Avengers: Age of Ultron opens with the titular team attacking a Hydra base in the fictional Eastern European nation of Sokovia. They manage to reclaim Loki's scepter, but along the way Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is struck with a vision of the world's destruction. To address this, he attempts to harness the power of the scepter to build an artificial intelligence, one that he hopes will protect the world from further alien incursion. With the help of Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), he actually succeeds. But what he ends up creating is Ultron (James Spader), a rogue AI whose idea of bringing peace to the world involves destroying the Avengers and the rest of the world with them.
The first Avengers movie felt like the culmination of something. The first phase of Marvel superhero movies were all building to this one climax, where Earth’s mightiest heroes banded together to face a threat that none of them could face alone. Age of Ultron, in contrast, is still trying to build to bigger things. It feels like a transition, just a necessary step towards the bigger finale that the brain trust behind these films has planned for the years ahead. It is still a very entertaining movie filled with amazing visuals, stronger direction, and excellent performances. But it does feel like it’s straining under the weight of competing concerns.
Representing the transitory nature of the film is its villain, Ultron. The first film ended with a tease of big, terrible things to come from the unknown reaches of the universe. Ultron is a pretty cool villain in concept, but the film never really allows him to be the threat that he could be. This is technically a film about the singularity, about the terrifying point wherein artificial intelligence outpaces man’s capacity for advancement. But the film limits itself mainly to physical encounters, its superintelligent villain apparently lacking the imagination to do anything beyond sending wave after wave of drones after the heroes.
Ultron, in spite of a strangely fun performance from James Spader, never quite brings the menace that the big villain should. And thus, the villain and the entire film end up feeling like placeholders for bigger developments to come. This is not to say that the film doesn’t have its joys. It’s full of fun, great moments. It finds time to leverage on the growing history between the characters, building moments of grace amongst the wanton destruction. And the destruction itself is pretty compelling. Director Joss Whedon continues his growth as a builder of action set pieces. Though it gets cluttered at points, the action sequences never lose their clarity.
And this cast is just phenomenal together. All their arcs feel a little truncated, but the actors more than make up for the deficiencies in the scripting. Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is given the most development in the script, and he doesn’t waste the opportunity. Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo act their way out of what could have been the corniest moments in the film. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth are clearly having fun just bouncing off each other. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olson are fine additions to the cast as well, even though they are saddled with vaguely defined Eastern European accents.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is in every way bigger than the first movie. Unfortunately it also means that it’s more unwieldy. What is accomplished in this film is actually quite astonishing. It is amazing that the film can be as coherent and as entertaining as it is, given how much it has to set up. It builds so much more of the world of these movies, introducing new characters, teasing out big developments, and setting up conflicts to be resolved down the line. But as well done as it is, it feels like a bit of a letdown. The movie just can’t exist for itself. It’s just the next step to a story that has no signs of ending.