Avengers: Age of Ultron
If you’ve been reading Sonic Cinema over the years, you know that I have a bit of a geek hard-on for Joss Whedon. It’s alright, I can admit it. It started with my getting into “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” weathered the troubled waters of “Firefly” and “Dollhouse,” and their network-defeated runs, and felt validated with the knockout job he did on 2012’s “The Avengers,” the culmination of everything Marvel Studios had done to establish a single cinematic universe. The windfall from that film’s stunning success led to Whedon being named the godfather of Marvel’s Phase Two slate, which would culminate with this film, and include the development of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” for television, as well as input on the other Marvel movies during this time. The work it took to bring “Age of Ultron” together, however, would take a toll on Whedon, though, and while he will likely still have some input on “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” should it continue, his time with Marvel is done, for now, and Joe and Anthony Russo, who directed “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” will be at the helm of “Ultron’s” two-part sequel, “The Avengers: Infinity War.” Did Whedon leave the Marvel Universe on a high note? He did, actually, although it’s not as immediately impressive as his first “Avengers” film was.
I’m not going to recap every key point that has lead the Avengers to their latest collaboration in “Age of Ultron,” because then I wouldn’t get to reviewing the movie itself. Needless to say, shit’s gone down, and the after effects of it is being felt by all of our heroes. When we first see them, they are in the midst of storming a HYDRA base run by Baron Von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), who has been using Loki’s scepter from the first “Avengers” film to develop lethal weapons, while also performing dangerous experimentation on gifted beings. The latter is what is going to cause some uneasy moments for our team, because twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen) present some challenges, especially Wanda, who can dig into people’s minds, and show them their fears. When she does this with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), what she unleashes is his deepest anxieties in the wake of the Battle of New York, and what he saw on the other side of that portal. After the job is done, Stark wants a few days with the scepter to try and unlock it’s secrets. What he and fellow scientist Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) end up doing is finding a key to artificial intelligence that might be essential to the Ultron program Tony thinks could mean retirement for the Avengers, and a new time of peace for the world. Oh Tony, I love how selfishly optimistic you can be at times.
With the first “Avengers” film, Whedon had a daunting task– bringing together massive personalities and unique characters in a way that felt fluid and completely organic while also paying off the groundwork done by the Marvel films before it; that he did so without really breaking a sweat isn’t that surprising for people who loved “Buffy,” “Angel,” and “Firefly” and it’s 2005 film sequel, “Serenity.” With “Age of Ultron,” that task is doubled, not only with the introduction of new characters we hadn’t seen before (Ultron, the Maximoff twins (also known as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch), Strucker, Vision, Dr. Helen Cho, and a cameo by arms dealer Ulysses Klaue, played by Andy Serkis), but also making sure the characters we already know get proper service. (No wonder his initial cut was 3 1/2 hours.) It’s a little too much this time, but you know what? I feel like every major character in this film got their moment, and the broad strokes were handled exceptionally well to where everyone has their own personality defined, or refined, in some significant way. Don’t make much of the appearances of Sam Wilson, aka Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Heimdall (the Asgardian watchman, played by Idris Elba), Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) or a brief appearance by Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell)– they boil down to cameos. And while it’s nice to see Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), James Rhodes (War Machine, played by Don Cheadle) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) get in on the action with Ultron cuts his strings, and they do have key moments in the story playing out, they are sidelined for much of the film while the key Avengers go after Ultron. The fact that Whedon brought so many different characters into the film is remarkable, and the fact that he recognized that in order to serve most (or all) of them, he had to almost create different tiers of importance to the story at hand is the mark of a disciplined storyteller, honing in on the backbone of the story while putting as much meat on those bones as possible. He missteps at times (for instance, Selvig’s scene with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) implies he’ll be more important to the rest of the film than he really is, and the end relies on a stunning display of deus ex machina writing that is uncharacteristic of Whedon), but Whedon and his editors, Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek, do some impressive narrative juggling with this film.
