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Avengers: Age of Ultron by Joss Whedon, dir/wr
Review by Drew Bittner
Marvel Studios  
Date: 01 May 2015

Links: IMDB Entry / Show Official Info /

In the course of a raid on Hydra's last major laboratory, Tony Stark (Downey) is shown a nightmare. This sets in motion a chain of events that could well bring about the extinction not only of the Avengers, but of humanity itself.

Those are the stakes in Avengers: Age of Ultron, written and directed by Joss Whedon. It begins innocently enough. The Avengers have been fighting Hydra, trying to find and confiscate the scepter used by Loki in the first movie. Powered by an alien gemstone, this scepter has been used by Baron Strucker (Kretschman) to create "enhanced" operatives; so far, he has two--the Maximoff twins, Pietro and Wanda (Taylor-Johnson and Olsen), who have their own reasons to hate the Avengers.

Avengers: Age of Ultron
CAST:
Robert Downey Jr. – Tony Stark / Iron Man
Chris Hemsworth – Thor
Mark Ruffalo – Bruce Banner / Hulk
Chris Evans – Steve Rogers / Captain America
Scarlett Johansson – Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow
Jeremy Renner – Clint Barton / Hawkeye
James Spader – Ultron
Samuel L. Jackson – Nick Fury
Don Cheadle – James Rhodes / War Machine
Aaron Taylor-Johnson – Pietro Maximoff / Quicksilver
Elizabeth Olsen – Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch
Thomas Kretschman – Baron Strucker

But when the Avengers strike, Strucker's armed forces are not powerful enough. Even the twins cannot do more than slow them down...although Wanda (whose powers include mind manipulation and telekinesis) is able to afflict Stark with the horrific vision described above. She suspects that this seed will blossom into Stark's destruction.

During the fight, Black Widow (Johansson) proves capable of calming the rampaging Hulk (Ruffalo), thus setting off one of the movie's major subplots.

Now that they have the scepter, Stark and his "science bro" Bruce Banner are granted three days to study the artifact before Thor (Hemsworth) returns it to Asgard. They make an amazing discovery; the gem in the scepter appears to be sentient. Stark is fascinated by the possibilities and hopes to harness this technology to make his ambitious Ultron project a reality. Stark hopes to build a suit of armor around the world, creating a robotic peacekeeping force that would make the Avengers unnecessary. Now he has the spark needed to make it happen.

Things don't quite work out, and Ultron (Spader) proves to be psychotically hostile. He first appears during the aftermath of a party in Avengers Tower to taunt the Avengers and obtain something important. Now the race is on to find this maniacal robot before he can carry out his agenda.

Ultron finds partners and then resources, through Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), an amoral arms dealer, and genetics genius Helen Cho (Claudia Kim). He has a plan, after all....

Following the trail to Ultron brings the Avengers up against the twins again. This time, Wanda is able to put the entire team into dreamlands of their own making: Captain America (Evans) imagines the happily ever after he was denied, Black Widow relives the horrors of her graduation from training, Thor sees a celebration in Asgard with horrific undertones...and the Hulk is sent on a berserk rampage. Only Hawkeye (Renner) and Iron Man manage to stay clear, but saving their teammates forces them to break off pursuit of Ultron and his allies. Iron Man ends up fighting the Hulk in his new Hulkbuster armor, a battle that devastates entire city blocks and provides one of the most dynamic set pieces of the movie.

But the battle is far from over. As Ultron's game plan comes into focus, the Avengers must recover from their psychic wounds, pull together, and defeat their enemy--with help from friends new and old. It's going to take some trust, and that may be the hardest challenge of all.

Whedon has crafted a brilliant follow-up to this previous movie, digging deeper into these characters even as many more are added into the mix. It's a herculean task, but he rises to the challenge with crystal clear moments of characterization for just about everyone who has a line of dialogue. He works with a few themes--fatherhood, responsibility, fear of failure--and brings out great performances along the way.

Tony Stark is the engine for this story, pushed into obsession due to his own fear of failing to keep the world safe. He goes too far with Ultron, incorporating (as Thor says) things he doesn't understand into the robot and thus creating a Frankenstein's Monster. Downey plays Stark as clearly as ever, showing us how fear can warp even the smartest into being their own worst enemy.

Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johanssen develop a strong bond in this movie, as Hulk and Black Widow discover shared feelings. We learn a great deal about both of them in the course of the story, and both actors deliver bold yet poignant performances as they dissect their emotions and contemplate their prospects. Johanssen in particular has never been this vulnerable as Black Widow and she elevates the game for the entire movie.

Chris Evans is as stalwart as ever as Captain America, though we see the seeds of discord between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark begin to bloom. Cap is furious that Stark has gone so far without even mentioning the Ultron project to the team, while Stark says that the Avengers isn't a democracy. This conflict will power the upcoming Captain America: Civil War movie coming next summer, but the strained relationship between the two--started in Avengers--builds quite nicely here.

Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye has perhaps the greatest expansion and development in the movie, with some surprising revelations for his teammates. He provides the Avengers with an unexpected place to recover from the fight with Ultron, then becomes an unlikely mentor and even cheerleader to someone who needs his pep talk desperately. His scenes with Quicksilver ("You didn't see that coming?") are some of the best in the movie, and he gets some of the best lines as well.

And James Spader provides Ultron with the sardonic, malicious ferocity that this enemy needs. He isn’t smarmy like Loki or suffused with evil like the Red Skull; he’s just a psychopathic machine with a wicked sense of humor. Whedon skillfully lays out the robot’s plan with his first cryptic utterances, and builds upon that with every appearance afterward. Of all the enemies the Avengers have fought, there is a reason Ultron is one of their worst foes…and that is amply shown in this movie.

It wouldn’t be possible to do justice to the movie without mentioning the work of Paul Bettany, who brings to life one of the Avengers’ greatest members: the Vision. Created to fulfill one agenda, he ends up discovering on his own that life is precious and that he must fight to defend it. Bettany infuses the Vision with the wonder of new life, tempered with the vast intelligence of a mighty artificial intelligence.

With support from allies like Nick Fury (Jackson), War Machine (Cheadle), the Falcon (Mackie) and more, the movie sometimes verges on being a who's who of Marvel characters from its many movies. However, the pacing remains brisk and the addition of more faces never bogs down the action.

With world-spanning action--from New York City to Seoul to the imaginary nation of Sokovia--this is epic movie-making indeed. And Whedon has delivered a second installment that rivals its predecessor for grandeur, storytelling and heart. Amid the explosions and acrobatic fight scenes and mobs of robot drones, there's a lot of emotion and depth packed into this story. If this is Whedon's swan song with Marvel, he couldn’t go out on a higher note.

Highly recommended.

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