Written & Directed by Joss Whedon
At this point, 11 films into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I really must say that I’m largely surprised by how little I remember about the specifics of these films. Given, they’re not ones I’ve seen time and time again like so many of my favorites films, especially action films. But having seen them upon their initial release, and it being recent relatively speaking, the details of each eluding me is a bit of a mystery, especially as someone who largely defends the franchise as a successful, entertaining series of film worthwhile. I’ve covered it at length, but this largely has to be due to their overall mediocrity, right? But that they somehow build together into something more over time where eventually its such a renowned franchise that great filmmakers actually get a crack at putting their touch on the formula? Well, Joss Whedon returns to the Avengers series specifically, and the results are much better than his first outing, but still lagging behind the recent successes of Winter Soldier and Guardians.
I wonder if any of that has to do with the completely bonkers cast of characters having to come together as a nondescript ensemble. After the digressions of SHIELD in both The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) pleads with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to help him harness the power of Loki’s sceptre to enhance his JARVIS AI to build an army of Iron Legion to help protect the planet. When the experiment goes horribly wrong, Ultron (James Spader) is born, vowing to protect the planet by destroying humanity, which after 2020 so far, I can’t say I blame him. The Avengers (Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle) must assemble to fend off Ultron, who has called upon Hydra-created baddies Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) to help carry out his plan.
What immediately strikes me about this movie is the fact that the villain is of Stark’s own creation. He literally, in all of his ignorance, built the bad guy that all of them had to then fight off. Time and again Stark has done this and what really hit me this time was how he basically went behind everyone’s backs to do it, and then did it again to create Vision (Paul Bettany). Vision is awesome, and I’m glad he’s a character, but Stark really thinks the solution to his AI villain is to create another AI instance? Pretty shaky and arrogant logic if you ask me and even more reason to dislike the character of Stark. He assumes he knows best, even against the pleading of his peers in some instances. Which also, I don’t for a second believe Banner would willfully help Stark in creating Ultron. He knows better.
But with all that said, once you get past Stark setting the stage for the evil to unfold, it’s a pretty good film. It’s especially satisfying seeing the cast interact with each other in this outing. Particularly, the party scene where they all give Mjolnir (Thor’s Hammer) a go is very funny, and a great bonding moment between the team we haven’t had to time to explore yet. In a way, this whole movie is an opportunity to slow down and spend time with the Avengers and explore their humanity. We get the Banner/Romanoff romance and few very nice moments between them, we get to see behind the curtain of Clint’s life and the sacrifices he makes to be an Avenger, his friendship with Nat. These are small, quiet, human moments we’ve largely been lacking to this point in the franchise as we’ve bulled straight ahead to see the superpowers and how they can fend off the baddies in the coolest ways possible. It makes the film run a little longer than any before it, but the scenes are essential to being able relate to our heroes on a true human basis.
The humanity also sets up well against the AI driven motivations of Ultron, creating a nice, clear dichotomy of good and evil. We also get introduced to two new, interesting characters in the Maximoff twins (Taylor-Johnson and Olsen). And I think their ultimate conversion to the side of the Avengers further highlights that humanity. They are dead set against Stark (and for good reason and honesty who could blame them), but when they see what Ultron is planning, their opportunity to break away from both Hydra and Ultron, we get to see how the human psyche can be damaged, influenced by horrific events, motivated by evil, but also brought to the light of humanity when their vision is cleared of hate. It’s really a surprisingly effective entry after the mess of Whedon’s first Avengers movie, but I was pleasantly impressed. It doesn’t slap as hard as Guardians and isn’t as narratively taut as The Winter Soldier, but it’s further extension of the growing momentum of quality within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.