Directed by: Joss Whedon.
Written by: Joss Whedon based on the comic book by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.
Starring: Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark / Iron Man), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner / Hulk), Chris Evans (Steve Rogers / Captain America), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow), Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton / Hawkeye), James Spader (Ultron), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), Don Cheadle (James Rhodes / War Machine), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Pietro Maximoff / Quicksilver), Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch), Paul Bettany (Jarvis / Vision), Cobie Smulders (Maria Hill), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson / The Falcon), Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Stellan Skarsgård (Erik Selvig), Linda Cardellini (Laura Barton), Claudia Kim (Dr. Helen Cho), Thomas Kretschmann (Strucker), Andy Serkis (Ulysses Klaue), Julie Delpy (Madame B).
Avengers: Age of Ultron is good enough to make me wish it was just a little bit better. It continues to deepen the characters in the movie, and bring them into conflict with other – something that started with the end of the first Avengers movie, and continue through the next set of films – particularly Captain America: The Winter Soldier (still my favorite Marvel movie) and Iron Man 3 (Thor: The Dark World, not so much). It gives a little more humanity to previously undeveloped characters like Hawkeye, Bruce Banner/The Hulk and Black Widow. It doesn’t paint the characters as all heroic – but flawed in different ways. And it offers a direct rebuke to the DC world, in which superheroes don’t seem to care about the havoc the wreak, the innocent lives lost, etc. by placing that directly at the forefront of the action sequences. The film is also whip smart, and amusing, and finds fun ways to explain even mundane, exposition like things that are needed. Oh, and it has one of the best villains of any of the Marvel movies – although, some of the things the movie expects to believe about Ultron don’t make sense). And yet, I walked out of Avengers: Age of Ultron wanting a little more. This is because every time the movie seemed to be headed in an interesting direction, the film grinds to a halt so we can have yet another extended action sequence. Yes, the action sequences (mainly) work – they are well handled and exciting. But they are much like every other action sequence in every other Marvel movie. I wanted more of the stuff that made Age of Ultron different from those previous movies, and less of the stuff that feels exactly the same.
The movie opens with our heroes smashing the remnants of Hydra – the evil group who we had learned had infiltrated SHIELD and, basically everything else. They want Loki’s scepter – and more importantly the stone in it – back. After a long action sequence in a forest base – where we are introduced to two new people with special powers with a grudge against Tony Stark – the twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff aka Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch (Aaron Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen) – they do in fact get what they want. Once they get the stone back to Stark’s lab, Tony realizes its immense power – and thinks he can use it to create A.I. that can protect the entire world from external threats. He and Banner do in fact build that – without telling anyone else – and the result is Ultron (voiced by James Spader). It doesn’t take Ultron very long to come up with a much better way than Stark’s to protect the world – essentially by destroying humanity. For some reasons, this all powerful A.I. decides to take the form of robot – and he continues to clone himself. Suddenly, the job the Avengers thought was done needs to be done all over again. And no one is really happy about it – the team manages to work together, even as it’s clear they are falling apart.
Yes, to a certain extent, the plot of Age of Ultron hits all the same ridiculous notes as the other Marvel movies. There is an all-powerful stone that everyone spends the whole movie obsessing over, and a villain who has a grand scheme to destroy the whole world. We know heading in that the stone is basically a Macguffin, as they’ve been since the beginning of the Marvel movies, just a way to take a storytelling shortcut. And we know that Ultron will not, in fact, destroy the world – if for no other reason than because Marvel has announced release dates for a whole lot more movies over the next decade. These are the types of things you just need to except when watching these movies. If nothing else, when they go on and on about the stones gives us all a chance to go the bathroom, which given the way these movies have ballooned in their running time over the years.
But it’s everything around the basic plot that makes Age of Ultron quite a good superhero movie. I like the way Whedon is pitting Captain America and Iron Man against each other. This is part of what made Captain America: The Winter Soldier so interesting. I think many people – like myself – thought of Captain America was a rather square character – a remnant of the past without much relevance to the present. To Marvel’s credit, they realize this, and having increasingly addressed this – Captain America still represents the “best” of the American character – and how Americans like to see themselves, but in the movies it’s clear that he has increasingly become out of step with the contemporary world – as America has moved on from his idealism. For Stark’s part, his character has got increasingly dark over the series of movies – Iron Man 3’s best parts were him dealing with his PTSD after New York, and finding his way to move on. Here, he’s just further down that same road – and it has led to his hubris overtaking his reason, which is what gives rise to Ultron in the first place – who is essentially an even darker version of Stark. These two will apparently be even more in conflict in the next Captain America movie – Civil War – and I look forward to that.
There are lots of other things in the movie that work – but not quite as well as they should have. The blossoming romance between Bruce Banner and Black Widow, the characters of Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch, Hawkeye’s secret life, which seems like a direct response to all the people who have mocked the guy with a bow and arrow teaming up with these other people with much stronger powers. The dream sequences, in which Scarlett Witch gives each of the Avengers a nightmare of their worst fears. A lot of Whedon-esque snappy dialogue. A climax in which, for the first time I can recall, the superheroes care more about civilians that avenging personal grudges. James Spader’s malicious line readings, and the dangers of playing God with A.I.
All of these things work – to a degree. But all needed more time to develop. Every time I thought we were heading in an interesting direction, the movie grinds to a halt so we can get another action sequence. To be fair, the action sequences are all quite good – the best one may well be a fight between Iron Man and a rampaging Hulk. The sequence is also relevant to the larger story – because it has to setup Banner’s actions at the end of the movie, and his fear of losing control and hurting innocent people. It’s an expertly crafted sequence – and exciting. It’s also far too long, and has the feel of trying to settle those long standing arguments comic book fans have (“who would win in a fight between Iron Man and Hulk? – show you work”). Considering the movie didn’t have time to develop many of the characters more – Scarlett Witch joins the list of virtually every other female character in the MCU as not being enough to do – or even make Thor’s whole trip to a cave and back into a coherent part of the story and on and on and on, perhaps we could have done with a little less of Hulk Smash.
Apparently Whedon’s first cut of the movie ran close to three and half hours, and the final one comes in at two hours and twenty minutes. What’s missing in that extra hour is probably not action that Marvel spent millions creating, but little stuff like plot, character and thematic development. This is one of the only times in recent memory where I’m actually looking forward to a longer cut on DVD, as I have a feeling that a lot of stuff I would have liked wound up on the cutting room floor. I still find it