The task of bringing together Earth's mightiest heroes took Joss Whedon into uncharted territory with 2012's "The Avengers," and, despite the weight of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on his shoulders, the results were staggeringly entertaining. The task of making a sequel to that ground-breaking, monumental event film, however, and being expected to deliver on par or better results, is an entirely different beast.
"Avengers: Age of Ultron" was definitely built on the bullet point takeaways of "The Avengers," which are: Make time and space for wit, banter and humor for the sake of humor to prevent the film from taking itself too seriously; give each character a story arch and independent moments; choreography clever action sequences with well-timed glory shots. These components are in full force in "Ultron" and make enjoying the blockbuster as easy as shoving a lollipop in your mouth.
Yet "Ultron" is infinitely more complex than its predecessor. The number of heroes featured barely fits into a single action figure play case, meaning more subplots and back story, in addition to creating an arch of the creation and life of Ultron itself. With a plot that takes the Avengers from the eastern European country of "Sokovia" to New York to the African nation of "Wakanda" to Seoul, South Korea to Sokovia again, much of "Age of Ultron" is a non-stop blur.
The film opens with the Avengers leading an assault on a secret HYDRA facility where they have located the staff that Loki used to lead the Chitauri invasion in "The Avengers." When they secure it and bring it back to New York, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) discover that its power source contains a blueprint for artificial intelligence, which would allow Stark to proceed with his Ultron project, an initiative to create peace-keeping robots that could defend the world in place of the Avengers should another alien invasion occur. When Ultron (voiced by James Spader) becomes conscious, however, he interprets his peace-keeping instructions as an imperative to wipe out humankind.
Added to the mix are the Maximoff twins, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) – also known as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch – who decide to serve Ultron, with the latter using her powers to give each of the Avengers dangerous visions that could tear them apart.
The fight scenes and action sequences are in such abundance in "Ultron" that it's impossible to remember them all, and the ones that are most distinct, such as Iron Man chasing down and taming a rampant Hulk using his Hulkbuster armor, are ancillary to the narrative of finding what Ultron is up to and stopping it. In other words – it's all for show. The creativity of the fight choreography also gets lost in the whirlwind of action. Captain America (Chris Evans) probably does 12 different awesome things with his shield, but they happen so fast you'll be hard pressed to recall any one of them in detail. Really clever sequences are only as fun as the build-up and payoff and those pieces are given no time to breathe.
Whedon does allow for pauses in the chaos, such as the swanky Avengers Tower party featuring the film's best scene, when each Avenger tries his hand at lifting Thor's hammer, or a quiet retreat to an unexpected safe house in the countryside, but it's simply a trade- off: instead of busy action sequences, we get character relationship dynamics and back story.
"Ultron" is inundating, to be frank, but for the everything-but-the-sink mentality, it's carried by its sense of humor and a cast whose members have each proved themselves time and again to be magnetic both on their own and as part of this team. Some of the novelty has worn off, but seeing all these characters together remains a treat that even the most convoluted of stories cannot entirely dismantle. Marvel Studios truly proves with "Ultron" the credibility that it has built with fans, to the point that even when it gets a little ambitious and mettles a bit more (you can easily see Whedon at odds with them in this final cut), its reputation remains intact and the fans placated.
As "Phase III" begins, adding even more characters to Marvel's cinematic universe (and even sliding Spider-Man into the mix) en route to the two-part "Avengers: Infinity War" slated for 2018 and 2019, it will be interesting to see if Marvel Studios barrels along into more unwieldy but delicious chaos, or reins it in a touch. Either way, should be fun.
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