Trying to avoid spoilers in this review is difficult, because there are key characters (namely, Vision, played by Paul Bettany, who also continues his work as J.A.R.V.I.S. in the film) that would be impossible to explain without them. Vision is one of the most original creations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far, and that Whedon would tell a story that requires such a unique character shows how bold he’s gotten in his second “Avengers” film. For some perspective on Vision, all I will say is that he is the flip side of Ultron (brought to life by James Spader in a wickedly haunting, malevolent performance), and both are infused with the influence of Tony Stark, whom Robert Downey Jr. seems to have gotten a second wind in playing. The arc of Stark’s desire to find a way to protect Earth through robotics is less a rehash of the story of “Iron Man 3” but a continuation of it; in discovering the essence of power in Loki’s scepter, he seems to unlock the fundamental problems with AI that will make Ultron the ultimate weapon against evil. Unfortunately, it’s a little too good of a solution, as Ultron adapts and evolves at a rate the Avengers are unable to keep up with, which makes him a worthy, and formidable opponent. In thinking about it, Whedon’s approach to Ultron reminds me of a season one episode of “Buffy” where a demonic text was scanned into a computer, allowing the demon that was held in the book to run loose on the internet. (Spoiler alert: “Age of Ultron” does this story better, but also does it by hitting an awful lot of the same story beats that episode did. What gives, Joss? Seriously, how did I not pick up on this watching it last night?)
Here I am, four paragraphs in, and I haven’t even touched on most of our main characters, but that says less about what Whedon has in store for them in this film, and more about the sheer amount of stuff that needs to be discussed about the film. Thor doesn’t have much of an arc in this film, which is a bit of a shame, but watching him interact with the gang at a party at Avengers Tower in New York gives Hemsworth some terrific material to play with, showing how comfortable Thor is with his human cohorts after being out of sorts at first. Captain America (Chris Evans) is also in a bit of stasis in terms of his story, now fully accepting of his position as the tactical leader of the group, but from what we see when Wanda (the Scarlet Witch, played by Olsen in a rich, grounded performance) gets a hold of his mind, we are left asking questions about what, exactly, Steve Rogers is afraid of– is he afraid of a normal life? What we see in his mind, a scene of he and Peggy Carter finally having their dance, isn’t filled with the same anxiety that haunts the rest of the Avengers when Wanda does her thing. Maybe he’s just at peace with his place in life– it’ll be interesting to see where he goes in “Captain America: Civil War,” and what kind of person he’ll be by the time Thanos makes his ultimate play in “Infinity War.”
The three characters whose stories get the most traction in “Age of Ultron” are Banner, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Since Romanoff was the biggest beneficiary of Whedon’s involvement in the first “Avengers,” it should be no surprise that she’s, once again, given a rich role to play here, one than Johansson (who was pregnant at the time) does a great job playing. A lot of her arc here is tied to Banner’s, showing that the bond that was established between these characters in the first film has only grown closer in the interim, and Ruffalo (whose Hulk continues to be one of the most fun parts of the film) and Johansson thrive in making these two deeper characters than simply a man with “breathtaking anger management issues” and an assassin who looks pretty good in a form-fitting uniform. Their arc in this film is the one that really stands out (as well as offers one of the most heartbreaking character revelations ever made in a major blockbuster, in terms of Natasha’s character), although they definitely have some competition in Hawkeye’s. Renner was very blunt about being disappointed he didn’t have much to do in the first “Avengers,” and Whedon heard him loud and clear. The fact that Hawkeye’s life away from his skills with a bow and arrow is so front-and-center in the film seems, at first, like overcompensation, but it actually helps accentuate the main theme of the film for these characters– a life away from the Avengers. It also gives us a glimpse of Hawkeye that helps increase his value to the Marvel Universe; now, he’s less of an “oh, hey, we should add this character” addition to these films as someone who we want to follow more in the years to come.
At this point, it should be obvious that I’m “all in” when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even films that don’t work as well as the best in this franchise (like “Iron Man 2” and the first “Thor”) still hold my interest, and it’s because ultimately, the characters are what matters. This isn’t just about making the biggest and best event films imaginable, although “Age of Ultron” is definitely a big one, and maybe even one of the best we’ll see this year, but about creating a layered narrative that brings truly geeky material to larger audiences in a way they can engage in. Yes, these films and TV shows will stumble at times (usually when they rely too heavily on the connecting the dots with other projects), but at their best, you won’t find a studio more energized about telling broad, exciting stories that center around grounded themes and characters. This is what has come into real focus during Whedon’s time in the Marvel Universe, although his ability to stage scenes like this one’s massive drag-out in Africa between Iron Man and Hulk, and the stunningly staged final battle, have definitely helped in bringing Whedon’s gifts to the masses. Hopefully, he’ll be back for more in the future, but even if he’s not, there’s plenty to look forward to regardless. The foundation he’s helped lay down in these movies is a big reason I’m looking forward to following it every step of the way.