The first word in Avengers: Age of Ultron, spoken by Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), is a rude expletive. The second word, from Captain America (Chris Evans), is a mild rebuke. In two words of dialogue, writer-director Joss Whedon gives us characterization, conflict and theme.
This happens amid a pitched battle in which we get a traveling shot of all six Avengers each doing what he or she does best while taking on an army working for a pair of villains from prior Marvel movies in order to recover the scepter of Loki, brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) — an artifact from the first Avengers movie that turns out to have an unexpected connection with the Tesseract cube in that film as well as that orb from Guardians of the Galaxy and that aethery stuff from Thor: The Dark World, and that in this movie will lead to the Avengers’ most formidable challenge to date and ultimately change their team forever in an unexpected way.
With all that going on in just the opening scene, it’s a good thing Whedon can do characterization, conflict and theme in two words of dialogue. Avengers: Age of Ultron is the biggest, longest, most overstuffed Marvel movie yet; the stakes aren’t as cosmic as in the two movies mentioned above — the fate of the universe isn’t in danger, just life on Earth — but the urban destruction sprawls across multiple continents, and the cast of major characters dwarfs earlier films.
This time out, we have a) the six established Avengers; b) two additional high-flying heroes established in past Marvel movies, War Machine and Falcon (Don Cheadle and Anthony Mackie); c) two more super-powered characters essentially introduced in this film, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson); and d) two further characters — a villain and a hero — who are created in the course of this movie: the ruthless artificial entity Ultron (James Spader) and a role I won’t spoil here.
That’s twelve super-types — four of whom we’ve basically never met before.
Then throw in e) former SHIELD alumni Nick Fury and Maria Hill (Samuel L. Jackson and Cobie Smulders) (you remember SHIELD is defunct as of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, right?); f) a pair of scientists, one established and one new (Stellan Skarsgård and Claudia Kim); g) a couple of minor villains from past Marvel movies; h) a major character’s newly revealed family members; and i) a host of cameos from various supporting casts who aren’t really here but are glimpsed in dream sequences. (Alas, the one supporting character I would most have wanted to see, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, is here in name only.)
The amazing thing about Avengers: Age of Ultron is that Whedon isn’t absolutely buried in all this muchness. Nearly every notable character stands out in at least one scene, and the most important characters get somewhat more than that. Whedon focuses particularly on the actors who haven’t yet gotten their own movies: Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk (the Hulk had a solo film, but was played by a different actor, and a sequel has yet to be announced).
Nice elements include the touching, tentative connection between Black Widow and the Hulk as well as his mild-mannered alter ego, a very funny scene at a party involving Thor’s magic hammer and Hawkeye’s humanizing relationship with a newly revealed character.
A Hulk-Iron Man smackdown is comic-book geek catnip, and the villain’s evil plan involves a quintessentially comic-book image (I think particularly of a couple of 1980s Fantastic Four stories) that, um, raises the stakes, not just for the planet, but for one particular community. Protecting civilians was already a theme in the first Avengers movie, but it’s even more prominent here, perhaps in response to criticism of DC’s Man of Steel on this point. I appreciate that, although I remarked coming out of the theater that it would be nice if at least some of the civilians had personalities.
Yet you can only do so much in 141 minutes with a cast this massive, including so many new characters. Part of what made The Avengers work so well was how it pulled together an immense ensemble cast — six heroes, a villain, some SHIELD agents and a few supporting characters — nearly all of whom had already been carefully established by prior franchise films.
In that film Whedon was able to make each character connect in sketchy introductory sequences, in part because we mostly knew them all. (Okay, Hawkeye was barely in Thor, but since he spent half of The Avengers brainwashed, it hardly mattered. And everyone knows the Hulk, no matter who plays him.)
Age of Ultron gives us not one but two important characters whose entire arcs begin and end in this movie. At this point Whedon is famous for killing off characters, but it’s one thing to kill a character like Agent Coulson who has appeared in a bunch of earlier movies. If it’s a character we’ve only just met amid an ensemble of more than a dozen important characters, it doesn’t have the same impact. To an extent Age of Ultron suffers from the Star Trek Into Darkness problem: too much arc compressed into too little time, with too little emotional weight as a result.
Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver have a compelling back story, but it’s wedged in along with everything else. Scarlet Witch’s psychic powers offer Whedon a chance to get into his characters’ heads, though they also lead to some frightening images darker than anything in the first film. Quicksilver actually gets more screen time here than Bryan Singer’s non-Disney version of the character in X-Men: Days of Future Past — but nothing Whedon does with him compares with Quicksilver’s big moment in the Pentagon breakout scene in Singer’s film. After watching Age of Ultron, ask yourself: How fast is Quicksilver, and does his last key scene make sense?
The villain, for me, is a problem. So far, the Marvel universe has managed exactly one bad guy that matters, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. This time, we get an important comic-book villain, Ultron, here presented as an artificial intelligence intended to protect mankind who goes the way of Skynet. In the comics, Ultron is created by Ant-Man, but his movie hasn’t arrived yet, so Tony stands in, sort of. (It’s complicated.)
Archly voiced by James Spader and supplied with Whedonesque one-liners possibly reflecting the influence of his quasi-creator, Ultron is more entertaining than, say, the dull villain in the last Thor movie, but with no more of a sense of personality. Ultron is a Frankenstein figure, but one whose plight we don’t feel until his very last scene, because before that Whedon doesn’t invest him with pathos or a sense of an inner life. He’s just a know-it-all antagonist the Avengers have to overcome.
I’m not sure yet what to make of all Ultron’s God talk. His base of operations in an eastern European city is a ruined church that he notes appreciatively was built at the center of town, “so that everyone could be equally close to God. I like that: the symmetry, the geometry of belief.”
But then Ultron compares his extinction-event plans to God “throwing a curve” to mankind by sending the great flood. At another point he borrows Jesus’ words in Matthew 16: “Upon this rock I will build my church.” (Elsewhere Thor has an unrelated remark about “the gates of hell” — or perhaps “the gates of Hel,” the Norse realm of the dead and the etymological root of the English word “Hell” — that doesn’t quite make sense either in connection with Matthew 16 or Norse mythology.)
Then there’s that other brand-new character who is created in this film, who struggles to explain who or what he is before simply declaring, “I am” — a declaration of self-awareness, but also, in light of all Ultron’s God talk, an apparent allusion to the divine Name introduced in Exodus 3 and claimed by Jesus in John 8:53.
Later there is startling confirmation of this character’s divine worthiness. Could Whedon be suggesting that this character represents Ultron’s hope for evolutionary advancement, effectively bringing divinity into being? That would be quite a contrast to the first film, which placed a nice affirmation of monotheism on Captain America’s lips.
We also get such existential nuggets as “Humans are odd. … They think order and chaos are somehow opposites” and some variation on the idea that something doesn’t have to last forever to be beautiful. Catholics still smarting over media reportage of Pope Francis’ comment about Catholic parents not having to be “like rabbits” may wince at a line about “multiplying like a Catholic rabbit.” (On top of all that, there’s some unusually off-color innuendo.)
I appreciate that Age of Ultron is a superhero movie that emphasizes the “hero” as much as the “super.” “Ultron thinks we’re monsters,” says Cap. “This isn’t just about beating him. It’s about whether he’s right.” Whedon’s wit and invention are considerable, and Age of Ultron is consistently entertaining, if at times exhausting where its predecessor was exhilarating.
At a certain point, the more there is going on, the less we feel it. In The Avengers, the Chitauri wore down the more human-scaled of their adversaries, leaving Cap and Black Widow in particular hurting and weary. The battle mattered. Here, the Avengers take on countless Ultron doppelgängers, which, as a rule, collapse after exactly one hit — an arrow, a shield, whatever.
I like this comment from Matt Zoller Seitz (RogerEbert.com):
For all its missteps, Age of Ultron is remarkable. If it’s a failure, as many critics insist, it’s a failure like Ang Lee’s Hulk, Superman Returns or The Dark Knight Rises, which is to say that it’s much more distinctively personal than most of the superhero movies whose titles are synonyms for success.
I suggest another point of comparison: Sam Raimi’s much-maligned Spider-Man 3, another overstuffed sequel with too many new characters and too much plot — which I was in the minority in really liking.
On the other hand, Age of Ultron is one thing none of these other movies tried to be: both the grand climax to a larger saga and the setup for yet another phase of Marvel madness. They can’t just keep ramping it up, can they? The movies keep getting bigger, with diminishing returns. I find myself hoping against hope that Ant-Man will be really, really small.
Caveat Spectator: Much intense action violence and mayhem; some scary images; limited cursing and crass language; some crude innuendo. Teens and up.