“You didn’t see that coming?”
“Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the penultimate of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase Two films, calls once more on all our old friends (and a few new ones) to save Earth from imminent destruction.
Segueing smoothly from the “Marvel: Agents of SHIELD” setup this week, “Ultron” starts off with the team charging into action in snowy, war-torn Sokovia to retrieve Loki’s scepter from HYDRA. Mission accomplished, the Avengers can finally afford some time for well-earned revelry…until Tony Stark’s scientific curiosity, hubris, and personal demons set in motion actions of global endangerment.
To make things right, the heroes will travel the world trying to shut down an enemy as free-form as the internet, and as malevolent as a vicious child. New faces and old fears batter them at every turn, and the ruthless calculus of war and sacrifice may dominate in the end.
In an effort to differentiate this film from its blockbuster predecessor, Whedon makes a pointed effort to make the team’s internal conflicts more personal and the violent consequences more international. Where “Avengers” showed the threat of an alien invasion largely confined to New York, “Ultron” filmed around the world in South Africa, Italy, and South Korea, grounding its more fantastical elements in real settings.
Where the film shines, however, is the smaller moments, when the team members are able to take a breath and interact as people rather than soldiers-at-arms. Peppered with Whedon’s trademark humor, the party at the beginning is funny enough to regret that it isn’t longer. All the actors–some of which have been inhabiting these characters for the last five to seven years–wear their personae like well-worn jeans, imbuing them with a comfortable sense of history.
[Shout out to Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill, who is subsequently shown doing what any real person would do after running around barefoot, shooting and fighting in a room full of glass walls.]
While all the heroes, the previously neglected Hawkeye in particular, get their moments of backstory and personal turmoil, Robert Downey Jr. heads up the cast with a solid performance of the billionaire genius who is as brash and egotistical as he is tortured.
James Spader as the titular Ultron also does a phenomenal job, making the “murderbot” an almost sympathetic creature of confusion and rage. Witty and almost inadvertently evil in parts, Ultron could easily claim ancestry from some of Whedon’s larger “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” villains.
The one element that clouds the movie a little is the need to keep setting up the major Phase Three storyline with Thanos and the Infinity gems. The woven-in exposition is slightly opaque for anyone only casually following the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and leads to a scene with Thor and…some sort of scrying pool…that seems at once very coincidental and unconvincing. While it doesn’t ultimately detract much from the pace of the film, it feels like one segment that was graphed onto the storyline in an inorganic manner.
Ultimately, the movie is a fun, action-filled romp that manages the feat, somewhat unique in today’s comic book movies, of caring about its characters–both the headliners and the extras. The easy comparison would be with DC’s grey, joyless “Man of Steel” which featured huge battle scenes between super-powered combatants who grimly rack up enough collateral damage to depopulate several cities without blinking.
By contrast, in “Ultron,” virtually every battle revolves around the need to protect the surrounding civilians from the inevitable morbidity and mortality that follows any of their confrontations. The concern becomes an even larger issue as the fear of failing this duty propels Stark to the questionable actions that drive this movie…and perhaps some of the Phase Three movies as well. Even the portrayals of combat evolve as the seriousness of the matter increases throughout the film, from the more cartoon-y sped-up fighting in the opening, where ricocheting bullets unerringly find HYDRA shins and arms in lieu of more vital targets, to the final battle–gritty and dirty, with stakes alarmingly high.
What measures will Stark and his “Iron Legion” take to ensure the security of Earth? At what point does an armed security force change from a protective guardian to an oppressive gestapo? Something for Stark to consider while we wait for “Captain America: Civil War.” Maybe something for the rest of us to consider as well.
“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is presented by Marvel Studios. Rated PG-13, it stars Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Stellan SkarsgÃ¥rd with James Spader and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.
*Always stay to the end of the credits.
Written and Directed by Joss Whedon and produced by Kevin Feige. The Executive Producers are Louis D’Esposito, Alan Fine, Victoria Alonso, Jeremy Latcham, Patricia Whitcher, Stan Lee, and Jon Favreau.
The film enters general release on May 1, 2015, and is distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
**Kidding. Unless they slip one in later, this one doesn’t have an end-credit scene.