For the last several years, I’ve expressed concern over the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – that it was expanding to unreasonable proportions, that it was inundating audiences with characters, events, plotlines, twists of fate, and locations that would be impossible for laymans unfamiliar with any of the original comic books to keep track of. That concern remains, simply because it’s well known that several more Marvel films are on their way. But for the two hours and twenty-one minutes of Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, they were put to rest. Here’s one of the rare Marvel sequels that isn’t pathologically dependant on details from all the films that came before it, including the first Avengers; references are made, to be sure, but not to the extent that the audience feels lost or out of the loop.
But that’s only part of the reason why the film works so well. It is, quite simply, tremendously entertaining. Yes, this is in large part because of the well-choreographed action sequences and the elaborate special effects – which are, per usual, a real sight to behold when the projection is in IMAX 3D – but one cannot overlook the engaging story, the fact that specific characters are allowed to be more dimensional than they once were, and Whedon’s ear for dialogue, which has significantly improved. Rewatch Alien Resurrection, which Whedon wrote, and you’ll know what I’m talking about. For Marvel Studios, it’s a welcome return to form after last summer’s disappointing Guardians of the Galaxy, a film so tethered to the cheesy sensibilities of ’80s action films and sci-fi spectacles that it was downright embarrassing.
To say that the plot of Age of Ultron is preposterous would be to miss the point entirely – and, quite frankly, indicative of cinematic preferences that shouldn’t have drawn you towards this particular movie in the first place. Preposterousness is precisely why we go to see them. After reuniting with the entire Avenger team – Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) – it’s discovered that a staff from Thor’s Asgard realm contains a gem that doubles as an artificial intelligence. Stark hopes to harness that power to create the ultimate global defense system, one that would intentionally eliminate the need for heroes like the Avengers.
After dubbing the proposed system Ultron, the intelligence within the gem becomes sentient and deems that the only real way to save Earth is to exterminate humanity. It then gains a Terminator-like robotic body and takes on the voice of James Spader, and it will occasionally and rather cleverly sing a few bars from “I’ve Got No Strings” from Disney’s Pinocchio. It isn’t long before Ultron builds himself an army of drones – which will, of course, do battle with the Avengers near the end of the film. That’s the point at which Ultron uses technology I can’t begin to comprehend to lift an entire Eastern European city off the Earth’s crust, the intention being to lift it high enough, crash it back into the Earth like an asteroid, and cause a global extinction. If you truly feel the need to question the logistics of this, you’d be better off seeing another movie.
Several important subplots are worked into the main narrative. One involves genetically modified Russian twins; the brother, Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), has superhuman speed, while the sister, Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), has hypnotic and telekinetic powers. I leave it to you to discover where their loyalties lie. Another subplot involves the blooming romance between Romanoff and Banner, which might sound hokey but is in fact handled with surprising sensitivity. Another involves a more personal look into Barton’s personal life, and of that, I will say no more. And then there’s one involving Stark’s personal computer system, J.A.R.V.I.S. (voiced by Paul Bettany), attaining physical form for the first time. How this happens, why, and what impact it makes on the story are not entirely clear to me, but then again, but in the grand scheme of things – which will, of course, only get grander when other Marvel comic books get incorporated into this Cinematic Universe – I don’t think it much matters.
Does it really need to be said that the tradition of giving Stan Lee a cameo appearance continues to be upheld? Or that you must stay for the end credits, for we’re shown midway through a brief sequence that introduces a new character and teases at a plotline yet to be explored? At this point, relaying this information has become redundant. The long and short of it is that Avengers: Age of Ultron is a fun movie, but more important, it’s absorbing and less superficial than the traditional comic book adaptation – and yes, this includes the previous Avengers film. But as I said at the start, my concern that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is reaching its saturation point hasn’t gone away. Ant-Man will be released this July, and holy cow, there are ten more films set for release between 2016 and 2019, one of which will add Spider-Man into the fold. When will enough be enough?