Consider the Hulkbuster. This latest version of Iron Man-Brand Power Armor is huge and heavy and metal, but not without some surprising degree of agility. It comes whipping down in pieces from a dozen directions to encase and protect a smaller version of Iron Man-Brand Power Armor, which itself encases and protects a regular, flesh-and-blood human-type controlling the thing. This mechanized monster stomps, hammers, and, naturally, flies. It also casually tosses automobiles around and demolishes city blocks. It’s a powerful, nigh unstoppable machine wrapped Russian nesting doll-style around a smaller, also powerful machine, with millionaire megamind Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) as its soft, nougatty center.
Replace the character of Tony Stark as the brains buried under all that hot-rod brawn with writer-director Joss Whedon and you’ll have a pretty good grasp of how “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the latest installment in Marvel’s ongoing superhero film franchise, hits the scene. It would be reductive, unfair even, to call this just a sequel to “The Avengers,” since it arrives with not only every key character from that film, many of which — including Iron Man, Captain America (Chris Evans), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) — have of course had their own individual sequels produced since, but pulls along a great number of side-players and storylines from each of those in its wake and then some. On top of that, it adds four new major characters — with full origin stories for two of them —and plants seeds for at least three more films on the horizon. Phew.
This is a dizzyingly gargantuan mission, one which Whedon manages with a good deal of success, but not without some compromises. A machine of this complexity is bound to get bulky, and the sheer volume of information presented, even with a two and a half-hour running time, blurts out in quick blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em bursts between massively uber-choreographed action pieces. The relationships between the myriad of personalities are reduced to a quippy shorthand that, though competently inching each of them forward, allows little room for real engagement. Much of the devil-may-care spirit that made the original “Avengers” film such a refreshing treat has been sacrificed to the whirlwind. There’s little sense of the kind of revelation here that its predecessor exuded with such apparent ease. In other words, the five-pound bag is starting to creak from the strain of the 10 pounds of narrative that Whedon has been tasked with packing in there. But damned if he didn’t get it all in there.
And let’s not forget, we have a Hulk. So check also on smashing. Lots of smashing.
Let’s take a look at the whiteboard. Action? Check. Gunplay? Check. Breathless escapes? Check. Treacherous plan for global decimation? Come on, what are we doing here? Yes, check. Romance? Bromance? Swing dance? Check, check, and, no kidding, check. Angry robots? A whole army of them, actually. Friends become enemies, enemies become friends. Minds get addled, secrets are revealed, backstories are expanded, worthiness is proven, video games are played. Fear, beer, laughter, tears. Death. Whedon famously enjoys killing off his favorite characters, but hey, there’s also new life! (And it wears a cape. Get used to it.) And let’s not forget, we have a Hulk. So check also on smashing. Lots of smashing. Oh, and pathos. The team has gotten very moody, but they won’t let that stop them.
All gossip points to this being Whedon’s last major Marvel rodeo. He’s repeatedly stated that he’s met his goals as steward of Marvel’s biggest cinematic franchise, and it’s telling that at its core, “Age of Ultron” is all about having children and setting them free on the world. The sinister villain at the center of the fight (voiced with wonderful menace and startling humor by the ever-creeptastic James Spader) is a creature created, with all the best of intentions, by Stark to take over where he so desperately wants to leave off. At one point, Stark soberly explains: “It’s the end, the end of the path I started us on.” One can’t help but hear Whedon’s weariness in these words. But he sure is going out swinging. He’s assembled a remarkable team, both on screen and off, and given rise to a kind of storytelling that modern screens have simply never seen before.
To swing back around to the Hulkbuster metaphor, “Age of Ultron” itself is a huge, well-oiled behemoth, with remarkable mass and momentum, and though maybe a shade ridiculous in pure burlitude, it turns on a dime and packs a hell of a punch.