“The city is flying, we’re fighting robots – and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense.” Correction, Hawkeye, none of this should make sense. But it does. A superfast whiz-kid, a telekinetic enchantress, a synthesized A.I. Throw in a tidal wave of robot drones and you’d think the film would tip over from the massive weight of its characters. Amazingly, writer-director Joss Whedon keeps everything grounded, even when the plot calls for many, many things to soar simultaneously. Age of Ultron is a funnier, darker, and far more action-packed film than its predecessor, but not necessarily a better one. Still, there’s plenty of things to marvel at in this worthy sequel.
The film opens with an action sequence that showcases how the Avengers are basically an unstoppable force. It’s a bit showy and overwhelming at first as Whedon crams one too many hero moments into the frame. He also expects us to go along with the twins’ powers, and it’s a little jarring because so far we’ve only seen our heroes punch and smash things. Telekinesis, super-speed; you’ll either run with Wanda and Pietro, or they’ll take some time getting used to. Overall, it’s a much better opening than the first film, and a proper introduction to two new characters who will become an integral part of the story.
From there we are quickly thrust into the thick of the plot as Tony Stark comes up with a not-so-brilliant idea to kick start the Ultron program. As mighty as the Avengers are, he knows they can’t be everywhere, which is the potential he sees in an omnipotent suit. It’s the one thing that the Battle of New York has taught him: they are hopelessly outmatched, much like what Thor taught Nick Fury in the first film. It’s fear that brings out the best in us, and also the worst – a recurring Marvel trope. Such is the nature of the Avengers: they are walking a tightrope with the world, and with themselves.
Ultron is the terrifying manifestation of their fears. What he represents, though, is far more interesting than what he actually is. Aside from some compelling voice work by James Spader, Ultron might be one of Marvel’s weaker villains so far. He’s got rage, and a grand master plan to decimate the human race, but we have no idea where this anger stems from. We get the sense that there’s an Oedipus complex, but he’s not quite the narcissist like Stark so we only get a partial picture of a father-son dynamic. Everything else about Ultron, his schemes, his deadpan wit, feels very much like the villain we were promised, but since he draws from a flimsy motivation, it’s hard not to see his actions as ultimately hollow.
Where the film slightly falters with its villain, it makes up for with its supporting cast, specifically Wanda and Pietro. In an emotionally pivotal scene, Pietro explains their brief history with Tony Stark, and the fiery hatred they feel towards him. With just a little bit of exposition, we not only sympathize with them, but we understand their motivations. This is the kind of character-building that Whedon is particularly good at, especially when he cares about who he’s writing for.
You can tell Whedon genuinely cares about Hawkeye this time around, or at least about making it up to him after a nonexistent role in the first film. If we knew nothing about Clint before, then we know everything about him now. It’s not so much a ret-con as much as it realigns our perspective of him, offering a deeper look into the man who really doesn’t need to be part of the team but still has a place among them. Make no mistake this is still an Avengers film, only Hawkeye’s got more room to play.
Age of Ultron, at times, threatens to become a very serious movie. Ultron becomes increasingly depraved, and Scarlet Witch throws the Avengers in an emotional tailspin. But as painful as the film gets, Whedon reminds us of the wonderful gift of laughter. Whether it’s in the middle of the film’s magnificent Hulkbuster sequence, or when the team’s trying to recuperate at an isolated farmhouse, Whedon finds the humor in moments where you assume there’s none to be found. These scenes turn out to be the most memorable because it’s the charm of these characters put together that reels you in, not their superhero abilities (the party scene in particular is a lovely mockery of their individual strengths, or lack thereof).
The humor is Whedon’s saving grace because there’s so many subplots, arcs, and storylines that it’s often exhausting to see it all play out in the same scene. The action too, as the film moves from one set-piece to the next, is on the verge of feeling like a bloated mess. Fortunately, this isn’t Bayhem; this is Whedon kicked into high-gear. He hits some bumps along the way, but he finds his rhythm just in time for the finale. The stakes are elevated to such a degree that you’re almost sure the film will buckle beneath its own weight. Fortunately, Whedon doesn’t back down. He adds more players to the chessboard, guys like Vision, War Machine, and Nick Fury. Did I mention that the chessboard was levitating? What ensues is an epic standoff that’ll have you laughing, crying, and at the end, cheering. If you thought the finale for The Avengers was all but impossible to top, think again. Whedon outdoes himself, and that seems to be a perfectly fitting note for him to end on.
You can feel Whedon’s exhaustion in nearly every frame of the film. This movie, much like the entire Marvel universe, has expanded beyond his grasp. Not easy for a man who not only brought the Avengers to life (and did so twice), but also consulted on every film in Phase Two. If this indeed is his swan song, at least he didn’t flinch in giving us his all. To you, Joss Whedon, I say bravo.