4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

A Few Too Many Strings — Avengers: Age of Ultron

Throughout their comics history, the Avengers have had several recurring villains. While Loki brought them together in 1963, he was more Thor’s specific problem. Over the years, they kept coming back to fighting against the various incarnations of the Masters of Evil, the time-traveling tyrant Kang the Conqueror, alien invasions from Kree and Skrull both, and the sentient indestructible robot Ultron.

Therefore, having the second Avengers movie have the team face off against Ultron probably seemed completely natural.

Ultron was originally created by founding Avenger Henry Pym (a.k.a. Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Goliath, Yellowjacket, etc.). It was a classic Frankenstein situation, where the created tries to destroy the creator. Made of indestructible adamantium and programmed with an artificial intelligence based on Pym himself, Ultron has proven an implacable foe to the Avengers over the decades.

One of the best Ultron stories, and one of the primary inspirations for this movie, was the “Ultron Unlimited” storyline by Kurt Busiek and George Pérez in Avengers Volume 2 in 1999 that had Ultron taking over the nation of Slorenia, a story that includes one of the greatest crowning moments of awesome in comics history, when the Avengers—battered and bruised, their costumes in tatters—crash into Ultron’s headquarters, and Thor declares, “Ultron, we would have words with thee.

Changes needed to be made in order to work Ultron into the MCU. Ant-Man was already in separate development, which made including Pym problematic. Also, while Roy Thomas could get away in 1968 with a biochemist creating a robot with artificial intelligence, even though those are two wildly separate scientific disciplines, it makes much more sense for the guy who created a tin suit that has an A.I. interface be the one to create Ultron. So it’s Tony Stark who creates the monster (aided by Bruce Banner).

Joss Whedon was brought back to write and direct the movie, and besides all the heroes from Avengers, they brought in a few more besides, expanding Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch from their mid-credits cameo in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and also introducing the Vision.

Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch were originally created as villains, members of Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, in Uncanny X-Men #4. (Much later, they were revealed to be Magneto’s children.) They, along with another reformed villain, Hawkeye, joined Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in Avengers #16, forming “Cap’s Kooky Quartet,” after the remaining founding Avengers all quit. The Vision was introduced around the same time as Ultron, a creation of the villainous robot that would later turn on his creator (irony!) and become one of the longest-tenured Avengers. A synthozoid formed using the android body of the original Human Torch from World War II and using the brain engrams of Simon Williams (a.k.a. Wonder Man), the Vision would later marry the Scarlet Witch, though their relationship didn’t last.

Because both the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are considered both X-Men and Avengers characters, rights to them had to be negotiated. Marvel Studios got to keep the Witch, while Quicksilver was primarily the domain of Fox’s X-films, with the former getting to use him only in this film.

Back from Iron Man 3 are Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Don Cheadle as War Machine, Paul Bettany as J.A.R.V.I.S. (and also debuting as the Vision, which uses Stark’s A.I. as a template), and Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk. Back from Thor: The Dark World are Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Stellan Skarsgård as Eric Selvig, and Idris Elba as Heimdall. Back from Captain America: The Winter Soldier are Chris Evans as Captain America, Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow, Anthony Mackie as the Falcon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver, Elizabeth Olson as the Scarlet Witch, and Thomas Kretschmann as Baron Strucker. Back from Avengers is Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye. Back from appearances on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter are Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill, Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, and Henry Goodman as Dr. List. Back from Guardians of the Galaxy (which we’ll cover next week) is Josh Brolin as Thanos. Introduced in this film are James Spader as the voice of Ultron, Claudia Kim as Dr. Helen Cho, Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue, Julie Delply as Madame B., Linda Cardelini as Laura Barton, and Kerry Condon as F.R.I.D.A.Y.

Downey Jr., Cheadle, Bettany, Olson, Johansson, Renner, and Condon will next appear in Captain America: Civil War. Evans, Mackie, and Atwell will next appear in Ant-Man. Hemsworth will next appear in Dr. Strange. Ruffalo and Elba will next appear in Thor: Ragnarok. Brolin, Jackson, and Smulders will next appear in Avengers: Infinity War. Serkis will next appear in Black Panther.

