And so we return once more to the summer tentpole of the Avengers franchise—legendary for both its breakout superhero crossover and its massive box office to make it happen. Whereas the previous installment was a miraculous spectacle for its convergence of so many heroes, Avengers: Age of Ultron has higher standards to live up to. We’re familiar with all these characters now and want to see something much more than basic introductions before the real fights break out. For the most part, this sequel delivers.
Following the ever-developing Marvel Cinematic Universe, the characters have undergone some unique changes. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a shaken mess, fearful of protecting Earth from a host of alien creatures waiting to take aim at the planet. Captain America (Chris Evans) has grown far less trusting, having been betrayed by his superiors at SHIELD. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is riddled with doubt for the safety of his kingdom and the universe, still struggling to find a meaning to all this Infinity Stone business. Age of Ultron mostly just touches on these aspects of their characters, since they’ve been more fully explored in their own films. However, in their place, we’re given a surprising amount of focus on the allies who haven’t had their own films since The Avengers in 2012.
Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) steals the show as the most fully realized character with the strongest wit. Without giving too much away, we’re shown a reason for him to fight and a reason to love him. He also appears as the most classic of dashing movie heroes—in one of the best moments of the film, Hawkeye delivers a mid-battle pep talk in which he remarks, “The city is flying, we’re fighting an army of robots, and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense.” Every character gets their chance to quip in this script, but few do it so well as Renner.
A romance has developed between Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), but not as a simply cute pairing by any means. The Hulk has always been a conflicted being trying to balance his life as man and monster, and Black Widow serves as his anchor. When the team needs Bruce Banner as opposed to the mean green machine, Widow wills him back to reality with the gentleness of her humanity and caring sense of touch. Additionally, Widow needs Hulk, as she desires someone she can connect with given the dark past that has damaged her so. You really do want these two to end up with each other, and the moments between them are genuinely sweet with real chemistry. Rather surprising given the artificial pairings of most superhero pictures.
Our villain is nothing new, but nothing boring, either. Ultron (voiced by James Spader) is Tony Stark’s artificially intelligent robot brought to life to keep the Earth safe. But when he’s brought to life from mysterious tech, Ultron’s solution for bringing peace is to wipe out humans (go figure). He decries humanity and plans an apocalyptic event with his manufactured robot army—you know, standard evil-robot protocol. The real thrill of Ultron is how casually snarky he is for a robotic being. Spader gives this CGI creation a surprising amount of charisma and character in how he goes about his sinister deeds. The metal exterior is flexible enough to allow for some real expression out of the face, including reshaping pupils and an opposable mouth. As far as murderous robots who want to destroy the world go, Ultron is one of the most entertaining to watch.
The action scenes also feel pretty standard but have just enough creativity to make them original. At one point, a train car goes off track at maximum speed and our heroes have to stop it. Rather than turning to the usual method of one hero standing in front of the train to act as brakes, three of our heroes use their different special abilities in unique ways to both stop the train and prevent casualties.
It’s also rather admirable how there seems to be a bigger regard for collateral damage and human life in this picture given the Avengers trying to maintain an image. A big showpiece of the film, in which Hulk fights Iron Man (in a much bigger Iron Man suit) does result in buildings demolished and cars flung around, but the movie doesn’t shy away from showing all the devastation and the consequences of this action. It pushes the fantasy in how Iron Man is able to conveniently find an empty building to smash Hulk through, but let’s remember what type of film we’re watching here. Still, just because the heroes are battling a horde of robots doesn’t mean they can’t save a few individuals while doing so. Little moments, such as Iron Man escorting a family out of a crumbling building and Thor lifting a woman out of a falling vehicle, help push the heroes as such rather than just being tough heavy hitters.
For featuring so much action, however, director Joss Whedon certainly does skirt areas of the script that would be better for showing than telling. After a failed Avengers mission and its destruction of property, the public is outraged by the team and don’t want their help. Now, why have someone deliver this news when we could actually see the hatred of protests against the superheroes? And why have the superpowered Romanov twins relay their vendetta against Tony Stark when every past Iron Man film has done a fantastic job at integrating these villain origins? Shouldn’t Stark’s previous victims have a support group by now?
Avengers: Age of Ultron is more of what you’ve come to expect from the franchise, but it ranks slightly higher than the first film for its surprisingly deeper amount of character. There’s plenty more heroics, more comical quips, and enough bad guys and robots to give everyone a chance to bust heads. It doesn’t blow the first Avengers out of the water, but it does give back more than you’d expect for a movie that’s trying to juggle too many characters and plots at once.