*Warning* there will be spoilers in this piece. Also, I’m a total mark for these films. I think I did a good job of looking at this movie in a critical fashion, but my love for these movies is built on a lifetime of unabashed fandom for these characters and nostalgia. I am only human. Carry on.
Avengers Age of Ultron starts off with a bang and keeps things going for the next two hours in a strong and really well done way. The story is that the Avengers accidently create an AI (artificial intelligence) that is tasked with protecting the world from threats. This AI, named Ultron, views things a little different and begins to build a robot army and plot the destruction of not only the Avengers but also all of humanity. In order to do this, he recruits Wanda and Pietro Maximoff and goes around the world wreaking havoc and danger. The Avengers, after a slow start and some infighting, create a new teammate, The Vision, come together and take the fight to Ultron and his allies. The Avengers win, but not without some losses and the end of the movie gives us a very different Avengers team to reckon with (more about that later).
This movie is great. Much like the first one, the movie balances so many different characters and ideas and yet manages to give each one time to shine. Each character feels like they get something significant to do and they get some great character movements or an arc. The story is a fun and interesting one that takes the best aspects of superhero comics and translates them onto the big screen in a powerful way. There are excellent moments where the we get to see the ego and sense of responsibility of some characters, the moral certainty of others and the very human motivations of others. There is a remarkable balancing job in this movie of the big and small that stands at the heart of any good comic book story.
Lets talk about the performances first since they are the most important and in some ways the best part of the Avenger movies and the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) at large. The original team is all back and everybody does a pretty great job. Tony Stark and Bruce Banner (Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo) continue their bromance, only this time it’s become much more mature and complicated. Their bond over science brings them together and they have some very fun and interesting conversations about their responsibility to each other, the team and the world at large; another hero’s creed about power and responsibility comes to mind in these scenes and Tony Stark actually is a great embodiment of what that really means. He is a man who has the real power to shape the world and protect and he is always striving for that. he may not always get it right, but he never stops pushing forward. He never comes off as mad or deranged, simply driven and scared of what the universe has to offer humanity. It’s an aspect of his emotional and moral makeup that we don’t get to see very often in the comics but it works extremely well in the movies. Unlike Stark, Banner has seen how science can go deathly wrong and he is always pushing back a little bit agains what Tony wants to do but he never wants them to stop, he just wants them to slow down a little bit. It’s a really fun and nice dynamic to see. Science in movies is so often the bad guy, the place from which all the bad things or challenges of the story comes from and this movie has that but science and understanding also save the day here as well. It’s good to see in a billion dollar movie that millions will go see.
Their second creation and uniting force of the Avengers when they are most fractured, The Vision, is played by Paul Bettany who has voiced Jarvis since the original Iron Man film, and was an immediate scene-stealer in my theatre. I was worried about how he would show up since his comic book biography is so weird and convoluted, but the movie simplifies it in a beautiful way. Having Thor pull a Dr. Frankenstein is a really fun touch to the whole thing. Using practical effects on him was a wise choice and where he could look really goofy, he actually fits with the other characters and world. His interactions with Ultron are really well done and oddly emotional. Ultimately, he is the one who ends up killing Ultron and it’s so well done. Marvel seemingly cannot make a bad casting choice.
A new dynamic in this movie is the budding romance between Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner. If you have been paying attention since last week, you will know that there has been quite a bit of backlash to this development on the Internet. I want to talk about that but lets back up first. Natasha has been a strong character since Iron Man 2, where she was both the strongest part of that film and yet completely unnecessary to the story that movie was trying to tell. She is hyper competent, smart, charming and seems to always be on top of things. She is all those things and more in this movie because we get to see some of her vulnerabilities and emotional turmoil. We get some insight into the brutal and horrible way she was raised in the Russian training program known as the Red Room. What she experiences there is brutal and what she did afterwards is just as bad. This movie adds on to her desire clear her “ledger” that the first movie mentions in a way that enriches her character. It doesn’t take away from her to show that she has scars and a tough past, it adds to her and makes her an even more likable hero and role model for young girls (and boys for that matter.)
So I bought the romance completely. I didn’t think it came out of nowhere; how could it? It started at least from the party at the beginning of the movie and the movie strongly indicates that there was something there even before that. And if you remember, Nick Fury sent her to recruit Banner in the first movie; Fury, regardless of what version we are talking about, never does anything without a good reason. So I think the seeds of their connection have been there since day one. I also think it’s a good narrative choice because it’s different. Of all the men on the team and in Natasha’s life, Banner is the most unique and most human. Captain America is a culture icon from another time and place, Stark is an alpha playboy/douchebag/scientist/cultural icon and Hawkeye and her are best friends and work buddies while Thor is a god (A GOD!). While none of them are perfect and they all have flaws, none of them are nearly as broken and battered as she or Banner is. And if you listen to their conversation both at the bar and at the farm, she very clearly lays out why she feels the way she does. She also clearly explains why she feels like a monster. She in no way claims that she is a monster because she can’t have children and I really don’t understand a person who think that’s what she said. It doesn’t have to be right or wrong, but it makes a lot of sense that Natasha and Banner would have an attraction to each other. Plus, the scene at the end of the film, when Hulk flies away and is ignoring her calls is so sad. I hope this subplot is explored in further movies.
