Avengers: Age of Ultron roared into theatres over the weekend, reuniting director Joss Whedon with the cast making up the original film, along with some new faces, up against a threat even more drastic than before, arguably the greatest enemy the team has ever faced in comics: the genocidal robot Ultron. The film takes the concept of the unstoppable artificial intelligence against Earth's Mightiest Heroes in the right direction, presenting the character as the threat to the entire world that he rightfully is. Along the way, amid plenty of action, there are a whole lot of character moments, Easter egg surprises for casual and committed fans, and some quiet interludes. The result, all put together, is a whole lot of fun.
The film opens with a bang, with the team reunited from their various individual endeavours to take down a Hydra base in the fictional Eastern European country of Sokovia. Their objective is a sceptre once used by Loki, now in the hands of the villainous organization. The place is run by Baron von Strucker (the always menacing Thomas Kretschmann, who first appeared in a credits sequence in Captain America: The Winter Soldier). He and his associates are hiding many things in their stronghold, including two twins, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), both gifted with strange powers and working on behalf of the villainous organization. The twins prove formidable against the Avengers: Pietro, or Quicksilver as he's otherwise known, is capable of blinding speed, while Wanda's magic tricks include mind control, something she uses first on Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to give him a bleak look at a possible future. It's a moment that leads Tony down the wrong path through the rest of the film.
Tony, who happens to be one of those inventive genius who can't not do something when he puts his mind to it, convinces fellow Avenger and occasional big green temper tantrum Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to help him study Loki's sceptre and perhaps develop an artificial intelligence they've mused upon called Ultron, something that could give them "peace in their time." Nothing good has ever come from anyone saying that, as is the case here. The two science geeks set out, Bruce a bit more reluctant, both looking to find out if they can develop this and never asking themselves if they should. The program comes online, first interacting with Tony's operating system JARVIS (voiced by Paul Bettany again, though the actor will have more to do as the film goes along). Ultron perceives the JARVIS system as a threat and attacks it.
Tony and Bruce, meanwhile, are spending an evening with their fellow Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), War Machine (Don Cheadle), and a couple of associates after a party. There's a light mood among the group, bantering over who's worthy to pick up Thor's hammer. It doesn't last, of course. Something interrupts them, a shambling mass of metal and wire that identifies itself as Ultron, capable of moving into other robotic forms, voiced in a nefarious, contemptuous way by James Spader. It attacks the Avengers, escapes with the sceptre, retreats into the internet, and unleashes its plans against the world, plans that will involve the twins, build a finalized body for its consciousness, and since Ultron is being rather ambitious, wipe out the human race.
Whedon directed and wrote this follow up, which gives the audience the most formidable villain in the Avengers universe through the comics Unlike other villains such as Loki, Thanos, or Kang, who are capable of the occasional act of empathy or doing the right thing, Ultron is purely psychopathic, utterly evil, and a force of sheer malevolence. The story brings the team to the breaking point- they're not seeing eye to eye over legitimate issues at times, and they're at low points as well. And it explores the concept of good intentions having monstrous consequences. For Banner, his other side literally is a monster. For Tony, he realizes too late that his ambitious plans have generated a monster. In creating a new life, he's pulled a Frankenstein and given the world an abomination. The consequences of that weigh heavily on both men and affect the way their teammates see them. For the twins, they have to reconcile the fact that the monster they thought responsible for the tragedy in their lives- Tony Stark, through one of his weapons years earlier- is not so much the monster as the robotic being they've sided with.
The story also examines relationship dynamics and character growth during the quiet interludes. We have ourselves Natasha and Bruce, who have been growing closer since last we saw them, and there's a spark there. Bruce doesn't trust himself- more that he doesn't trust his cranky other half- and is a jumble of nerves the rest of the time. Natasha relates a bit of her history to him, something that fits perfectly with her former status in a Russian operative program and the way it's left her unable to have children. A contrast to the uncertainty between the two is the revelation to most of the team, Natasha excepted, that Hawkeye's married and has a normal, happy life away from superheroics (this is a big contrast to the comics, where Hawkeye never seems settled in one relationship for too long; honestly, the man has more romantic history than Stark). That marriage comes across as grounded, mutually supportive, and solid. And different relationship dynamics get examined as well- the contrasting stances of Cap and Iron Man, for example, and the way they don't always see eye to eye. Where Cap is the steadfast idealist and leader, Iron Man is the pragmatic sort who has no problems with short cuts, and it brings them into disagreements as the story goes along. It's very true to who the characters are both on the page and in the film series thus far. And the story allows for a few Easter eggs pointing towards future films in the Marvel stable, such as the establishment of a villain during a cameo appearance, or the mention of a fictional African country, or the return cameo appearance of another villain.
