“It wasn’t a nightmare. It was a legacy.”
He may not have been there at the start, but Joss Whedon stewarded the Marvel Cinematic Universe through its make or break stage. It was one thing to give the world high-tech flying fun via a sarcastic playboy, otherworld fantasy come to earth courtesy of a haughty royal, and the ‘aw shucks’ patriotism necessary for a bona fide WWII hero on their own terms. Bringing them together along with even more allies was anything but. Yet Whedon—fearless when it comes to delving into ensemble serials where character must trump plot—found a way. His Avengersbrought the box office to its knees, cemented himself as leader of a billion dollar franchise, and allowed pals like James Gunn and Drew Goddard to join the fun. Marvel’s sprawling behemoth is nothing without creative genius and Whedon fit the bill.
We should be lucky he decided to stay long enough for Avengers: Age of Ultron because the prospect didn’t look promising back in 2012. After an arduous post-production period where he filmed a contemporary Shakespeare play at his own house on the cheap to keep from going crazy in Avengers‘ Hollywood computer-effects hell, Whedon was quoted as possessing no interest in spending another two full years away from original content. I don’t care if money ultimately proves the reason he stuck around because what he’s accomplished on the sequel is exactly what this saga required. With new blood announced to arrive and old trilogies already finding closure (Iron Man) and completing shortly (Captain America and Thor), the moment came to delve deeper than mere battles of good versus evil. These superheroes needed to be reminded of their humanity.
Fighting for the survival of mankind and understanding the power to do so means nothing if you lose what it is that makes you human yourself are vastly different things. And honestly, watching demigods fly through the air with sound wave bursts deafening our ears and growls of rage spilling into melodrama can get pretty boring if the endgame is as obvious as saving (insert city, planet, universe name here). We’ve seen that already, countless times even. No amount of hilarious snark, memorable banter, or comic book nerd Easter eggs can replace a redundant plotline. Especially not when we just saw it three years prior. There’s no differentiating between a swarm of alien Chitauri invading and a robot militia with a destructive hive mind because they’re still just anonymous fodder for dismemberment whether bad skin or metal alloy.
Where Whedon and producer Kevin Feige have brought Stan Lee and Jack Kirby‘s creations is to the brink of implosion. Writing Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) into one cohesive story is difficult for a reason. Success isn’t one’s ability to make it copasetic and in turn a white noise drone. Success is the audacity to embrace the chaos and watch as it authentically rips apart the false sense of order selfless heroics initially manifests. Just because these soldiers are skilled beyond imagination doesn’t mean they are of one mind. They share the same motivation—peace—but the journey towards it is hardly one of acquiescence. With ego comes the fear of failure. With that fear comes tragic mistakes.
So while everything we’ve seen thus far is born of villainy—albeit adversaries with personal grudges originated by the decisions of our heroes—Age of Ultron sees what happens when subterfuge and mistrust from within becomes the culprit. “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has unsurprisingly set us up for this revelation by mirroring the inevitable dissent coming to a head in Captain America: Civil War with its fracturing of S.H.I.E.L.D. by Hydra and those against former director Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) tactics. It’s about the divide between reactionaries (Stark and Banner) and diplomats (Rogers). Do you take a chance at peace with hasty maneuvers at great risk or do you keep applying bandages until a solution appears? At what point does experimentation towards that end make the wannabe savior of freedom into the bringer of its annihilation?
Enter Ultron (James Spader) and the potential for that unwavering voice of peace. Like much science fiction before it, that voice quickly becomes a call for a fresh start. After all, what’s more peaceful than the extinction of those organisms that have ravaged Earth to the brink of apocalypse? The process as relayed in the film is a sound one: if the Avengers created a sentient artificial intelligence capable of destroying life as we know it, wouldn’t erasing the Avengers be the first step towards rectification? Humans like Baron Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) experiment on children to make them into Inhumans (Disney’s mutant stand-ins like Aaron Taylor-Johnson‘s Pietro Maximoff and Elizabeth Olsen‘s Wanda). Human biology is too weak to block the Infinity Stones’ powers. Human mortality drives us off the cliff as we futilely search to prevent it.
To relay these ideas isn’t to simply give us a new war in the streets with civilian casualties and the rebirth of fan favorites. We do need conflict to get us in position, but Ultron is less the “Big Bad” than the Avengers themselves. Whedon thusly lifts the curtain to expose what each character is underneath their costumes. He introduces families no one knew existed, shows the possibility of romance in a vacuum of cold-blooded horror, and once again supplies death in a way that services character evolution above contrived plot device. He humanizes Black Widow and Hawkeye (the latter somehow steals the show), forces Stark to face his insecurities head-on, and instills a reality that any sense of adoration for them must also conjure fear. Absolute power corrupts absolutely whether intentions are pure or not.
This adds up to a two-and-a-half hour action-packed epic living up to Whedon’s promise for a gorgeous, documentary-style visual dance of ground warfare. The plot’s simple: stop Ultron. But the purpose’s scope is wider as nuanced drama prevails over spectacle. Some will dismiss Age of Ultron as a result, but they’ll eventually appreciate its position within the whole. How these heroes progress towards that end is rife with irreparable consequences as their true selves rise to split them apart. It’s a movie with emotional weight and heady psychological implications thanks in large part to Olsen’s dreamweaving supplying a front row seat inside everyone’s minds, slowing things down and further darkening the landscape. Lines are drawn and the public’s blind allegiance tested as Whedon perfectly distills comic books’ ability to shed light on our own naïve hopes for salvation.
Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 141 minutes | Release Date: May 1st, 2015 (USA)
Studio: Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Director(s): Joss Whedon
Writer(s): Joss Whedon / Stan Lee & Jack Kirby (comic book)