By Travis Trombley
Age of Ultron opens with the same kind of grand single-shot as the Avengers attack a H.Y.D.R.A. base hidden in a European tundra. These characters are already a team. “But can they remain as such?” Age of Ultron asks.
Few sequels bore more weight of expectations than Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, written and directed by pop culture legend Joss Whedon. No small degree of 2012’s Avengers' massive success was due to the simple fact of its existence. While a regular occurrence in comics and Saturday morning cartoons, never before had several multimillion-dollar cinema franchises been combined into a single narrative experience. Age of Ultron would not benefit from the same novelty, and - cognizant of this - Whedon tries desperately to imbue his sequel with the humanity, wit, and contemplativeness for which he is so affectionately known.
After recovering Loki’s sceptor from the first film, Tony Stark - in the doomed fashion of Boromir wanting to use the Ring of Power to forward his own ends - convinces Bruce Banner to help him use the artificial intelligence he discovered inside the glowing, blue gem to create Ultron. The goal? A benevolent program that, when paired with his self-modeled sentry robots, would defend the earth from any future alien invasions, of course...
And while the heroes banter about in a brilliant party scene in Avengers Tower (Whedon’s wit and insight into social behavior shines in these scenes), complete with cameos from Don Cheadle’s James Rhodes and Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson, an adorably romantic exchange between the awkward Banner and seductively confident Natasha, and an Arthurian-style who-can-lift-Mjolnir contest, Ultron wakes up. Voiced by the brilliantly cast James Spader, Ultron comes to consciousness immediately realizing the same syllogistic truth as every AI, like, ever...
- I am tasked with defending humanity.
- Humanity is corrupt and will kill itself and/or the planet.
- Therefore, I must kill humanity to protect it from itself. . . duh . . .
As with the first installment, Whedon endows his villain with an interesting philosophical logos. As Loki touted humanity’s proclivity towards servitude and - fancying himself a god - saw himself relieving them of the chaos-causing burden of free will, the megalomaniac Ultron sees himself as a messiah of sorts, come to alter the earth paradigm. He sets up in a church and misappropriates Christ’s words (“Upon this rock, I shall build my church,” he says in reference to a stockpile of vibranium), among other biblical allusions. His goal is an indictment of the Avengers: “You want to save the world, but you don’t want to see it change.” Ultron recognizes humanity’s need for something more profound and permanent than salvation: evolution.
The villain, born out of Stark’s ambitious desire to “end the fight,” embodies the tension between Captain America and Stark, which will manifest in the forthcoming "Civil War.". The proactive latter believes that the Avengers will eventually lose the fight unless they alter the paradigm by whatever means possible, winning the fight before it even begins. The star-spangled former champions old-fashioned teamwork to beat evil as it rises.
Ultron’s answer to the tension is simple: even if you win, humanity would eventually destroy itself anyway, so it’s best to just get rid of those pesky humans now. He accuses Stark of shortsightedness and Cap of a self-defeating identity, accusing him of being “God’s righteous soldier, pretending [he] could even exist without a war.”
This is a rebuke against the genre as a whole, not just the Avengers. These heroes are super-powered preservers of the status quo, protecting the establishment from outside interferences, and they are needed only as long as the establishment is attacked. In this, Whedon comments as much on the military-industrial complex as he does the nature of the ridiculously popular superhero film/TV genre: They promote peace, but their existence depends on the lack thereof.
And make no mistake, this is a film dense with physical conflict, much of it flawless CGI thanks to Industrial Light and Magic. The action scenes generally play out on grand scales, much like the New York and helicarrier sequences from the film’s predecessor. Hulk bounds to and fro smashing whomever and whatever he pleases, Thor fires lighting around and tosses foes with his famous hammer, Iron Man flies about loosing a variety of armaments upon enemy combatants, and Widow flips about evading enemy fire with grace, all just like before.
The stand outs here are Captain America, who retains the acrobatic power so well choreographed in Winter Soldier, though he only gets the benefit of one toe-to-toe bout with the main meanie, and newcomer Scarlet Witch, whose telekinetic powers are used in as many creative ways as the Force in Star Wars, though with more satisfying visual effects.
