Warning: full plot disclosure + wandering prose ahead
On a rainy Wednesday afternoon we went to see the new Avengers movie; I brazenly smuggled in a beer. My husband and I were the only people in the theater (and possibly the entire cinema complex). After a long string of idiotic TV commercials (why were they allowed into movie theaters?!) and six smashtastic previews, The Age of Ultron began.
Joss Whedon wrote and directed this and the previous Avengers movies; apparently, before this franchise he was an unknown, which gives me and my half finished comic book movie some hope. This was a two-hour-long, highly energetic movie; the slow dialogue scenes never lasted more than three or four minutes (I checked). But, Danny Elfman did avoid the pit that many epic movie composers fall headfirst into; his score didn’t blast our ears off, even in fight scenes. The loudest sounds came from an army of robots smashing semi-trucks and superheroes careening through glass coffee tables.
A plot synopsis: the Avengers are tracking down Loki’s scepter, a weapon from Thor and Loki’s world, which contains a devastating power source inside. They blast through SHIELD’s (the bad guys) fortress in Sovokia (an Eastern bloc country where everybody speaks English) and get the scepter back, but they also run into a pair of superhuman Sovokian twins who mess things up a bit. The girl twin is like a sexier Jean Gray and the boy twin is a thuggier Flash (in other words, she’s telekenetic/telepathic and he’s really fast). They’ve got a personal vendetta against Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr., in maybe the best role of his career—seriously), who tangentially killed their parents when he was a black market weapons manufacturer. The girl twin manages to plant a horrible vision into Tony Stark’s brain as he crashes through SHIELD’s creepy lab.
Back at Avengers headquarters, Tony Stark convinces Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to help him merge the power source in Loki’s scepter with a free-floating high speed computer brain and a kickass robot: the result is Ultron, who goes bad within seconds of his birth. As Ultron is coming into consciousness in Tony Stark’s office—artificial intelligence evolving into something we can’t ever see coming is a central theme in this movie—the Avengers are throwing a wild party upstairs. Stan Lee, who executive produced this Marvel movie (his tenth? twentieth?), makes a cameo as a grizzly WWII vet (well, himself); I like Stan Lee and I’ve always loved Spiderman, but his two minute appearance was something like, “Oh right, there’s Stan Lee, again.” After Stan is literally carried off screen (he gets “fake” drunk), Ultron appears before the Avengers and explains how he will destroy humanity, thus fulfilling his creator (Tony Stark)’s vision of peace. Only Tony and Dr. Banner knew of Ultron, which Stark created to protect the earth against alien invaders (this is the premonition the girl twin infected him with); so the other Avengers are pissed off at Tony but must regroup and go after Ultron, who has copied himself (itself?) all over the internet, breaking into secure government databases willy-nilly.
Leaving off the plot recap for a bit, I’d like to write about the pathos behind the Avengers. The crew is led by Captain America (Chris Evans); there’s also Thor (a former Australian soap opera star, I’ve forgotten his name), Natalia (Scarlett Johansson, looking five years younger than in the last Avengers), and Green Arrow (another guy whose name I forgot). The Hulk/Bruce Banner is like a shadowy distant cousin; he gets called in when everyone’s in real trouble (“code green”), but dutifully slinks off after the battle—he’s a self-made anomaly, he drank radiation as a young man. At the end of the movie, the Hulk takes off in a stealth jet, intending to clock out of the Avengers completely. Except for Thor, all of the Avengers have been molded into something other than what they once were. Captain America willingly took some bizarro drug to become a superhuman soldier and fight the Nazis, then spent 75 years cryogenically frozen; Natalia was relentlessly trained into an assassin (unclear who dropped her into this program—was she an orphan?); Green Arrow was kidnapped from wealth and comfort and retrained as a killer; and Iron Man made and profited from weapons of mass destruction, until he made a suit that gave him immense strength paired with a godview of all the chaos his weapons had created, which painfully turned him into a protector of life. Thor, the son of Odin, is more like Superman: a displaced god who ends up among humans. How these awkward superpeople fit together is handled well; Dr. Banner and Natalia want to pair up, but their respective dark sides are too monstrous.
I mentioned earlier that Robert Downey Jr. gives a great performance here; playing an unlikeable, self-deprecating genius seems to come easily to him. His part is crucial for keeping the crew together, personality-wise. He’s the money and half the brains of the operation; thus, the rest of the Avengers must rally together to put up with Tony Stark, aging smartass. But Iron Man’s not a bad guy; he’s even nursing a broken heart, over the absent Pepper Pot (played by Gweneth Paltrow in the Iron Man movies—I’m not sure if she declined a part in Avengers or was out of the executive producer’s price range). Samuel L. Jackson also drops by the farm (literally; the Avengers take refuge at Green Arrow’s farm) for a handful of dialogue and to promise he’ll rally sketchy air support in the final battle—as always, he delivers.
Many scenes later, after Ultron has amassed a robot army in Sovokia and the Hulk has destroyed a major African city, the Avengers bring forth their second AI savior, which Tony Stark and Dr. Banner have created in secret, again. This second robot is an actual human-machine hybrid, and it was begun by Ultron, as the evolution of humans; the Avengers snatched away the roboman (humanoid? android?) before Ultron could upload his consciousness into it. Instead, Tony Stark fills the hybrid body with his benevolent computer program, and with a “mind stone,” the coded power source at the center of Loki’s scepter. The being that emerges is indeed good, and something like an angel; more than human, more than machine, but with compassion for both. Named Vision, he’s even born red, which in the Buddhist tradition signifies compassion.
The final epic showdown takes place in the fictional capital of Sovokia, which Ultron has rigged to detach from earth and rise up into space, then hurtle back down as an annihilating asteroid. Ultron has somehow corraled hundreds of robots to help with his cause, and the CGI is, well, terrifying. The twins have seen into Ultron’s warped AI mind and join up with the Avengers, and much smashing, shooting, and slow-motion explosions ensue. The more real these scenes of mass destruction and horror become, the more I fear for our collective unconscious. Yes, yes, I willingly walked into the movie theater, but I rarely seek out violence; it stays with me too long, and some of the shots from this film will keep me up at night. Unlike a lot of movies, Avengers: Age of Ultron didn’t even show people being maimed or shot point-blank (most of the casualties were robots); but the scale of devastation, whole cities being mowed down in an orgy of shredded glass and steel, was deeply disturbing. The more images like these are amplified, the less horrible they become. We get a little numb.
Joss Whedon didn’t leave it there though; the Avengers have one last chance to implode the evacuated city-cum-asteroid, and the final showdown happens in the nave of an old church. Flying robots fight flying superheroes, framed by crumbling church walls; it’s an homage to a Renaissance painting, The Battle between Heaven and Hell. The characters look very much like angels and demons clawing it out, and we see them from below, the thick white clouds not far above them.
Ultron is defeated, the world is saved; but only temporarily. The plot sets up at least one more movie, so Avengers: Age of Ultron’s two hundred stuntmen (a conservative estimate of the credits) aren’t out of work yet. Not to mention the dozen or so model makers, Mr. Downey Jr.’s head chef, and Ms. Johansson’s extensive hair-care team. Should I rate this movie, after a three page long review? Okay: four and a half stars. I enjoyed the whole thing, except the wanton destruction, and it was better than I expected (and not just because I got to drink a beer in an empty theater).