Published Apr 29, 2015In basic terms, before getting to the nitty-gritty specifics, there are a couple of key questions to answer about Joss Whedon's follow-up to the wildly entertaining, if a tad poorly paced, blockbuster Marvel hit, The Avengers. Chiefly, how does it stack up to the original? In short, it's better. Without all the introductions and clunky exposition dragging things down (a bit) in between action sequences, Whedon is able to focus on developing a wholly entertaining action-adventure with increasingly complex characters. The other question is this: Does Hulk smash shit? Why, yes. Yes he does.
With the universe already formed and given depth by the litany of related movies and television series, Age of Ultron is able to dive into the action with the gang serving as a global peacekeeping entourage. Within moments, amidst the heightened choreography, during which Whedon is more careful to mirror the aesthetic construct of the source comics this time out, a potential romance is developed between Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). A comedy trajectory is also introduced when Captain America (Chris Evans) cautions Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) on his crude use of profanity during battle. This battle with HYDRA also introduces the Maximoffs (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a pair of Russian twins with erratic superpowers of their own.
Much as the first film was mostly driven by Thor's (Chris Hemsworth) universe, this one stems from Iron Man's technological developments. In an effort to create a global peacekeeping initiative in the form of Artificial Intelligence — like the manifestation of NSA ethos gone out of control — he inadvertently unleashes Ultron, whose perception of saving and protecting the planet mostly involves destroying it.
How or why the AI manifests as it does isn't really handled with much complexity; for that, audiences can check out the psychologically intriguing Sci-Fi thriller, Ex Machina. What's important is that Ultron takes over the Internet, and is able to inhabit the bodies of a legion of nimble robots when not looking for ways to build an impenetrable corporeal body to inhabit. This leads to a non-stop barrage of exceedingly creative and kinetic battle sequences that often leave cities obliterated, detailed in understated, but effective, 3D. Exacerbating this is Scarlet Witch's (Olsen) tendency to mess with the minds of various Avengers, leading them to turn on each other in a similarly destructive manner.
While Whedon still struggles to match content and form, never quite utilizing direction that extends beyond functional to complement the themes and add depth to his tapestry, the writing and pacing is highly effective. When battles aren't erupting in heavily populated locales, the basic struggle of each character is given thoughtful treatment. Hulk is ashamed of his inability to control his rage; Iron Man dabbles in the grey areas between protector and megalomaniac; Black Widow tenuously makes an effort to open up; and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) questions his work-life balance. And while these individual arcs are developed with good consideration, Whedon's trademark idiosyncratic humour pops up regularly to keep things from getting too sudsy or serious.
Within this glossy package, there is a dialogue about the nature of protecting the masses. While the Avengers have the safety of "the people" in mind, waging battle to keep the peace, there are small reminders that the destruction unfolding here stems directly from their mismanagement of their own self-imposed responsibilities. Iron Man, in developing technology that ostensibly gives him omniscient status, creates a more substantive threat to humanity than even HYDRA could imagine.
This notion of power corrupting and distorting the dialogue has been consistent throughout Whedon's work, and is well aligned with current global politics, particularly in a post-Snowden world. It's not exactly given shrewd treatment here, limited to a couple of observations mixed with quips, but it does add some much-needed complexity to a universe that is mostly wish fulfilment id-impulse fluff. It also inadvertently champions the unpopular opinion in ultimately defending the peacekeepers.
Still, Age of Ultron demonstrates a marked improvement in the franchise and succeeds almost entirely as the sort of entertaining eye-candy audiences attracted to the Marvel universe want to see.