No one would really blame you if you approached Avengers: Age of Ultron with a bit of weariness. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is now in its seventh year, and each release is a massive tentpole event, the size of which is usually reserved for The Super Bowl or The World Series. Yet, if you’re the type of person who doesn’t live and breathe the comic book world you often find that most of these movies come with a nice candy coating but nothing special inside – the effort is there, but the result is nothing to write home about.
I’m happy to report that Avengers: Age of Ultron is worth its hype. Being this far into a series we might feel that it has started to spin it’s wheels, but this is the first of these films since Iron Man that breaks away from the inevitability of CG action sequences and makes us feel for the characters. In other words, somebody gave a rip about the people involved. Here is a movie that actually takes time out to give us characters rather than iconic stand-ins. Sure, Iron Man and Captain America and Thor and Hulk have had their stories told in separate movies, but giving them character details in a movie that’s essentially suppose to be a montobulous summer action picture is really quite a surprise.
The plot is exactly what we expect. The movie opens with our sextet of superheroes storming the castle of the monocled Baron von Strucker to retrieve Loki’s staff and unleashing a pair of mixed-up kids – The Maximoff twins, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who can run fast, and goth-chick Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) who can scramble your brain. Or as Maria Hill puts it “Ones fast and the other’s weird.”
That mission accomplished, the crew appears to be ready for a little downtime, but a problem presents itself when one of Stark’s inventions – a robot program called Ultron who has been designed to prevent future attacks like the one in New York – begins to think, and then consider, and then decide that the Earth would be much better if human beings weren’t around. He wants the world to be remade in his image, but there’s all those pesky insignificant humans to deal with first. Naturally, that leads to the inevitable city-wide Battle Royale with buildings crashing and human life at stake – Director Joss Whedon allows the human toll to be part of the concern, in effect commenting on the way that it was callously mishandled in Man of Steel.
The action part of the movie we can fairly predict and it might have been easy to write this one off if the movie had just stayed on that track. But what was surprising is that the movie takes time out to give us details about the characters. No, this is not a character study, but it gives us extras bits and pieces about these characters that we don’t expect.
We spend some boozy downtime with The Avengers as they waste away their time trying to pick up Thor’s Hammer (they can’t). And then there’s a trip out to a remote ranch house where we learn a whole lot about Hawkeye that we never knew before (which I won’t spoil). Scarlett Witch has the power to get inside a person’s mind, and we get to see the team’s deep-seeded fears and desires.
The human element is what we don’t expect. There’s a lot of anger boiling under Stark’s skin about this monstrosity that his hubris has unleashed upon the world. He’s protective of his massive ego and what comes of that is one of the best performances that Robert Downey Jr, has given in quite a while. But it doesn’t stop there, there’s also a sweet Beauty and the Beast dynamic going on between Bruce Banner and Black Widow. Her lullaby to turn him from green to pink is really kind of sweet.
Even the villain gets a human dimension. Ultron is a great creation, a blend of computer animation and a voice that brings him happily to life. That voice, of course, comes from James Spader who gives Ultron a lot of dimension through a cocky, slippery demeanor that seems weary from reminding mankind of the inevitability of its demise. He fancies himself a deity. “When the universe starts to settle,” he says, “God throws a stone at it.” But, to our surprise, Ultron is not all that we think he is. There’s a certain vulnerability to him. He’s learning but we sense that he hasn’t learned enough. Even in his final scene, you kind of feel a smidgeon of pity for him.
It is clear that writer/director Joss Whedon cares about what he’s putting on screen. Many of these massive action movies of late have been just amalgamations of things that are popular at the moment, but Whedon clearly wants to give Avengers: Age of Ultron something more than just the bottom line. We like these people. We like their adventures. And he’s given them a human dimension, and we like that too.