'Age of Ultron' puts its characters' actions under the microscope, with entertaining but mixed results
Avengers: Age of Ultron Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Joss Whedon
Screenplay: Joss Whedon, based on the comic book created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Samuel L. Jackson, Linda Cardellini and Paul Bettany
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 21 minutes
May 1, 2015
(out of four)
As the closing credits roll on Avengers: Age of Ultron, the camera waltzes gracefully behind, giving us one final, cumulative look at the titular Marvel team, this time chiseled out of white marble like a statue of Greek gods. The suggestion is fitting and deliberate - not just because it's an image depicting superheroes (who by their very nature are godlike) but because the film itself treads in distinctly Promethean waters.
Not unlike Alex Garland's recently released Ex Machina, Joss Whedon's follow-up to his monster 2012 hit concerns itself with the creation of artificial intelligence and the resulting conflation of gods and men. Both films are about tech geniuses who create A.I. but ultimately aren't entirely prepared to anticipate its consequences and implications. In this case, the genius is our beloved Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) - who at one point sincerely and cheerfully refers to himself and Dr. Bruce Banner as "mad scientists" - and his creation, invented in good conscience and with the best of intentions, threatens the whole of humanity despite being built to protect it. What begins as merely a highly advanced, sentient computer program quickly takes on a life, intelligence and snarky personality of its own in the form of Ultron (voiced by James Spader), who re-interprets his initial directive to protect mankind from its final destruction as a mandate to eliminate the Avengers themselves.
Age of Ultron embraces, at least as much as a movie like this can, the moral anarchy spawned by Ultron's creation. When a Russian arms dealer (played by Andy Serkis) gets strong-armed by mutant twins Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) - the grand Russian experiments who will come to be known as Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver - he is unimpressed, and maintains he only negotiates with "the man in charge."
At which point Ultron appears, mid-air, and insists: "There is no man in charge." It's the film's most significant line, as it firmly positions the rules and ideological framework. There will be no higher levels of power or authority, of any kind, on hand to save the Avengers, or the rest of Earth, from the consequences of their actions. Whedon leaves the characters alone with their creations. It's not just that there's no god to save them - there's virtually no presence of a national government, either. And S.H.I.E.L.D., of course, is now defunct. Lacking any other refuge, the Avengers' unofficial home base turns out to be a secret country house, hidden from civilization in some picturesque anonymous nowhere.
It's up to Ultron (through Whedon's script) to do the philosophizing, and he certainly takes the opportunity to do so, peppering his dialogue with his thoughts on the nature of humanity and gods and belief. He waxes poetic about humans' propensity to destroy themselves. "Everyone creates the thing they fear. Men of peace create engines of war. Avengers create invaders. Parents create children, that will supplant them." In terms of his own role, he explicitly compares himself to Noah.
In one of his various dramatic entrances - this time when he first appears to Wanda and Pietro, whose traumatic childhood has left them with their own specific ideas about the damage done by the likes of Tony Stark - Ultron appears, enshrouded, on a throne in the middle of an ancient church. Of course, that's just his physical form - or one of them. The thing that's most frightening about him as a villain is that he is not a physical being but a consciousness, ubiquitous and bordering on omnipotent. The irony that he, an intelligence created by men, has taken on the role of an all-powerful figure is not lost on him (and if there's one thing I love, it's a sentient robot with a good sense of humor). The creation, in essence, has become the god.
Which is not to say he isn't physically imposing as well. In fact he's a perfectly sculpted specimen, built from a rare and powerful metal, ultimately appearing as a walking, talking piece of skeletal armor. (Basically, he looks like a really rad terminator.) But he's far from physically indestructible, and at various points, Iron Man, Captain America (Chris Evans) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) all have at him, and do their predictable amount of damage. But he's everywhere, and if he loses one fight he'll just materialize somewhere else. (In hindsight, it probably would have been more interesting if Whedon had given him radically different appearances throughout the film instead of largely interchangeable robot bodies, if only to reinforce how ever-present he is. But hey, I guess Ultron has a particular fashion sense and he sticks to it.)
Age of Ultron is an altogether more ambitious and weightier film than The Avengers, though that's not always a good thing. Like its predecessor, it's at its strongest when it's behaving like a light, witty comedy, but tends to sink when it gets bogged down in plot machinations and an over-reliance on action. The film's key turning point perfectly epitomizes both its strengths and its weaknesses. After opening with an extended setpiece that sets up the dramatic stakes and introduces us to a few new characters, Whedon gives us his best sequence. It's a simple party scene - like a postgame celebration after a successful mission - and it's terrific. It is Whedon, Marvel and these characters at their collective best. It all comes across beautifully - the playful wit, the camaraderie and conflict between the characters, the competing egos, even the sexual tension. It is a scene that, like the best and funniest moments in The Avengers, understands the silliness and fun inherent in this kind of superhero universe. And so we get a moment in which Tony and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) brag about their significant others (Pepper Potts and Jane Foster, respectively) in a testosterone-fueled battle of one-upmanship - which not only ends with a brilliantly on-the-nose punchline, but also serves as a cheeky message to the audience, basically, Yeah, sorry, we couldn't fit Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman into this movie.
And then it gives us an even better moment, as the whole team goes back and forth trying to lift Thor's hammer (each one believing full well they can do it, either by Cap's brute strength or Tony's reliance on basic physics) as he looks on in amusement. But at the tail end of that scene comes the first, sudden appearance of Ultron, and right there the sequence (and the film) shifts tone. It goes without saying that it's a bad omen for the Avengers and the fate of the world, but it turns out to not be such a good omen for the film, either. Age never finds quite the perfect tone again, and what proceeds from there is fascinating but wildly uneven. There are still great moments, to be sure. My favorite is an amusingly meta touch in which Whedon seems to directly respond to all the commentary about Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) being kind of useless when compared to the aliens and gods and supernatural forces and scientific anomalies with whom he surrounds himself. At one point in a key action sequence, Hawkeye blurts out: "The city is flying, we're fighting robots, and I've got a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense."
That is the tone, attitude and sense of humor of The Avengers at its best. What's curious is that there seems to be even more of an emphasis on large-scale action this time, which was never this series' strength (or the strength of the MCU, for that matter). Don't get me wrong, the action is fine - at times messy, at times terrific. But even within the action sequences, the best moments always involve the clever deployment of the characters and not the mayhem itself.
It's not uncommon for sequels like this to feel the pressure to overreach simply because the expectations are so high. More often than not, that winds up hurting more than it helps. Age of Ultron is certainly a victim of its own excess, particularly in the way it short-changes some of the most vital elements of its setup. (The creation of Ultron, for example, is tossed off in a quick montage, despite the fact that it's kind of the thematic and ideological meat of the film. Tony's specific moral reasoning for trying to create it, and his hubris for assuming he could control it, are glossed over far too easily.) Still, the film touches on some interesting material, particularly in the way it places its crimefighters in a grander (yet more precarious) existential context. It may not be quite as much fun as the last time, but it remains an appropriately playful and self-aware indulgence in superhero mythology.