by Philip Price
Organized chaos. Organized chaos is what best describes the sequel to the third biggest movie of all time. How does one top the first culmination of the first cinematic universe? Sure, bigger is always better (and ‘Age of Ultron’ certainly feels bigger), but more it is the combination of broadening the scale with that of keeping the characters compelling and their story moving forward. As always, whether it be trying to manage the multiple characters or the overarching storyline that the Marvel Cinematic Universe intends to execute some things get lost in the shuffle. This is to be expected, more so with the characters than the storyline as Marvel and head honcho Kevin Feige seem to have a pretty clear picture of where things are ultimately going if not allowing each director their own wiggle room to implement their own ideas and ambitions. Within this wiggle room we are given the titular baddie of this second ‘Avengers’ film in Ultron. While Thanos has been making minuscule appearances since he first showed up in that mid-credits stinger on “The Avengers” and would seemingly be Marvel's biggest bad of them all, Ultron seems to be the deviation that Joss Whedon wanted to explore and thus proved a solid enough distraction to carry the Avengers through this soggy middle ground and onto the third act of this cinematic universe they've been constructing. While Ultron is a compelling piece of artificial intelligence as far as characters go with James Spader providing a maniacally dark humored mentality to the intimidating "murder bot" the evil robot’s motivations are always a bit muddled. Covered up by flowery speeches and philosophical mumbo jumbo about the only way to peace being true extinction Ultron is given no motivation for his actions beyond being programmed in such a way. A program that is too smart for its own good who hijacks any physical form he can in order to execute his plan. This is all well enough reason to give earth’s mightiest heroes someone to fight, but it's the weakest link in an otherwise sprawling production that is everything we want it to be. Everything we've been waiting for.
Diving right into where “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” left off, S.H.I.E.L.D. is in shambles and our heroes have reunited to locate Loki's scepter that was stolen after the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the reveal that Hydra was still very much alive. The scepter landed in the hands of one Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) who then gathered volunteers among the rioting population of Sokovia to use as test subjects for the scepter’s power. Most of the volunteers died as a result of these experiments, but twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) gained some interesting powers. It is in this reclusive, castle-like estate where Strucker resides with his Hydra henchman that we begin and watch on as writer/director Joss Whedon careens through a barrage of action pieces as if flipping through the pages of a comic book with his team of super heroes laying waste to all that stand between them and the scepter. They of course retrieve the scepter, but not without the caveat of Wanda's Scarlet Witch beginning to stretch her mind manipulation muscles. Before Thor (Chris Hemsworth) takes the scepter back with him to Asgard, both Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) intend to run a few tests, check a few things and generally just satisfy their intelligence cravings by being afforded the opportunity to examine an alien instrument. Within the scepter’s gem, the mad scientists that are Iron Man and Hulk discover an artificial intelligence, one that Stark is keen on applying to his global defense program so as to keep our little blue rock safe from any more Chitauri-like invaders. Unbeknownst to Stark, Ultron is surprisingly sentient thus inherently inclined to eradicate the earth of the human race that hinders its possible prosperity. After he escapes with the scepter, Ultron uses the resources in Strucker's Sokovia base to build an army of robot drones and recruits the Maximoff twins to assist him in his quest. This of course leads Captain America (Chris Evans) and the rest of the Avengers including Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow and Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye to stop Ultron before he fulfills his destiny.
Naturally, there is so much more to the story than this it would be impossible to give a broader description of the events without going into specifics. Being able to paint a clear picture though, which the film ultimately does, is an achievement in itself as this could have easily been a mess of confusion instead of the aforementioned organized chaos it turns out to be. In comparison to this, Whedon had it easy on the first ‘Avengers.’ Already having his villain in place, the core story clearly focusing on bringing these several different characters and storylines together with the built in novelty of seeing these guys all together for the first time gave Whedon plenty to roll with and while it is still required he hit certain story points and connect certain strands it can't help but feel that large portions of ‘Ultron’ were at his disposal as far as what he wanted to show the Avengers actually doing. The initial issue a movie like this faces is the idea people have about a movie like this. The thought process doesn't go much further past the initial thought of how cool it would be to see all of these players team-up for an all-star game. Of course that would be cool to see, but once they're in place what are they going to be doing? This is the part typically dismissed in light of it just being a neat idea, but with ‘Ultron’ Whedon is able to take it a couple steps further than the initial introductions and climactic if not obligatory final battle sequence from the first ‘Avengers’ planting his follow-up firmly in the thick of everything.