 

“We’re mad scientists, we’re monsters—we have to own it”

Avengers: Age of Ultron
Written and directed by Joss Whedon
Produced by Kevin Feige
Original release date: May 1, 2015

While S.H.I.E.L.D. has been destroyed, there are still Hydra remnants around the world—and they have Loki’s scepter. The Avengers reassemble to track down those remnants and to retrieve the scepter. They finally find it in the stronghold of one of Hydra’s leaders, Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, who has been using the scepter for human experiments in a base in Sokovia in Eastern Europe. Most have failed, but the two successes were Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, who now have powers—he’s super fast, and she has bizarre telepathic and telekinetic powers that enable her to manipulate energy and also give people visions. At one point, she gives Tony Stark a vision that shows him his greatest fear: the Chitauri returning, and all the Avengers dead (except for him).

The Avengers are triumphant over Hydra, though the Maximoffs get away. Strucker is captured and the scepter is retrieved. Natasha Romanoff is able to talk the Hulk down to get him to change back to Bruce Banner. Stark and Banner ask Thor if they can study the scepter for a few days before he returns it to Asgard, and Thor agrees—plus there needs to be a celebration, since they finally brought down the last of Hydra.

Stark and Banner have been spitballing a notion called “Ultron,” which is a next-level A.I. that can protect the world more efficiently than superheroes. The jewel in the scepter—which is the mind stone, one of the six Infinity Stones (the Tesseract holds another, the space stone, while the Aether from Thor: The Dark World holds the reality stone)—appears to Banner and Stark to be a much more advanced version of the electronic “brain” that is J.A.R.V.I.S. Stark thinks this is the key to making Ultron a reality. Banner is less sanguine, especially since Stark insists on not telling the rest of the team because he doesn’t want to have the argument.

They work for a couple of days, then set it aside for the party—however, during the party, a consciousness awakens…

The party itself includes not just the Avengers, but also Maria Hill (who works for Stark, mostly coordinating the team’s at-home efforts and tech support), Sam Wilson (who mentions that he’s still working on his and Steve Rogers’s “missing persons” case from Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Dr. Helen Cho (who is working on synthetic tissue, which will revolutionize medicine so much that we’ll never hear about it again after this movie), Jim Rhodes, and a bunch of World War II veterans, presumably invited by Rogers (and one of whom looks just like Stan Lee). Hill’s complaint about the lack of women is met with Stark and Thor pridefully going on about how awesome their girlfriends are, with Pepper Potts too busy running Stark Enterprises and Jane Foster too busy working astronomy gigs around the world to attend the shindig.

As the party winds down to just the Avengers (plus Hill and Rhodes), Clint Barton insists that the inability of anybody save Thor to lift the hammer is a trick. Thor insists that only the worthy can lift it, and most everyone takes a shot at it (including both Stark and Rhodes together trying to lift it with their armored gloves). Notably, Rogers actually very briefly budges it a little bit, while Romanoff refuses to even try, saying it’s a question she doesn’t need answered.

Then one of the “Iron Legion”—J.A.R.V.I.S.-controlled robots that are similar to Iron Man—enters speaking in a different voice from J.A.R.V.I.S.’s. This is Ultron, who says he will bring about Stark’s desire for peace in our time. Ultron has seemingly destroyed J.A.R.V.I.S., and now controls the rest of the Iron Legion, who do battle with the Avengers. While Thor is able to destroy the robot itself, Ultron’s consciousness has fled into the Internet and could be anywhere, and the Iron Legion has made off with the scepter.

Thor is pissed that they have to track down the scepter again. Rogers is pissed that Stark kept this from the rest of the team, though Stark is mostly surprised because the A.I. shouldn’t have been this far along.

Ultron retreats to the Hydra base in Sokovia. Strucker was trying to duplicate Stark’s work with robotics, and Ultron takes over one of his robots. He recruits the Maximoffs, who are orphans, their home having been destroyed by missiles made by Stark Enterprises during their weapons-manufacturing days. Ultron’s desire for peace is matched by his desire to destroy the Avengers (a corruption of Stark’s desire to make the Avengers unnecessary), and the Maximoffs are on board for that.

The twins attack several locations around the world, including Strucker’s cell, killing him and spelling “PEACE” on the wall in his blood. The Avengers dig into the files on Strucker (stuck with paper files, as Ultron has erased the online records), and Stark recognizes one of his contacts: Ulysses Klaue, an arms dealer. Thor notices a brand on his neck, which Banner identifies as the character for “thief” in Wakandan. That gets Rogers and Stark’s attention, as Wakanda is the source of vibranium, the metal Cap’s shield is made out of—they’re worried that Klaue may have access to more of it, even though Stark’s Dad thought what he used for the shield was all there was.

