“Does anybody remember when I put a missile through a portal, in New York City? We were standing right under it. We’re the Avengers. We can bust weapons dealers the whole doo-da-day, but how do we cope with something like that?”
“We’ll do that together too.”
Whereas comic book superheroes and heroines have a long-standing, time-tested, free-swinging tradition of either brokering guest appearances in one another’s pages or, occasionally, full-on intramural team collaborations against a common enemy and/or towards a common goal, superhero movies have generally operated in hermetically sealed bubbles all their own, using house money and fighting the simplest, most obvious threats. Marvel’s decision, circa 2006, to revamp its existing film studio into something more robust and thus shepherd its own projects, independent of the sort of uninformed, high level meddling that helped turn promising sequels like Spider-Man 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand into underwhelming, overstuffed disappointments, or worse, didn’t immediately signal a seismic shift in the superhero game, though it did strike most observers as a pretty good idea. Little could anyone then have truly realized the scope of Marvel’s master plan – the so-called “Marvel Cinematic Universe”, or MCU, a giant movie continuum on which and vehicle by which Marvel Comics’ most beloved, legally available* characters would be allowed to co-exist, quip, snipe, interact, and fight the forces of evil together, and, with it, a focused, exactingly constructed, and hyper-ambitious release schedule divided into distinct “phases”. Each phase would feature standalone adventures from the studio’s standard bearers (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor) along with a new introduction or two (Incredible Hulk, Guardians of the Galaxy, this summer’s Ant-Man), with a new edition of The Avengers – the six or (lately) greater-way team up of last resort called into existence whenever humanity finds itself at its most threatened – serving as both its climax and crown jewel.
*So no “X-Men”, no “Wolverine” standalone movie, nor even the first mention of “mutants” on-screen. Also no “Fantastic Four”, which is itself getting a standard-issue gritty summer reboot ala “Man of Steel”, though one has to wonder how that’ll fare, given the lingering bad taste from the early 2000s attempt and Marvel’s lack of parental oversight. Chris Evans’ Captain America > than Chris Evans’ Johnny Storm. Speaking of early 2000s attempts, Spider-Man is finally being brought under the Marvel umbrella as well, with a second wholesale franchise reboot in just over a decade (“The 20% More Amazing Spider-Man”?) likely paving his way to participate in the next “Avengers” caper in 2018. Rumor is that Joss Whedon passionately wanted the webslinger available for “Age of Ultron”, though the mind reels at how or where he might’ve possibly fit in.
Even as an event movie in an already event movie-saturated marketplace, 2012’s The Avengers had the feel of something truly momentous, a meeting of titans, a long-anticipated culmination, despite the fact that its aforementioned headliners had never been deemed worthy of such prominence before Marvel hatched its grand scheme. Now ten phase-straddling films in at the time of this writing, Marvel’s strategy feels more like a prophecy every day. Superhero movies have long since supplanted straighter sci-fi spectacle as the de facto blockbuster model of the age, and Age of Ultron, the kinetic, titanic second film in the Avengers saga and, for all intents and purposes, the end of “Phase 2”, is the biggest yet. That much was a given. Each subsequent Avengers movie has/will have a steep mountain to climb. The next one, Infinity Wars, has already been announced as a two-parter scheduled for release in 2018 and 2019, and initial information on the forthcoming Captain America installment, Civil War, makes it sound somehow even bigger, like an Avengers tale in everything but name. But does “bigger” automatically, or necessarily, equal “better”? The world will truly never lack, it seems, for people (me included) running in droves to the multiplex, arms (figuratively) outstretched, (figuratively) screaming, “Take my money!”, but even Marvel fans with a keen sense of which way the wind is blowing had much cause for optimism going in to Age of Ultron. With that said, how can a franchise like The Avengers, dependably entertaining and reliably eye-popping, with its embarrassment of thus far unintroduced or underutilized members and license/blank check for unfettered expansion, already feel, in some ways, pushed to the limit in only episode two?
