Upon its release in 2012, The Avengers was a juggernaut film, and it laid the foundation for all franchise films going forward. In many respects, it’s doing right now what Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight did back in 2008. So much so that Warner Bros and DC Comics are tripping over themselves to get into a pissing match that they’re already late for. This inundation of superhero films wouldn’t be so bad if they weren’t simplistic derivatives of their predecessors. Outside of Captain America 2, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Iron Man, Marvel’s prized team up franchise overshadows everything in the Marvel canon. From Thor’s standalone adventures to Tony Stark’s recycled plots, Marvel subjects its gauntlet of heroes to listless, lifeless, and lazy films. But when they force their characters into one movie, Marvel concocts a wildly enjoyable treat at the movies; Avengers: Age of Ultron further substantiates this claim.
Taking place after Captain America 2 and within the timeline of Agents of Shield, Age of Ultron begins with the Avengers hunting down Loki’s stolen scepter in an Eastern European country. It’s a thrilling opening sequence that quickly establishes the shifting dynamic within the group. While collecting their MacGuffin, the Avengers comes across a spunky brother and sister team known as the Maximoffs. The Maximoffs (Aaron Johnson Taylor is Quicksilver, and Elizabeth Olsen is Scarlett Witch) are a fiery tandem seeking retribution after a Tony Stark weapon eradicated their family years earlier. After leaving Europe in one piece, the Avengers are left wondering the role they play in global security. Tony Stark has visions of a society that isn’t dependent on gods, monsters, or billionaires. It’s an idealistic thought, but that bares a poisonous villain. Stark creates Ultron (James Spader), a sentient being designed for global security. Utilizing artificial intelligence, Ultron is the exit strategy for The Avengers. Unfortunately for the world, Ultron’s plan is darkly simple: human extinction is the proper way to cleanse the Earth of evil.
Ultron’s frightening musings, along with his macabre wit, make him one of Marvel’s most engaging villains to date, but the film’s success hinges on the contrasting styles of our heroes and breathtaking set pieces. Much like his previous adventure with Marvel’s characters, Joss Whedon does a marvelous job balancing screen time for all the Avengers. Admittedly, there are characters who are merely devices, namely Thor and the Maximoff twins, but Whedon admirably gives everyone a real character moment. One of the biggest complaints levied against The Avengers is its lack of interest in mortal characters like Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Whedon makes a huge recalibration the second time around by making them the emotional core. For instance, Black Widow finds herself romantically courting Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). It’s stressed that her affection and touch is an essential tool in restraining Banner’s Hulk persona. On paper it sounds forced, but the tenderness between Widow and Banner is sweet and genuine, and they forge the most authentic relationship in a Marvel film since Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter in Captain America.
Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye also gets some wonderful character shading. His personal life, which is one of the film’s biggest surprises, provides the context needed for the film’s final act, which is pure carnage on a grand scale. Hawkeye’s mortality reminds the Avengers what’s at stake: human life. In The Avengers, Whedon destroys New York with little concern for citizen body count. Human life took a back seat to spectacle. In Age of Ultron, our heroes work tirelessly to not only end the assault levied by the villain, but to prevent human casualties. Despite the film seemingly recycling the final battle from the first film, it’s a thrilling watch because mortality takes precedence. There are certainly issues with the film. It’s overlong, some potentially interesting characters fall off the page, and Whedon’s one liners aren’t nearly as fresh as the first film, but for a film that’s stuffed with impenetrable beings, Age of Ultron is surprisingly human. And for me, that’s always worth the price of admission.