Writers: Joss Whedon, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (Comic Book)
Robert Downey Jr.: Tony Stark/Iron Man
Chris Hemsworth: Thor
Chris Evans: Steve Rogers/Captain America
Mark Ruffalo: Bruce Banner/Hulk
Scarlett Johansson: Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow
Jeremy Renner: Clint Barton/Hawkeye
Aaron Taylor-Johnson: Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver
Elizabeth Olsen: Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch
Avengers: Age of Ultron begins–in the Marvel Universe–some time after The Avengers (2012) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) ends. SHIELD is gone; it’s a new world with only the Avengers as its defenders. While Joss Whedon is a capable writer and director, he has taken on a monumental task with this movie, and for the most part, succeeds. This is certainly a movie worth seeing in the theater, and it’s absolutely worth having on DVD thereafter, if for no reason other than to have the opportunity to see all of the details impossible to take in on a first viewing.
The greatest problem facing Whedon is what to do with a cast of superheroes who are, for the most part, so epic/mythic they need an entire movie of their own, such as both Thor movies, all three Iron Man movies, etc.? I cut short the list of stars at the beginning of this critique. Don Cheadle–Col. James Rhodes/War Machine–pops in and out for cameos both comic and martial, Idris Elba–Heimdall–appears briefly in a sort of nightmare sequence, Anthony Mackie–Sam Wilson/The Falcon–also makes a brief cameo, but does not engage in any action sequences, The lovely Cobie Smulders–former SHIELD Agent Maria Hill–is a background player, handling logistics, and of course, Samuel L. Jackson–Nick Fury–helps to save the day. Also making brief appearances are Hayley Atwell, once again playing Agent Peggy Carter, and Stellan Skarsgard, playing Dr. Erik Selvig.
See the problem? This is an ensemble cast, but a cast so large and accomplished they can–and have–held down entire, successful movies on their own, and many as larger than life action/superheroes outside the Marvel universe. How do you give each of them their due in a single film? How do you avoid turning interesting, exciting, very bankable characters into bit players, while still introducing no less then three new characters that demand substantial future roles?
The plot is at once simple, and convoluted. With the best intentions, Tony Stark is trying to build an automatic and all-powerful defense against otherworldly attacks on Earth, which he has named–you guessed it–Ultron. Unfortunately, he lacks the technology and power, so the opening scene has the Avengers attacking what may be the final, major Hydra lair on the planet (don’t bet on that). Their goals: destroy Hydra (of course), but also retrieve Loki’s unimaginably powerful scepter from the first Avengers movie.
They succeed, and in the process discover that Hydra has been using that power to tinker with human DNA, producing twins–Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch (you’ll see why scarlet)–with super powers. They have, of course, been brainwashed into thinking the Avengers their enemies.
Their super powers? Quicksilver is the Flash: super speed. The Scarlet Witch is a bit more difficult to describe. She can read minds, cause super heroes to have prophetic visions, and produce some sort of force that obliterates bad guys, etc. It’s clear the limits of her power have yet to be defined, which bodes well for her inclusion in future adventures.
Another problem is what to do with Black Widow and Hawkeye. They’re both merely human. Highly skilled and capable humans, who in battle wipe out more than their fair share of bad guys, but still human. In fact, in the initial attack, Hawkeye is nearly killed, but is revived/repaired by a South Korean doctor–Claudia Kim as Dr. Helen Cho–who has developed miraculous healing technologies (hang onto that thought). This leads to something of a crisis of confidence for Hawkeye who obviously wonders about his value to the Avengers. He is, after all, no longer employed by SHIELD, and his only job–I wonder what that pays?–is as an Avenger.
He need not worry. This movie, led, as usual, by Captain America, is about struggling to pull a group of misfits–some would reasonably say deeply disturbed people–into a cohesive team. Part of the internal conflict is the fact that their doubts, and in the case of Tony Stark, a serious case of anti-authority, does-not-work-and-play-well-with-others compulsions, are constantly working to pull them apart. Ultimately, they’re all about the mission, and considering the mission is usually saving the world, that’s enough.
And then there is Ultron.
Rather than take Loki’s scepter back to Asgaard, Thor agrees to hang around for a party at Tony’s digs–a very amusing scene–which is also the new Avenger’s HQ, which gives Tony three days to play with the scepter to try to revive his Ultron project with the grudging assistance of Dr. Bruce Banner. As the party begins, they think they’ve failed, but there is dramatic irony waiting for them
Ultron more or less self-awakens, and using substantial parts of Tony Stark’s conflicted consciousness, builds a creaky but functional body that is eventually transformed as he gains more power via the Internet, which he, oddly, really doesn’t use except for the occasional escape. Voiced wryly by James Spader, Ultron is a wisecracking, faintly sinister villain, but is never really scary. Loki is a villain you can’t help but like while simultaneously projecting menace. With Ultron, the sense that he is going to be defeated is never in doubt, and he is not in the least engaging or likeable. That said, the special effects that create and animate Ultron are remarkable and convincing.
One of the fundamental dangers of artificial intelligence is the possibility it could become self-aware and turn on its inventors–us. This debate is raging in scientific circles, and Avengers: Age of Ultron clearly makes the case for that deadly danger, but it is not convincing.
It is in integrating special effects with live action that the movie shines, as have all of the Marvel-based movies. The action scenes are genuinely thrilling, but many suffer from far too many hyper-powerful good guys at once. It’s impossible to keep up with all of the action, and for some, will surely be visually and aurally overwhelming.
