In Avengers: Age of Ultron the charismatic, if misguided, platinum piece of artificial intelligence known as Ultron (James Spader) declares that his mission is “peace in our time.” While his actions later on in the film suggest otherwise, there is something inherently compelling about his perceived purpose. For all the carnage he causes, Ultron genuinely believes that he, not the Avengers, is the hero that the world truly needs. The most piercing dagger to his robot pride does not come from the tip of one of Hawkeye’s arrows, but rather from a smuggler, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who mistakenly assumes he is nothing more than one of the many robotic servants of his creator/father Tony Stark (Robert Downy Jr.).
Much like Daredevil’s villainous Wilson Fisk, who also suffers from his own parental issues, Ultron is blinded by a vision of humanity in a downward spiral. One where its saviors are not the police or people in spandex suits, the real heroes are the visionaries willing to make the tough choices to ensure that the world evolves into something better.
Ultron’s glowing eyes do not see Tony Stark as the heroic Iron Man. Stark is nothing more than an egotistical human whose past as a weapons dealer, and general lack of foresight, has caused society more harm than good. In a perverse way Ultron has a point. One just needs to observe the much touted – and overly long – Hulkbuster action sequence, in which downtown Johannesburg is leveled when Iron Man attempts to calm down a rampaging Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) through the use of old fashion fisticuffs. Not to mention the fact that it was Stark who constructed Ultron, without conferring with his mostly superpowered teammates, as a pre-emptive response to the unforeseen dangers that lurk within the stars above. An action governed by fear whose ramifications reverberate around the globe.
Though ultimately a tale about the sacrifices that must be made for the greater good – at least that is one of the many themes in this overstuffed but entertaining film – Age of Ultron is most intriguing when it is contemplating both the nature of heroism and the thin line that separates superheroes and the monsters they claim to protect civilians from.
The sense of fun and adventure that was found in The Avengers is toned down this time around. The witty banter and overabundance of action, does not feel as satisfying as it once did. Frankly, watching superheroes fighting each other, before realising it is better to work together, is just not that thrilling. Instead it is the calmer, dare I say more grown up, moments that actually resonate. Joss Whedon’s film actually has a lot of interesting things to say about post-9/11 paranoia, superheroes need for conflict versus their desire for peace, America’s involvement in foreign affairs and the braveness in the face of fear. The stakes are high and the consequences are real.
As messy as the plot strands are, it is in its flaws that Age of Ultron shines.
Whedon’s film feels most at home when it focuses on the dark inner conflict that many of the characters must endure. He revels in exploring the ways in which the presences of fear constantly threatens to unravel family, friendship and love. These fears not only exposes each hero’s weakness but, more importantly, also the traits that makes them human.
The problem that Age of Ultron struggles to overcome is its necessity to be the bridge that ushers Marvel Studios into its next phase. Similar to the characters in the film, Age of Ultron is frequently at odds with itself. Whedon’s narrative sails into choppy waters by attempting to both tell a compelling story and force in links to various upcoming Marvel films as if they were square pegs in Age of Ultron’s round hole.
This is an issue that will no doubt only become more prominent as Marvel enters its Captain America: Civil War arc. A thread that will have massive implications for all of Phase 3. As Ultron himself points out “everyone creates the thing they dread.” One can only hope that Marvel is not getting tangled in its own puppeteer strings. For when it is not trying to promote other projects, and simply focuses on the humanity that makes heroes super, Avengers: Age of Ultron proves itself to be a rather compelling film.