In their cinematic incarnation, postmodern superheroes go back at least to 2001 and the first X-Men film. Audiences in 2015 are no strangers to heroes living with dark pasts, deep hurt, or inner conflict.
But what makes Marvel Studios’ ever-growing cinematic universe consistently enjoyable is its ability to balance all that inner turmoil and conflicting philosophy with the levity and quirk appropriate for a summer blockbuster. This approach, introduced in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man and perfected in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, has given us a range of films that are as thoughtful as they are fun to watch.
Avengers: Age of Ultron, the second film to gather all of Marvel’s current cinematic protagonists under one roof (also written and directed by Whedon), continues this tradition. It explores the relationships introduced in the first Avengers film and builds off the changes each character has experienced in the individual films released since (Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier).
Age of Ultron picks up with Earth’s mightiest heroes raiding an enemy base in the fictional country of Sokovia. There, they encounter Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), a pair of twins who receive superpowers as the result of experiments. Pietro has superhuman speed, and Wanda has the ability to alter minds and matter. The twins harbor a justifiable grudge against Iron Man Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.); his company, Stark Industries, was responsible for creating the military weapons that killed their parents and turned Sokovia into a shelled-out ruin.
But the Maximoffs are secondary in the face of the film’s real villain, Ultron. Stark, still shaken from the alien invasion of the first Avengers movie, creates Ultron with Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner (Hulk) to serve as a first line of defense for the Earth against extraterrestrial threat. But things go awry, and Ultron develops a personality (played masterfully by James Spader) and, in essence, becomes a warped version of Stark himself, believing that the only way to save Earth from threat is to destroy what he perceives as its greatest: humanity.
From the first Avengers film, Whedon has shown that his primary interest, apart from the utter coolness of watching Hulk destroy a city block, is the dynamics of the Avengers team. This is a group of people with different backgrounds, ideologies, and agendas who might never have come together on their own. That they are forced to work together under impossible circumstances forces those tensions to their breaking point, but also creates a sense of camaraderie that’s thrilling to watch in action.
Working within the conventions of postmodern superheroism, Whedon also addresses the side effects of frequent exposure to violence. It might seem ironic that Captain America (Chris Evans), introduced as the ideal patriot, is one of the group’s more peace-loving members. But as the sole military veteran on the team, his outlook makes sense for someone who’s sacrificed a lot in battle. When he tells Stark, “Every time someone tries to end a war before it starts, innocent people die,” you know he speaks from experience.
That’s not to say that the film’s continuity is perfect across the board. There are some characters whose actions don’t fit, and some subplots that feel unnecessary. However, given the amount of material, and the lengthy running time, it’s to the movie’s credit that it never feels strained. Addressing the evolving relationships of a team of six superheroes is a lot to ask of any director. That Joss Whedon is able to address the changing beliefs and needs of each of the characters in Age of Ultron is impressive to say the least. That he does so in a way that feels believable is, well, pretty marvelous.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is out in theaters now. WATCH the trailer here:
Abby Olcese is the Advertising Assistant for Sojourners.