When Joss Whedon took the job as director of “The Avengers,” he had a specific challenge to overcome. Even after the success of the individual movies featuring Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, it seemed like a nearly impossible task, juggling so many giant personalities in one coherent story.
Now the challenge is very different for him as writer/director, because he's following up one of the biggest films of all time, and he's also laying groundwork for the entire next phase of movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The last time a director found himself in a similar position with Marvel was Jon Favreau on “Iron Man 2,” and it's interesting to see the ways Whedon has responded differently, and the ways in which he's fallen into some of the same traps. Make no mistake… “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” is both a better film and a better sequel than “Iron Man 2,” but I think it's clear at this point that as long as Marvel continues to build one large interlocked continuity, there are certain stumbling blocks that they will continue to face with the movies.
There is a ton of material to enjoy in “Age Of Ultron” for fans of each of the characters to enjoy, and for the first time, it feels like everything, from the heroes to the villains to the plotting, all serves a single theme. On that level, “Age Of Ultron” is a fairly impressive piece of work. Whedon has managed to bring all of these characters to a crisis point at the same time, and then set them up against a nearly impossible threat, and it's obvious that what he wants most is to see what happens to the Avengers after they've been pushed to this particular breaking point. And the action in the film is, honestly, some of the most direct-from-the-comics comic-book action ever captured on film. In the moments where it all comes together, like the sure-to-be-iconic Hulkbuster sequence, this is the very model of what Marvel's been chasing since day one.
While I enjoyed “Iron Man 3,” its existence makes much of Tony Stark's journey in this film feel like a stutter. At the start of this film, Tony is still preoccupied with creating suits that can do the job of Iron Man without the man inside. The problem is that none of the robots are truly capable of thought or judgment, so they can't be the permanent solution that Tony is searching for.
The film opens as in-media-res as possible, with the Avengers launching an attack against the castle where Baron Von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) has been developing new HYDRA weapons and conducting the biological experiments we saw hinted at in the final moments of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” What's fun about the way Whedon handles the Avengers in the action sequences now is that he makes sure to come up with new ways to play with their powers, both individually and as a team. It's not just punch, punch, punch, and there are some big laugh-out-loud gags.
Once they run into Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), though, they find themselves tested in a whole new way. Wanda has the power to reach into people's minds and bring out the fears she finds there, making them seem real. She is a bad trip, and when she reaches into Tony Stark's mind, what she finds there is this yawning fear that he's still dealing with, caused when the sky above New York opened and an alien army spilled out. He got a glimpse at the other side of that hole in the sky, and he's afraid of what happens next time. He feels like it was luck that saved the day, and he is determined to remove chance from the equation.
I don't want to start to pull the story apart until you have a chance to see the film, so you can expect an in-depth post-release piece, like we've done with some of these films in the past. There's an entire character I am reluctant to discuss. Right now, there's still a lot of press that hasn't even had a chance to see the movie, and it's going to start rolling out in overseas theaters starting tomorrow, so spoilers will be everywhere. Just not here.
Instead, I'll say that the things that work best for me in this film are the human moments. There's a knock-out scene between Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce (Mark Ruffalo) in the middle of the film that's just a conversation, but it's one of the most electric moments in the film. It could only come now, this far into the series, because we've had time with these people, and we've got a sense of history that can be played with. It feels like Whedon decided to go overboard making it up to Jeremy Renner for writing him as a mind-controlled zombie for most of the first film, and the result is one of the best character arcs in the film. Hawkeye emerges as a fully-formed personality this time, and he's enormously enjoyable. I expect fans will be vocal about him and about everything that happens between Natasha and Bruce, and that there will be phone-books full of fan fiction picking up the threads that are laid out in the film.