How does Joss Whedon, writer and director of 2012’s Avengers top his own creation? How does he capture the imagination of the world-wide movie going public and reel them back in for two and a half more hours of Avengers action? How does he out-do what seemed incredibly difficult to do in the first place? These are questions Whedon must have asked himself when he sat down to break story ideas for the sequel that would eventually become Avengers: Age of Ultron. It takes something of a mad scientist to accept this kind of challenge. I, for one, am very glad he did.
I won’t be alone in that assessment.
First things first: it’s eventually going to be very difficult for Marvel Studios to receive both solid reviews and big money for their movies. I thought that the bubble was going to burst with last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy (boy, was I wrong!). Some think it pops with July’s Ant-Man. But there are indications sneaking in at the corners of the reactions to Age of Ultron that some opinions are about to turn and that being great (like Age of Ultron is) is not going to be enough.
People don’t like the New England Patriots. They win too much.
People are going to begin decrying Marvel movies for the same reason. It starts here.
The Junior Senator, as we left Age of Ultron (my second viewing, his first), suggested that some comments he’d read about the film indicated that some people had their narratives already set in their minds and that those narratives were very similar: the movie has too much going on, there are too many characters, the action is too crowded.
Don’t you believe it. When you see Age of Ultron and, if you’re reading this review, you’re likely going to see it, pause for one second and see if you can keep all the characters straight. Forget the big ones from the last Avengers, I’m talking about the ones who weren’t in the last movie. Can you keep War Machine straight from Ultron? Do you confuse Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch? Are you not able to discern between… wait, I won’t name any other new characters because this is a spoiler free review. Suffice it to say that, while there are many new characters and there is a lot going on in Age of Ultron, movie goers can keep it all straight. To suggest anything else is lazy thinking.
I admit that Age of Ultron is a very different movie than Avengers and, as Whedon is a child of The Godfather and Star Wars, perhaps that is to be expected. Modern audiences have grown up thinking the second chapter of a movie series has to unspool with more gravitas than the first. The Godfather II is far darker than The Godfather. It has a far more complex narrative structure, too. Some might argue it’s a better film. The Empire Strikes Back turns away from the almost sunny tone of Star Wars. It tells a far more “adult” tale and the characters suffer significant loss before it’s over. The end is something of a cliffhanger, indicating all is not right in the universe. Just as his contemporary Christopher Nolan put together a bleaker and far deeper Batman sequel in The Dark Knight, Joss Whedon understands that Age of Ultron has to take the characters and tone of Avengers and do something different and more complex with them in the sequel. He succeeds in this goal so well that one of my first reactions to Age of Ultron was loss. I wanted it to be more fun. Avengers was fun and, while Age of Ultron has fun moments, the stakes to the main characters (if not to the world overall) are so much higher in this film that I left the theater a bit wistful… much like the reaction I had to Lando and Chewbacca flying off from the Rebel Armada at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Don’t get me wrong: that’s a very, very good thing!
There is so much to like in this movie. The action of Avengers, which was both exciting and verging on overpowering, is superseded by what occurs in Age of Ultron and Whedon has a more sure hand with it. Rather than roll the last act (big good vs. big bad’s minions) as one, long fight sequence, Whedon intersperses the explosions and slow motion battle with honest-to–goodness character moments that work. They work because the audience cares about the characters, some of them introduced earlier in the movie. While there are plenty of incredible set pieces on hand, they are balanced throughout the course of the movie by smaller and more intimate moments.
The cast is wonderful – so comfortable in their roles and so believable in them, too. It’s difficult to single any of them out as either the weak link of the ensemble or the stand out. Robert Downey, jr. once told us onscreen that he is Iron Man, and it’s impossible to argue the point; I don’t know where Downey ends and Tony Stark begins. Chris Evans takes Captain America – a character who could be painfully one note – and makes him somehow nobly tragic. Thor, as played by Chris Hemsworth, is quite amusing. Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is the everyperson eye into the team. They are all damn good in the roles and very fun to watch.
Scarlet Johanssen as the Black Widow and Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk deserve special mention, not because they are any better than their co-stars, but because the script does call for a little more from them. The scenes they share are almost poignant and they are every bit the match for them. It might be difficult to find deeper, emotional moments in a green-screen spectacle, but these two manage to do it and make it look easy.
A review of Age of Ultron would not be complete without a mention of James Spader as the artificial intelligence called Ultron, bent of revenging himself against the Avengers and, of course, destroying humanity. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve seen the film twice and, on the second viewing, I really watched Ultron carefully. It’s an incredible movie creation, to be sure, but I had read that Spader did the motion capture work himself and one can really tell it’s Spader bringing the character to life. It’s not just the actor’s voice (which is perfect by-the-way), it’s the physicality of the role. Spader doesn’t voice the character. He plays the character and he stands toe-to-toe with the likes of Downey, jr., Evans and Hemsworth who’ve played their respective characters time-and-again. Spader makes Ultron a special villain. That’s more than half the battle in a movie like this.
Age of Ultron has a lot going for it before it starts. It has a built-in audience. It has a tremendous cast. It has special effects wizards on hand. It also has a very smart and snappy script. More on the smart in a moment. Whedon’s Avengers are so quippy, they sometimes sound as though they’ve been written by Aaron Sorkin and have stepped directly off the set of The West Wing. This is fine by me and it serves the movie well when Ultron trades barbs with the team. At one point, after a particularly amusing comment by Ultron, Iron Man says “he beat me to that one by one second.” Part of the fun here is the verbal jousting among the characters. It amuses throughout the movie and, if some of the references are a bit off the beaten path (“Banksy” anyone?), that’s okay. It’s a Joss Whedon script. We should know what we’re in for.
It must be challenging to surprise us with these movies at this point. It must be difficult to develop a story that keeps our attention. No longer can these movies rely solely on their amazing special effects (which Age of Ultron has in spades). They have to do something more, they have to tell these heroic tales with a different spin, they have to – dare I write it – inspire their audiences to think.
There is a lot to think about in Age of Ultron. There are questions raised of trust and of heroism, of parenting and of friendship, of science and of faith. Blithely dismissing the possibility that such issues could be raised in superhero fare is a mistake. Between the robots and the superheroes and the explosions and the quips, there are some pretty serious questions being posed. Good on Joss Whedon for doing so.
Age of Ultron has an almost two and a half hour running time, but it feels light on its feet and, when it’s over, it promises us that “The Avengers Will Return.” I will be there when they do.
AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON receives FOUR AND A HALF “I Bet You Didn’t See That Comings” out of a possible FIVE.