Wrapping up Marvel’s Cinematic Phase Two, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a bigger, louder and darker sequel hell bent to top its 2012 predecessor on every level. Ultron kicks off with a bang and boy does it ever end with an even bigger extended bang. In between there is a lot of action that spans all over the world, a rather dense plot and a huge winning ensemble cast intertwined into an amped-up super-sized sequel.
Since the sheer fanboy joy of seeing the Avengers assembled on the big screen for the first time is a once-only experience, Marvel knew they had to up the ante big time. For all intents and purposes Age of Ultron is The Avengers injected with an overdose of the Super Soldier serum. Absolutely no expense has been spared on the big screen eye candy and kinetic FX-heavy action sequences to deliver another superhero thrill ride from start to finish.
Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are back for a massive second mission that pits them against an unstoppable Artificial Intelligence that threatens humanity. After slugging out in their latest round of solo films, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) assemble once again along side Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff /Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). With the “Battle of New York” under their belts, they now operate as a tight unit with the ultimate heavy artillery waiting in the wings when “Code Green” is called for, Bruce Banner’s gamma-rayed “Big Guy.”
The film opens big with the Avengers’ strategic assault on Baron Wolfgang von Strucker’s HYDRA base in Sokovia to secure Loki’s staff. Courtesy of the human experimentation performed by the good Baron (Thomas Kretschmann) with said magical scepter, he has on his side two new super powered beings: the Maximoff Twins, Wanda and Pietro (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson). They made their brief intro during the mid-credits scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Wanda, the Scarlet Witch (though never referred to as such), can invade people’s minds in the worst way and possesses telekinetic powers. Pietro, aka Quicksilver, possesses the power of super speed. While the Avengers successfully take Loki’s Chitauri scepter, Wanda makes a decisive strike by tapping deep into the heroes’ heads and hexes them with dark dreams containing their greatest fears.
The plot really kicks in when Stark discovers a highly advanced AI within the scepter’s powerful (Infinity) gem. Along with his Avengers science brother Bruce Banner, Tony imbues his personal pipe dream program intended to protect mankind, code-named “Ultron,” with the gem’s mysterious self-awareness algorithm. Well you can guess what inevitably happens when you jack a newborn sentient Artificial Intelligence into the internet. Ultron, who speaks with the creepy voice of James Spader, builds himself a humanoid body and makes his statement of intent known at the conclusion of a victory party at Avengers Tower. After kicking some of the Avengers asses, Ultron is quickly off to preserve the planet by cleansing Mother Earth of humanity.
From here the action switches to battle grounds all over the world that provide settings for the film’s numerous stunning set pieces. It’s hard not to sing the praises of the standout high octane all out street brawl in South Africa between the hexed Hulk and Tony Stark, who is prepared for battle in his massive Hulkbuster armor also known as Veronica. It’s one of numerous scenes of pure specatcle in Age of Ultron that are as close to comic book scenes incredibly brought to life as you can imagine.
As far as our familiar heroes are concerned, a great deal of attention is given to the Avengers who don’t headline solo films. Bruce Banner, Natasha Rominoff and Clint Barton are all given some much deserved details in regards to their personal lives, origins and state of being in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. For all of us who felt Hawkeye really got the short end of it last time out as a mindless drone of Loki, rest assured he’s finally given his due as well as some of the best lines in the film.
This round also allows us some fun insight into the heroes downtime at the Avengers Tower party that takes place early in the movie. What is Thor’s fashion sense when he socializes among mortals? Who’s up for drinking dares and who flirts with who when liquor is freely flowing? The scene also works in characters from the solo films to acknowledge the larger Marvel sandbox they operate in. If the Avengers are throwing a party, you’d expect friends like James Rhodes /War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) will be there. But unfortunately that also means working in some throwaway banter between Thor and Stark to explain the absence of Pepper Potts and Jane Foster played by A-list actors Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman (whose agents decided against throwaway cameos). Another low-key lighthearted highlight shows the team attempting to prover their “worthiness” to rule Asgard by attempting to lift Thor’s unliftable hammer Mjölnir.
Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch has a pivotal role, though she doesn’t actually have much dialogue. She puts in a solid emotional performance as the Maximoff sibling who tears the Avengers apart from the inside. While Taylor-Johnson gets to show off his Quicksilver speedster skills, among this massive cast he ultimately gets lost in the overall mix. Plus there is too much recent familiarity in regards to his super powers these days currently with The Flash on TV plus the show stopping alternate interpretation of Quicksilver that appeared in X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Watching the team fight along side each other is a huge fan treat here, especially Captain America and Thor who work as a tag team using a coordinated battle playbook that maximizes the efficiency of their physical strength. There’s some stand out one two-punches utilizing Cap’s vibranium shield along with Thor’s hammer Mjölnir.
Joss Whedon returns as the mastermind director and also penned the screenplay. His brings with him the ability to easily juggle the large ensemble cast and utilize an arsenal of signature snappy dialogue. Even some HYDRA red shirts get killer one-liners.
Whedon definitely steps up his game in the visual acrobatics department in this outing. The quick cutting and CGI-assisted camera movements keep your brain on edge and then some. That said, there are also a lot of straight forward dialogue scenes that balance out the pace and add as much forward movement in the character development department as possible for a cast of superheroes of this size. Some get more time than others since there are solo films still on the horizon, but it’s nonetheless an impressive achievement on Whedon’s part to allocate everyone moments to shine. There are also several surprising dark reveals that add layers of humanity and weight to the story.
As it turns out Ultron is one of the better Marvel villains to come down the line. James Spader is inspired casting to voice the obsessive AI. The android is as much a tantrum-prone child as he is an evil menace. What’s great about the title baddie is he’s hardly a paint-by-numbers cold and calculating machine hell bent on destroying humanity solely because he’s metal and we’re flesh and blood. Ultron wants to evolve and even has a few snarky quips in him to keep the metal baddie unexpectedly edgy.
To ultimately combat Ultron, the final piece in the film’s thick plot puzzle is the introduction of another Marvel AI icon, The Vision. The heroic android is brought to life by Paul Bettany, who has provided the voice of J.A.R.V.I.S. since 2008’s Iron Man, and played Vision on set in full make-up and costume. In this day and digital age, it’s refreshing to see a character like this fully embodied by a actor. The fact Bettany plays him makes an easy connection between his previous computer role and the next step as The Vision.
The entire exhausting third act is basically the enormous final battle. It is a spectacular lengthy set piece that easy dwarves the scale of the action seen in the Battle of New York at the conclusion of The Avengers. Truthfully Age of Ultron often teeters right on the edge of too much of a good thing. It’s thorough to a fault in clobbering you over the head in the big movie shock and awe formula, but never exceeds the ‘enough is enough’ threshold.
Frankly it’s a no brainer on whether or not Avengers: Age of Ultron is well worth your time. Of course it is. Given Marvel Studios’ incredible big screen track record and the sheer joy of getting another all-star superhero team-up, you really can’t afford to not see this. It’s the stuff summer popcorn films are made of.
There is enough action, surprises and spectacular sequences throughout its near two-and-a-half hour run time to leave you mentally exhausted, yet wanting more. In addition, in context of the larger Marvel entity, it wisely pushes all the characters forward and sets things up for the next round in the Phase Three films (2016’s Captain America: Civil War and 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok).
Surprisingly it’s actually relatively short on the insider Easter Eggs comics fans are on the hunt for, so don’t expect many big blink and you’ll miss it references that will have major repercussions in later movies (which is nonetheless good for the mass audiences who won’t be left scratching their heads).
It will be interesting to see how things line up for Avengers: Infinity War, Part 1 in 2018, which will be directed by the Russo Brothers (Captain America: The Winter Soldier). One thing is for certain, the playing field will be much different with three years worth of solo adventures still slated for release before then. But Joss Whedon’s Marvel swan song is one hell of a knock-out conclusion to the second wave of Marvel films.
Avengers: Age of Ultron hits 3D theaters and IMAX on May 1st.
REVIEW RATING: ★★★½★★
Director: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Mark Ruffalo
Screenwriter: Joss Whedon
Studio: Marvel Studios & Disney
Running Time: 142 minutes