Flashback to 2008. The first Iron Man film had been released, the film was a breath of fresh air, a creative and often hilarious switch up to the usual superhero flick. However, at the tail-end of its credits, the film yielded the promise of what was then unthinkable… an interconnected universe uniting the heroes of Marvel.
Before The Avengers debuted in 2012, many of us assumed that it would crash and burn. What Marvel was attempting was a big risk that threatened to sink their ongoing film series once and for all. What a difference it made when we saw the film. The film was a runaway success, setting box office records across the globe, and was near-universally acclaimed. The film set unreasonably high expectations for all future superhero features that would follow, and sadly led to numerous studios attempting to cash in on their moves.
Flash forward to now, and Marvel’s second phase of films (to be concluded with Ant-Man in July) brings its heated boil to a bang with their next major crossover, Avengers: Age of Ultron. Once again under the direction of Joss Whedon, the new installment of Marvel’s ongoing saga proves to be a peculiar case. What it may lack in the consistency in quality and refreshing simplicity that the original film had, it makes up for with arguably higher highs.
Following an opening raid on a HYDRA facility, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is starting to see the potential horror of threats to his allies and to humanity. Teaming up with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Stark intends to construct an artificial intelligence program to act as a global defense system. Ultimately the intention backfires, as the program, the megalomaniacal Ultron (James Spader), wishes to eradicate the human race to wipe earth of its imperfections. With the reunited band of Stark, Banner, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), the Avengers will have to pull out all the stops to stop this new foe, while also facing off against genetically enhanced twins (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
From the opening scene onward, I was hooked. The raid on the HYDRA facility is simply the most perfect way that this movie could have opened, filmed first in a fantastic tracking shot that showcases the various Avengers taking down soldiers on their way to infiltrate the hideout, and sees them all engaging in combat in new and creative ways. It immediately and efficiently sets the tone for the rest of the movie that follows: a more serious and ensemble focused thrill ride that remembers to still keep the film feeling fun. Admittedly, the film mostly lives up to those high expectations, with some missteps along the way.
Perhaps my most glaring issue is the fact that the movie does seem a bit overstuffed. The narrative occasionally tends to lose some focus, with an understandable, but sometimes distracting need to set up for future installments of Marvel’s ongoing saga. It’s still something of a miracle that Whedon keeps the film feeling as cohesive as it does, but it certainly feels somewhat more clunky here than in his last venture. Not to mention that his staging of the action, upping the destruction seen in the previous film, occasionally threatens to reach Man of Steel levels in isolated segments (such as a scene in which Stark demolishes an under construction building in South Africa), but is saved by the fact that it’s done in a much more tasteful manner than the Superman film.
Whedon certainly does have his missteps to cope with, but then again, maybe such a thing was inevitable. One thing for sure is that we may have gotten our hopes a bit too high. With how fantastically Whedon had delivered on the high expectations of The Avengers, he was facing a difficult task in trying to top it. That’s certainly not to say that he didn’t top several elements from the first, one of which being Whedon’s ultimate strength as a writer and director… his actors and characters.
Whedon brought all of the characters together in the first film in a seamless fashion that blended each of their unique personalities with flying colors. Now with this newer film, he decides to go all out with them, further fleshing them out and continually adding new layers to their writing. The actors are just as excellent in this regard, sharing a relaxed and appropriately jabbing sense of humor with each other, while also trying to cope with disagreements and vices of the others. An early scene of the group playing a game by attempting to lift Thor’s hammer is a hilarious inclusion that contributes a welcome playfulness to their dynamic, and several scenes almost feel straight out of Firefly as well.
All of the returning actors are simply excellent, as always. Downey’s Stark continues to be a good fit for Whedon’s style of snark with his witty one-liners, but also evolves the character’s emotional state with the knowledge of what his actions have brought. Evans, whose Rogers is clearly more hardened by the events of The Winter Soldier, goes toe to toe with Stark in several heated scenes in set up for the upcoming Civil War, and commands his screentime wonderfully. Ruffalo is once again fantastic as the laid-back and reserved Banner, with his Hulk having some of the movie’s highlights, and he plays excellently and playfully against Johansson’s Romanoff, whose character has been given a more fleshed out back story leading to a superbly acted midway revelation. Hemsworth is reliably theatrical and hilarious as Thor, as well as possessing some fascinating new lead-ups to Thor: Ragnorak, and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, having been sidelined in the first movie, is given a substantial new depth to his character that contributes some of the warmest and most humorous moments in the film.
There are also some welcome new additions to the ensemble, of which there really are no notably bad turns. James Spader provides the vocal work and motion capture of the villain Ultron, who stands out as one of the most formidable foes in the MCU thus far. Acting as something of an evil, metallic doppelganger to Stark, Ultron is a sarcastic and petulant being, saddled with a fierce god-complex, constantly relishing in his twisted sense of humor, and proves a more than worthy challenger both physically and intellectually. Spader’s menacing tones and fantastic facial expressions match the character like a glove. Another addition proving to be a welcome fit is also actually a returning player, that being Paul Bettany, the voice of Stark’s personal AI JARVIS, and now physically joining the fight as human/machine hybrid Vision. I can’t say much more about the character without spoiling key moments, but the incredible promise the character shows in what little screen time he has is among the highlights of the film. Elizabeth Olsen provides a strong performance of balanced power and emotional vulnerability, and it’s much to Whedon’s credit as an actor’s director that even Aaron Taylor-Johnson turns in a solid performance.
As for the action front, Whedon once again wisely chooses to save his best cards for last, gradually building up to those bigger pay offs. He once again does well to put the primary focus on the characters rather than on the set-pieces, and so those action beats are all the more meaningful because of the emotional connections and bonds we’ve established with them. With all that established, when Whedon once again lets loose in the climactic showdown, it becomes a thoroughly entertaining rush, and he thankfully manages to steer clear of rehashing action beats of the earlier film. The action doesn’t always come across as well filmed as those in the first movies, but are still superbly staged and executed.
All in all, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a tricky case to wholly nail down. While it certainly has it strengths over the original, the lower and more unfocused lows prevent it from being the phenomenal follow up that it probably deserved to be (something that will hopefully be rectified on the Blu-Ray release, which will feature an extended cut of the film). That said, I don’t care if the movie is somewhat clunky. The things that are good in this movie work tremendously well. Its further development of the characters and the playful humor and entertainment value give it most welcome stability, and with this being Joss Whedon’s last venture in the Marvel universe, he’s picked a fitting note to go out on. It’s one of my favorites in the MCU so far, and also promises even better things to come as we near the Infinity War.
**** / *****