The Avengers attack Klaue’s stronghold, but Ultron and the Maximoffs get there first. Ultron pays Klaue an exorbitant amount for the vibranium he’s got in storage for a rainy day, but then cuts off Klaue’s arm—Ultron had said something Stark once said to Klaue, and the arms dealer says Ultron and Stark are alike. This pisses the robot off something fierce.

When the Avengers arrive, they do okay against the robots, but not so well against the Maximoffs. Wanda gives Rogers, Romanoff, and Thor visions. She tries to give Barton one, but he sees her coming and attaches an arrow to her forehead that disrupts her thoughts. (“Already tried the mind-control thing. Not a fan.”) Pietro rescues her and then she gives Banner (who was staying in reserve in the quinjet) a vision. We don’t see what Banner sees, but he changes into the Hulk and starts rampaging through Johannesburg. Iron Man summons “Veronica,” his Hulkbuster armor and fights him, trying and failing to get him out of the city.

Romanoff is unable to help bring him down because she’s catatonic from visions of the Red Room where she was trained/brainwashed back in Russia. (An earlier version of this is also seen in season one of Agent Carter.) Rogers sees himself making it to the end of World War II and getting to dance with Peggy Carter. Thor’s vision is a bit odder, and includes a seemingly blind Heimdall.

Stark manages to subdue Banner, but only after considerable damage, and his rampage is now all over the news. With Banner now public enemy #1, the Avengers need to lay low and recuperate. Barton is the only one in decent shape, so he takes them to a “safe house”: his home in the country, where his pregnant wife and two kids live. Everyone (except Romanoff, who is called “Auntie Nat” by Barton’s kids) is stunned by this, as they had no idea. Barton says that Fury kept his family out of the records. Laura Barton welcomes them to their home. (Romanoff is upset that little Natasha is actually going to be Nathaniel, and she says, “Traitor” to Laura’s womb.)

Fury also shows up and gives the Avengers a pep talk. Thor, however, is concerned about his vision, and goes off on his own. Romanoff flirts more aggressively with Banner, offering to go away with him somewhere, even though they have no chance of the type of life that Barton has. Fury also informs the Avengers that Ultron has been unable to get his hands on missile launch codes, as they apparently have an unknown ally keeping Ultron from getting everything he wants. He does have vibranium, however.

Stark goes to Oslo to try to track down Ultron’s location. Dr. Cho’s work means she might be a target, and sure enough, Ultron is using her synthetic tissue machine to make a new body, which will be powered by the mind stone. As Ultron starts to download himself into the new body, Wanda can read his mind and sees that he intends to destroy the world. Horrified, the Maximoffs betray him, and Ultron is forced to leave without completing his work.

Rogers, Maximoff, and Barton arrive in Korea and get Cho medical help and go after Ultron. The Maximoffs make it clear they’ve switched sides, and help the Avengers fight Ultron. Romanoff is able to steal the synthetic body and give it to Barton, but Ultron escapes with a kidnapped Romanoff.

Stark and Banner discover that J.A.R.V.I.S. only pretended to be destroyed—he’s the one fighting off Ultron in the cybernetic aether. They start to upload J.A.R.V.I.S. into the synthetic creature, but Rogers and the Maximoffs try to stop him.

Then Thor shows up and actually finishes the job. With the help of Eric Selvig he tapped into the vision Wanda gave him—he now knows that the jewel in the scepter is, like the Tesseract and the Aether, one of the Infinity Stones. Ultron’s vision of a perfect synthetic person may be their only hope of defeating him.

The Vision, as he calls himself, actually is able to wield Thor’s hammer, which impresses everyone. While the Vision isn’t sure what he is yet, he knows that Ultron needs to be stopped, and they can only do it together.

Romanoff manages to get a short-wave radio signal out from Sokovia that Barton picks up, and the Avengers—now including Pietro and Wanda—suit up and head to Sokovia.

Ultron has created a crapton of robots that serve him, and has also used the vibranium he bought from Klaue to create a massive engine that can lift the capital city of Sokovia into the air—and then, once it’s high enough, drop it to create an extinction-level event similar to the asteroid strike that killed the dinosaurs.