I'll go ahead and put it out there despite the fact I'm somewhat cautious given I've only seen it once and this could end up being a knee-jerk reaction, but I firmly believe I liked and enjoyed this more than the first film. I make this claim fairly comfortably though due to the fact ‘Age of Ultron’ serves as everything we've been waiting for, everything we've been looking forward to from these movies since the promise of the Avengers initiative was made in the first “Iron Man.” This isn't the pilot that the first film was, no, this is a mid-season finale where we all know the characters well enough for no exposition to be necessary and we see the throughline plots of several episodes prior come together to create a layered and satisfactory story that just so happens to be aided by top of the line special effects and gigantic action scenes. With this kind of mentality, Whedon wastes no time in spinning his wheels and giving fans what they desire because he knows what he would want to see were he going to an ‘Avengers’ movie. Besides watching these larger than life characters interact with one another and deepen their relationships, begin more serious ones, welcome individual friends into the larger group (it really is great seeing Don Cheadle's Rhodey and Anthony Mackie's Sam Wilson just hanging out with everyone else at Avengers Tower) it is refreshing to see them work together with no inhibition. At this point, Marvel is so self-aware and self-deprecating that it is hard to imagine anyone hesitating to embrace the ridiculousness of something like the ‘Avengers’ (here's looking at you, Banner), but in allowing these relationships to flow so naturally due to Whedon's witty banter and character building it in turn allows each personality to contribute to the ever-broadening scope these movies exist within. This only makes each new film all the more closer to the ideal we all held for these movies when we were kids watching Saturday morning cartoons and wondering what it might be like to see this in real life.
Speaking of character building, it truly is astonishing that Whedon is able to accomplish as much as he does in a nicely paced two hours and 20 minutes while including as many action set-pieces and scenes exclusively designed to further extraneous stories. Downey Jr. is still the captain of this ship, delivering on every level we have come to expect from him as the genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist and now sole benefactor of the Avengers. While Stark is the eldest of the group, Banner is right there with him and the inspired friendship between the two continues to hold strong throughout ‘Ultron’ as they debate the pros and cons of their meddling in matters seemingly not meant for mortal men. Ruffalo continues to shine as the beaten down Banner who really comes through in the big green guy as well. While the main focus on Banner this time around comes in the form of a budding relationship with Johansson's Natasha Romanoff both are served fairly through the plot device of Scarlet Witch's power that offers insight into both Romanoff's past and a breakthrough for Thor that puts him on the path of a kind of existential journey to figure out the meaning of his own hallucination. Whedon is able to flesh out Renner's Clint Barton much more this time around as well whereas instead of having him brainwashed for the majority of the film Renner is given ample opportunity to let an actual personality shine through while introducing the world and his fellow Avengers to his family that includes wife Laura (Linda Cardellini) and two children with one on the way. That, on top of all of this, Whedon is still able to seamlessly introduce the twins, another major character in Paul Bettany's Vision later in the film and use that introduction to tie-in Thor's crisis of the mind to the ever developing story of the six Infinity Stones is somewhat exceptional and deserves to be applauded if not re-watched and appreciated more with the time and perspective that the movies to come after it will offer.
At the heart of all of this though is Chris Evans’ Captain America. I am still slightly in awe that Evans was able to take what, on paper, was the most boring of heroes in his earnestness and righteousness and create not only a compelling character out of him by simply being a decent man, but more a charismatic leader. As much as Tony Stark and his legacy (a theme still intact here) is the bedrock of the Avengers there are no qualms that Cap is the leader and while Whedon manages the screen time and quality of one-liners between Steve Rogers and Stark with good measure it is who we are looking at right before the credits roll who will continue to hold this cinematic universe together.
While much of the issue with creating a cinematic universe like Marvel has done comes with not really relishing in the film at hand but more moving so rapidly on to the next one that ‘Age of Ultron’ is forgotten the moment we leave the theater, this entry should really be given the opportunity to relish in itself. The scale of some of the action sequences is breathtaking, the focus on the safety of human life is vital and reassuring with the camera work in which Whedon works his choreographed fight scenes through and around revealing themselves to be nothing short of stunning on the big screen. Even the color palette and bleaker tone coupled with the globetrotting aspect of this chapter that doesn't keep things strictly stateside give the film a larger breadth than that of the more compact and cartoony first film. There are obviously flaws with this sequel; I've already expressed my major issue in the fact Ultron's introduction and lack of genuine motivation feels rushed in an attempt to keep things moving and jump into the major conflict as quick as possible despite Spader providing a charming villain. That out of the way though, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is, of course, a huge, bombastic piece of mainstream pop entertainment that plays into everything any jaded cinephile will tell you is wrong with the movie industry today, but damn if the pre-ordained movie of the summer isn't actually pretty good and wholly satisfying on an interconnected universe of childhood-like wonder level that no other film can match even if they tried.