It has been three years since we last saw the titular Avengers take down Loki in the Battle of New York. Since then they’ve been involved in a number of solo adventures (namely Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier), but now a new, powerful threat draws them together once more. It comes in the form of Ultron, a malevolent, rogue AI determined to save the world by destroying its most destructive element: humanity.
Watching Avengers: Age of Ultron is an invigorating experience. It is a film that reminds us of the power of myth and why superheroes have endured within our modern culture. They represent the best and worst of us and though they may have started as simple archetypes, years of lore and reinterpretation have rendered them into multifaceted amalgamations that are instantly recognizable, yet still capable of nuance. That writer/director Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and a lot of other cancelled shows) managed to create a movie that gives time to each member of its large cast, advances the overall plot of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and delivers a coherent, exciting story is impressive; that he also managed to make an excellent film is incredible.
The most important thing is that Avengers: Age of Ultron is fun. The film is filled with Whedon’s trademark snark and quipiness, but never devolves into a straight comedy. Rather it hits the perfect mixture of humor and seriousness at which the Marvel Universe excels (as proven by last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy). Building upon the foundation created by the first film, this is now a more mature group that has clearly spent some time fighting (avenging?) together. The Avengers have never felt like more of a team than they do here and their familiarity with one another is both humorous and exciting, especially when it comes to the creative action set pieces sprinkled throughout the film. The ballet of their group combat is beautifully executed and every time two (or more) characters team to deliver a special attack it will send your nerd heart fluttering. The choreography is memorable and the sequences themselves (as well as the entire film) are shot in a way that is both stylish and kinetic, making the incredible seem real and never once ridiculous. This can be attributed to the deft direction of Whedon as well as the imaginative, comic-inspired cinematography of Ben Davis (Kick Ass, Guardians of the Galaxy). A few sequences are captured in such a way that each frame looks like a beautiful splash page in a comic, full of color, movement, and spectacle. A particular rotating shot during the climax is impossible to forget and is definitely one of the visual highlights of the film.
Beyond the cleverness of the dialogue and the glorious visuals, the film is overflowing with standout character moments that honor the history of the characters portrayed, while also surprising the audience with the added shades of Whedon’s interpretation. Much like Steve Roger’s “I don’t like bullies,” from Captain America: The First Avenger, AoU is populated by moments that nail exactly what each character is. Thankfully, Whedon also takes time to expand upon Black Widow and particularly Hawkeye, whom many felt was shortchanged in the first film due to his brainwashing by Loki. Every actor here is at the top of their game, now having matured into their characters and delivering exactly what is required of them.
The same can be said of the new cast members as well. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen do a lot with the small amount of time they’re given as Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch respectively, though not Magneto’s children in this universe due to licensing problems with Fox). Taylor-Johnson inhabits the hot-headed, restlessness of someone with super speed, while Olsen does well in embodying the reality-altering, emotional nature of her character. Their relationship as close siblings with a tragic past is instantly compelling and, for me at least, one of the highlights of the film.
I can’t finish my thoughts on this film without speaking of the titular robot: Ultron. James Spader inhabits Ultron with all of the snark and sarcasm one would expect from the man who played Robert California (if you haven’t seen Spader’s stint on The Office, please remedy that now), creating a superior being whose desires, while seemingly evil, possess a twisted sort of logic. Humans must evolve or die, and Ultron is determined to be the catalyst for this world event. Spader’s performance is top notch, creating a character who is humorous, yet maintains an undercurrent of tragedy. He wants so badly for people to understand what he is doing and does indeed show warmth to Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch (who begin the film as his underlings), but he is also unrelenting in the pursuit of his purpose and easily frustrated when people challenge his motives. Despite having a single film (as opposed to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki), Ultron is ultimately a compelling and worthy villain for the Avengers, wholly different from Marvel’s other offerings, while also possessing a surprising amount of depth.
Though I won’t say much, for fear of spoiling what is perhaps one of the best parts of the movie, Paul Bettany (the long time voice of Jarvis, Tony’s AI butler) finally makes his physical appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as The Vision. Many comic fans were concerned with how this hyper-intelligent, cyborg was going to be portrayed. I think those people should rest easy, because The Vision is everything that I ever imagined he would be and more; Bettany proves to be the perfect, understated, logical foil to Spader’s malevolent, murder-bot, and a welcome addition to the Avengers cast.
All that being said, raise a joyful noise and rejoice! Avengers: Age of Ultron is not only a worthy successor to the first installment, but an excellent film in its own right; one that somehow manages to be exciting, touching, awesome (in the most literal sense), and never less than joyous. It is truly a wondrous time to be a nerd.