Age of Ultron brings character drama back to Marvel’s superheroes

“Ultron thinks we’re what’s wrong with the world. This isn’t just about beating him. It’s about whether or not he’s right.” Photos courtesy Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios.

The movie takes place over the course of just a few days, isn’t it a little melodramatic to call it “Age” of Ultron? 

After saving New York in the first movie and then doing a bunch of other things that they couldn’t help each other out with because of the actors’ contractual obligations, the gang’s back together in The Avengers sequel. In what represents a stunning evolution for Marvel, they begin the film by actually addressing the events of previous movies, namely the collapse of SHIELD in The Winter Soldier. Age of Ultron begins with the group’s last raid on the Hydra compound where Baron Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) is experimenting on debris from the Battle of New York, including Loki’s scepter, which he requisitioned from SHIELD before Hydra’s rebellion. Their mission successful, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) discover the head of the scepter is the key to cracking an artificial intelligence program they’ve been working on for some time, a “suit of armor around the world.” When this intelligence, Ultron (James Spader — JAMES SPADER!!!) boots up, he promptly kills JARVIS (Paul Bettany), backs himself up on the Internet, co-opts Stark’s robot legion and tries to kill everyone on the face of the Earth.

Age of Ultron brings Joss Whedon back as the writer/director, and makes it painfully obvious what the recent Marvel movies — Guardians of the Galaxy aside — have been missing: character development. Everyone’s questioned where Iron Man was when Maleketh was destroying the universe in Thor: The Dark World and why Banner wasn’t helping in Iron Man 3, but these aren’t just contract-driven omissions — they’re symptomatic of a larger storytelling problem with the series. At this point, many of the characters simply aren’t fleshed out as much as they need to be. Their motivations and fears, things that distinguish them from each other and why they’re doing things the way that they’re doing them are all unclear through a lot of the Phase 2 movies because their actions and interactions are inconsistent across the several-director continuity.

The movie is also a little annoying with its location subtitles. “Slovakia, Eastern Europe,” for example, is kind of insulting, and “Seoul, Korea” isn’t a place. The country is called South Korea. “Off the west coast of Africa,” where this scene takes place, is a bit of information so useless it may as well not be onscreen.

That lack of distinction, the fact that the Avengers are an amorphous mass of “Let’s save the world!” characters, is why everyone cracked jokes about them being absent from each other’s Phase 2 solo acts. A living legend as a character writer, Whedon brings everyone’s individual traits into sharp relief in Age of Ultron, and makes the previous movies feel like even more like missed opportunities. If they knew Downey wasn’t going to appear in The Winter Soldier, for instance, they should have written a plot that Iron Man genuinely wouldn’t have cared about. In Age of Ultron, the group is forced into deep introspection about what they’re fighting for, and this movie would make a lot more sense and the other movies would have been a lot better if that introspection had started when they were on their own. Iron Man 3 started on the right foot by having Stark suffer through panic attacks following a near-death experience, before it became a movie about lava men, and developments across that film and this one were directly related to his personal motivations. The iron legion, and Ultron for that matter, was Stark’s reaction to personal fears developed over the course of the series. When they’re not being written by Whedon, none of the characters have anything like that going for them.

Seeing the Avengers back in action as real, whole human beings in the way only Whedon can write them makes Age of Ultron a special treat, even if his methods are a bit ham-fisted. A lot of development takes place through hallucinations caused by Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) are given romantic subplots to add validity to their characters, but Romanoff’s is hokey and forced and Barton endures open jabs about how useless he is.

So, if Ultron was this big breakthrough in artificial intelligence, what the hell was JARVIS?

Still, after three years and three movies, they are finally separate again and they finally have separate things that make them interesting and distinctive. The main characters aren’t supermen anymore, they’re alive, and more characters come to life as well. Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) was lined up to have trouble living up to his Days of Future Past counterpart, but he’s just as fun a mischief-maker here. Wanda Maximoff is quirky and offbeat her effects are fantastic. The previews showed Ultron as a generic, sinister robot with a suave voice, but he’s so much more. He’s manic, he’s violent even when he’s not trying to be, he cracks jokes, he sings that song from Pinocchio, he forgets words sometimes — Ultron is arguably, ironically, the most alive, organic part of this movie. Spader’s performance is beyond description.

Age of Ultron gets a little disappointing at the end because it’s not as dark as it needs to be. The movie took criticism for starting with a long shot of them all together, instead of taking an entire movie to get to that point like the first one, but that’s OK. This is a different movie telling a different story, it makes sense that it would take a different path. But instead of following that path to its conclusion, the characters rally together for a happy ending, and that’s unsatisfying, particularly given that everyone knows this isn’t the end by any stretch. Age of Ultron lays the seed of deep philosophical conflict between Stark and Captain America (Chris Evans) which will be explored in Captain America: Civil War in 2016 and the seeds of doubt that send Thor (Chris Hemsworth) back to Asgard for 2017’s Ragnarok and Banner into exile for the Planet Hulk or World War Hulk movie they need to go ahead and announce already. But it doesn’t feel like these major, soul-searching conflicts are on the horizon. It feels like the world is safe once more, but it won’t be for long, because you know you’ll pay through the nose to see it saved again.

“The city is flying, we’re fighting an army of robots, I’ve got a bow and arrow, none of this makes sense.”

Ultimately, Age of Ultron isn’t the nerdgasm that The Avengers was, but it’s still a jaw-dropping, popcorn-guzzling epic that brings comic books to life to a degree they haven’t been since Sin City, and it’s worth watching for that alone. But it’s easy to be pessimistic about the series’ future with Whedon out of the picture. Ant-Man, the first movie in the series to straight-up look bad, hits theaters in July.

Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. No amount of May flowers is worth this! I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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One Response to Age of Ultron brings character drama back to Marvel’s superheroes

  1. Pingback: Captain America: Actually, Quite Civil | Reel Entropy

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