The third cautionary tale, albeit a pulpy, comic-book one, about the pitfalls and perils of artificial intelligence (A.I.) in as many months (e.g., Ex Machina, Chappie), Avengers: Age of Ultron, the not unexpected, over-marketed sequel to 2012’s The Avengers (Disney/Marvel had more than $1.5 billion reasons for making a follow-up with all deliberate speed), delivers almost everything its predecessor did, an A-list superhero team-up filled to overflowing with writer-director Joss Whedon’s (Much Ado About Nothing, Firefly/Serenity, Angel, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer) chemistry, conflict, and banter, the best CG-aided superhero-on-supervillain spectacle a reported $250 million-dollar budget could buy, and the by now costumery set-up for subsequent entries in Marvel’s perpetually expanding, shared superhero universe, formally known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), but minus the novelty and newness that made The Avengers a refreshingly singular moviegoing experience just three years ago.
Avengers: Age of Ultron opens in mid-battle as the Avengers, Tony “Hubris” Stark / Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers / Captain America (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner / Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor / Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Clint Barton / Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), pursue Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), apparently HYDRA’s last remaining holdout, to his super-secret base in Sakovia, a fictional Eastern European country, to recover two-time supervillain Loki’s super-powered scepter (a/k/a, this entry’s McGuffin-of-choice). Von Strucker is a bad, bad man using Loki’s scepter presumably for pure evil, up to and including genetic experimentation on Wonder Twins Pietro Maximoff / Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff / Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), gifting and/or cursing Pietro with super-speed and Wanda with telekinesis and telepathy. The Avengers temporarily retrieve Loki’s scepter while Stark, still haunted by the alien invasion the Avengers barely defeated the last time they assembled, uncovers research in von Strucker’s base that could help him restart a dormant A.I./peacekeeping program, Ultron (ably voiced and mo-capped by James Spader), a program meant to protect the Earth from global threats, thus eliminating the need or rationale for the Avengers.
Putting the “cautionary” in “cautionary” tale, Stark foregoes informing the other Avengers about the Ultron program (with the exception of fellow geek-brain Banner), because genius-level, billionaire industrialists always know best (until they don’t, of course). Moments after becoming self-aware, a petulant, sullen Ultron (he has Stark daddy issues, not to mention the emotional maturity of a preschooler) decides the Avengers are the problem, not the solution to whatever global threats will find their way into the MCU; likewise (later) with the entire human race. If nothing else, Ultron doesn’t discriminate. He doesn’t see race, religion, or nationality. He just sees a problem (humankind) and a relatively simple solution, the Dalek-inspired extermination of the human race by creating an extinction-level event, replacing us with non-sentient, non-aware robots. Prone to grandiose pontificating and monologuing typical of comic-book supervillains, Ultron has to be one of the most egotistical, narcissistic A.I.’s ever put on film (everything from Colossus: The Forbin Project to The Terminator’s SkyNet program have Ultron covered on the genocide side, though).
With SHIELD in literal shambles (see, e.g., Captain America: The Winter Soldier for more info on that score), Stark Tower has been rebuilt as Avengers HQ. There’s room for a robot-building facility, a state-of-the-art research facility, and several floors set aside for R&R and the occasional blowout party. Stark’s throwing one when a newly activated (or “born”) Ultron decides to crash the party in a badly assembled robot body, deliver a painfully on-the-nose speech about puppets and strings, and unleash the robots (as opposed to dogs) of war on the Avengers. They escape, of course, only slightly worse for wear, while Ultron retreats to Sakovia to put his Avengers and humanity destroying plan into action. Said plan involves the Wonder Twins, the search for and retrieval of the rarest of rare metals, vibranium, the same rare metal used to create Captain America’s nearly indestructible shield during World War II, the creation of a new synthetic body for Ultron, and a final, suitably epic, if ultimately exhausting, showdown with the Avengers. Along the way, the Avengers appear at each globetrotting step to stop or slow Ultron (they fail at the former, semi-succeed at the latter).
Oddly, Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn’t bother addressing Stark’s decision at the end of Iron Man 3 to give up the Iron Man armor and retire (more or less). Starting Avengers: Age of Ultron in media res with an action sequence helps moviegoers set aside Stark’s status (assuming they’re even bothering to ask). It also keeps Pepper Potts conveniently offscreen (she’s busy running Stark Industries); likewise with Thor’s (one-time?) non-demigod girlfriend, Jane Foster. Whedon relegates Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) to desk duty back at Avengers HQ (taking calls, jotting down messages, and conducting the occasional Internet search as needed). Even that’s better, however, than the Avengers: Age of Ultron’s other female character of any significance: She’s a mother, a wife, and apparently nothing else. Given Whedon’s reputation for strong female characters in his non-Marvel work, the lack of well written female characters is all the more disappointing.
To be fair, out of the Avengers’ Big Four (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk), only Banner/Hulk gets any character development in Avengers: Age of Ultron (Hawkeye gets his own maudlin, rote subplot). Whedon romantically pairs up Banner and Black Widow. Whedon briefly fills in Natasha’s backstory via flashback to her pre-SHIELD days in Russia. Both, it seems, have had their share of emotional traumas and alienating experiences. making their relationship, if not inevitable, then believable in the broad strokes typical of the MCU. Banner, of course, hasn’t overcome his Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hulk problem (i.e., untreatable anger management issues), making a romantic relationship between Banner and Natasha likely doomed to fail. Whether it lasts or not, their relationship gives the Avengers: Age of Ultron its emotional core. Considering the multiple subplots and characters, fan service, corporate branding (primarily, though not exclusively, through sequel seeding/set-up), and obligatory budget-busting, attention-straining set pieces that Whedon had to juggle across the Avengers: Age of Ultron’s 141-minute running time, anything even hinting at emotional depth or complexity underneath the spandex and the CG spectacle is especially welcome.