You sure about that Ultron? Because even though you were marketed as Marvel’s answer to an overall lame roster of movie villains, you still failed to shake up any long-held expectations about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Actually, nothing about this movie did. It delivered more of what Marvel has been doing for eleven films now, which is by no means a bad thing. The franchise is one of my personal favorites. However, Age of Ultron did make it painfully obvious that the series is cautious to break away from its tried-and-true formula that we’ve seen almost a dozen times now, when this deep into the franchise, a little change may feel welcome. Ultron is more tied down than he thinks he was.
Still, the movie is packed with a heaping portion of the action-and-explosions goodness that fans have come to expect. Even Ultron, the creepy robot king (voiced by James Spader) is satisfyingly freaky and intimidating, until he’s not. Spader’s impeccable voice acting could outmatch director and writer Joss Whedon’s cringe-worthy writing of the character.
He’s the brainchild of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and (un?)naturally inherits his knack for quippy one-liners. Like father like son. Sure. But how are we supposed to take a movie seriously when its main bad guy sincerely apologizes to a minor character for cutting his arm off? Every scene includes some sort of comedic moment, even when the movie would have benefitted from sticking to the dark tone it is clearly reaching for. Because of this, the movie is free of any actual threat to our heroes (come on, we know they survive. Most of them already have sequels announced), meaning it’s easy to enjoy, but hard to take seriously. It would be nice to be able to do the latter for once.
There’s a lot more story here than the team’s first go-round, every minute stuffed with some kind of plot or character development. Stark and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) build Ultron as a means of putting a protective “iron suit” around the Earth, but did not anticipate the extent of the program’s artificial intelligence. The program takes control of Stark’s drone army and recruits two new superheroes, twins Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), whose combined powers of super speed and telekinesis give the entire Avengers roster a run for their money.
The team (also consisting of Chris Evans’ Captain America, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye) travels the globe in pursuit of Ultron, leading to action sequences of equal immensity. The film immediately kicks off with the entire team assembled and kicking butt (at the expense of continuity – why is Thor back on Earth with no explanation? Didn’t we see Iron Man ‘retire’ in Iron Man 3?). Lofting an overall darker tone than the first, Whedon does a fantastic job with the action, in particular mastering sequences that look like they were lifted directly from the page of a comic book – never before has Marvel nailed the tone of the source material quite like this.
The newcomers also bring a lot to the table. While not as entertaining as the recent X-Men variant, Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver brings a certain freshness to the screen, proving you don’t have to act like a superhero to be one. We also see Paul Bettany play Vision, a captivating android created by Ultron as a killing machine. Then there’s Olsen as Scarlet Witch, whose powers and creepiness are reminiscent of a ghost straight from a horror movie. She uses red energy (or is it scarlet?) to brainwash the Avengers into envisioning their deepest fears, something that helps give insight to characters who don’t lead their own movies, like Black Widow and Hulk.
Renner’s Hawkeye, however, doesn’t need a flashback for development. The archer receives well-earned screen time after his minimal role in the first, giving the audience a glimpse at his worth on the Avengers team as well as his very human personal life. He also delivers some of the film’s best lines – “There’s an army of robots. I have a bow and arrows. Nothing makes sense.” Whedon makes sure everyone in the reasonably large ensemble gets a chance to shine, though perhaps Thor is a little underrepresented.
Ruffalo is even better as Hulk this time around, utilizing some seriously scary facial expressions to make his big green ego more intimidating. One of the film’s highlights is his battle against Iron Man, who is equipped with a Hulk-sized suit called the Hulkbuster. Their battle destroys an entire city, a grand scale matched only by the film’s climax, which is perhaps the darkest and most dangerous of the franchise yet.
Despite the collapsing cities and seemingly endless montages of citizens being evacuated (someone took notes from Man of Steel), there’s never much sense of risk anywhere in the movie. Ultron himself is a disappointment, as Whedon seems unable to separate Marvel’s trademark humor from its equally prominent action sequences. Maybe I’m wrong – Marvel’s humor is usually spot on, and has given them a unique tone from usual superhero fair. But as the franchise marches toward its third phase and the stakes (hopefully) raise, is it a smart decision for the movies to continue their lightheartedness with such insistency?
Much like Tony building Ultron, Marvel’s humor helped create the franchise’s success. Let’s hope it doesn’t destroy it too.