Writer/Director Joss Whedon has said in an interview that making Avengers: Age of Ultron almost killed him. From the director of one of the most expensive and most popular comic book films of all time, that’s saying something. Exactly how does one top the immense popularity and critical acclaim of The Avengers? Whedon may have almost killed himself trying to figure out how, but—based on the final product—Age of Ultron doesn’t top the original The Avengers as much as it stands comfortably as its equal.
Marvel Studios has achieved a feat that only George Lucas before was able to accomplish: create a self-sustaining cinematic universe in which stories overlap and characters—from major players to “blink-and-you’ll miss” walk-on parts—weave in and out of each successive film. Leading them all is Robert Downey Jr., who has reinvented his career in this cinematic universe and will forever—for better or for worse (mostly for better)—be remembered as Iron Man. From Downey forward, each leading character has been cast with the utmost care. There’s Chris Evans’ charming earnestness that absolutely forces us to root for Captain America. There’s Chris Hemsworth’s forceful charisma that makes Thor approachable and appealing. As Black Widow, Scarlett Johansen playing a cold spy that also lets her guard down enough to grab our attention. As the tortured soul that just can’t seem to come to terms with the fact that he turns into “an enormous green rage monster,” Mark Ruffalo has taken a part originally played by Edward Norton and has made Bruce Banner his own. Jeremy Renner, on the other hand, got the short shift in the original Avengers when his Hawkeye fell under a spell in the first five minutes of that film and then spent most of the running time as the main villain’s own “personal flying monkey.” Thankfully, Age of Ultron rights the wrongs of the original by giving Hawkeye much more of a take-charge role. We also get to see some unexpected moments of warmth when Hawkeye is forced to take the defeated Avengers into hiding at his family farm. A superhero with a loving wife and kids? This plot development also provides the best line of the movie: Hawkeye’s wife—during a husband/wife chat—tells him “I’ve always supported your avenging.”
Within this established universe, Whedon and his artistic sensibilities fit right in. The premise is simple enough to follow: After a successful mission nets the Avengers a weapon featured in the original film—Loki’s scepter—Tony Stark realizes that he has found an energy source that could finally power his long dormant peacekeeping program called “Ultron.” The program contains all of Stark’s strengths as well as his faults, which become murderously exaggerated when the program suddenly becomes sentient and Ultron goes from a contained computer program to malevolent technological force that sounds suspiciously like James Spader. Spader seems to relish his villainous role and his dry wit makes Ultron the best villain yet to grace a Marvel film. Unlike Loki, the villain from the first film who simply wanted to subjugate humanity in order to be worshipped by them, Ultron wants humanity to evolve. Strangely enough, evolution is promoted in Age of Ultron but only as Ultron’s sole motive. Evolution may be the go-to position for atheists but when it involves the violent end of all human life, suddenly all of the Avengers act like Christians–at least in that regard (and not much else).
Once Ultron is introduced as the primary threat, the story predictably goes through its intended action beats. New characters are introduced. Established characters are given their moments to shine and propel the story forward. There’s a budding romance. There’s tension-filled debates. There’s the villain’s schemes of world domination that seem to rush ahead so quickly one wonders how much important material Whedon must have had to cut out of his original 3-hour plus film. The climax—involving a massive battle to save an entire city that Ultron is using to create an “extinction level event”—is suitably loud, large scale, and emotionally satisfying.
In such a critic-proof preordained blockbuster as Age of Ultron, are there any criticisms worth mentioning? Sure. There are a few subplots that are obviously truncated; perhaps a victim of Whedon’s frantic editing. The carnage relies so heavily on CGI that it becomes a distraction at times, especially during the film’s extended “battle royale” finale. The aforementioned romance involving two of the Avengers wasn’t given as much screen time as I would have wished.
In the end, though, these are minor quibbles. What Marvel Studios has accomplished ever since their first “Iron Man” film back in 2008 can’t be understated. With the massive amount of talent that Marvel has employed both in front of and behind the camera, Age of Ultron does what it set out to do: forward the Marvel mythos and whet our appetites for the inevitable next adventure. Whedon may have exhausted himself making Age of Ultron, but his drain is our gain. This is one sequel that can stand proudly beside the original.
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