It seems to me the beast is starting to grow beyond the control of its masters, namely geek culture Svengali Joss Whedon, whose specialty on the small screen has long been marshalling unlikely teams of misfits (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Angel) into quippy, scrappy fighting forces far greater than their component parts. Quick witted and confident, Whedon writes his stories from the inside out instead of vice versa, mindful of the delicacies of group dynamics even as he seeks to challenge and upend them. If a steady hand like Whedon can’t shepherd a certain flock, it may be a lost cause. It should be said up front that he tries mightily and even breaks through more often than not. A massive undertaking like Ultron, however, is so overstuffed and breathless with destinations, layovers, and set pieces, underdeveloped new characters and often undefined plot points that nevertheless must be ticked off as if from a project manager’s checklist, that it risks overload. Whedon is a master at keeping things brisk and light until the proper moment for darkness presents itself, and displays equal, often pitiless, facility with then dropping the hammer hard. Here, despite an outwardly smooth ride, strains are evident, as he struggles heroically to keep up with the many needs and requirements of A) the Ultron story, B) the larger Avengers franchise, and C) the yet larger MCU. Ultron must introduce not only the titular threat – an insidious, pernicious artificial intelligence imagined by Tony Stark as an omniscient global protector that becomes self-aware, murderous, and practically indestructible with frightening speed – but also three brand new Avengers, a stealth romance between two existing team members, and a rich, hitherto unmentioned family life for a third, plus wrangling another half dozen or more high profile (or at least head-turning) cameos. In unspooling the story/aforementioned checklist, Age of Ultron leans a little too heavily on its dense, dizzying comic book history, making room for and chaining together references that might be obscure for most any viewer not already steeped in Marvel lore, and will utterly baffle some, who may have thought they were turning off their brains, Transformers-style, for 140 minutes, but, in truth, are in for a bumpier ride, though not an unrewarding one.
Part of what made the original Avengers sing was its insistence that we witness the growing pains of the world’s greatest assemblage of superhero talent (yes, yes, until Justice League…though I fear tunnel vision and corner cutting will sap most traces of charisma from that enterprise, and Ben Affleck is still Batman) as it learns to coexist and work together, sublimating some pretty impressive egos (playboy/inventor Tony Stark, actual god Thor) and catastrophic potential side effects (Bruce Banner’s unfortunate tendency to turn green and wreck shop) in the process. Because the four headliners were all previously veterans of their own starring vehicles, their personalities had been well established, providing ample room and occasion for them to clash naturally, and making their eventual triumph seem more authentic and hard won. Age of Ultron, by comparison, hits the ground (literally) running, as the core six Avengers bear down on a Hydra base, racing and blasting their way through the dense forests of patently fake Eastern European country Sokovia. These opening scenes show the Avengers firing on all cylinders and occasionally even working as a team, to such a degree that Hydra itself seems to view defeat as a foregone conclusion. In the basement of the complex, Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr. on cruise control in his now-signature role) discovers unfinished Hydra technology that charts a clear and tantalizing path towards fully sentient and self-sufficient artificial intelligence and, thus, a giant step closer to his dream creation: “Ultron”. In the films since the Avengers first assembled, the MCU has been clever in refining and redefining both the group’s charge and its burden. Iron Man 3 saw Stark facing down new threats while still reeling from the near death experience of saving NYC from Loki’s massive Chitauri invasion. The Winter Soldier pulled the ground from beneath Captain America’s feet when Hydra insurgents overthrew the Avengers’ allied agency, S.H.I.E.L.D., from within. In an increasingly dangerous world, the prideful, risk-taking Stark sees Ultron as humanity’s best defense, ideally “a suit of armor around the world”. Like so many mad scientists before him, his efforts are essentially noble yet fatally flawed.
Whedon handles the concept of Ultron better than his realization. Stark, energized, immediately seeks to win brilliant scientist/occasional Hulk Bruce Banner to his cause while keeping it a secret from the remaining Avengers. By the time Ultron can’t be kept under wraps any longer and is a subject for open debate, it is, of course, already too late. Imagined as humanity’s white knight, Ultron immediately flips Stark’s script and reasons, logically enough, that the best and most comprehensive way to protect the planet would be to exterminate the human race. Initially a disembodied artificial intelligence alive in the internet, Ultron harnesses the power of Stark’s existing defense technology, which includes legions of robotic drones, essentially remote controlled Iron Man suits, and starts to work on building himself a better, stronger, and ever more imposing body with which to dictate his will. Ultron’s awakening, self-awareness, and the brutal early stages of his plan all happen over the course of a breathless approximate fifteen minutes of screen time, which sets the tone for the entire movie. He is multiple steps ahead of the Avengers at most times, overwhelming and plowing ever forward. This hectic pace actually limits Ultron’s screen time to far, far less than the promised “age”, and has the odd side-effect of making him not particularly resonate as either a character or a threat, despite voice actor James Spader’s enthusiastic efforts to turn up the genocidal robot’s personality and dial in his sense of menace. As a cautionary example of technology run amok, Ultron has thematic juice, but two hours of near-nonstop warfare between man and machine risks becoming not only exhausting but, I have to say it, impersonal. Whedon recognizes these defecits, and, where he can, squeezes in moments of welcome but abbreviated philosophical debate**, existential horror (Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, one of the film’s new principals, has, among others, the ability to bend reality, and a single touch sends several Avengers off on illuminating side quests, as they involuntarily explore their own worst nightmares) and even team-building, as when the group spends the afterglow of an early victory party at Stark’s bachelor pad placing bets on who, besides Thor, can lift his fabled hammer, Mjolnir. It’ll be the film’s last happy, or at least tranquil, moment.
