Avengers: Age of Ultron 

Avengers: Age of Ultron's spectacle serves a tale of humanity at its best

Avengers: Age of Ultron
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron

Early in Avengers: Age of Ultron, there's a scene that plays to some of the movie's biggest laughs, built around one of the pillars of the Marvel Universe: the fact that the hammer of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) can only be wielded by one who is worthy. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) throw on their respective Iron Man and War Machine gauntlets to get a little power behind their pull; Captain America (Chris Evans) seems to budge it, briefly freaking Thor out. Built on the kind of loosey-goosey character moments that made writer/director Joss Whedon seem like a great choice for the first Avengers, it's a frisky bit of business—and it also happens to be the key to why Age of Ultron is more than just the latest pop-culture machine cranked off the Marvel Studios assembly line.

Because as it turns out, Age of Ultron is fundamentally about what makes humanity worthy. When Stark, inspired by disturbing visions of a ruined Earth, decides to create an artificial intelligence to help protect the world, the result is Ultron (James Spader), an entity that doesn't take long to conclude that humanity itself is the world's greatest threat. And he's got a pair of allies in super-powered twins Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson)—the former a telepath/telekinetic, the latter with super speed—whose own experience with the Stark name was seeing a bomb created by his company kill their parents.

Whedon is choreographing a metric ton of moving parts here, introducing new characters while dealing with subplots for our established Avengers, like the never-before-seen personal life of Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and a budding romance between Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). The movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are part of a great always-forward-looking system, serving up snippets of fan service and setting up down-the-road stories—the African nation of Wakanda, home of Black Panther, makes an appearance—which on some level might always make them more cumbersome and less individually satisfying than they could otherwise be.

But there's also some potent subtext rolling around here, partly kicked off by Wanda getting inside our heroes' heads to make them face some of their darker thoughts. Multiple characters are framed in terms of their "monstrosity": Banner with his out-of-control id; Stark with his often-more-out-of-control ego; Natasha with a history of being trained from childhood to be a killing machine. The threat of Ultron is a threat created by the worst in us: Something our fear tells us we need in order to feel safe, when that good old Rooseveltian "fear itself"—represented here, not coincidentally, by a monolithic consciousness that pokes its way into all electronic communication—is ultimately more damaging.

That's why some of the centerpiece battle sequences here pack more than just a CGI wallop. The donnybrook between Iron Man and Hulk may be a whoop-it-up blast, but it also culminates in a skyscraper collapsing to the ground in a disturbingly familiar plume of smoke and debris. Then the grand finale showdown revolves around not just the obligatory destruction of Ultron's seemingly infinite robot army, but around the previously fragmented Avengers once again pulling together in a crisis, and overseeing the evacuation of thousands of people from a threatened city. Hollywood movies have taken some heat at times for appropriating the visual language of real-world catastrophe, but in Age of Ultron the decision feels earned, because Whedon is making his grand summer entertainment into a story about the circumstances that bring out the best in people, about the self-sacrifice and compassion that we can show when we set aside petty nonsense and pull together.

Of course it's possible to enjoy Age of Ultron without giving such a reading the slightest consideration, full as it is of geeky pleasures and action spectacle; it's equally possible to see it as the latest exhausting pinnacle of the MCU's bigger-faster-more aesthetic. But comic books have always been, in part, a modern mythology, and mythology has always been humanity's way of understanding our place in the world. Sometimes the super-heroism is just brightly colored junk food. And sometimes, it's a way of giving us a glimpse of how we flawed, messed-up, occasionally monstrous humans can sometimes prove ourselves worthy.

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

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Avengers: Age of Ultron
Rated PG-13 · 141 minutes · 2015
Official Site: marvel.com/avengers
Director: Joss Whedon
Producer: Kevin Feige, Jon Favreau, Stan Lee, Victoria Alonso, Jeremy Latcham, Patricia Whitcher, Alan Fine and Louis D'Esposito
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård, James Spader, Samuel Jackson and Thomas Kretschmann
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What others are saying (12)

Boise Weekly Avengers Tops Weekend Box Office With $77.2 Million, Hot Pursuit Flounders Disney and Marvel's comic book adventure has made $312.9 million domestically since debuting stateside ten days ago. by GlobalPost 05/10/2015
The Coast Halifax Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron Still, go just for Thor by Tara Thorne 05/07/2015
New Times San Luis Obispo Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron Ken Korman says the latest installment in the Marvel Universe is missing the original’s charm by Ken Korman 05/04/2015
9 more reviews...
Portland Mercury Avengers Disassembled The hits and quips of Avengers: Age of Ultron. by Erik Henriksen 04/29/2015
Colorado Springs Independent Celluloid heroes assemble in Avengers: Age of Ultron Age of Ultron is fundamentally about what makes humanity worthy. by Scott Renshaw 05/06/2015
Gambit Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron Ken Korman says the latest installment in the Marvel Universe is missing the original’s charm by Ken Korman 05/04/2015
Inlander Good Goes Bad The Avengers have to fight themselves in the CGI-happy Age of Ultron by Maryann Johanson 04/29/2015
Creative Loafing Atlanta ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ makes heroic effort to extend Marvel universe Joss Whedon’s heroic juggling acts get cluttered in ‘Avengers’ sequel. by Curt Holman 05/01/2015
Seven Days Avengers: Age of Ultron by Margot Harrison 05/06/2015
Boise Weekly Avengers: Age of Ultron Scores Second Biggest Opening In History Globally, "Avengers: Age of Ultron" is a juggernaut, pulling in an estimated $627 million in 12 days of release. by GlobalPost 05/03/2015
Charleston City Paper While not as good as its predecessor, Age of Ultron still delights How do you improve on the third highest-grossing movie of all time? by Dan Hudak 04/29/2015
NUVO Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron The superhero spectacle is fun during explosive action sequences and "downtime" character moments. by Ed Johnson-Ott 04/28/2015

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