MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ – It’s the Kitchen Sink of Superhero Movies, But Still A Lot of Fun
Even this age of consistent big event movies, it’s hard to think of anything as big as Avengers: Age of Ultron. The first blockbuster Avengers was a minor miracle of form and function, taking three characters with their own film series, as well as a myriad of supporting characters, and brought them all together in a fun, action-packed and character-driven adventure that also reflected the specific voice of its filmmaker. Looking back, watching The Avengers unfold, Joss Whedon made it look too easy, which is why Ultron seems all the more susceptible to “sequelitis.” Age of Ultron is bigger, louder and even more stuffed with characters, references and action than the first, but while the endeavor seems at times to be getting away from Whedon, he does seem to achieve everything the movie needed, and wanted to do.
But it wasn’t easy. Age of Ultron sometimes feels like a tug of war between Whedon’s ambitions and the ambitions of its studio and their future slate of blockbusters waiting in the wings. More importantly though, it’s a movie that seems like a natural extension of the themes of The Avengers, the consequences of hubris and guilt when one deems themselves the world’s protector without addressing the fundamental injustices of the world itself. Are they saviors, or are they, as Bruce Banner put in the first film, “a chemical mixture for making chaos. A time bomb.”
As a result, the action quotient of Age of Ultron is ratcheted way up, while it feels more streamlined and less clunky overall versus the flow of the first Avengers. Not having to do a lot of set-up for the film itself helps. Age of Ultron opens with a strike on the Eastern European fortress of Baron von Strucker, the last HYDRA leader still operating, and a long continuous shot of the Avengers team using all their powers in concert which was perfectly evocative of a similar scene in the first film. Whedon doesn’t squander time re-introducing the team, or reminding us of where we left the status quo at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, from the first minute of the movie, there’s a driving sense of urgency, and a gathering sense of dread that doesn’t really let up till the final scene. If this be Whedon’s final Marvel movie, he definitely threw in the kitchen sink.
Key to the success of all that anxiousness is the titular villain played by James Spader. Tom Hiddleston stole the show as Loki in the first Avengers, and if Age of Ultron weren’t the Grand Central Station of superhero films that it is, then Spader would have stood out all the more. The villains have been the weak link in the Marvel films lately from Iron Man 3 to Thor: The Dark World to The Winter Soldier to Guardians of the Galaxy, but there’s so much going on under Ultron’s CG skin, so many darkly emotional motivations to the things that he does, that there are times you barely notice he’s a robot. The actor’s smooth, self-satisfied delivery is tailor-made for Whedon-speak, and every line is spoken with relish.
Another smart thing the director does is put the spotlight on the members of the Avengers team who don’t get their own movies between team adventures. Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is the most obvious beneficiary as Whedon gives him a compelling back story concerning his life outside the Avengers, and later we see the archer act as a kind of mentor to the new members of the team while also touching on a bit of self-awareness about being a guy with bow and arrows fighting robots and aliens. Whedon also indulges his love for mismatched romance by teasing a hook-up between Mark Ruffalo‘s Banner and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. It’s sweet, and sexy, and funny, but the highlight is the realization that they’re two damaged people that don’t bother to look at the damage in each other.
Amongst the menagerie of new characters he introduces, Whedon’s coup de grace is the Vision played by Paul Bettany. I can’t imagine a harder character to pull off in the reality of film than a green, yellow and purple colored android that can phase through solid objects and fly. Bettany though infuses the Vision with such gentleness and dignity, a quiet optimism and faith in his teammates even though he’s a good robot created by an evil robot, and Bettany does more than play J.A.R.V.I.S., Tony Stark’s computer sidekick, in a humanoid body. The Vision comes out a complete character, which is really a neat trick.
As for the Twins, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, they’ve got their moments too. Whedon does a fairly decent job of making the Witch’s comic book complex powers understandable on screen, and imbues her and her twin brother with understandable motives for their initially villainy and their later turn to heroism. Quicksilver is probably the weak link in no small part thanks to living in the shadow of Evan Peters‘ flashier – pardon the pun – portrayal of the same character in X-Men: Days of Future Past.
The story thankfully shirks the trend of these movies to depend on a magical MacGuffin, although there is a part of that in the story. Ultron’s motives are fairly easy to understand and his endgame is about exercising the most direct and impactful means of achieving those ends. By the time we get to the climax, there’s been so much punching, and kicking, and blasting of CG robots and Ultron duplicates that as an audience member you might feel like you’re pitching in with the fighting, but one of the things that sets Whedon apart in making these huge apocalyptic orgies is that he throws a lot of time and energy into showing the civilian impact. The Avengers are as much about saving the innocent as they are about beating the bad guys, and there’s a couple of nice surprises in the end as the team gathers all forces to save the day.
On the downside, it feels like Whedon was encouraged to shoehorn in a lot of teases to the next series of Marvel movies. One could come into a screening of Age of Ultron with a checklist of future Marvel projects and play Phase 3 bingo. There’s a portion of the film where Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is AWOL after a Scarlet Witch induced nightmare vision where he picks up Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and goes on a vision quest that’s basically an elongated tease for the third and fourth Avengers movie, Infinity War Part 1 and 2. The mid-credits scene is also a pointless tease that absolutely has nothing to do with anything that happened in the preceding two-and-a-half hours.
Despite the critical analysis though, it’s hard to deny that this isn’t an immensely enjoyable film with endless action and charm. This is comfort food cinema that feels good for its familiarity, but it isn’t afraid to take some risks either. The status quo is definitely shaken up by the end of the film, which indicates just how shrewdly Whedon and Marvel know their business and the audience expectations. Familiarity can breed contempt, but the end of Ultron shifts things just enough by the end credits to make you intrigued about what comes next, and likely ready to go back and take the ride all over again.
It’s tough to say whether Avengers: Age of Ultron will go down in history as one of those sequels that eclipses the original, part of that maybe the fact that the movie is not just a sequel to one movie, it is, in essence, a sequel to the last 10 Marvel movies too. But having said that, if movie fans have followed the series this far, then Age of Ultron will give them no reason not to follow it further. Avengers: Age of Ultron isn’t quite groundbreaking the way that the first movie was, but for the viewer it serves up everything you need and more. It’s an Avengers movie very worth assembling for.