Avengers: Age of Ultron is a last hurrah and a stage-setter. It is the same old outsized fun as its predecessor, The Avengers, and it is also a startlingly direct rebuttal to some of the legitimate criticisms leveled at Marvel Studios' chosen path to world domination (specifically, the at-times inane plot setups and their slightly soulless final products). It has many a great moment, but it is also a few too many things for a few too many people.
From the start, Age of Ultron is most concerned with the law of unintended consequences. Almost no one seems to doubt the Avengers' well-meaning nature, but their nemesis in this film, Ultron, an artificially intelligent being brought to life by Tony Stark himself, comes to the conclusion that this team of do-gooders, regardless of their intentions, end up doing just the opposite. It's a conclusion that poses both an existential threat and shakes the confidence of each and every team member. Are we protecting the world or putting it in more danger, they wonder collectively.
The trouble begins with a raid on a Hydra base in Sokovia that brings Loki's mind-controlling, blue-glowing scepter back in to their possession, but also puts them in the path of the Maximoff twins, the super-speedy Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the telekinetic Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), aka Scarlet Witch. The pair have a very particular axe to grind with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) -- his name emblazoned the shell that killed their parents -- and they show immediately that they are capable of playing a long game. She allows Stark to walk away with the scepter, but not before showing him a dark vision of the Avengers beaten and slain.
The vision is troubling enough to Tony that, without consulting anyone but Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), he rushes the completion of an A.I. and robotics program that is supposed to do the Avengers’ job for them, but ends up spawning Ultron, voiced by James Spader. “Peace in our time,” Tony tells Bruce as they scramble to bring Ultron online, an ominous reference to Neville Chamberlain that is echoed menacingly by Tony’s creation throughout the rest of the film.
But Tony Stark is not alone in having troubling visions. A second run-in with Scarlet Witch allows her to probe at the entire team’s darkest fears and/or memories. There is Natasha Romanoff’s spy training, Bruce Banner’s ever-present anger issues, Thor’s fear of failure in Asgard and the anachronistic existence of Steve Rogers’ Captain America to contend with as well. It’s unclear if Scarlet Witch is a soothsayer or if she’s just able to bring to the surface your most repressed memories. Either way, she has the kind of unsettling effect that allows Ultron to operate with more efficiency than he might otherwise, assembling an army of “murder-bots,” as Bruce puts it, that can bring the Avengers to their knees.
Even when self-doubt isn’t crippling the team, infighting is. Tony’s cavalier series of decisions that brought Ultron to life earn him a deserved share of the blame for the entire situation, nodding ahead to the coming “Civil War” as well.
There is still plenty of spectacle to be had. Hulk smashes. Iron Man makes his cocky quips. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is so comically wholesome that he chides a fellow team member for their language during that first raid on Sokovia. Thor is still trying to wrap his head around this whole interacting-with-humans thing. Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) escapes from the back of a semi as it is being airlifted away by Ultron’s murder-bots.
But the film’s deeply psychological bent amid all of the usual hijinks is a bit shocking in retrospect. To his credit, director and writer Joss Whedon is preoccupied with the humanity of all of his characters — the implications of wielding such great power.
It’s just that that preoccupation can be a bit of a fault at times. We get a prolonged dose of every hero’s humanity as the story progresses, almost like they are political candidates who are legally mandated to get equal air time. That equitability is admirable, and in the case of Black Widow and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) highly refreshing (finally, these characters have a little bit of depth). But it also feels like folly. The Marvel cinematic universe has expanded to the point that there really isn’t time for all of the Avengers to have a fully realized character arc without the film feeling bloated.
It feels petulant to say so, but Age of Ultron‘s greatest strength is also a bit of a flaw. Whedon checked all of the required Marvel boxes and made something a bit more sensitive than most everything else in its shared universe. In trying to have it all, he ended up with a bit too much of everything. I’m not certain he should be blamed for trying — not when setting up the next half-decade of the story is a requirement on par with the specific story you’re trying to tell in any given Marvel Studios film.
I am sure that I’m glad Whedon tried, even if the end product wound up a bit clunky this time around. Finding humanity in the likes of Iron Man and Captain America has no direct value to a Marvel empire that is built on perpetual hype and the merchandising to go with it, but it is one of the things that has so far differentiated it from imitators. Whedon, who has said this is almost certain to be his last Marvel film, has done more than anyone else to make the Marvel films stand out. Age of Ultronmight not stand up to his first entry in the series, but it still looks like one of the very best Marvel films to date.