When Marvel first decided to start their own production company so they could produce the movies they felt were in the best interest of the company as a whole, not a lot of people knew what they were getting into. Not until the end credit scene in the original Iron Man, when Samuel L. Jackson stepped out of the shadows as Nick Fury to entice not only Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to join the Avengers Initiative, but the viewer as well, did we know that Marvel had just ignited an unprecedented cinematic experience. Since that time, Marvel has introduced us to a myriad of characters through very well-designed “phases” in order to build a universe that expands, well, the universe. And though Marvel has had one or two missteps and had to recast a couple of characters, for the most part, Marvel has delivered a brand as solid as what Pixar built in the late nineties and early 2000s. And with phase two coming to a close with the high energy Avengers: Age of Ultron, it doesn’t look like they will be slowing down anytime soon.
Writer and director Joss Whedon steps on the gas from the very first frame and keeps things moving at a very steady pace for the entirety of the film. (In a way, he has to, since there is so much to cover within a short amount of time.) Opening the film with a battle sequence that other movies would love to include as their climactic third-act battle, Whedon doesn’t waste any time giving fans what they want — the core team of Avengers working together to ensure the success of the mission. The Avengers was, at its core, an origin story; the team fought with each other more than they worked together. Here, we finally get to see them use their skills for a greater purpose and (mostly) set their egos aside to take down the villain. For now, that adversary is Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), a Hydra operative last seen at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier using Loki’s scepter to experiment on humans. Turns out, he’s also been testing the scepter on robotics, which makes Tony believe it may also be the key to his own failed artificial intelligence experiments.
Whedon doesn’t waste any time introducing us to two new players, either. As the Avengers run amok of Strucker’s hideout, quipping wise and showcasing an interesting patchwork of team building, two of Strucker’s experimental humans race to assist Strucker’s men in protecting the scepter. Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), also known as Quicksilver, and his sister, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olson), a.k.a. Scarlet Witch, do what they can to irritate the Avengers, but come up far short of defeating them. But defeat isn’t what’s important. What is important is witnessing the extent of their powers, which we all know will come in quite handy down the road, both for and against our heroes.
But wait — that’s just the first fifteen minutes of the film. After Tony talks Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) into helping him try to emulate the scepter’s power so as to complete his Ultron project (so that he can protect the world with drones rather than humans), things go a bit wrong (as they always do with mad scientist story lines — isn’t that right, Bruce?). Ultron (James Spader) unexpectedly wakes up, and without any initial guidance from Tony or Bruce, comes to his own conclusions about what his purpose for life is. This is where the pace gets in the way of developing the story. This sequence — the testing and ultimate birth of Ultron, his discovery of his identity, and taking his first victim in J.A.R.V.I.S. (voiced by Paul Bettany) — is breezed through so quickly, it’s hard to get connected to Ultron in any meaningful way. His idea is to purify and protect the world by wiping out the human race, but because he comes to that conclusion without hardly any explanation, Ultron becomes just another stock villain who wants to take over the world rather than what I believe Whedon was going for, which is as the child who doesn’t know any better.
As the team tries and fails several times to keep Ultron from acquiring the material he needs to build an army of linked robots, we’re given a chance to explore the back stories of those characters introduced as part of other character’s films. This includes Natasha Romonoff (Scarlett Johansson), who tries to convince Bruce that she’s not much different than him with the story of how she was trained to be a stone-cold assassin, how she must fight that urge every day and how she diverts it into protecting those she cares about. It builds on the affection that’s developed between her and Bruce over the course of both Avengers films. Because neither of them believe they deserve love due to their histories (and the possibility of one day losing control and killing innocent people), it connects them on a much deeper level, one that gives Natasha the ability to calm Bruce down after he’s become the Hulk. More importantly, we get an extended view of Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) when he is not slinging arrows as Hawkeye. Since is initial blink-and-you-miss-it introduction in Thor, Hawkeye has gotten the short-end of the stick when it comes to why he is even part of the team. Not only do we get to learn more about his past, but his role is effectively beefed up in order to add some additional emotional depth to this past, allowing us to see Clint’s full range of abilities. He is an asset to the team, but his participation comes at a much higher cost.
The problem is, by shifting the spotlight onto these lesser-known heroes, some of the bigger names must take a back seat, and no more is this apparent than with Thor (Chris Hemsworth), whose entire subplot feels like nothing more than a way to set-up the plot of a future movie (as opposed to setting up a future film while still being relevant and important to this one as well). It seems so odd and out of place, Whedon could have taken the entire thing out and it wouldn’t necessarily have affected the film’s outcome in any way. And seeing as how it only took about five minutes of screen time, perhaps then, we could have enhanced other aspects of the film.
Despite the flaws, the movie is a spectacle of glorious cinematic magic, a lot of which has to do with the cast. Forget the Avengers of old — the new characters all bring something new to the party and fit in with universe perfectly, especially Spader and Olson, who breathe life into their respective roles in ways that end up perfectly suited for those specific characters. With his deep, gravelly voice, Spader gives Ultron a menacing vibe that doesn’t need any special effects to sound both human and metallic. Add in his unique sense of humor and gravitas, and Spader turns Ultron into a killing machine that has a blast while doing what he truly believes is the right thing. Olson, on the other hand, is very quiet and reserved, but has a need for vengeance that resonates deep within her eyes. Even though we don’t get to spend a whole lot of time with her, Olson captures you in every scene so that when she erupts in anger, you truly feel her sorrow. And I would be doing a disservice if I left out Bettany, who electrifies the third act with his stellar portrayal of Vision.
Say what you will about the Marvel cinematic universe, or Avengers: Age of Ultron itself, but these movies are meant to be an integrated universe that will eventually all come together in one massive cinematic experience, and Joss Whedon has pulled off an incredible feat, one that may not be perfect, but still delivers what movies in general are supposed to deliver. When you can pull off having Tony and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) discussing the rules of Thor’s hammer like a couple of nerds on The Big Bang Theory and then follow that up with an incredible payoff to the scene when everyone tries (and fails) to lift Thor’s hammer, you know Marvel has delivered on their promise for something extraordinary.
My Grade: A
Next week, new movies include Hot Pursuit, Before I Wake, and The D Train. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.