The production values are as solid as ever. The look of the returning Avengers have had some minor modifications since we've last seen them, and the look of the new characters certainly fits in quite well with the established production designs. Wanda's look, for instance, works better and feels more practical than the classic look from the comics, and Pietro's final chosen look has the efficiency one expects of the character. The design for the Vision has a sleek, high tech look very well fitting for the character. Ultron, a combination of motion capture performance and CGI, is rendered in the menacing, terrifying way you'd expect of the character, a machine run out of control, and just as I would have expected. The special effects crews do well this time out. The Hulk, for instance, remains looking as real as if he's occupying the same space as his counterparts, so the CGI on that character continues to perform at best expectations. This translates as well to the effects used to convey the Scarlet Witch's tricks or Quicksilver's incredible speed, as well as the spectacle of a city being raised up into the sky. And it also conveys the wave of Ultron drones converging from all directions, making it all feel real. A set-piece scene in particular- the mind controlled Hulk versus Iron Man in a Hulkbuster armour fight- is powerfully chaotic, a mix of CGI and work on location. Composer Brian Tyler, who's been involved in the Marvel films before, brings it all together with the aid of fellow composer Danny Elfman, weaving in themes from previous films for characters while taking things in a new direction.
The casting is impeccable. There are a few cameos of note. Andy Serkis of The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit fame gets to show his face (albeit with a curious beard) as the future villain Ulysses Klaw during a sequence in Africa. He plays the character as disreputable and dour, and while we don't see too much of him, he'll be back down the line. Hayley Atwell returns briefly in a dreamlike sequence as Cap's World War Two love interest Peggy Carter, and it's a character I always like to see. Also in a dreamlike sequence, but more of a nightmare, is Idris Elba as Heimdall, whose appearance is deeply unsettling for Thor, and a nod perhaps to what lies ahead for the character in the next solo film. Anthony Mackie, who debuted in Captain America: The Winter Soldier as Sam Wilson, aka The Falcon, returns briefly a couple of times in the film, and is a welcome sight in a full Avengers film. Don Cheadle, who's played James Rhodes, aka War Machine, in two of the Iron Man films already, gets a bit more to do this time out, brought in like the cavalry. I like the attitude Cheadle brings to the character. Stellan Skarsgard turns up briefly again as Eric Selvig, assisting Thor as the Asgardian tries to sort out an odd vision he's had- the Selvig character's a fun sort, and even seen briefly is quite welcome. Samuel L. Jackson returns as the spy Nick Fury, providing guidance and backup to the Avengers, all while being as cryptic as ever. He's joined by Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill, who's working as a civilian associate of the team after her S.H.I.E.L.D. days, but still very much the spy. She's present through much of the film, still coming across as calm under pressure.
James Spader gets to have a whole lot of fun as Ultron, a combination of voice performance and motion capture work. The character is a sociopath who thinks that the best solution to the problems humanity bring about on the planet is to, well... render humanity extinct. It seems logical, if you're a deranged robot with no moral grounding. Ultron is capable of transferring his consciousness across multiple copies of himself, so his way of thinking isn't the individual way of thinking. That said, however, Ultron is quite a personality. Childish at times, a god complex at others, and malevolent many times. He has a snarky, sneering quality that really comes across too. It's a cruel, monstrous character, totally devoid of any redemptive quality, and in that way, Ultron makes for a really memorable villain.
The twins are integral to the plot, and both are well cast. Elizabeth Olsen turns up as Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch. Her abilities include limited mind control and various spells, and when we first get to know her, she and her brother have grudges that might seem well placed and understandable, so their motivation feels grounded- if misplaced. But both of them do have moral centers, and Olsen plays to that. As Wanda and Pietro learn the truth about Ultron's agenda, that moral center comes out and both instinctively do the right thing. It's a good touch for both characters. There's a key moment for the character, one that she plays perfectly and that captures the audience's empathy, all while being a shattering moment for her.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson actually played opposite Olsen last year in Godzilla, where their characters were married. The transition to playing siblings must have been interesting. His take on Pietro rings true to the character in the comics: hot headed, brash, protective of his sister, with something of an arrogant streak. The character rushes in without hesitation, another quality very much true to who Pietro is, and Taylor-Johnson keeps that in mind through the film. It's a more serious take on the character than we saw in X-Men Days Of Future Past, in which an alternate version of Quicksilver, referred to as Peter, seemed much more amused by the world around him.
Paul Bettany has been doing the voice for JARVIS since the first Iron Man film, giving the computer program a dry wit in his performance. This time out, with what JARVIS goes through, the actor gets more to do as many factors feature into the creation of the Vision, the body Ultron sees as his final form, and the character comes across as the most compelling newcomer to the franchise this time out. From the moment he emerges, the Vision meshes the team together. There is a strong nobility in the artificial life form, a deeply held moral center that's fascinating to see unveiled. The character's look is so well suited to what I would have expected, and Bettany plays him with such conviction and such a calm, centered air. There's even a bit of that dry humour in the character, particularly in something he does, instead of says.
