Avengers: Age of Ultron
It’s a well-worn trope that the second entry in any genre-driven movie series is “the dark one”, and evidently that goes for super-groups as well. Avengers: Age of Ultron stands as the culmination of Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, sewing up the plot lines laid down in emotionally darker installments of the Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America sub-franchises while launching the grand, overarching story forwards into the next few years’ worth of movies.
Just like the first time, Joss Whedon writes and directs this all-star round, and again he does a fantastic job of balancing the needs of his ensemble cast, though it does feel like some of the parts have been cut for time, even with almost two and a half hours to work with. On the other hand, it manages to keep from dragging even at that length.
The first Avengers already did all the heavy work of putting the team together, so we can start fast out of the gate with the team busting up the last of the bases H.Y.D.R.A. has been occupying since being unmasked out of S.H.I.E.L.D. in The Winter Soldier. But the big prize here is Loki’s scepter, which the bad guys have been using to create “enhanced” people of their own. Their two successes are a pair of twins, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) Maximoff, who go by “Quicksilver” and “The Scarlet Witch”, respectively. Quicksilver is, unsurprisingly, quick — and yes, another version of Quicksilver was in the most recent X-Men; it’s a long story — and Wanda has telekinetic and telepathic powers.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) decides it would be a great idea to use the powers of the scepter himself to run his army of robots we saw in Iron Man 3, which could help stop another attack like in The Avengers, and he gets some help from Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and his own not-quite-so-advanced AI, JARVIS (Paul Bettany) in order to bring Ultron (James Spader) to life. But, predictably enough for a James Spader character, Ultron in turn decides that the best way to bring about “peace in our time” is just to kill all those pesky humans. And since the Avengers are “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes”, Ultron enlists the Maximoff twins to help neutralize them.
Pietro is easily a match for any one of the Avengers, but it’s Wanda’s psychic abilities that really open up Whedon’s storytelling. She taps into each of their minds and forces them to confront the real-world effects of using their powers. It’s an approach that resonates all the stronger when we learn that the twins were orphaned by a shell produced by Stark Industries. Banner’s entire character has been about the tragic side of his powers, but that doesn’t stop him from hulking out and laying waste to the same sort of developing city he once tried to help as a doctor. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) enjoys battle, but he seems disturbed to face the idea of all his comrades in Hel — possibly setting up for his next film, Ragnarok. Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) despairs that she will only ever be the assassin she was trained to be. Even Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has his regrets about what he sacrifices to be Captain America. Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) is ever the exception, and the odd-man-out Avenger from last time around is now the most important one of all: while the adolescent power-fantasies must grow up and confront the consequences of their actions, Hawkeye is the one to keep his sight on the real stakes.
It would be easy enough for the resolution to all these dilemmata to be a crudely utilitarian calculation: yes, there is some destruction but it’s okay if it saves more lives than it costs. That seems to be the way the filmmakers behind Man of Steel took it, despite the fact that Superman is precisely the last person who should look at the world in those terms. And so it was profoundly gratifying to see our heroes spend at least as much time during the climactic fireworks saving the innocent people around them as they do fighting back against Ultron’s robot horde. You know, acting like heroes should.
Age of Ultron comes up short in the eminently GIFfable shots that The Avengers was almost totally built from, but it feels like it’s at least trying to be something much deeper and more thoughtful than an end-zone dance to celebrate the MCU’s first big milestone. There’s clearly not enough space in the final running time for everything Whedon wanted to say; given his history I have to believe he didn’t mean for one particular scene with Romanoff to come off as awkwardly tone-deaf as it did. But whatever flaws there are — and there are — in this entry or in the MCU as a whole, Kevin Feige has to look back on Phase Two with satisfaction that he and Marvel have pushed these beyond “just comic-book movies” and into the realm of films that deserve to be taken as seriously as any others.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.