One of the benefits of not being one of those fortunate reviewers who gets a screener or gets an early pass to see a movie everyone is waiting for is the chance to not only react to the movie but the hype, as well. The mothership of hyped movies has finally landed and Avengers: Age of Ultron exploded on to every movie screen in the world this weekend to the final 3-day number of $626.6 million. The hype certainly has brought in the money, but money, as we have seen with other tentpole movies, is no indicator of a quality movie.
The task of following up on The Avengers would be a tall order for any filmmaking team, but there are few more equipped for the task than Joss Whedon. The successful director behind the first Avengers movie, Whedon proved that assembling a team of leading egos, both the heroes and the actors who play them, could be done and done extremely well.
Taking place after the events of last year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, as well as most of Season 2 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Age of Ultron begins with our group of heroes, led by Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), attacking Baron Strucker at his forest citadel near Sokovia. They meet resistance in some new enhanced humans, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), but eventually obtain what they were after; Loki’s Scepter.
What they do not expect happens shortly after the success of capturing the scepter and returning to their headquarters, Avenger Tower, to celebrate their victory. Stark and Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), combine their minds to figure out what gives Loki’s Scepter and determine it to be an alien and advanced AI. Stark believes this AI can be the answer to his Ultron project, which will create a global police force to replace the Avengers and bring “peace in our time”. Even with the assistance of Jarvis (Paul Bettany) they fail to harness this advanced AI and they leave it under Jarvis’ care during their celebratory party. However, that AI comes to life and becomes Ultron (voiced by James Spader). It breaks free of its constraints and quickly learns of his maker, Stark, and his goals and warps it into destroying all life in order to allow humanity the opportunity to evolve. The Avengers must figure out how to stop Ultron before he destroys them and the entire planet.
There is so much going on in this movie, yet it feels nothing like blockbuster movies that flail wildly to find something to latch on to. The mastery of Whedon, something that will be missed in the future Avengers films, is his weaving of storylines and character motivations into a funny, entertaining, and thoughtful tapestry. The screenplay is witty and quick-fire, hitting the right notes at the right moments to punctuate the acerbic wit of Stark, the candor and fortitude of Cap, as well as the playful insanity of Ultron. The Avengers team banter is fun, yet their tensions remain, and Whedon is not afraid to poke at the dark sides of the team. In fact, it is these darker motivations, specifically from Stark, that create Ultron and threaten the team and all of humanity.
Age of Ultron brings them major players of The Avengers team to the surface. Although the movie gives Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) a story arc, as well as providing a heartfelt, romantic storyline for Banner and Natasha/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), this movie, like six of the other Marvel movies, is about Captain America and Iron Man. Stark’s pre-Iron Man life haunts him again in this film and even though he has embraced being a hero, he is still a flawed and broken man that is motivated by fear of his past, as well as fear of how his choices will effect those he cares about. Despite his turn from soulless weapons magnate to ironclad hero, his Ultron project, the culmination for everything he has done with the arc reactors and Iron Man suits, ends up showing how Stark’s good intentions for peace are twisted by his fear of war and weariness of protecting the peace.
Cap, being the embodiment of democratic ideals, sees how Iron Man’s projects for protecting the peace are not only not American, in the democratic sense, but potentially dangerous. It makes sense that Stark hides his plans from Cap and enlists the help of someone equally eager to be rid of the need for playing the superhero, Bruce Banner. In one of the further along scenes of the movie, Stark and Rogers’ confrontation around this issue could possibly be a tantalizing preview to the next Captain America movie, Captain America: Civil War.
In the course of this movie, however, Stark’s ideas do prove dangerous and potentially fatal when they are faced off against Ultron. This maniacal AI, who is not tied down to one specific location thanks the internet and Stark’s project, is the dark and fallen embodiment of Tony Stark’s fears and ambitions. Spader’s voice work captures the winsome spirit of Stark, but gives it an edge of insanity and urgency that propels his mission of peace and human progress to its end game in the final third.
The conclusion of the film, per the usual, leaves you in anticipation of the next film, but also satisfyingly fulfills the hype it had generated. There are a bunch of surprises, the usual tips to other movies, future movies, and the comic books, and has tons of action. What separates it from other tentpoles is the quality of the heroes, both the heroes themselves and the actors who play them, and the strength of Whedon’s writing and directing. Time will tell if the second installment holds up as well as the first, but it was fun, thrilling, hilarious, and left us with plenty to think about in regards to friendship, secrets, teamwork, the monster within, truth, peace, and justice. I’m sure you would join me in being very excited for what Marvel has next for this group of heroes, old and new.