When The Avengers hit theaters in 2012, no-one quite believed it was real until the end credits ran and it was confirmed: Marvel had done it, they’d created a living cinematic world in which these comic book heroes exist both on their own and together, in an inter-connected universe that occasionally requires them all to team up to deal with a threat. The Joss Whedon-helmed sequel, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, is the victory parade of that initial undertaking, a buffet of what makes these films so inviting in the first place, without any hesitancy. Whereas The Avengers was concerned with proving the concept’s feasibility, Age of Ultron has no such strings on it, and from the moment go is a more driven, indulgent and tighter experience.
Much has changed for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes since the climax of phase one – Hydra has swallowed S.H.I.E.L.D almost whole, Asgard’s royal family is having on ongoing domestic and the Stark empire isn’t exactly in the best public spirit. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is that watching the team strike down upon their enemies is a viscerally joyful experience as Ultron opens on the six members mowing through a brigade a soldiers in Eastern Europe on the search for Loki’s sceptre. Captain America (Chris Evans), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlet Johannson), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jnr.), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Thor (Christ Hemsworth) flip, hammer, blast and smash their way through opposing forces, showing not only the stellar choreography and special effects we’ve come to expect, but also how they’ve evolved as a team.
Their moves are more stream-lined, bouncing off and around each other to maximize the damage, all while taking little jabs at each other. Gone is the shaky foundation of a group forced to work together, and in its place is a well-oiled, well-tested machine of virtue, a veritable wrecking ball of heroism. And that’s just the first fifteen minutes. Age of Ultron isn’t a film that necessarily peaks the same way The Avengers did, with “Hulk… smash” being the most memorable, but instead is a steady snap, crackle and pop of comic wholesomeness. Even when the Avengers return to Avengers Tower to plan their next move, as two would be discussing in the foreground, the background would contain others moving around, maintaining the constant nature of the MCU – even when the action slows, it’s still exhilarating to realize the Avengers are all together, in one place, working towards a common goal.
But it’s that common goal that, ironically, causes the main crux of this story as Tony Stark inadvertently creates Ultron (James Spader), a living AI, from the infinity stone in Loki’s sceptre. Tony aims to eradicate a need for the Avengers, a way for them to go home, and it leads him to attempt to cultivate a master bodyguard on the world that can do the defending for them. Which, suffice to say, doesn’t exactly go as planned. This “go home” sentiment recurs much in Whedon‘s screenplay. With Ultron driving them to extreme measures in order to revise their next move, they must go incognito and hide out a for a time to see the lay of the land. Their human, regular counterparts come out and we see them interact in a way we hadn’t seen previously. They form friendships, rivalries, discuss their next move, even joke with each other. The narrative breathes in a way that is both fresh an familiar; seeing these round-table discussions amongst strong personalities who’ve grown to respect, though perhaps not like, each other is nothing new to the comic book world, but it is new to see them do it on-screen in such a homely way, whether you’re a fan of the source medium, or solely a disciple of the films.
It isn’t just familiar faces that are the focus of Age of Ultron, either. The Maximoff twins, known as “enhanceds” in the film, are introduced during the opening stretch as very powerful entities to the Avengers, with both making short work of the team. Pietro (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) has super-speed, while his sister, Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) has telepathy, mind control, and some other mind powers the film allows swim in mucky waters so as to not limit her just yet. They are the conscience of the narrative, much of their lives side effects of the ongoing feud between Hydra and S.H.I.E.L.D, and of Tony Stark’s life as an arms dealer. Their time on-screen is well used, with Wanda’s powers especially giving chilling insight into our heroes before they were heroes. But, they aren’t the only complete newcomers as Age of Ultron is also the birthing place of one the Vision; an AI and living tissue hybrid.
Vision is much more an amalgamation of much of the film’s core themes, and a foreboding for the future of the Avengers. His creation is a result of both Ultron and Stark, and he is the way in to understanding the mind of Ultron himself through understanding that of being a creation, a literal vision brought to life. Similar to Wanda, Vision’s powers remain somewhat ill-defined, with his powers coming from an infinity stone in his forehead. Paul Bettany‘s stoic performance is what really gives the character his breadth as a mysterious philosopher who fights against the destruction of Earth and who feels for the human condition.
It’s ultimately through both Vision and the Maximoff twins that the team find out what “going home” means to them, as each wrestles with what it might mean to not walk away, to accept that their life doesn’t involve growing old with the kids so much as saving the old and the young from the forces of evil. Renner‘s Hawkeye is given a much needed lead on this, as his character finally gets a more-defined role in being a family man who’s a hero when he has to be. It’s only that this time that’s put to the test when Ultron creates a DIY asteroid in order to put the Earth out of business.
As a final act, it’s nothing new, but the delivery is a nice segway from the norm as it’s done with conscious effort to show the people caught in the maelstrom. Superhero films so often forget that the places they battle in, usually cities, are chock-filled with people that will need evacuating. Whedon‘s final act here is altogether concerned with that evacuation, reminding both us and the heroes on-screen that it isn’t just about defeating the bad guy – though that does still happen in typically emotional form as the heroes do what they do best.
Whether or not The Avengers: Age Of Ultron is better than The Avengers is the right question wrongly asked. Nothing will ever outdo The Avengers because that film was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make into film what had existed for decades only in print. What Age of Ultron does is prove it can be done with an entire film dedicated to the superhero team just being that, a superhero team. Peppered with one-liners that had the audience in my screening roaring with laughter, and dotted with several nods to future MCU films such as Black Panther, Civil War, and the upcoming Infinity War two-parter, The Avengers: Age of Ultron is a triumph, and Joss Whedon couldn’t be leaving the project on a better note. The idea that we will ever get tired of these films is ludicrous – if they can maintain anywhere close to this level of quality, we can maintain seeing them in droves.
Deliriously fun comic book action. 9/10