The Avengers: Age of Ultron begins with an action-packed sequence and never lets its foot off the gas, speeding through its narrative with the typical excitement and wit associated with the Marvel universe. The primary reason for that, and why it works, is Joss Whedon, the returning auteur who picks up where he left off in 2012’s The Avengers. As writer-director, Whedon has maintained his creative control in terms of developing characters and keeping their trademark banter, yet he seems attached to the responsibilities that Marvel wants the franchise to carry in order to set up its future films. That involves a lot of asides that allude to Thanos, the Black Panther, the upcoming Civil War, and other additions to the growing batch of Avengers. While they do grow naturally from Ultron as a a villain and allow the narrative to tie together many of its previously established ideas, it also makes the film a little less spontaneous than the first, and more mechanical. It’s still an incredibly enjoyable ride though, filled with humor, a ton of action, and a good heart.
The story picks up with the usual ragtag group of heroes: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), all fighting the bad guys around the world. They start by fighting off the lingering Hydra threat in a world post Winter Soldier, in this case involving the super-powered twins Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). They believe that the Avengers are evil because of Tony Stark’s actions in the past manufacturing weaponry, and ultimately side with Hydra. Meanwhile, Tony Stark believes that the world needs better developments in security to ensure Earth is protected from destruction, so he returns to a past venture to create artificial intelligence in the form of a machine. In this case, that is Ultron (voiced by James Spader), a computer program that grows into something far more corrupt than Tony intended. This leads to a disjointed Avengers, who question why Tony would create such a dangerous program that gains remarkable sentience and, instead of opting to protect the world, decides that killing all humans is the only means by which the Earth can be saved.
If this sounds like a familiar conflict, it’s because seemingly all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films involve a malevolent force attempting to destroy the world. That’s practically the tagline for every superhero film. Yet somehow, Age of Ultron feels decidedly realized in its representation of its villain as a creation of good intentions. Tony Stark, played once again fittingly by Downey Jr., is embattled because he can see no end in sight to the madness that pervades their everyday life as world-savers. When the opportunity arises to create a true A.I., it’s too promising to pass up. This has been an increasingly prominent theme in modern filmmaking, as artificial intelligence grows increasingly possible with the level of computing power and storage our world has. That grounds the latest Avengers in a semblance of reality, even if its superheroes are seemingly indestructible. I mean, when the film introduces a machine has been developed to actually build tissue for anyone that is wounded, can it seem realistic for any of the non-immortal Avengers to be killed?
These films, though, aren’t built on that widespread external struggle with mortality. Rather, they are built on the inner conflict within all of the shadowed pasts of these characters. Age of Ultron provides us with the most striking looks at the personal lives of Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow’s real-life persona) and Clint Barton (Hawkeye’s). It’s remarkable, considering every other character has had their respective solo efforts and these are the first true looks at their lives that we’ve seen. It pays off well. Johansson and Renner are particularly great here, an obvious growth from the first Avengers. Whedon, in addition to making those characters pop more than ever, has created a film that’s surprisingly funny and understanding of its characters. Jokes derive from the characters, not necessarily from situations, and that makes for dynamic dialogue. The action, notably in IMAX 3D, moves well and doesn’t feel difficult to follow; it’s cognizant of what needs to be seen, and the context of what is happening makes every scene feel impactful. There are a few notable tangents that lull the film in its second act, which slow the otherwise belligerently paced caper. For a film in a universe that has set up a ton of future explorations, it’s nice to see The Avengers: Age of Ultron tell its own powerful story.
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)