Chris Evans as Captain America continues to be the sneaky best performance in the whole series. He captures everything that is great about the character. When he takes a stand and says no about something, you feel the moral weight of his words, which is something a lot of the other characters can’t do. Right at the beginning of the third act, he proclaims that they are not leaving till everybody is evacuated and you believe him, you support him and you are inspired by him. It’s a great acting job that is easy to look past. He gets better with every film it seems. Chris Hemsworth as Thor is great, but compared to the moments others have or the revelations about their lives, he is somewhat in the background. He has a subplot where he receives visions of the Infinity Stones and what to do about The Vision, but that’s all a little bit overshadowed by other things.
Clearly Joss Whedon promised Jeremy Renner that in exchange for being shortchanged in the first one, Hawkeye would have a lot to do in the second one. We get to see his personal life and why the Avengers really do need a man like him. He grounds them and reminds them of why they fight. His scene with Scarlet Witch at the end is great and very touching. The movie is very open ended in whether or not he comes back, but if we don’t see again or for a long time, he has a great send off.
The other new members of the team are Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, played by Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are great additions that bolster the diversity and strength of the team and movie. Their backstories and motivations are quite a bit different than in the comics, but they work well for the story. Scarlet Witch has always had wonky powers that are ill defined in the comics but the movie does a good job of showcasing them and having them make sense in the MCU. Quicksilver doesn’t quite steal the show like he did in the last X-Men movie, but he holds his own. His interactions with his sister and especially Hawkeye are nice and make the turn at the end of the movie feel deserved and warranted instead of forced and unnecessary.
Ultron, voiced by the incomparable James Spader and brought to physical life by movie magic, is undeniably great. They could have gone in a more Terminator like style for Ultron, but Joss Whedon knows better than that. Ultron in his film is a fully realized, sentient being with all the pathos and instabilities of a being that was forced into creation in a manner of moments and forced to absorb all of human knowledge. They pattern him off Tony Stark, only a twisted and dark version which works incredibly well for the narrative and as a motivating factor for the character; he views power and responsibility very differently than Stark does. Spader gives an absolutely incredible performance and the animation used to create Ultron actually captures some of the physical quirks of the man himself; the way the robot turns his head, moves his hands or looks at people with a sidelong glance are truly amazing. Ultron in the comics, despite being a robot, has always been defined by his rage, and this movie doesn’t shy away from that. This is a being that is truly pissed off at the world and is quite scary. The character voiced and created on screen is oddly mesmerizing and charismatic. The MCU struck gold with Loki and they did it again with Ultron.
The rest of the movie is equally strong. I really enjoyed how much it felt like a classic comic book story arc. The beats, the character moments, the reveal of the villain and the climax all feel like a classic Avengers tale. Things escalate and escalate until only a team as powerful and diverse as the Avengers could stop it. Marvel has done an excellent job of making the Avengers movies to big for any one character to handle while still allowing the individual spinoff character movies to still feel strong and interesting. The movie even does that weird thing comic books have to do where it tells a fully self contained story while setting up later stories and moving characters around the narrative board for later tales to tell; you could absolutely watch this movie having seen nothing else, but it’s so much more enjoyable in the context of all the other movies. The Avengers is a very different team by the end of this story and I’m really looking forward to seeing how that all goes down.
More so than any other person behind the scenes, this is all thanks to Joss Whedon, who has done a really great job guiding and creating the general look and feel of the MCU. He will not be directing any more movies, though I suspect he will be looking at scripts rather often, and his replacements are very talented and will do a good job I’m sure but regardless of all that, I think we will end up missing his deft touch more than we suspect. The man has a real talent for balancing large casts, creating and nurturing strong character moments and interactions, all while creating extremely fun movies. Everybody is more or less on equal footing in this movie; nobody feels like an afterthought or merely there for action sequences or plot purposes. That’s a much more rare talent than I think most people believe. All the controversy about him and the portrayal of Natasha, most of which seems to be either wrong or vastly overblown has left a bad taste in some people’s mouths and I think that is really unfortunate. The man was instrumental in giving us some truly great movies. His ideas and the execution of said ideas do not have to be perfect for him and his art to be a force for good and worthy of our esteem. That being said, I’m still looking forward to everything coming. This movie seeded Black Panther and Wakanda a lot and I could not be more excited for that. Change is often a good thing, so maybe the next set of Avengers movies will be equally awesome in a different way and actually, that would be extremely appropriate considering their comics lineage; some of the greatest Avengers stories could not be more different from each other. And it’s not like Marvel has really let us down so far.