In 2008, the fledgling Marvel Studios released Iron Man, starring Robert Downey Jr. Before the release, there were rumblings that the film would fail, and fail big. How could it succeed? It was a movie about a superhero that only hardcore nerds like me had heard of. Plus, Downey was best known not as a phenomenally talented actor, but as a drug addict. The guy was a huge risk to headline a summer blockbuster.
But with a worldwide gross of over $580 million, Iron Man was a gigantic hit, and it guaranteed two things. First, it created the birth of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) which has created 11 interconnected films so far, with at least another 11 films scheduled for release in the next few years. Second, the success of Iron Man guaranteed years of annoying editorials about audiences experiencing superhero fatigue.*
The editorials appear to be hilariously wrong, given that Marvel’s latest film, Avengers: Age of Ultron has already made over $500 million worldwide, and may end up making $1 billion, as the first Avengers film did. Audiences seem to be fine and dandy with superhero stuff, as long as it’s well made. Age of Ultron is solid, but it’s a different animal than its predecessor.
Writer-director Joss Whedon was largely responsible for the success of the first Avengers, and he’s returned. He wastes no time and, in the tradition of the James Bond films, immediately throws us into the action. The Avengers are introduced attacking the secluded fortress of Baron von Strucker, the mastermind of the terrorist organization HYDRA. We’re cleverly introduced to the team, with team leader Iron Man, super soldier Captain America (Chris Evans), the god of thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth), lethal spy Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), the incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Hawkeye the marksman (Jeremy Renner). Whedon is a sharp cookie. He knows that we’re seeing these films not because we want to see stuff blow up, but because we like the characters and like seeing them bounce off of each other. His introduction is a masterclass on how to quickly and efficiently bring us up to speed on a large group of protagonists.
During the battle, Iron Man discovers that HYDRA has been performing biological experiments, and he’s drawn into conflict with the superpowered twins Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). While Pietro is a speedster and a formidable opponent, Wanda is the real problem. Like her counterpart in the comics, Wanda has vaguely defined telepathic and mystical powers. Here, she’s able to show most of the Avengers their darkest fears. Stark sees a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a blasted world where he’s cursed to survive alone. He feels that the Avengers were able to repel the alien invasion in the first film mostly due to luck, and he wants to take it out of the equation.
Enlisting the help of the Hulk’s alter ego and fellow science bro Bruce Banner, Stark develops Ultron (James Spader), an AI tasked with keeping the world secure. Unfortunately, Ultron decides within seconds that the best way to protect the Earth is to destroy humanity. He views the Avengers as tools of the status quo, and absolutely spanks them in their initial battle. Ultron then recruits Wanda and Pietro to help him-not difficult as they were orphaned by a weapon manufactured by Stark. Now the team has to not only lick their wounds and stop the mad android, but recover from their lowest point.
So let’s get this out of the way now-how does Age of Ultron compare to the first film? While it lacks some of the huge fist-pumping moments of the first film, like the “Puny god” line, the sequel is operating overall on a higher level. As much as I felt a state of geeky Nirvana with the first film, it takes forever to get going. Age of Ultron’s pacing is excellent, and the 2 hours and change running time sprints by. Plus, the film’s scale is just enormous, with the Avengers popping up in New York, Seoul and Johannesburg for starters.
The primary trio of Captain America, Iron Man and Thor are slightly sidelined this time. They’re still compelling, with Downey’s snark, Evans’ innate decency and Hemsworth’s nobility keeping things fun. But these characters serve the plot, and the emotional stuff is handled by the Black Widow, the Hulk and Hawkeye. A subplot involving a blossoming romance between the Black Widow and Banner is absorbing, particularly a rock solid scene between the two of them. It’s “just” a conversation, but it reveals a great deal about these two people who carry burdens of guilt for very different reasons.**
Then there’s Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. Long the butt of many, many jokes, viewers have questioned why a guy with a bow and arrow is keeping company with a rage monster, a genius in multi-billion dollar combat armor, and a demigod. Whedon mostly wrote Hawkeye as a mind controlled automaton in the last film. He’s made it up to Renner this time, as Hawkeye has the most satisfying character arc, and most of the best lines. He’s a blue collar hero that keeps the rest of the group grounded by his humanity and his hidden personal life. Plus, anybody who scoffs at arrows has obviously never been shot by one.
James Spader does solid work as the voice and motion captured body of the murderous Ultron. While not as wildly charismatic as Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, Spader delivers a fairly nuanced performance as a robot with daddy issues. The MCU has not been wonderful when it comes to compelling villains, but Ultron is a step in the right direction.
There’s not a lot here that doesn’t work. A subplot involving Thor on a vision quest doesn’t add much, and there’s a few too many sequences that clearly set up future films and don’t add to the narrative. But so much works like gangbusters. A party scene where the Avengers take turns trying to lift Thor’s hammer. The birth of Paul Bettany’s gloriously weird android hero The Vision. A scene where the Avengers argue about what the purpose of the Avengers actually is. While the action stuff is fun, it’s the character beats that make things fly.
Joss Whedon has made an absolutely gigantic popcorn film with a wounded heart. While Christoper Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was a series of movies that were embarrassed by the concept of superheroes, Whedon proudly embraces them. He never forgets that these characters gained their longevity because of the sophistication and boundless imagination of their creators. He knows that a genre that was once sneeringly looked down upon can offer sophistication and grace notes. You just have to have faith in the material.
*Usually editorials like these are written by people who just hate the superhero genre. Like Westerns, the superhero genre is incredibly flexible. Just look at the MCU’s output-a conspiracy thriller (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), a Star Warsy sci-fi flick (Guardians of the Galaxy), and pseudo-fantasy (Thor). It’s like saying that Unforgiven and Blazing Saddles are pretty much the same. But my wife absolutely loathes most Westerns, and other than that she’s got pretty great taste in movies. Some things just won’t hit your sweet spot, I guess.
**This scene caused a bit of a kerfuffle online recently. Tread lightly, for spoilers are approaching. Black Widow reveals that during her training to become an assassin, she was sterilized so that she’d theoretically be a more efficient killer. She tells Banner, “You think you’re the only monster on the team?” A few folks took that to mean that infertile women are monsters and accused Whedon of misogyny. Not the case, since the line actually refers to Black Widow thinking of herself as a monster because of all the people she’s killed. Besides, a woman isn’t defined by whether or not she can have children. A woman is defined by what she does with her life. Coincidentally, the same thing applies to men.