Avengers: Age of Ultron is one weird, sad, dark movie. It's about the limits of control, what it's like to live under an occupying force, and how hard it can be to relinquish power.
Not everything about Age of Ultron works, and it feels like a five-hour movie squished into half the time. But long stretches of it are as good as anything Marvel Studios has produced, suggesting a bolder, more ambitious vision for the studio going forward. Marvel is no longer content to create happy, good-time blockbusters; it wants to make art, man, as evidenced by this film and the two that preceded it (Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy).
As with any shift in focus, growing pains are to be expected, and growing pains are certainly present in Age of Ultron. Yet in spite of those growing pains, this is a deeply felt, often very moving film — and one that seems incredibly personal to its creator, which is new territory for Marvel.
How Age of Ultron is like Firefly
The entry in Avengers director Joss Whedon's canon that Age of Ultron most resembles isn't the first Avengers movie. No, it's his short-lived cult sensation Firefly, a TV Western set in space that harked back to the scars left by the American Civil War. The show was at once humane and incredibly melancholy. Many episodes ended not with a space battle, but with the crew of the titular ship sitting around a table, eating together. They were an ad hoc family, but largely because nobody else was around.
The Avengers aren't isolated by the depths of space. They're isolated because they're the Avengers, and nobody else on Earth can really understand what it's like to be something between god and man. That's a realm Whedon plays well in, and if the first Avengers was about the sheer joy of godlike powers, then Age of Ultron is about the loneliness of being human.
In its best moments, Age of Ultron feels like a lost Firefly episode. The characters retire to a safe house somewhere in the American Midwest and take a break from the ongoing mayhem that is their lives. They sit around trying to lift Thor's hammer. They brood about the past, in which they're all forever trapped in some form. (This is a hallmark of both Marvel and Whedon.)
The story, such as it is, is the usual Marvel spectacle. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) harnesses an artificial intelligence named Ultron in an attempt to create a peacekeeping mechanism that might guard Earth. Instead, it starts speaking in James Spader's distinctive voice and, as you'd expect, turns against its creator, aiming to kill everybody in the world. After all, if there are no humans, there can be no violence or war — at least theoretically.
Age of Ultron's action sequences are stronger, on a technical level, than those in any other Marvel film (though there's probably one too many of them), and the story's themes allow Whedon to muse on the nature of humanity and the meaning of life, sometimes quite openly. But the threadbare story merely exists to keep things moving, with throughlines so tenuous that it's almost surprising when you can't predict what's coming next, when a payoff arrives for a setup you didn't even know was there.
After seeing Age of Ultron, I'm not sure I could tell you all that much about the "plot," beyond the basic idea of the characters fighting Ultron in a series of increasingly hostile battles. What stands out most are the film's character moments and tiny grace notes of feeling around the edges of the story.
Whedon tries again and again to top the shot at the end of The Avengers when he used one shot to glide past all of the heroes as they fought an alien menace. He never does, but he doesn't have to. Throughout, Age of Ultron is trying to be more beautiful than spectacular.
This is a movie about failure and human frailty
For the most part, superhero films are formulaic. They follow a set story arc. They introduce a menace, allow the hero to save the world, then move on to the next film in the series. When done well, they're a lot of fun, but they're rarely substantial enough for a full meal.
There have been occasional experiments with the form. Ang Lee's Hulk, for instance, didn't entirely succeed but tried to introduce metaphysical themes and pop psychology to the proceedings. The Dark Knight was mostly a treatise on George W. Bush–era America disguised as a Batman movie. But the Marvel movies, even the really good ones, have often felt more like cogs in a giant machine than anything deeply emotional or personal.
Avengers: Age of Ultron struggles to tell a coherent story, and it tries to cram too many events into its running time. But it's unquestionably a Joss Whedon film, obsessed as it is with things like the human toll of battle, the true nature of heroism, and the hidden fissures always present in otherwise sound communities — fissures that threaten to break those communities into tiny pieces.
The world of Age of Ultron is a grimmer place than the world of The Avengers. People might like these heroes, but they're also suspicious of them, something Ultron can use to his advantage (thanks to the mind-warping abilities of Elizabeth Olsen's telekinetic Scarlet Witch, the film's best new addition to the Marvel universe).
Whedon is obsessed with the idea of people becoming that which they don't want to be — there's Firefly again — and he uses it to great effect throughout Age of Ultron. If it seems like he's rushing through the part where Tony Stark decides to build a giant safety net around the globe (and he is), it's because he wants to get to the part where Tony realizes he's at least a little bit of a supervillain in addition to being a superhero.
It's that focus on human frailty that makes Age of Ultron such a comedown from the first Avengers film — albeit a necessary one. That first film was a "better" one, in that it was more consistent overall, but Age of Ultron is more thematically unified, more thoughtful. It realizes that every triumph is somebody else's horror.
Whedon shoots many of the action sequences from the perspective of bystanders, who could be killed by an errant punch or a Hulk falling from the sky. And it won't matter if said Hulk was trying to protect them or simply raging beyond recognition thanks to the Scarlet Witch's mind-control juice; they're still dead, their lives still snuffed out. You can try to save everybody, but you'll screw up eventually. And then what will you do?
If you had to reduce Avengers: Age of Ultron to a single scene, it'd be one that comes around the film's middle, when Thor (Chris Hemsworth) steps on a child's house made of Duplo bricks, shattering it.
This tiny house is easily put back together, but the team's mere presence has split it into pieces. The heroes will work as hard as they can to be the best people they can be, but their efforts will never be enough — because they are human, just like the rest of us, and human beings always, eventually, fail.
Avengers: Age of Ultron opens Friday, May 1, throughout the country.