The Avengers face judgement day.
We are now nearing the end of Marvel’s phase two of its cinematic universe. Before Age of Ultron, we’ve seen ten of these movies now. Iron Man. The Incredible Hulk. Iron Man 2. Thor. Captain America: The First Avenger. The Avengers. Iron Man 3. Thor: The Dark World. Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Guardians of the Galaxy. You would think that by now, we would be sick of watching these movies. I know I normally would. It only took three Transformers movies for me to get sick of that franchise.
Yet, the people over at Marvel continue to find new ways to surprise me and make me once again believe in its cinematic universe. Avengers: Age of Ultron is its most recent example. The film had a near impossible task: outdoing its 2012 predecessor, which was a brilliantly woven and executed superhero masterpiece in its own right. After succeeding on a grand project that big and combining five multiverses into one fluid narrative, how are you expected to measure up to that in the sequel? Luckily, writer-director Joss Whedon is no fool. He knew what expectations were going to be had for his highly-anticipated sequel. He could have sold out and let the anticipation from the first movie roll in the bank for this one, but Whedon instead did the one thing that most filmmakers are too afraid to do nowadays: he set out to make it better.
Take the movie’s villain as Whedon’s prime example for improvement. Ultron, voice and motion performance by James Spader, is a trash-talking super-intelligent humanoid A.I. created by Tony Stark, a.k.a. “Iron Man” (Robert Downey Jr.) to protect the Earth from supernatural threats. Shortly after his creation, however, Ultron goes rogue and concludes that in order for true peace to be obtained, humanity needs to be wiped out and reborn like the animals from the dinosaur age.
On the surface, this seems like the same story for every robot-rebellion premise: a machine was created to do good, it becomes self aware, and in turn does the opposite of good. And in a sense, this is the same story for every robot-rebellion premise.
The key, however, lies in execution, and Spader as Ultron is the best super villain performance I’ve seen in a Marvel movie to date. Ultron doesn’t behave or talk like other androids. He isn’t stiff, rigid, or robotic like other mechanical characters in film are. Like any of the other live-action actors on screen, Ultron is a fluid, life-like being with his own personality and morals. He’s chaotic and radical in his thinking and behavior, acting more like a psychotic child rather than a logic-driven artificial intelligence.
Considering his creator is the egotistical Tony Stark, I can’t say I’m surprised that his personality is the same. Every Avenger in this film is just as great with each other as they were in the first Avengers movie. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is just as machismo and uncompromising as he is in any of his movies. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is equally as earnest and straightforward, with a few secrets that surprised even me in the theater. Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans) continues his rivalrous dynamic with Stark from the first movie, their contrasting personalities rubbing off of each other so viciously that we can see how it builds up to Captain America: Civil War.
The two Avengers that have the greatest dynamic, however, are Bruce Banner, or the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Here, their relationship expands from the first movie into a conflicted romance between the two. Romanoff is a master assassin with a past she’s neither proud to have nor able to escape from. Banner is the feeble scientist with a monster inside of him that he’s not proud of either. The two don’t feel like they can have a relationship with each other because of their different personalities, but Whedon puts them together with tragically heartfelt honesty here. He finds a connecting theme between the two, themes of loss and regret that makes them turn to each other and rely on each other. I didn’t think it was going to work when I saw these characters at first, but Whedon makes it so compelling that now I can’t see it any other way. Romanoff asks Banner a question in one scene that I think is reflective of their relationship: “Do you still think you’re the only monster on the team?”
Everything else in the movie lives up to the expectations you had in the first movie. The action is unique, visually complex, and eye-popping. The story is layered, intelligent, and dynamic, with characters bouncing witty and thought-provoking dialogue off of each other perfectly. The villain is one of the best and most unique of the Marvel universe, and there’s a few new characters introduced in the film that are done just as well as the superhero team’s main heroes.
Here’s the worst thing I can say about the movie, and really the greatest danger to the Marvel cinematic universe: I’m getting used to it. This is the 11th movie I’ve seen in the Marvel universe now, and I almost know what to expect. I know that I’m going to be surprised and shocked at some of the twists and turns. I know I’m going to enjoy the heroes and villains alike. I know that there’s going to be a lot of action with a noteworthy plot behind it. And, more than anything else, I know the movie is going to expand upon itself and its multiple follow ups.
Marvel has 11 more movies to produce after this for their phase 3, and there’s no telling how many more movies they plan to do after that. With Whedon going on record saying this is his last Marvel movie, I question how well they will be able to continue expanding this universe and doing it well. How much longer can Marvel keep pushing the envelope? I hope I don’t find out soon.