Avengers: Age of Ultron is bigger, darker, and funnier than the original. It’s also messier, crowded, and redundant. The superhero sequel is the movie it needs to be and yet it’s not entirely better. It’s a progression of the Marvel narrative, not an evolution like The Avengers. The movie shares the same problems as other Marvel films, makes bold choices that move the franchise forward, and is a go-for-broke, exciting, and overjoyed departure for writer-director Joss Whedon as he overwhelms, exhausts, and energizes his audience with a superhero film that wants to tear its heroes apart.
After the Avengers—once again comprised of Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)—raid a HYDRA base and retrieve an important item, Bruce and Tony believe they have the key to unlocking the “Ultron” program, an A.I. that will take care of their peacekeeping burden. Instead, it unleashes the robotic menace Ultron (voiced by James Spader), who hates the Avengers and believes the true path to peace is eliminating humanity. Ultron enlists “enhanced” (i.e. “superpowered”) siblings, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) to help him in his mission to destroy the Avengers and remake the world.
After my screening, I was talking with a fellow critic, and he pointed out that the previous film was about bringing the Avengers together, and this time they want to get away from each other. They’ve now become heroes, but when they’re forced to confront their pain and self-doubt, they’re left to wonder how they can save the world when they can’t even save themselves. Whedon loves character flaws, and now that we’ve seen these guys save the world, it becomes imperative to show that they’re far from invincible, even when that invincibility can show us amazing set pieces.
Whedon seems well aware that every action scene in Age of Ultron has to outdo the climax of the first movie, and he throws everything he can at the screen. The jokes are top-notch and non-stop, the banter is superb, he develops deep relationships with lightning speed, and he destroys so many buildings that Age of Ultron could be renamed Debris: The Movie! This isn’t a Michael Bay approach where the director is making a full-blown assault on the audience’s senses. It’s Whedon on overdrive and trying to figure out how to surpass the biggest superhero movie of all time on a macro and micro level.
It’s a blast to watch Whedon give everything he has, and he still manages to never lose sight of the Avengers. Last time, he basically had to sacrifice Hawkeye to make the narrative work, but this time the character becomes vital both to the group’s dynamic and the overall plot. The movie delves deeper into Tony’s dark side, shows that Rogers isn’t Mr. Perfect, fosters a new relationship between Natasha and Bruce, and then kind of leans on Thor to handle future business, although Hemsworth’s charm always makes him a welcome presence. Whedon also manages to skillfully squeeze in a host of cameos and create a terrific new character with Vision (Paul Bettany).
Nevertheless, there are still too many characters to juggle. Ultron continues Marvel’s trend of crummy villains. I’ve come to believe that without Hiddleston and Thor taking the time to set up Loki, the character would fall flat in Avengers because wanting to make humanity “free from freedom” is kind of a weak motivation. He wants to rule the world, and that desire to rule was established in another film. I expect better from Whedon since he created so many memorable baddies on his TV series Buffy and Angel, but Ultron is a disappointment.
Ultron is a personality without a character. He’s always fun to watch and Spader brings so much to the role, but Ultron’s motivation is painfully anemic and his mix of anger and confusion comes off as muddled instead of compelling. I can see the outline of what Whedon was going for, but there’s not enough to the character to make him more than a pile of bad computer code. Ultron is occasionally interesting when the movie tries to show how much of Tony is in his personality, and throwing out lines like “Peace in our time” is a clever way to voice a prelude to annihilation, but ultimately he’s yet another villain with an broad, lazy goal.
The Maximoffs are also underserved because they’re relegated to a plot device rather than full characters. They have a minor backstory that explains why they want to take down the Avengers and work for Ultron, but their main purpose is to slow down the superheroes. Near the end of the film the Maximoffs start being cool, but they mostly function as tools because the movie is too packed to accommodate everything it wants to do.
Nevertheless, Whedon grasps what’s truly important for his movie and his main characters. It’s a movie where the filmmaker truly wants to stress what makes his superheroes heroic and makes a point of saving civilian lives (the movie constantly feels like it’s kicking Man of Steel in the stomach), and that’s why we should love these characters more than the destruction they leave in their wake, even if that destruction is so damn entertaining (Hulk vs. Hulkbuster is everything I hoped it would be and more).
Avengers: Age of Ultron is extremely satisfying while also being admirably ambitious. Whedon goes above and beyond until the air starts to get thin. The movie carries a heavy burden both as a blockbuster and as a continuing story for its heroes. The experience of watching them fight, struggle, and endure is both energizing and absolutely draining. If Avengers: Age of Ultron is a sign of things to come, I shudder with both excitement and terror at how the Marvel Cinematic Universe will grow until it reaches infinity.