“Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the latest film off the assembly line of the Marvel entertainment industrial complex, is a messy movie. It’s at times overstuffed, its political message is muddled beyond comprehension, and it grinds to a halt about two-thirds of the way in to promote later films in the franchise. By all accounts, it put writer/director Joss Whedon through the wringer creatively, as he struggled to display the movie he wanted to make amid the chaff of megastudio mandates.
And yet, I really liked the movie – maybe even more than the first “Avengers,” a better made movie but one without such a sharp personality. In the first film, the heroes fight generic aliens as they pour out of a black hole to New York City; in the second, they fight endless numerations of one distinct character.
Said character is Ultron (James Spader), an artificial intelligence brought to life by evil coders, Tony Stark (aka Iron Man, played by Robert Downey Jr.) and the computing power of one of the Infinity Stones, the multi-colored cosmic Macguffins that will likely take on more significance as the Marvel Cinematic Universe rolls on. Hoping to create a figurative “suit of armor around the world,” Tony tries to program Ultron to be a preemptive global peacekeeper, a less violent version of what the villainous SHIELD was up to in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Ultron gains sentience and, in one of the movie’s better sequences, adjusts to his surroundings and realizes that we earthlings just aren’t up to snuff in the morality and peacekeeping departments. Gaining access to the Internet, he ports his consciousness all around the world, gains a couple of superpowered friends (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, respectively) and begins working on his ultimatum to human society: either shape up, or I wipe you off the planet.
If that sounds like your average “computer realizes the problem of peace can only be solved by eliminating all sources of conflict” plot, that’s because it is. The movie’s ace in the hole is Spader’s ability to lend his erudite cadence and a surprising amount of humor to Ultron, who spends most of his time in a robot body given convincing life by “Age of Ultron’s” effects team. Marvel is often thought to have a villain problem, with too many of its baddies taking the role of implacable monolith or corrupt industrialist; in “Age of Ultron,” Spader waxes poetic and wry in alternation, scoring some of the film’s biggest laugh lines in the process.
The humor is one of the two biggest reasons to like “Age of Ultron.” Whedon is known for his quippy and endearing dialogue, and it’s on full display here, as each hero and villain gets to deliver a fair share of zingers in between their campaigns of collateral damage. What’s more, Whedon knows how to write these jokers as part of a believable team. These jokes and these characters feel lived in, with each team member – Iron Man, The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and a few others – getting his or her own voice and unique take on the events of the movie.
That’s the other great thing about “Age of Ultron”: Whedon just gets these characters. It’s clear that he’s thought about their personalities, how they fit together on a team and how they work together in a fight. “Age of Ultron” has a number of fun and impressive fight scenes, and most of them involve a form of team fighting that feels seamless, even though it must have taken a lot of time to plan and choreograph (and even the one that doesn’t feature team fighting, a walloping good time between Iron Man and Hulk, gives insights into how those characters tick). Whedon also takes time for character work, particularly for Avengers like Hawkeye, Black Widow and Hulk who don’t have film franchises of their own. Despite the film’s copious fighting and stuffed cast, the character moments really land, and it’s impressive how much room they have to breathe in between the explosions and building collapses (the film’s best scene, when each member of the team tries to lift Thor’s hammer, is grin inducing in its implicit understanding of who each Avenger is).
The film’s obvious charms go a long way toward atoning for its problems, which outstrip many other Marvel movies in their significance. Much like the first “Avengers,” which couldn’t quite decide whether the team was a bunch of do-gooders or a sullen bunch who would only go to war to avenge a friend, “Age of Ultron’s” message is conflicted. “Don’t engage in unilateral, preemptive decision making for others,” it seems to caution, before Stark and Hulk alter-ego Bruce Banner work on a second draft of the Ultron software. Suddenly, however, their morally dubious decisions are completely justified by what is almost literally a deus ex machina – a god on top of a machine, instead of inside it.
That beginning of the third act is where a lot of the problems with “Age of Ultron” stem from. Besides the shaky politics, the sequence also allows for the aforementioned diatribe about the Infinity Stones from Thor. How he figured out about the stones makes no sense on multiple narrative levels, but at that point in the movie, it’s almost as if you can see Whedon shrug, saying, “Don’t blame me. They made me put this part in.”
There are a few other minor issues with “Age of Ultron.” It basically ignores the groundwork laid by “Winter Soldier,” for one thing, and there are a few other moments that don’t quite ring true. However, Joss Whedon made a really fun movie, and if it doesn’t have as much going on upstairs as some of its counterparts, I think that’s OK. It’s not a smart movie, but it’s a very, very clever one, and that covers a multitude of sins.
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