Continuing themes of these movies are self-sacrifice and redemption. In order to make those devices work, the characters have to be likeable and sympathetic. If a character is in danger of death, we have to care about them and their fate, as we do with Hawkeye, particularly after we discover he has a family, including two young children, and a winsome and faithfully steadfast–and very pregnant–wife, Linda Cardellini. She allows him to do what he was born to do, to risk his life to save others, and waits for his return, knowing it may be in vain. Fighting super-powerful bad guys is dangerous business. One of the truly heart-warming moments in the movie is his return home, alive and unhurt.
One amusing moment in the film occurs when Hawkeye brings the Avengers home and introduces them to his family. His daughter peers up at Thor, his height and physique accented by a very low camera angle, but strangely, Whedon doesn’t make full use of a delightful possibility.
Another heartwarming, but very odd, relationship is what appears to be a budding romance between Black Widow and Bruce Banner. She wants to explore it; he is conflicted because he’s the Hulk and he can’t really have a normal life. I felt like saying “Uh, right. You’re a brilliant physicist, you have a beautiful, strong and worthy woman who knows exactly what you are and wants you any way, and you’re conflicted? Idiot.” That plot thread remains untied.
Where was I? Ah yes: self-sacrifice. At the last minute, in the best at-the-last-minute style Hawkeye saves an innocent, a little boy not unlike his own child, and is about to be blasted by Ultron, flying the Avenger’s jet, but he’s saved–at the last minute–by Quicksilver, who appears to end up very dead, but I wouldn’t count on that (do you remember?). Since he’s the brother of the Scarlet Witch, she’s a bit miffed. Oh yes, in the meantime, Ultron has tried to download his consciousness into a biological body to make a sort of biotech version of himself/Stark, etc. combined with the power of the scepter, which glows blue, until a little gold gem that apparently powers it is removed and placed in the forehead of the new body by Ultron, but Thor has had his vision and appears shirtless–Thor always has to appear shirtless–and knows the gem is one of several gems of unimaginable power, and…
I’m getting ahead of myself. The Scarlett Witch, who is ably played by the younger sister of the famous for being famous Olsen twins, is finally able to read Ultron’s thoughts and discovering he really wants to extinguish humanity, she and Quicksilver join the Avengers.
In the meantime, meantime, the Avengers capture the new body, and Stark and Banner–again, grudgingly–try to animate it. Ultron has apparently destroyed Stark’s disembodied AOI, Jarvis, but he lives, and Stark is determined to infuse his consciousness with the body. Thor understands the danger, stops them, and more or less magically, “Vision,” who is apparently able to transmute matter, fly, and has super strength, as well as the power of the gold gem embedded in his forehead, is born, and he’s more or less on the side of the Avengers and of humanity, and it is he who apparently, finally destroys Ultron, but we can’t really count on that either. As did Jarvis, Vision has a mild British accent, but appears to have his own consciousness.
Oh yes: the Avengers win, save the world, and build a new headquarters, but Banner runs off somewhere to brood, leaving Black Widow more or less alone again.
Avengers: Age of Ultron has at least some of the snappy dialogue of the original, and some amusing running gags. There is genuine, good-natured humor, but not quite as often or as natural as the first Avengers movie. There are no truly memorable lines like “Hulk: smash.” The Iron Man movies usually feature several lovingly shot scenes of Pepper Pots’ long, bare and shapely legs and feet. Potts is mentioned, but does not make an appearance, so the pretty feet–actually foot (and leg)–of Agent Maria Hill is substituted.
Trying to fit in all of the sub plots, the romances, the tender moments, the internal and external conflicts of very powerful characters and the requirements of a super hero movie is a Herculean task. Whedon pulls it off, perhaps better than anyone else could have done.
Whedon has several problems for the future: how does he top the original with even more characters? The potential answer is with a somewhat different group of Avengers, which he now has. The Scarlett Witch obviously has not fully explored the limits of her powers, and Vision seems to be a nearly omnipotent being, and seems to be fully on the side of the Avengers. Hulk–who more or less destroyed a city without apparently killing anyone–may or may not be back, but with Vision around, he may not be needed anyway. The largest problem remains how to produce danger of sufficient scope, but without relegating a large and growing group of superheroes to mere conduits for delivering force to the bad guy and his numerous–in this case, mostly robotic–minions.
Production values were first-rate. As expensive as a movie like this is, it will surely make back every cent spent in production and turn a substantial profit. The casting was very well done, and the audience was glad to see–and recognized–even minor characters reprising their roles from the first movie. Dialogue was a good balance of character development–within the limitations of the genre and a large cast–and the need for action.
Comparing a sequel to the movie that spawned it is inevitable. The sequel, in this case, is not quite as good–compelling?–as the original, however, that is praise indeed, considering how many sequels are spectacular box office and artistic bombs. The characters were well used; there just wasn’t enough time to use them all to their best advantage.
Why do we go to movies like this? Certainly the characters are archetypal images, symbols, ideas and concepts that appeal to us and always have. They’re Hercules and Odysseus, winning against impossible odds. But they’re also interesting. They show us what we believe ourselves to be, what we want to be, what we believe we, in the darkest of times and the worst of circumstances, can be. They’re believable as people, people we would be glad to know.
The good guys won over daunting odds, and flaws and all, they’re genuinely good and admirable people willing to fight for what’s right, and to give their lives if that’s what is required. That’s something Americans need in the age of our own Ultron. When the day comes that we no longer care about those qualities, America will exist in name only, and movies like Avengers: Age of Ultron, won’t matter and won’t be made.