of Ultron May 4, 2015
The superhero movie has become a cultural juggernaut blown way out of proportion. Since Iron Man debuted in 2008, our, or at least my, days, months, and years have thrived off an anticipatory thirst for the latest action-packed face off. In the space of seven years, we’ve been consumed by eleven different Avengers blockbusters, some introductions, some sequels. Some were forgettable; all were fun. For such silly movies, they have been blessed to have been directed by some of Hollywood’s most brilliant minds (Joss Whedon, Kenneth Branagh, Shane Black, Jon Favreau), in the process piecing together an array of junk foods that inexplicably taste healthy. It’s a wonder that a feeling of repetition is not the first thing on everyone’s mind – how many times can clever supers defeat a seemingly unbeatable foe? – but then again, it’s a wonder that the majority of superhero movies, ones of the last decade, that is, have been so, pardon my generality, good. Blast Iron Man 2 for its flatness, insult Thor: The Dark World for its monotonous action (I did neither, by the way); fact is, there hasn't been much of a straight-up dud in this apparently never-ending franchise.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is further evidence of a billion-dollar machine that won’t be breaking down any time soon. Surely, nothing will top its world-stopping predecessor or 2014’s impeccably enthralling Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but the infectious high that comes along with our favorite superheroes getting together for a quasi-madcap hoedown is unlike any other. Take, for instance, a scene in which the heroes are chilling over drinks at Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) maximalist pad, all attempting to lift Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) hammer with bloated confidence. It’s a moment of comedic delight that melts our faces off. It’s too much. We’ve learned to love these characters over the years, and by now, they’re the fictional BFFs we never knew we’d have. The creators of these films, especially Whedon, have crafted a near perfect balance between witty repartee and mind-blowing action sequences (sound effect and all).
AOU, though, takes a turn hardly felt by these epics. It makes the characters more *** human *** than ever. It gives Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) a wife (Linda Cardellini) and kids. Delves into Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) psychologically scarring childhood. Taps into Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor’s longing for a past when things weren’t so vastly deterred by city/state/country/world destroying masterminds. And, not to mention, AOU spends much of its length showing them defeated, distraught over the titular villain’s nearly indestructible prowess. As usual, we know that our favorite good guys will eventually win the fight against our new favorite bad guy (apologies to villainous staple Loki) – but AOU works so well because its figures aren’t going through the motions like they normally do. They’re more insecure and tired than ever. They’ll be back for more adventures, but remaining their energetic young selves might start to become an unavoidable obstacle course of willingness.
This time around, The Avengers are back to take down an extremely personal baddie. Personal because he’s the result of Tony Stark’s attempt to bring artificial intelligence to life. Personal because this A.I., also known as Ultron (voiced by a slippery James Spader), was programmed to protect humanity but believes that salvation comes in the form of extinction and rebirth. Long story short, Ultron, with silky braininess to back himself up, wants to destroy the world. He views destruction as a scientific phenomenon that needs to occur for the sake of evolution, explaining his plans like a level-headed chemist instead of a robot that, robot voiced, must ... destroy ... human ... race. He manipulates a pair of Russian twins with fantastical powers as his sidekicks, the lightning fast Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the telekinetically charged Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). In comparison to the mighty Ultron, Loki and his posse seem like featherweights; Ultron’s strategically strong actions, paired with Quicksilver’s ability to literally beat enemies to the punch and Scarlet Witch’s talent to influence the minds of her opponents, nearly knocks The Avengers down, both physically and mentally.
The best thing about Avengers: Age of Ultron is that it doesn’t much feel like a sequel, rather a continuation of the series of films we’ve all probably watched more than once. There’s no need to explain motives, the current situation, or, really, any background information – the film knows that we’re aware of what’s at stake, and so it goes right into the meat, skipping slimming appetizers altogether. It begins with a bombastic action sequence and never slows down. There are more moments of reflection and quiet than ever, making AOU the most thoughtful Avengers movie yet, but even then, power radiates from its writing, acting, and directing. It’s more than professionally executed action; it’s quality entertainment. These characters could easily be in a drama where there are no Shakespearian villains to defeat, and they would remain interesting. By tapping into what really makes them tick, AOU is, by far, the most personal two-and-a-half hours in any of these characters’ on-screen lives.
But don’t expect things to slow down. The climax, which sees a city lifted up hundreds of feet into the air by Ultron, is hugely exciting, and the brawls, work and play, are bigger and better. If AOU were released years ago, it might have read as refreshing. Nearly a decade later, it’s just another spectacular addition to a culturally significant series. B+