Avengers: Age of Ultron works because we like familiar heroes enacting grand spectacle on an epic canvas. There are flaws aplenty in this, Joss Whedon’s sequel to his massively lucrative (and massively fun) 2012 comic book opus, but what carries the film past a convoluted plot that threatens to bloat but somehow still cuts convenient corners is the familiarity we have with these characters, the freedom and comfort the actors now feel in these roles, and the freewheeling shorthand Whedon has developed with the Marvel cinematic universe. This sequel bears the same burden as any other, of placing its characters in greater peril, with raised stakes, on a grander scale – a feat even more difficult for Whedon’s Avengers, which was so bombastic (destroying nearly as much square footage of CGI cityscape as the last Transformers movie) that it felt like an enthusiastic workout. But in this case, the deftness of the franchise carries the day.
Age of Ultron pits our heroes against a villainous plot even more indomitable than the first film’s doomsday scenario of the Tesseract summoning the otherworldly Chitauri. Irony is, this source of pure evil is actually the brainchild of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., beautifully snarky as ever). Ultron is a magnificently sentient, ever-evolving, and ultimately lethal piece of Artificial Intelligence borne out of Stark’s upstart Peacekeeper Initiative (think of the Pre-Crime Division of Minority Report put through the Marvel ringer). Bottom line: Stark fears his ego will result in destruction that will cost the lives of his Avenger partners, and he therefore allows said ego to formulate an A.I. Police State that swiftly develops its own nihilistic uber-consciousness, determining that “peace” means the elevation of post-human beings and the extinction of the Avengers… along with all human life on the planet. The pitch-perfect vocal performance of James Spader means, of course, that Ultron is also darkly humorous and psychotically poetic about his (its?) quest.
Ultron permeates every corner of the cyber world, corrupting the files of Stark Industries and the former S.H.I.E.L.D. and invading the internet while also building a seemingly endless drone army and pilfering an Infinity Stone from Loki’s infamous scepter to evolve into a kind of unstoppable destructive force. Our roll call of heroes – Stark/Iron Man, Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) — must use all the intelligence and power at their disposal to save the universe from Ultron’s plan, while also dealing with two “gifted” evil recruits in the lightning fast Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and mind-controlling Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). Sounds exhausting, right? Somehow this screenplay – once again aided by Whedon’s singular voice – packs all this content without feeling overly-bloated. To the contrary, Age of Ultron’s biggest problem is its tendency to casually jump to key plot developments without much in the way of explanation or motivation. If something is required to move the narrative forward, Whedon sort of allows it to materialize for its own sake. If not for a certain sci-fi indie gem flickering on cinema screens at the same time, another apt title for this sequel could’ve been Avengers: Deux Ex Machina.
Typically, the initial installment of a cinematic superhero franchise is the boggiest, what with establishing characters and powers and the megalomaniacal plots they must push against. Sequels are permitted to function more smoothly since all the pieces are in place. This Avengers series seems to be working in the opposite manner; if possible, Age of Ultron institutes more exposition than its predecessor, establishing a handful of new characters with new motivations that expand the central story outward without necessarily moving it forward. Consider that the burden of attempting to tell a standalone story in the midst of a Marvel Studios Master Plan so much larger in scope that it seems to be controlling itself in an Ultron-like manner.
And yet, the film is well-mounted and fun. The product of a machine, yes, but a well-oiled one. We’ve come to recognize these characters over multiple years in multiple films, and as such we sort of identify with them even if we haven’t loved all of their stories. Similarly, these actors – strong across the board – feel at home in their costumes, so to speak. It’s all very familiar and lived in, and as a function of a franchise in which the promise is to deliver a version of the same thing every time, that is precisely what the audience ordered. The only new developments are the creative manners in which our heroes and their foes can bulldoze cities, buildings, and each other all in the name of “saving the world.” But hell, that spectacle is pretty awesome, too. It may seem like damning with faint praise, but after all, that is a film critic’s superpower.