At the genesis of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the titular heroes are assembled, together, united. Whatever word you’d choose to describe it, our first glance at Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is when they’re working together as a well-oiled machine, the disparate heroes assaulting one of the last remaining Hydra bases in the war-torn country of Sokovia. This coordinated assault, slickly choreographed, directed and written – the sarcastic quips and knowing winks at the audience come as rapid fire as the bullets from Hydra automatic weapons – is what our heroes hope to be the final attempt at recapturing the scepter that a certain unnamed and unseen infamous Norse god used to cause so much trouble not so long ago.
The mission is a success, of course – what force can possibly withstand the likes of the Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and such well-timed quips? – and the scepter falls back into the hands of heroes, the ones who are fighting for “peace in our time.” The quest for peace will allegedly be greatly aided by the scepter due to the force contained within, a force that, according to Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, so completely resembles an evolving algorithm that it could finally power the Ultron project, an artificial intelligence that would act as such an efficient planetary defense that the Avengers could take a well-earned break.
Unfortunately for the Avengers – and, I suppose, all of mankind – Tony Stark’s brilliant mind is too full to have catalogued any of the Terminator films. Ultron (voiced with gravity by James Spader) has other ideas as to how his abilities should best be utilized. While “peace in our time” looks a lot like the end of war and the beginning of harmony to the Avengers, to Ultron it looks a lot like the complete eradication of mankind, the race responsible for the start of all wars to begin with, starting first and foremost with Stark and co. As if an all-knowing, omnipresent artificial intelligence that can regularly upgrade itself wasn’t bad enough, joining Ultron in his quest to eliminate the Avengers are Sokovians Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), whose telekinesis and speedster abilities respectively (“he’s fast, she’s weird”) are also a product of the recovered scepter and whose hatred for our heroes comes courtesy of the Stark Industry bombs that took their parents years ago.
Avengers: Age of Ultron upholds the trend of comic book movies in upping the ante and stakes after its series and characters have been established, but bucks the trend when it comes to an uptick in quality (X-2, Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, Winter Soldier). The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been an exercise in ambition and organizational coherence since the release of Iron Man, but few would argue that Joss Whedon had the most difficult task in following up a film that capstoned the first convergence of individual, dynamic properties with a second capstone film that has to simultaneously generate new challenges for pre-established characters whose motley journeys have been depicted multiple times before while also propelling the entire cinematic universe forward by introducing new threats and challenges. The fact that Age of Ultron is even as strong as it is stands as a testament to Whedon’s skill as a writer/director and his ability to understand what makes the MCU work and what makes comic book movies exciting and memorable outside of slick action set pieces.
The problem with Age of Ultron has nothing to do with Whedon and everything to do with his responsibilities as a cog in the MCU machine. While Whedon is one of arguably only two filmmakers who have left their personal stamp on an MCU film (James Gunn’s impossibly fun Guardians of the Galaxy being the other), he’s just charged with too much to do for Age of Ultron who hold together completely. On top of introducing new themes and threats to an already expansive cast of characters, Whedon also has to introduce new characters both heroic and villainous with their own backgrounds and eccentricities and give them all enough time and attention to be both interesting and relevant to the narrative. In some cases, specifically when it comes to crafting new conflicts amongst the pre-established heroes, it works magnificently, but the new faces, including the titular big baddy, come off as far too thin and boring.
What results is an alleged threat to mankind that, despite some impreesive soliloquies delivered by Spader, never feels very threatening. The far more interesting bits in Age of Ultron are found in the old bits, or more specifically, how Whedon is able to refocus the lens on the characters we already know and examine in great intimate detail how bringing together the greatest powers on Earth doesn’t mean that peace, both external and internal, will be easy even if they did foil an alien invasion once before. Whedon shows a tremendous ability to examine the conflict that can arise between disparate egos and how collateral damage and escalation will likely always be a threat to those who have dedicated their lives to a cause greater than themselves.
Admittedly, Age of Ultron feels less fun than The Avengers, but it also feels more important in what it’s trying to settle, what it’s trying to set up and what it’s trying to represent outside of just a summer tentpole. It’s not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, but who else besides Joss Whedon could’ve done better with the monumental task at hand?