No one denies that what Joss Whedon accomplished with 2012’s The Avengers was stupendous. Prior to the release of the event that was the culmination of every smaller event in Phase 1 (my fellow Marvel fans are following this mumbo-jumbo), no one could have expected that we would get a movie that featured Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk fighting together on the big screen to be as spectacular as it was. But lo and behold, in stepped Whedon, a fanboy at heart and a worthy handler of the material, who took these characters and threw them into the single-story pot and stirred it up like a real cook.
That said, some people (and by “some people” I am referring to anonymous voices in the Twittersphere) have been searching for reasons to throw stones at Whedon; reasons that I can’t justify as being acceptable. Maybe it’s because they’re used to the notion that the Avengers have already assembled, and now newbies like Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn and Captain America: The Winter Soldier directors Joe & Anthony Russo have won their hearts.
One of the complaints/rants I’ve noticed regarding Whedon is the “poor quality” of his action sequences. Now, I would like to take this opportunity to say that if you have a problem with the visual effects of The Avengers, just go back and rewatch the final thirty minutes of that movie. Aliens (Chitauri) descending from a giant hole in the sky, Tony Stark flying through the hole to destroy the race, while the Hulk smashes things everywhere and the rest of the team use their powers to their advantage. It’s a marvelous sequence, one that left moviegoers and comic book fans under a dizzying spell of nerdgasmic awesomeness.
So, even though I don’t think The Avengers is a perfect movie (I do have trouble swallowing the opening ten minutes every time I watch it), I do think that’s almost as close to being a perfect superhero movie as we’ve ever gotten. It has all the right ingredients, and that is largely thanks to Joss Whedon’s script (seriously, this guy does it all), which has just enough in-jokes that find the characters’ identities and personalities perfectly. And in defense of Joss Whedon, Avengers: Age of Ultron, while being consistently messy, overstuffed, and methodical, is still a blast of summer moviegoing fun that contains nearly all the ingredients that were stirred into Joss’ pot the first time around.
Almost in exact contradiction to the opening of the first film (that being The Avengers, even though it’s difficult to determine what “the first film” means when discussing/reviewing this cinematic universe), Age of Ultron kicks off with a bang as the Avengers break into a Hydra outpost in Sokovia. This compound, which we saw in the after-credits sequence of The Winter Soldier, is where Baron Strucker is experimenting on humans using Loki’s scepter. Two of these humans are Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, whom you may know better as Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch (in the comics, the children of Magneto, who unfortunately can’t make an appearance in this cinematic universe due to issues regarding rights).
The movie opens quickly, with this sequence being introduced almost initially, opened with a terrific and nerdgasmic long take that shifts from Avenger to Avenger, never breaking and always gliding to the next available teammate. They raid this compound in an effort to get the scepter back. When they get it, they (Tony and Bruce, with both actors given more time to dive into the science-y conversations that are immensely engaging to watch unfold) discover artificial intelligence inside the scepter’s gem, which Tony uses to capitalize on his Ultron program. If you’re familiar with the comics, you should know all about the Ultron program.
As it always does in these Marvel movies, something goes wrong. Ultron, the manifestation of artificial intelligence, develops a mind of his own, developing a scheme to end the human population and make his stamp on the world. Yeah, I know, we’ve seen it all before. But it’s really difficult to look at a movie about Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Hawkeye, and Scarlet Witch fighting against a giant robotic army (yeah, Ultron gets an army, just like Loki did) and fault it for that. So yes, as a comic book fan, my review of Age of Ultron is unapologetically biased.
This is the definition of an ensemble cast, and just as the case was with The Avengers, each cast member brings their own thing to the table, once again giving us proof that they love where they are. I don’t need to tell you that Chris Evans nails is as Cap, because Chris Evans is Cap. I don’t need to tell you that Chris Hemsworth is beefy, brawny, Elizabethan, and mantastic as Thor because we already know that and are jealous of it. And I really don’t need to tell you that Tony Stark owns it as Iron Man/Tony Stark because, well, we’ve been beaten over the head with this (true) statement since 2008.
What I can tell you is that James Spader isn’t as menacing as the trailers would have you believe, but is actually quite funny in the role of Ultron, the sarcastic computer thingy with a brain that seems to function off of caffeine and reruns of a popular sitcom. Seriously, he’s funny, but not quite as funny as the Mandarin, and not as memorable either, which is unfortunate. Still, Spader’s voice work is every bit as compelling as the trailer convinces you, and I had a lot of fun watching (and listening to) his character devise evil schemes for our amusement.
Besides Loki (who obviously had a tricky way of stealing the show), the Avengers have never been about the villains. No, this is a franchise best realized when focusing on its characters, which Whedon transitions to the screen in spectacular fashion. The interplay between the characters is so good in Age of Ultron that it made me want to get my hands on the script immediately just to see how Whedon’s dialogue reads on paper. It may be even better than in the first one. It’s truly terrific how well he understands these characters, with almost every turn and character decision met with some kind of remarkably witty line of dialogue that impeccably sums up the traits of that particular character. I love the way Whedon writes dialogue, and no one is taking that away from him.
Also, if you were among the many who were put off by the bait-and-switch technique used in the first film regarding the character of Hawkeye, you will be pleased to discover that not only is he an Avenger for the entire run time, but he is also pushed to the frontline of the film’s focus. A large portion of this movie takes place on Clint’s personal turf, an area of land that is personal to him (I don’t want to spoil too much) and exists off the grid, with no one knowing but only a few people. I loved the way Whedon decided to give some flesh to Hawkeye, giving us fans more to eat up and Jeremy Renner more to work with, with more lines of witty dialogue, including what may be among the franchise’s best lines. It comes later in the film when Quicksilver makes a joke about Hawkeye being slower than him. You’ll know it when you hear it.
Regarding Quicksilver, I wasn’t a huge fan of his character in this movie. Not that Aaron Taylor-Johnson did a bad job per say, but his character simply didn’t have time to breathe or make any form of emotional impact in the time allotted, let alone when you consider the amount of other supporting players being introduced. On the other hand, I did like Scarlet Witch very much, and I found her ability to alter people’s minds and give them hallucinations to be an interesting format of storytelling that went into unexpected places.
But what I liked most about Age of Ultron was the blossoming relationship between Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce (Mark Ruffalo). Not only do the two hit it off when they aren’t in the heat of battle, but Black Widow has a comforting way of calming Bruce down (the lullaby element is absolutely adorable) when he does have to Hulk-out. I loved their stuff, and it’s a solid reminder that this is a series that may be known for loud explosions and superheroes flying through the city, but is deeply grounded in its relying on emotional substance with its human characters.
That is, after all, what these Marvel movies are about. They convince us that these characters are, in fact, human. Sometimes certain accidents (or experiments) unfold, resulting in superhuman strength, but at their core, they’re all human, with human emotions and relatability (I’m obviously excluding the Guardians here). And that is, after all, what Joss Whedon is. He’s a human; a fallible filmmaker that has been lifted onto some kind of pedestal and is now finding himself stepping down. Still, though, no one is going to forget Whedon as he departs this Marvel Cinematic Universe, because what he has done (twice now) is something that is truly unforgettable. Avengers: Age of Ultron is loud, long, convoluted, and messy, but it’s loads of fun, and I can’t imagine any other filmmaker bringing these characters together twice in a row and knocking the task out in such remarkable fashion. Farewell, Mr. Whedon. I remain a defender.
2 hrs. 21 mins.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, James Spader, and Samuel L. Jackson
Written and directed by Joss Whedon