Fury shows up with an old helicarrier that he put together with help of the secret remnants of S.H.I.E.L.D. (as established in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series) along with War Machine, and the Avengers work to evacuate the citizens of Sokovia. Banner frees Romanoff, and the latter kisses Banner then pushes him off a ledge so he’ll change, as they need “the other guy.”

Wanda protects the engine’s “off switch” that will make it drop to the earth (this after she freezes during the fight and Barton has to give her a pep talk). The rest of the Avengers fight Ultron and his minions and also evacuate the city onto the helicarrier. Pietro is killed saving Barton and a little boy.

Once the city is evacuated, Stark and Thor are able to blow up the city before it can strike the ground. The last robot that has Ultron’s consciousness is trying to escape in a quinjet, but the Hulk jumps on, throws Ultron out, and flies off, refusing to tell anyone where he’s going. (Fury later thinks that the quinjet may have gone down in the ocean, but we’ll find out in Thor: Ragnarok that he got way further away than that.)

Ultron lands, wounded, on the ground, where he’s confronted by the Vision, who reluctantly destroys him.

While Banner is gone, the rest of the team regroups and recovers. Stark takes an old facility of his in upstate New York and converts it to a new Avengers headquarters, with Fury, Hill, Selvig, Cho, and some more ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agents providing support. Thor needs to find out why so many Infinity Stones are suddenly showing up, and he goes off to do that, while Stark is, once again, quitting being Iron Man. (Which, as usual, will last only until the next movie.) That leaves Rogers in charge of a team that includes himself, a sad Romanoff, Barton, and four new members: the Scarlet Witch (Wanda), the Falcon (Wilson), War Machine (Rhodes), and the Vision.

Somewhere in space, Thanos, having grown frustrated with the inability of his minions to gather the Infinity Stones—and having actually lost the one he had—decides he needs to take matters into his own hands.

 

“The city is flying and we’re fighting and army of robots and I have a bow and arrow—nothing makes sense”

Age of Ultron comes in for a lot of criticism from several different directions, including the guy who wrote and directed it, as Joss Whedon bristled under Marvel’s creative control, and—after he was one of the driving forces behind Phase 1 and the beginning of Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—this proved Whedon’s swan song in the MCU (beyond his pretty much completely honorary executive producer credit on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).

The thing is, this is actually a very good Avengers story. It’s a solid team adventure with a major foe, high stakes, lots of true heroism, and some good character development.

It’s not as good an Avengers movie as it could be for a number of reasons. For starters, it’s horribly overstuffed. There’s just so much going on here, and a lot of it gets shortchanged, even with the two-and-a-half-hour running time. Thor’s vision is something of a mess and doesn’t really make any sense (doesn’t he already know about the Infinity Stones, why does he need to go to the Cave Of Magical Visions with Selvig to learn about them?). Baron Strucker—a powerful villain in the Marvel Universe on par with the Red Skull—is here reduced to an idiot who surrenders cravenly to the Avengers and is killed off camera. Dr. Cho is creating a revolutionary technology, but it’s only there as an excuse to create the Vision, and neither she nor her invention is ever even mentioned again. And the Fury ex machina at the end with the helicarrier that was just lying around is poorly done. (At least Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. did some work to set it up, for the few people who were still watching the show at that point.)

The ones who suffer the most are the Maximoff twins. Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch (though they’re never called that) really are underdeveloped, and are little more than plot devices. Wanda messes with Stark’s head—and that’s it. She doesn’t follow up, just lets the Avengers go, and it’s at least in part due to Wanda’s mind games that he creates Ultron in the first place. Each time she whammies an Avenger, it’s a horrible violation of their privacy and person, and yet later on, she’s accepted into the team with barely a comment. (To be fair, the one who is most accepting of their reforming is Barton, the one person whose mind she didn’t mess with, which was a nice touch, following Hawkeye spending most of Avengers as Loki’s butt-monkey.) More to the point, though, supposedly she wants to defend the innocents in her homeland against warmongering types, yet her manipulation of Banner leads to Johannesburg being trashed. Yes, this tracks with both characters’ arc in the comics of going from villains to heroes (and back again, as both Pietro and Wanda have reverted to evil at various points in their history), but it doesn’t have time to really be acknowledged or dealt with because there’s too much else. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen do quite well in the roles—Taylor-Johnson’s laid-back sarcasm is well played, and Olsen’s face is remarkably expressive—but they don’t have nearly enough to work with. I also still can’t tell you what Wanda’s actual powers are. To be fair, I’m still not entirely sure what the comics character’s powers are, either. In both cases, her powers seem to be “whatever the plot calls for.”

