While The Avengers (2012) smashed box office records, more importantly, writer/director Joss Whedon did the impossible by successfully integrating comic book superheroes the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor and Captain America from their own franchise movies into another one that saw them team-up with Black Widow and Hawkeye to stop a common threat. Whedon achieved this in an entertaining and exciting way that no one had done before. Burnt out from the endeavor and brought on essentially as a hired gun, he was understandably cautious of being courted to make the inevitable sequel. He was persuaded by being given more creative freedom, which included the addition of three new superheroes and a longstanding nemesis of the Avengers, the mad sentient robot Ultron. As a long-time comic book fan, Whedon understands that a team of formidable heroes needs to face a threat worthy of their abilities and what better one than a nearly indestructible robot and its army of drones. While it was a given that Age of Ultron (2015) would be a bigger and more action-packed follow-up to the original, would Whedon be able to juggle this large cast of characters without short-changing anyone and be able to instill the same amount of heart and humor amidst the CGI as he did with the first movie?
One of the good things about a movie like Age of Ultron is that Whedon has already established the Avengers as a team in the first movie and so he can jump right in as this one does with them already assembled in the Eastern European country of Sokovia taking down a Hydra base where Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) has been experimenting with Loki’s scepter, which has resulted in two powerful beings – the Maximoff twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) who have superhuman speed and can manipulate minds and project energy respectively.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has created a squad of automated robots utilizing his Iron Man technology to do the work he doesn’t have the time for under the auspices of the Ultron program. His ultimate goal is to create an artificial intelligence for these robots so that they can carry out his global peace keeping mission. To achieve this, he and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) use Loki’s scepter without telling the other Avengers.
Back at the Avengers Tower, the team enjoys a little downtime and we get to see them banter with some of Whedon’s trademark entertaining dialogue. He also does a nice job of showing the dynamic between the group and certain members, like a nice bit where everyone tries in vain to lift Thor’s hammer. A crude form of the now sentient Ultron crashes the party (literally) and escapes, taking the scepter with him. He proceeds to assemble a massive army of robots to bring about the end of the human race. To make matters worse, he recruits the Maximoff twins, appealing to their anger towards the Avengers.
Whedon improves on the action sequences from The Avengers by upping the scale and intensity including a very memorable slugfest where Stark dons Hulkbuster armor to stop the rampaging green monster under Wanda’s influence. I like that during these battle scenes, Whedon shows our heroes saving people from the carnage while still engaging in the occasional witty banter – a staple from the comic books. In fact, we see the various Avengers going out of their way to save people, putting their very lives on the line because that is what superheroes do. As Whedon said in a recent interview, he wanted to “get back to what’s important, which is that the people you’re trying to protect are people … What a hero does is not just beat up the bad guy – a hero saves the people.”
One of the problems with many of the Marvel movies is that the villains tend to lack personality. Let’s face it, they all want basically the same thing – to either rule the world or destroy it. What makes them stand out is a distinctive personality and that comes in part from the screenplay and from casting. In a masterstroke, Whedon brought on board James Spader to portray Ultron. He’s an actor with an idiosyncratic personality, which the filmmaker utilizes so well throughout the movie as Spader gives a deliciously evil performance. This is even more impressive as he instills an entirely CGI character with a personality that resembles Tony Stark gone bad. Whedon makes a point of showing what motivates not only Ultron but also Pietro and Wanda. They all have deeply rooted grudges against Stark and the rest of the Avengers and for the latter two this comes from a deep, personal pain.
He also sets up the ideological battle between Stark and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), which foreshadows the upcoming Captain America: Civil War (2016). Rogers is upset that Stark went ahead and created a sentient robot without consulting the rest of the team or thinking about the ramifications of his actions while Stark, driven by his anxiety over almost dying at the hands of an alien race in The Avengers, wants to make sure that the Earth has an army of its own should another massive threat present itself. To this end, the climactic battle between the Avengers and Ultron and his army of robots could be seen as a slyly scathing critique of drone warfare while also being a pretty cool battle to watch.
Whedon has definitely learned a lot from the first Avengers movie – not just on a technical level, but also improving on its shortcomings, like making up for giving Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) the short shrift when he was brainwashed for most of it by showing us what he’s been up to since that one ended. By doing this, Whedon also gives Hawkeye a more personal stake in saving the world this time out. It is more than just that. Whedon manages to give all the heroes a crucial part to play in stopping Ultron. As he did with the first movie, Whedon achieves just the right rhythm of downtime between actions sequences that not only moves the story along, but also develops the characters and their relationships with each other in a way he wasn’t able to do in The Avengers. He even introduces the possibility of a romance between two of our heroes.
Whedon understands that it isn’t hard creating a movie where the heroes have to take on a villain bent on world destruction. It doesn’t mean a thing if we don’t care about the heroes and aren’t invested in what they have at stake. You have to make it personal for them and the filmmaker excels at this by taking the time to providing a motivating factor for each of the Avengers. It’s a tricky balancing act because we know that none of them can be killed off – they already have upcoming movies in their own franchises or someone else’s to appear in – but you can make the audience forget that temporarily by getting them invested in an compelling story filled with witty banter, snappy one-liners and passionate speeches from our heroes and the bad guy. While Age of Ultron is somewhat darker in tone than The Avengers – lacking that movie’s overall feelgood vibe, it is more ambitious in scope and scale and a richer experience.
Buchanan, Kyle. “How Avengers: Age of Ultron Nearly Killed Joss Whedon.” New York magazine. April 13, 2015.