It’s almost impossible to walk into Avengers: Age of Ultron without feeling a certain amount of Marvel exhaustion. Their release schedule has been absolutely relentless, with nine movies released in the last five years alone, and another ten due in the next five. That pace is both remarkable, and also for many viewers, a bit tiring. And while each film has been somewhere on the spectrum between OK (Thor: The Dark World) to fantastic (The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy), one can’t help but wonder when we’re going to reach the saturation point where overload sets in and our attentions begin to waiver.
Fortunately, that’s not going to happen just yet. Age of Ultron is not the best entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (it’s close, though), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining as all hell. It’s a terrific display of movie wizardry, wrapped around a series of surprisingly intimate stories about each of its characters. In typical Joss Whedon fashion, he networks each character together through a common threat — the villainous robot Ultron, designed via a combination of idealism and hubris gone horribly awry by Tony Stark — yet somehow, magically, finds the time to give us a deep story about each of them. That’s no small feat, given that not only is the original lineup in place, but a couple of newcomers are thrown into the mix as well (not to mention some excellent and welcome appearances from supporting cast members from the solo films).
Age of Ultron starts off with a bang, with the original Avengers team striking out at a HYDRA base to try to recover the lost staff once possessed by Loki. Yet that’s only the beginning of a complicated plot involving the genetically altered Maximoff twins (they’re not mutants in this iteration — see here for a more detailed explanation) who eventually ally themselves with the genocidal Ultron. Ultron, voiced by James Spader, is often a scene stealer, a dry-witted psychotic who is essentially the Anti-Stark. It’s a clever manipulation, using Tony as a model (and logical, given the roots of Ultron’s creation), and makes the two of them a terrific study in contrasts. As for the Maximoff twins, they’re exciting additions to the recipe, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen mix it up nicely with their combination of seriousness and devilish wit.
The downside is that Ultron’s arc isn’t particularly inventive — he’s a robot created by humans who thinks the only way to save the planet is to destroy mankind. Even the most casual of science fiction fans has seen that scenario played out a dozen times, and Whedon (who directed and wrote the screenplay) doesn’t do much to reinvent the material. Sure, there’s the late arrival of Vision, a new player on the scene whose story I won’t spoil (other than to say that he is a fantastic addition and thoroughly enjoyable to watch), and one or two other nifty tricks. But the basic concept is old and a bit dusty, and it’s not helped by Ultron’s preposterous endgame, a world-destroying plot device that is better suited to a Bond villain than anything else.
Fortunately, that is eclipsed by the sheer enjoyment of the rest of the film. The remainder of the story is well-paced, interspersing riveting, intense action scenes with absolutely wonderful character moments. The Avengers play off each other brilliantly in each of those moments in new and incredibly inventive ways, demonstrating the effect of their new camaraderie. Whereas they were just learning to get along with each other in the 2012 film, now there’s an easygoing, enjoyable looseness to their interactions, replete with ribbings and jokes (the ongoing gentle poking at Steve Rogers because of his tsk-tsking of someone’s foul language is note-perfect). Yet there’s also a greater degree of intimacy between them, and you get the sense that they’ve grown so close to each other that it’s a friendship more than a team. This parallels nicely with the dissolution of SHIELD in the wake of The Winter Soldier — SHIELD is what brought them together, but it’s their friendship, respect, and common cause that kept them together. Particularly nicely rendered is the utterly charming rapport between the unlikeliest of pairings — Black Widow and Bruce Banner — taking the Beauty and the Beast mythos and turning it onto its head a bit. But the most surprising thing is that Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, may well be the best damn part of the movie, given a massively expanded part that is both incredibly touching, while also very, very fun — much of which is due to his self-deprecating awareness about being a guy with a freakin’ bow surrounded by robots, gods, and super-soldiers. And while everyone has to wrestle with their own demons, they’re given a remarkable amount of room to do so in a deep, un-rushed fashion despite all the all that chaos around them
And good lord, is there ever chaos. The action in Age of Ultron is unsurprisingly amazing, building off the idea of teamwork in smart, engaging fashion. No longer is it a group of individuals showcasing their abilities — now it’s a team of heroes, using each other’s strengths in new and inventive ways. Thor hammering Cap’s shield into a cluster of enemies, Tony and Thor collaborating to reach new heights of energy, all manner of different collaborative techniques keep the action fresh and interesting. But most impressive is that they’re heroes in the truest sense, and so they also spend an inordinate amount of time not just fighting villains, but also saving lives. For each major battle, portions of the team are dispatched for crowd and damage control, breathlessly rushing civilians out of harm’s way and clearing space for the larger battles to continue without too much collateral damage. Those moments are clearly deliberately chosen, an they integrate well into the larger sense of purpose that the team seems to have.
But perhaps most importantly, Avengers: Age of Ultron is just damn fun. It’s a well-written (mostly), very serious entry that tags into the ongoing larger story, even if much of it is — wisely so — self-contained to this film. But it’s also funny and clever and at times so breezily humored that you forget that the very world is at stake. Whedon balances the light and the dark so flawlessly that you can feel a real sense of dread that someone may well not make it out of this alive, while also giving you space to breathe and laugh and maybe even clap your hands a little, because there’s a genuine sense of joy and adventure to the whole affair. Age Of Ultron succeeds in keeping your attention not just because of its whiz-bang effects or bracing action, but because, like most of the films in this universe, it has just the right amount of heart.