The superheroes with the weight of the world on their shoulders have bigger problems than the impending robot apocalypse.
Like, say, the fact that they’ve saved humanity nine times already and have three more contractually obligated tours of duty to come—Captain America: Civil War and the two-part Infinity Wars. That’s an exhausting amount of universe-saving to do (and watch) through 2019.
Even with real-world political parallels and anguished personal drama to munch on in the overstuffed Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, it’s hard to muster the attention span to care about Earth’s Mightiest Heroes when we know they’ll just be back to do it all again in a few years. But at least they’re beginning to realize the consequences of using unchecked force in the name of national security, with a high-stakes conflict over civil liberties, government surveillance, and personal privacy on the horizon in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. And that’s a start for what could become Hollywood’s most intriguing era in superhero popcorn cinema.
Avengers: Age of Ultron opens mid-mission on the superheroes who have now saved Earth from destruction so many times, they could battle their way into the Eastern Bloc lair of a Hydra thug in their sleep. The humdrum ease with which our heroes glide through their umpteenth phalanx of faceless baddies is even cartoonish in its weightlessness, quips flying back and forth over the comms with more zingy accuracy than enemy fire.
Bad guys’ bullets never seem to land in these movies—even fan fave Agent Coulson, who drew tears onscreen and off when he was slain in the first Avengers, managed to come back from the dead via television—until they do, reminding the Avengers just how invincible they are not. To its credit Age of Ultron, more than its predecessors, is about the human foibles and follies that plague the seemingly indestructible keepers of the peace.
Marvel’s previous blockbusters explored the stand-alone tribulations of star players Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and, technically speaking, outside of current MCU canon, Hulk (twice). Avengers: Age of Ultron is the first time that more of Earth’s mightiest heroes, finally assembled, come face-to-face with some Real Grown People Problems.
For instance: At long last, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff gets to wrestle with her deep-seated lady feels and maternal yearnings—i.e. she finally has something to do other than play sardonic lady ninja tumbling around in skintight leather.
Director Joss Whedon’s emo boner for Black Widow also bleeds into her relationships with two other Avengers: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who revels in actual dialogue, scores the film’s biggest reveal and one-liners, and earns MVP status in an otherwise thinly stretched ensemble; and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who spends the Age of Ultron making eyes at his sultry teammate when he’s not still trying to control his anger problem.
In making a more “personal” sequel to his $1.5 billion-grossing Avengers, Whedon hides a true Joss Whedon movie underneath all the forgettable CG bluster by confronting each member of the squad with their glaring personal failures: ego, aging, mortality, fear of intimacy, the crippling inability to maintain adult relationships and families, and most of all, how to admit when they’re wrong—particularly when trying to do good doesn’t always mean doing what’s right.
The latter crisis launches the titular Age of Ultron when Earth’s Snarkiest Industrialist, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), finds a long-elusive scientific breakthrough within his grasp after the team recovers Loki’s Scepter and the uber-powerful Infinity Stone it contains. Unbeknownst to their teammates, he and science bro Bruce Banner attempt to splice together an unholy hybrid of robotech and alien power and accidentally-on-purpose bring to life the sentient A.I. peacekeeper bot Ultron, voiced saucily by James Spader.
In the comics it’s Hank Pym who creates the megalomaniac sentient robot Ultron, but Marvel’s keeping all things Ant-Man out of the cinematic fray until July. Here, Ultron is the Frankenstein’s monster-son of Tony Stark, a manifestation of digital-age Big Science with an added dash of bitterly psychotic daddy issues and a Skynet-like contempt for humanity. Thanks to corporate Disney synergy, Ultron even adopts Pinocchio’s “No Strings” liberation anthem as his menacing mantra.
Instead of giving the Avengers an overdue holiday from ridding the world of danger as Stark intended, Ultron petulantly decides it’s humanity that has to go. With the ability to flit his consciousness in and out of machines in microseconds, Ultron handily decimates the Avengers and holes up in a bunker replicating himself into a cache of weapons of mass destruction.
Of course, it’s no accident that Stark comes to possess the Infinity Stone that allows him to realize his most destructive creation. After all, with great cosmic power comes great responsibility, and with great military might comes great consequence. In one of the film’s dozen or so subplots it’s two emotionally wounded twins, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, aka the lightning-fast Quicksilver and the mind-manipulating Scarlet Witch (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), that help move the cosmic chess game along out of hatred for the military-industrialist hawk who made them war orphans years ago: Tony Stark, the Oppenheimer of the Avengers.
It says something that the warmongering philosophical divide that begins to split the Avengers in Age of Ultron resonates with more lasting consequence than any of its eyeball-searing set pieces—even the most simultaneously grandiose and mundane sequence in which an entire village full of Third World innocents is detached from the earth and lifted sky-high by evil flying robots in order to trigger the next Big Bang.
Shame how hard it is to care about the existential struggles or perilous exploits of Tony & Bruce & Steve & Clint & Nat & Thor (plus assorted buddies from the MCU, flying in for one-day cameos), which disappear into the background as they play humanitarian aid workers in the film’s final third, shuffling nameless denizens of the fictional Soviet-ish country of Sokovia to safety.
In spite of a buttery-cool turn in the body-painted flesh by an exquisite Paul Bettany, the introduction of Vision, an angelic android created by Ultron with the consciousness of Tony Stark’s loyal e-butler JARVIS, is Age of Ultron’s most hollow development. A literal deus ex machina made by robotkind and touched by the gods (well, one of their Infinity Stones), Vision exists solely to solve the movie’s Ultron problem and give fans something to thrill to in the lead-up to the two-part Infinity War, to be waged years from now against Josh Brolin’s Thanos over the universe’s most coveted bedazzled power glove.
If only Whedon and Marvel could have allowed the Avengers to battle their demons without keeping one eye trained ahead, without strings to hold them down in service of the far-distant future.