I absolutely adore James Spader as Ultron. Given that it’s a creation of Stark, and given the spectacular smartassery of J.A.R.V.I.S., having Ultron be a version of Stark’s snottiness (by way of Raymond Reddington) makes perfect sense, and Spader’s obviously having such a good time as a sociopathic robot. Mention must also be made of Andy Serkis’s gusto-laden performance as Klaue (which he’ll repeat with even more gusto in Black Panther).

However, as strong as Spader and Serkis are, they aren’t the real villains of this movie—Tony Stark is. It’s his hubris that leads to the creation of Ultron. Yes, he redeems himself somewhat at the end, but still, he’s the one who not only creates Ultron (with Banner’s help, yes, but it’s pretty clear who’s the alpha there—something Stark himself dings Banner for during one of the arguments), but goes to great lengths not to tell the rest of the team because he knows full well that what he’s doing is wrong. If he wasn’t, he’d be okay with everyone else knowing. In particular, of course, he doesn’t want to get into an argument with Captain America, probably because he knows he’ll lose. (Of course, that won’t stop him next time, but we’ll get to that when we cover Captain America: Civil War in the summer.)

In many ways, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a chronicle of Stark’s constant attempts to better himself, repeatedly ruined by his spectacular inability to get out of the way of his own arrogance and certainty that he’s right. He’s a massive narcissist who desperately wants to be a hero, but that very narcissism gets in the way every single time. And the human race is almost extinguished because he refuses to believe that he needs to be accountable.

One of the biggest issues with this film, besides it being overstuffed, is that the script really doesn’t come together. It may be the most boring script with Joss Whedon’s name on it in history. Where Avengers is full of quotable lines and memorable dialogue, there are only flashes of it here. And so much of the scripting is clumsy and unclear. A perfect example is the conversation between Romanoff and Banner, where the former tells the latter about how she was sterilized to remove any distractions from being a killer. She then describes herself as a monster, and this movie came in for a lot of flack for Romanoff saying she was a monster because she couldn’t have kids—that wasn’t what she meant, she was referring to her near-brainwashing as an assassin for the Russians, but the scripting was so klutzy that it was an easy interpretation to make.

Banner’s story arc also moves along nicely, as the Hulk’s rampage through Johannesburg makes it clear that he’s a menace to humanity, and he takes himself off the playing board in the end, making sure no one can follow him. (And they won’t find him until Thor stumbles across him in Thor: Ragnarok.) Having said that, the fight between Iron Man and the Hulk is simply endless, going on about ten minutes too long.

Finally, one thing I particularly admire about this movie is the same one I admired about the last Avengers movie, that their priority is saving lives. I appreciated it a lot more in 2015, two years after suffering through the destruction porn that was Man of Steel, where the only hero who can match Captain America for purity of purpose doesn’t seem to give a shit that he’s leveling an entire city. (We’ll get to that around the end of March.) From the opening fight against Hydra, which was a beautifully choreographed battle, an excellent start to the movie, when Strucker endangers the civilians of Sokovia, to Iron Man’s battle against the Hulk to the final conflict with Ultron, our heroes are, first and foremost, in the business of saving lives. Hell, even Stark’s idiotic plan to put the world in a suit of armor comes from a place of trying to save as many lives as possible.

This is a decent Avengers story, one that shows them settling in as a team. There are some great set pieces, some strong character development, and some spectacular fight scenes. Honestly, the whole movie’s worth it for the scene where half the team tries and fails to lift Thor’s hammer, and for the delightful revelation that Barton has a family (and of course Romanoff’s a virtual part of it). It could’ve been a lot better, but it also isn’t nearly as bad as its reputation.

 

Next week, we head into outer space and meet the Guardians of the Galaxy.

The next book in Keith R.A. DeCandido’s fantasy/police procedure series, Mermaid Precinct, is now available for preorder on Amazon in both Kindle and trade paperback form. Read an excerpt from the novel here.

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