The aforementioned fight scene scene in Avengers Towers is one exception to the unmemorable parade of explosions and punches, probably because it relied more on traditional filming techniques than forgettable CGI. The characters needed to coordinate and scavenge for resources more so than they do in regular combat, which provided a refreshing change of pace.
Another exception: the long-awaited match between an enraged Hulk and Iron Man in the famous Hulkbuster armor. Playing on the Hulk-centric moments of the first film, this scene is as full of laughs as it is gasps at impressive maneuvers and sheer destruction. Brutal, fast, smart, and funny, this standout sequence demands appreciation.
There’s a fascinating, surprisingly tender romance woven between Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner. Romanoff, a born and bred warrior, admits that she finds Banner’s resolve to avoid the fight because he knows he will win said fight a refreshing quality, and the adorably awkward Banner remains too conflicted about the danger his greener side can pose to the notion of a stable lifestyle, let alone a romantic partner. Theirs is a light-hearted but tragic yarn that plays on the tension through which the movie finds a much-needed change of pace and emotional center, especially when it leads to insights into Romanoff’s tragic backstory.
As already noted, Stark’s struggle to end the conflict also contributes to the film’s maturity. He takes the Uncle Ben maxim to the extreme, believing that as the world’s smartest inventor he has a responsibility to protect the whole world. Early in the film he sees a vision of a world destroyed, his friends dead. A dying Captain america stutters a few bloodied words: “Why didn't you do more?” This sets into motion Tony’s unilateral mission to save the world before it even needs saving. And when Ultron backfires, the angsty Stark, acted with equal parts charm and tragedy by Robert Downy Jr., who has perfected his character on a Captain Jack Sparrow level, vehemently defends his choices despite their obvious repercussions, asserting time-and-again that his call was the right one - his self-centered perspective the one that will save his friends. It’s his megalomania that drives the moral division of the team throughout the film. He is, to use a Stark-appropriate metaphor, the motor that propels the dysfunction that defines the stuff that happens between explosions.
Newcomers Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, each receive their own short but thoroughly rewarding story arcs. Rooted in a tragic story of survival, the twins - at first willing agents of HYDRA and later Ultron - are a frightful yet comedic pair. They grow on you. They care about more than revenge. The speedster Pietro finds benevolence with a motif of outwitting Hawkeye while Wanda illustrates the true evolution from villain to Avenger.
In addition to heart, and in compliance with the Marvel Studios philosophy, Age of Ultron is quite funny. From the token Starkisms to more nuanced, extended jokes, the film is full of laughs. Even Ultron elicits as many giggles as he does chills. A number of running gags generate an especially large payout of laughs, such as the gang’s mocking Cap’s old-fashioned intolerance of “bad language words.”
Like it’s character roster, the Avengers stands as hodgepodge of themes and narrative arcs, each of them given screen time, but none of them stealing the show, necessarily. By that token, however, the attempted central thematic arc regarding the team dysfunction and supposed reconciliation receives no real conclusion. Somewhere among the booms, one-liners and isolated character moments, the Avengers decided to be a team again. In this, the film seemed to lack that encompassing narrative closure the first one accomplished so well; it seems Age of Ultron sacrificed the more dynamically rewarding ending for more meaningful mini arcs. Like I said before, Vision’s comments about human failings seem to be the best we get in terms of thematic closure.
But the nature of the genre demands a sacrifice of complexity, especially when one considers that a large portion of its target audience will be wearing Age of Ultron backpacks to school soon after seeing the film. The philosophical villain and dysfunction of the team are thought-provoking enough to satiate more intelligent viewers and to make the massive set pieces worthwhile without becoming allegorical.
As a sequel, Age of Ultron delivers. The Avengers team is the main character in the film, and the relationships mimic that. When Hulk leaves, we know he’s thinking of Widow, not Vision, and when Widow stands stoicly in the new Avengers base, we know she’s hating him for it. When Hawkeye comments about redoing the dining room, we know he’s accepting in his mind that he will fight another fight, despite his insistence that he would stop. When Stark leaves the Avengers at the end, we know he’s coming to peace with the fact that he can’t save the world single-handedly, and Cap readies to train the new Avengers, knowing that the fight which defines his life will go on. The arcs are small, but they add up to something profound enough to showcase Whedon’s attempt to create something more than world-building fodder like last year’s Amazing Spider-Man 2.