Avengers: Age of Ultron is a solid and well-crafted film in which writer/director Joss Whedon displays a deft hand at juggling a huge cast of characters and alternating between quiet character moments and big loud explodey action sequences. Lots of big loud explodey action sequences across four continents; the action takes place in New York, Korea, and the mythical countries of Wakanda (Africa) and Sokovia (Eastern Europe).
As is always the case with the films in the Marvel franchise operation, each movie has to be taken on two levels: as a self-contained story and as a small part of a much larger tapestry. Avengers: Age of Ultron succeeds on both levels, but much more on the second. As much as it tries to be a stand-alone movie, there is a lot of history from the previous movies, and it’s a lot easier to follow the story if you know what came before. The story grows out of events seen in Avengers, Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier; international peace-keeping agency SHIELD is functionally dissolved, the Avengers are cleaning up the remaining HYDRA bases, Tony Stark, while he no longer has an arc reactor embedded in his chest to keep him alive, is still haunted by the alien invasion of the first film, and is determined to create a defense system that will protect the world from another such attack. His program originates with the Iron Man drones from his last solo film, which he intends to further develop with the help of fellow scientist Bruce “Hulk” Banner. After recovering Loki’s scepter from HYDRA’s Baron Strucker (last seen in the post-credit sequence of Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Stark figures out a shortcut using the powerful alien weapon to jump-start his new defense system. The result is a very menacing sentient robot, Ultron, played (via voice and motion capture) by James Spader, who, unfortunately for the Avengers, embraces both Stark’s desire for a peaceful world and his willingness to take shortcuts. Ultron’s plan is simple; in order to save the earth, humanity must be extinguished so that something better can take its place. Spader, who has specialized in playing this sort of remorseless and amoral monster of late, really sells the part, and paradoxically, his sociopathic coldness, when displayed by a robot, makes the creature both more monstrous and more human. He’s creepy and often funny in a disturbing way.
The effort to shut down Ultron and his army of robots leads the heroes to the war-torn eastern European country of Sokovia, home of a pair of remarkable twins, Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), whose astonishing powers are ostensibly due to experiments performed by the evil Baron using Loki’s weapon. Pietro, AKA Quicksilver, is Marvel’s version of the Flash, only instead of a nerdy police scientist, he’s brash, arrogant and a protective brother. His sister Wanda, the Scarlet Witch, has a mix of mental and physical powers including telepathy, telekinesis, reality-warping and mind-control. The glowing red energy tendrils generated from her hands as she moves, equal parts dancer and symphony conductor, produce a variety of effects, from engendering hallucinations to stopping a runaway train. Olsen brings a nice weirdness to her role, seeming at times a little frightened of her powers, at others engulfed in righteous rage at the people who destroyed her village and killed her family, particularly former munitions manufacturer Tony Stark.
On another front, the Avengers have to prevent Ultron from acquiring a large supply of stolen vibranium, the super-powerful metal from which Captain America’s shield is made. This battle serves primarily to provide a big noisy action sequence pitting the Hulk against Tony Stark’s Hulkbuster armor, while quietly putting people and things in position for another of the “phase 3” movies, the Black Panther, coming in November 2017. Other sequences serve to set up events that will play out in Captain America: Civil War (May 2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (May 2018), though they all feel like organic parts of the story rather than clockwork plot developments mandated by the studio. Surprisingly, there were no obvious hints to Ant-Man (coming in July) or Dr. Strange (November 2017).
There is, of course, no shortage of spectacular scenes of mass destruction, but they feel earned by the little moments that serve to remind us of what it is they’re fighting for. Friends like Sam “the Falcon” Wilson (Anthony Mackie), Jim “War Machine” Rhodes (Don Cheadle), SHIELD agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and the all-seeing Heimdall (Idris Elba) all get cameo appearances, and in some cases a hand in the action. Pepper Potts and Jane Foster, the romantic interests played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman in previous films, are unseen, but are mentioned in an amusing scene that finds Tony and Thor trying to one-up each other as to whose girlfriend is the more successful and accomplished in her career. Linda Cardellini (Freaks & Geeks) has a small but pivotal role that illuminates some of the characters and their history and reminds us why we all loved Lindsay Weir.
The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) carries a lot of the story, not only in the action sequences, but also in the quiet “human” interludes; she is the one who can bring the Hulk down from his rages, and their growing relationship is part of the emotional core of the film. This installment of the Avengers saga also settles once and for all the issue of whether Natasha is there to be anybody’s girlfriend. Her involvements with Hawkeye and Captain America are directly addressed. We also see some of her back-story, how she became a Russian super-spy and what it cost her. Johansson shows us a raw and vulnerable side, reminding us that she is better known as an actress of depth than as an action star. And then she shows that she’s also an action star after all.
Whedon keeps things moving and serves all these characters, as well as Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and several new faces. Hawkeye in particular gets his time in the spotlight, apparently to make up for his having spent the first film as a mind-controlled thrall of Loki. He earns his keep this time, demonstrating that heroism isn’t about having super-powers, but about making brave choices. He does what he can with what he has, and it’s enough. He also develops a nice amiable rivalry with Quicksilver, which hearkens back to their Silver Age comic book roots.
Those comic book roots are where Avengers 2 really comes together for me. These are “my” Avengers. When dealing with a series that has run continuously for the past 50+ years, it’s normal for fans to have a favorite era, whether due to a particular writer, artist, cast of characters or storyline. When I started reading the Avengers comics around 1970, the series centered primarily on Captain America, Hawkeye, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch and one other character, the Vision. In the comics, the Vision is a “synthozoid,” an artificially-created human, made by Ultron as a weapon, who turned on his creator and became an Avenger. In the film, Vision is that and more; Paul Bettany, who previously provided the voice of Stark’s computer assistant, Jarvis, imbues the Vision with a humanity that contrasts nicely with his robotic origins. Vision may remind viewers somewhat of Star Trek’s Spock, the emotionless non-human who has more compassion and heart than anyone. I expect that we are going to see an army of Vision cosplayers at this year’s Comic-Con.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is an entertaining and surprisingly emotionally satisfying episode of the Marvel story, successfully moving a lot of pieces into place for future episodes without calling too much attention to the fact. Only those of us who know the comics will likely notice the names and references.