**Hard to imagine that a team comprised of two bold, brainy scientists, two straight arrow soldiers, one cold-blooded assassin, and an extra-terrestrial wild card might have differing opinions on Stark’s intensive efforts to simultaneously create and tame potentially deadly global technology, which begin as merely hubristic but soon edge over the line into outright recklessness. Once the carnage subsides, you get the feeling that Stark, who, to his credit, takes full, self-flagellating credit for unleashing Ultron, isn’t upset so much that he meddled with the terrifying unknown but, rather, that he didn’t get it right the first time. The next time, now preordained, probably won’t be pretty.
It’s no coincidence that Marvel Studios has thus far entrusted its best MCU offerings (Iron Man 1 and 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy) to accomplished screenwriters (Jon Favreau, Shane Black) and/or character-centric, highly creative types (The Russo brothers, James Gunn), in marked contrast (it turns out) to the rival CU currently being hammered together by DC Comics – where Zack Snyder, flashy architect of the grand, grim, and impersonal, has apparently been installed as house auteur. The Marvel toolbox is quite user-friendly, it seems, and doesn’t require a professional action stylist in order to produce a superior product. This prioritization of and commitment to a foundation of character work is paying serious dividends now, much as a smart boxer digs to the body early on in an effort to exhaust his opponent for later. Whedon is the alpha dog of this philosophy, and the perfect choice to wrangle all the Avengers into one space. Downey, Scarlett Johansson (as Black Widow, whose troublesome heart continues to beat and evolve beneath her veneer of professional detachment), and Mark Ruffalo (as Banner, who is heartbroken whenever the rage of his alter-ego enacts a human toll…so at all times, basically) do capable, often affecting work as the “emotional” Avengers, and Jeremy Renner, whose Hawkeye was largely an afterthought in the first Avengers, seems more like the glue holding the team together this time around. Ultron’s end game is no less than to physically unearth a Sovokian city and send it sykward, fashioning it, mid-air, into a floating asteroid whose eventual plummet to Earth will wipe out humanity. Sounds like computer logic to me. Even as Ultron hammers the Avengers with wave after wave of killer robots, their first priority is to get the citizenry out of harm’s ample way. You might not think such an obvious, heroic gesture would feel refreshing. Maybe you didn’t sit through Man of Steel either.
All Marvel movies share a baseline of quality craftsmanship and philosophical unity. They must provide personality, pageantry, and, above all, fun, although, both from the start and increasingly, they have also served as vehicles for preserving and advancing the MCU. Age of Ultron contains more future-telling Easter eggs for observant fans than any twenty Sundays in April combined, and it’s not that they’re not fun in and of themselves. It’s just that, in this case, the line between fan service and franchise service is a perilously thin one, a matter of logistics almost as much as creativity. Part of me remains highly entertained while another actively worries. Whedon’s care and storytelling instincts keep Age of Ultron (almost) always on the right side of the line, and he even whips out a magical visual or three. His piece de resistance is probably the bravura slow motion 360 degree arc shot – already glimpsed in trailers and teasers but worthy of frame by frame study on a big screen – where all nine Avengers are simultaneously engaged with repelling Ultron’s robotic hordes, which swarm and advance on them like army ants or killer bees. The extended sequence where Iron Man must go to increasingly extreme measures to subdue a completely uncontrollable Hulk without obliterating a downtown business district is a bit of magic all its own, and will likely go down as one of the great fights in all modern movies. Given enough time, however, even the magical risks becoming mechanical, and Avengers: Age of Ultron deposits us at precisely that point. I would say it represents a crossroads moment for the future of the MCU if that future wasn’t already so meticulously calculated and thoroughly mapped out. Perhaps instead it’s a point of no return.
“The Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015) 3/4 stars