Even before the opening credits roll, we're knee deep into a snowy fight scene. It's an incredible piece of filmmaking, as the camera spins around capturing all the Avengers - Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo)- take down one of the remaining Hydra strongholds. The slow-to-fast motion, the speed of a chase, the bone-crushing punches and the general martial arts gymnastics that takes place is breath-taking. And we're barely 10 minutes into the movie. It's just an appetizer for the buffet that will follow.
It wouldn't be a Joss Whedon film without the counterbalance of genial camaraderie and one-liners to go along with massive action scenes. And like in the 'Avengers,' most of them work even when in the heat of the battle it seems flippant and cheesy.
One of the other huge set pieces involves Hulk versus Iron Man's Hulkbuster that appeared in TV spots. What was in those trailers was a fraction of the battle as it best compares with the much-criticized fight sequence between Superman and Zod in 'Man of Steel.' The two combatants toss each other around amid a terrified downtown population of people. It's a brutal and extensive fight causing much destruction. Whedon had said in interviews that he wasn't interested in "destruction porn." However, no matter how diligent our heroes may be about public safety it's nearly impossible to keep people out of harm's way when you're destroying entire cities. Maybe the 'MoS' critics will jump on Whedon too. I doubt it.
Tony Stark, with help from Bruce Banner, unwittingly unleash Ultron (James Spader), the artificial intelligence program that was designed to bear the burden of protecting the Earth so the Avengers wouldn't have to, and the sentient system embodies an ever-changing robotic shell to exterminate Earth's greatest threat, mankind. Oops.
And at the top of the food chain are Ultron's first targets - the Avengers.
Ultron reasons, much as Ra's Al Ghul did to Bruce Wayne in 'Batman Begins,' when a civilization reaches its peak it needs to be reset. It becomes an extinction level threat as it builds an army of drones to aid in the destruction. Ultron comes across as creepy and villainy as you'd expect. Spader's voice is sometimes chilling, often menacing but surprisingly full of personality for a robotic terminator. Ultron becomes the most dangerous villain yet to be featured in a Marvel Studios movie. Although in the third act it becomes awfully reminiscent of the first film. It's like "The Battle of New York" only longer but similar stakes.
Ultron's enlightened view of humanity is that mankind is its own worse enemy. It's a common theme in science fiction where dystopian worlds have been doomed by man's wanton greed and arrogance. The metaphor here indicts our institutionalized military industrial complex where problems are solved with troops and a big bomb. You can imagine that's the impression we give to first-time observers of our human history.
This time around, Clint Barton gets to participate as a full-time Avenger on screen after spending most of the first film under mind control. Barton is charming, self-effacing and totally aware of his place on the Avengers totem pole. You need a sense of humor when don't wield a mighty hammer, wear an armored flying suit or transform into a green giant. Renner does a great job of portraying Barton with humor but also with pathos and integrity. Especially when we learn more about his backstory. Hawkeye is more of an integral part of the story.
Since Marvel refuses to give Black Widow her own solo film, Natasha Romanoff's backstory is also squeezed into Age of Ultron. Even though it does feel shoe-horned into the film, her memories of the Red Room are disturbing and saddening but the repercussions of that training are even worse. Johansson is convincing in her monologue as she reveals those traumatic events giving Black Widow a more human, vulnerable side behind all the ass-kicking. It would have been nice to have further explored her evolution in her own film, but Marvel was not interested.
The rumored romance of Black Widow and the Hulk were true but a complete distraction and unconvincing as well. I don't now why the filmmakers felt the need to pair her up with someone as it added nothing to the movie. Making her the Hulk-whisperer was an interesting angle that played out beautifully on the screen as she gingerly touched the great big CGI hand of the Hulkster to calm him back down to Bruce Banner size. It was a gentle moment that was nice, but the romance itself felt forced and neither participant really invested in it.
New to the Marvel Cinematic Universe were the highly anticipated arrivals of speedster Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the chaos magic-wielding Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson). Bad Russian accents aside, the "enhanced" (can't say mutants) siblings fit right in. As the Maixmoff twins, Taylor-Johnson and Olson looked fully invested in their roles as the two hurt and helped the Avengers. They became a powerful addition to the franchise.
One of the exhausting things for Whedon has been not only having to tell your movie's story but also allude to other upcoming movies in the MCU. It adds more run time to fit in these bread crumbs that lead to Thor 3 or Cap 3. As a fan watching in a theater you end up wondering where is Thor going? Why is he shirtless and in a lake with electricity? Not that we minded but how does that help the movie I'm watching? The answer is simple. It doesn't. So there'll be plenty of easter eggs to go over because you'll want to watch Age of Ultron more than once anyway.
The best thing to come out of the movie was the Vision (Paul Bettany). His first appearance is quite exhilarating and exciting. The character design is amazing with such intricate detail and seamless CGI work. The surface of his face is especially mesmerizing. Bettany, no longer just the voice of Jarvis, is wonderfully stoic and charming as the newly birthed android. I can't wait to see more of the Vision going into the next phase of Marvel movies.
'Avengers: Age of Ultron' is bigger but not necessarily better. It has a lot of things going on for one movie. Reportedly, Whedon's final cut was over three hours which makes sense considering the amount of characters and storylines. It could have used less phase 3 connections, shorter action scenes, and a more original ending.
With all that said it's still a great summer blockbuster full of excitement and laughs. It's not perfect, but it's like 'Transformers' in scale and scope with more heart and humor. It doesn't rank above the first Avengers film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, or Guardians of the Galaxy but it's worthy of repeated viewings. Partly, because you kind of have to when things in the MCU are "all connected."