I liked Scarlett Johansson's take once again on the Black Widow. She's been playing the character already in three previous films, having had started in Iron Man 2, moved into the first Avengers film, and worked alongside Cap in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The character has hinted at the darkness in her past before, and in her brief interlude while the Scarlet Witch has put a whammy on her, we see her past, and the things she was subjected to while being trained by the Russians. We also empathize with her as she relates the fact that she can't have children- it makes her interaction with Clint's children all the more poignant, and adds a dash of humour to how she refers to an unborn child when she learns the baby's going to be a boy and therefore not named quite after her. Seeing Natasha layer by layer like this has been a wise touch. Johansson has played the character as very guarded, and getting to know these extra details the way we do makes sense for the character. Beyond that, she continues to play the character as thoroughly courageous, resourceful, and dangerous, and it's just the way I'd see the Widow.
Renner gets to play Clint Barton, otherwise known as Hawkeye, much more in the way he should be played, considering he spent a good part of the first Avengers film being mind controlled by Loki. It's therefore refreshing that he's the only member of the team that doesn't get a mental whammy from the Scarlet Witch. He plays the character as grounded and secure in himself, always dependable and courageous in the heat of battle. It's different from what we see in the comics- to see a stable family man is quite a contrast, but his marriage to Laura (Linda Cardellini) feels genuine. She supports him, worries about him, but accepts the crazy part of his life that is being an Avenger. He in turn gives her a place safely out of harm's reach, is devoted to her, and is perpetually planning new renovations in their home. In the world of superheroes, a conventional down to earth marriage seems odd, but it works here.
Mark Ruffalo has been such a good addition to the franchise as Bruce Banner, who in his cranky moments tends to become big, green, and destructive as the Hulk. He gets the tormented genius aspect of the character just right. This is a man who fears what he becomes, tries to keep himself under control, can feel helpless to prevent the transformation under stress, and so gets our empathy. Fate's made him a monster, but a compelling one. I like that tormented side of the character, and think it's about time to give the actor and the character a solo film, since Banner was played by other actors in previous solo outings (and the Ang Lee directed Hulk doesn't even count as canon anyway). There's a lost sensibility to the character, but also good relationship dynamics with other characters. His banter with Tony is particularly lively, a pattern established in the first film and used to great effect in his cameo appearance in the third Iron Man film.
Chris Hemsworth has been playing Thor now on three previous occasions, and knows the character well. Where he started out as arrogant in the first solo film, the character has matured and taken his responsibilities seriously. There's a touch of both contentment and melancholy in the character- he's happily in a relationship at present, but recent losses among his family still weigh heavily on him. And as is so often the case, he's torn between Earth and Asgard, fearing for his people through the vision he sees via Wanda's mind whammy of a dark fate for them. Hemsworth plays to these things throughout the film, along with the ferocious courage of the thunder god, headlong into battle. There are even quiet moments of humour for him, such as his amusement at watching his fellow Avengers try and fail to lift his hammer- and his brief expression of worry when Cap manages to slightly move it.
Robert Downey Jr. has had the most screen time thus far of the Avengers, through three solo films, two of the team films, and a cameo credits appearance in yet another solo film. He understands the character Tony Stark so well by now, and that really comes through in his performance. Tony is the sort of manic genius who rushes into a new idea, sometimes without thinking things through. Not thinking things through leads to Ultron running wild, and it weighs heavily on Tony from that point on, and causes tensions in the ranks, particularly with Cap. Along with that, Downey also plays to the character's snarky sense of humour and sheer ingenuity at figuring out solutions to worst case scenarios. It's a compelling character, all the more so because of his flaws and pragmatic outlook.
Chris Evans returns once more as the team leader, Steve Rogers, aka Captain America. Through two solo films and two Avengers films, the character has changed over time, particularly in terms of adjusting to life outside of his time, and in how he's dealt with the swirl of events in his life. The events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier might have shaken his ideals, but hasn't broken it. He is a man of strongly held principles, but also aware of shades of grey in a manner that wasn't the case when we first met a scrawny Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger. The downfall of S.H.I.E.L.D. may have left him more wary in general, but he knows who he can trust in particular. Cap is a decisive, courageous leader, one who doesn't leave a man behind, a rallying point for the rest of the team. It says a lot that Thor, who's always considered himself a leader among warrior-gods, takes orders from Steve without hesitation, and it speaks to the authority that Evans brings to the character. Cap might be a man out of time, but he believes in his duty, and Evans brings that across decisively.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is a summer blockbuster comic adaptation that reunites the team while introducing new players, pitting them up against a villain even more dangerous than the previous antagonist (and that was Loki, remember). I find myself wondering how Thanos can top just how dangerous Ultron is. The movie has a sense of fun, all while driving up the stakes. And it has enough downtime and character moments to give the audience a breather before everything runs wild yet again in another spree of mass destruction.