Following the runaway success of 2012’s The Avengers, director Joss Whedon found himself with many masters to serve for the the follow up The Avengers: Age Of Ultron. There were the numerous other Marvel Studios’ solo superhero franchise films that dovetail into the Avengers films which could seemingly be in conflict with his own needs as a filmmaker to deliver a movie that stands pretty much on its own, outside of the serialized nature of the individual franchises. There’s Marvel Studios’ hopes that this will at least equal, if not surpass, the first film’s $1.5 billion in global box office receipts. And then there’s what could be the biggest factor – fan expectations. Impressively, Whedon’s manages this juggling act adroitly, keeping a number of balls in the air simultaneously and seemingly never breaking a sweat.
One of Whedon’s favorite things to explore in his genre work is the interpersonal dynamics in his groups of heroes. It was the cornerstone of the success of his film Avengers film where he showed how a group of desperate personalities could come together for a common goal. Here he takes that unity and fractures to show just how fragile these bonds can be. Age Of Ultron opens with the superhero team attacking the stronghold of Baron Von Strucker, the current head of the mad scientist terrorist organization HYDRA from the Captain America films. Whedon shorthands the team’s cohesion in a long, uninterrupted tracking shot of their attack that recalls a similar style shot from the first film’s finale that was used to illustrate the heroes’ first time really worked together as a unit.
But that unity quickly falls apart in the aftermath of the raid, when the team gets divided over Iron Man/Tony Stark’s plan to use some of the technology captured from Strucker to realize a global defense system powered by an artificial intelligence. Of course, things go off the rails almost immediately, as the AI, dubbed Ultron, quickly determines that the Avengers, as well as the human race in general, are the biggest threats to peace around the globe and sets out to rid the world of them both.
In some ways, Age Of Ultron is plotted like a James Bond film. The heroes are hot on the trail of the villain, always a half-step behind and when they do occasionally catch up, there’s a helluva action set piece to be had. This is film is very much a globetrotting adventure from the fictional eastern European country of Sokovia to Africa to South Korea and the midtown Manhattan highrise headquarters of the Avengers themselves. Whedon keeps it all moving at a brisk pace, even allowing some of the technobabble that sprouts up to explain away the creation of Ultron and a new hero to the franchise later in the film to zip by without giving one a chance to think about it all too closely.
Along the film’s two-hour plus running time, Whedon gives fans a lot to love, chief among them a fun slugfest between Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), something that was teased in 2013’s Iron Man 3 with the brief appearance of the Hulkbuster Armor from the comics. Whedon also introduces three new heroes in this film and manages to flesh them out (pun unintentional in one case) fairly well in addition to giving nice character beats to all the returning major cast. Especially well off are the characters of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) who get more to do this time around than last. Whedon also sly uses a character moment early in the film to serve as a setup for a moment later that settles any questions the heroes may have about one newcomer to their group.
That is to say that there is not room for a few quibbles. Known for his quirky, quippy dialogue, Whedon has given virtually every character a couple of comedic one-liners to spout at various points. All of them are funny, but it does feel as if Whedon shot more than he planned on using but then couldn’t bare to cut any of them. Ultron himself (voiced by James Spader) is also rather talky, explaining over and over his motives to anyone within earshot. There are a few things that pop up more as foreshadowing towards the next Phase of films from Marvel Studios than being intrinsically important to this film as a solitary unit. And for all of Whedon’s assertions that this film can be viewed as a standalone feature, a passing familiarity with what has come before – That’s ten films now – will certainly help in getting some of the finer points he includes. But for fans of how Marvel has been managing their interconnected franchises, and I am indeed in that number, this is a film that fires on all cylinders and then some.