in the first movie, but he is given a rich backstory here as the one regular guy on a team of gods and monsters. The long term characterization is smartly used as shorthand to advance the plot, requiring far less exposition than a one-off movie might. Stark is in full-on mad scientist mode in this one, but Downey Jr. can play it naturally because it has been a long ramp up over the course of five movies. It is not at all surprising which character brings the Maximoff twins — Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, previously sworn enemies of Tony Stark — onto the team, because, of course that person would.
The script moves pretty nimbly amongst the massive ensemble. It's impressive that Whedon was able to give each character their own arc, tied directly to the main plot of the movie. Did he pull it off perfectly? Not quite. There is so much going on that a couple of things didn’t get the attention they deserved. The most anticipated action sequence of the movie, the Hulk vs. Hulkbuster fight/rampage, is incredible to watch, but so appallingly destructive that a bit more attention should have been paid to the consequences and aftermath. The destruction isn’t ignored, but it’s treated as much less of a big deal than it should have been, and the animosity it engenders is forgotten fairly quickly. The biggest emotional beat of the film might have resonated more if one of the characters involved had gotten a few more lines. Also, Ultron’s plan in the final showdown is a bit opaque. The Avengers all seem to catch on immediately, but as an audience member, I was left scratching my head for awhile before I figured it out.
But those complaints didn’t do much to dampen the affect of the movie for me. The action sequences are fantastic, and the movie is go go go from the jump, and in the moments that the action is slowed down, it’s just fun to hang out with these characters whom I have come to love. Even Hawkeye. Despite Whedon’s stated intentions, I don’t know if this is the best standalone Marvel movie ever (although at the Marvel movie awards in my head, it would pick up some prizes), but it is definitely one of the best chapters of the larger story. I liked it better than The Avengers original recipe, but I don't know if that will be the prevailing opinion. Wherever you rank this one in the pantheon of Marvel movies, I don't think you'll be disappointed.