The Avengers was an experiment of sorts. With audiences around the globe responding positively to comic book heroes in individual adventures, how would they react to a group effort?
Any fears were quickly put to rest. 2012’s The Avengers was received rapturously by fans and critics, quickly becoming one of the top-grossing movies of all time.
After a three-year break to tend to specifics, the A-Team has reunited for Avengers: Age of Ultron, a darker, more internalized follow-up that still retains all the expected bang and boom.
Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios
In Age of Ultron, Joss Whedon manages to improve upon 2012’s The Avengers.
After taking care of Loki and the Chitauri invasion, the Avengers, including Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), are off to shut down human experimentation efforts by Hydra leader Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), who’s found two gifted subjects in Wanda/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver (Aaron-Taylor Johnson)—powerful twins out to punish Stark for his war profiteering.
Claiming success, the Avengers enjoy a rare moment of peace, only to find their confidence shattered by Ultron (voiced by James Spader), a monstrous robot powered by Stark’s unwieldy research into artificial intelligence, where he hoped to retire Iron Man by assembling a robot strike force to protect the innocent. As Ultron grows in power, he recruits Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, with plans to slaughter the Avengers and destroy humankind.
In keeping with Marvel momentum, Age Of Ultron opens mid-battle, returning to the individual powers and technologies of the heroes as they steamroll into Eastern Europe, where the last traces of Hydra remain. It’s a thunderous sequence, with fluid CGI and soaring camerawork the creates a roll call for the protagonists. Thor beats soldiers with his fists and hammer; Iron Man controls the skies with his arsenal and quips.
The story also kicks in immediately, sharing the details of Hydra’s secretive mission and renewed interest in the Infinity Gems, while introducing a unique threat in the Scarlet Witch (a master of telekinesis and hypnosis) and Quicksilver (super-speed). It takes Ultron a good 30 minutes to get up and running, yet the sequel is already stuffed with enough information to keep the narrative humming along, waiting patiently for its towering villain.
Born from an A.I. program similar to Stark’s J.A.R.V.I.S., Ultron takes form as a colossal robot with a childlike observance of the world, demanding a fresh start for the mechanical age. Backed by a legion of drones, Ultron is a formidable foe that develops smarts and a curious case of impatience. However, while his strength is significant, he needs Scarlet Witch and her powers of mental manipulation to truly take down the Avengers.
This psychological warfare is a major plot point. For a brute like Hulk, mind manipulation results in destructive puppetry, forcing Iron Man into caretaker mode, with an uncharacteristic fight sequence between the two mid-movie. Captain America is hit with visions from his past; Thor is handed a strange, apocalyptic puzzle of guilt; and Black Widow is confronted with her traumatic past.
Banner becomes a romantic fixation for Romanoff. Their beauty-and-the beast pairing gives the heroes something more profound to explore than the simplicity of a haunted past. Instead of indulging the Iron Man Show, writer/director Joss Whedon spreads attention around the group, finding a few sweet, mournful beats as Banner retreats from his love interest, fearful of the monster he is.
The miracle in Age of Ultron is Hawkeye. The oft-maligned character stands upright for change, showing boldness during skirmishes, awareness of his oddity, and domesticity with his secret family. Humanizing this strange addition to the Avengers is Whedon’s greatest achievement. In a picture filled with gargantuan action sequences and world-crushing enemies, the highlight is a chance to see Hawkeye hug his wife and children.
Seeds are planted for future chapters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, finding Rogers and Stark developing heated ideological differences as the lure of technology and the demands of safety collide.
Whedon doesn’t sacrifice the core unit to feed corporate demands, with enough time devoted to heroics and interplay to keep the picture satisfying. Age of Ultron manages to improve on its predecessor in numerous ways.
Whedon loses the bright comic book spirit that informed the first film, but he rewards with advancement in character and confidence in extravaganza, building a bigger, more driving blockbuster with this mighty sequel.