Avengers: Age of Ultron Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth. Directed by Joss Whedon. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.
The Avengers didn’t really become the Avengers until their first movie was nearly over, so it’s a thrill to see the superhero team in action together immediately as Avengers: Age of Ultron opens. The action rarely lets up after that opening sequence, with writer-director Joss Whedon spending 141 minutes cramming in as much superheroics as he can possibly manage.
As such, Age of Ultron can be a little unwieldy, but when it works, it works really well. Like the first Avengers, Age of Ultron is the culmination of the latest phase of Marvel superhero movies, as Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) follow their recent solo adventures by teaming up, along with second-tier heroes the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). This time around, they’re joined (eventually) by the telekinetic Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and the super-speedy Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who start out as agents of mega-baddie Ultron (played via motion-capture by James Spader).
That’s not even counting the various supporting characters, most of them familiar from other Marvel movies, who show up for a scene or two, or the brief cameos that hint at developments to come. In the first Avengers, Whedon did a great job of balancing all these characters, and managed to fit in character development for some of the underserved ones. Here, he does the same, especially with Hawkeye, who spent most of the first movie under a mind-control spell. Both Iron Man and Captain America still carry the emotional baggage from their previous solo movies, which Whedon incorporates without letting it bog down the plot. Those two characters end up at ideological odds over Iron Man’s creation of Ultron, a self-aware machine designed to save the human race that, of course, decides the best course of action is to kill everyone on the planet (apparently Tony Stark had never heard of Skynet).
In Ultron, Age of Ultron has a better antagonist than the previous movie (which recycled Thor nemesis Loki and teamed him up with some generic aliens), and the advantage of having the team together at the start is that Ultron can then spend the movie tearing them apart. Whedon stages some decent action sequences, but his biggest strength is the character dynamics, and he’s able to demonstrate in a few lines of dialogue what each character values and how that might create tension with their teammates. Iron Man and Captain America face off over the big-picture issues, while their fellow Avengers deal with more internal difficulties. Hawkeye’s everyman status contrasts with his superhuman colleagues, and Black Widow and Hulk find an unexpected (and not entirely convincing) romantic connection over their shared traumatic pasts.
The clever dialogue and well-drawn characters inevitably take a backseat to the overblown action and the sometimes confusing plot, though, and Whedon fulfills all the obligations of a big-budget superhero movie. He does what he can to insert meaningful questions about heroism and teamwork along the way, asked by people whose relationships genuinely matter. But the Marvel juggernaut bows to no one, and Age of Ultron eventually steamrolls over even the most carefully crafted drama.