1. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Avengers movies is how it never feels like they’re selling you something. They are, obviously: The Marvel empire ranks among the most mammoth money-making enterprises in the history of cinema. But writer-director Joss Whedon’s signature achievement is that you barely notice, even when Bruce Banner is wearing Beats by Dre headphones. (Which he is.) These movies feature some of the most iconic, famous, endlessly dissected characters in American pop culture, but somehow Whedon not only makes them feel new, but feel like his. The Avengers movies are billion-dollar global products, but in his hands, it’s like the smartest, nerdiest kid in school is playing with the coolest toys and letting us watch. The end results feel cared for, fussed over ... almost personal. They’re commercial platforms, sure. But that’s not what they are to Whedon. And that’s all that really matters.
2. The Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn’t have the revelatory, holy shit-how-can-this-be-THIS-good amazement of 2012’s first installment, because it couldn’t: It has a little more work to do, what with the requirement to tie together a dozen other films while indulging the American insistence that everything always be bigger and louder and Shake The Theater Seats grandiose the second time around. But it’s just as earnest and warm-hearted, almost tender in its attention to detail. Like most sequels, it’s a little darker than the original, but in legitimate, earned ways: It throws our heroes into peril, but human, relatable peril, the sort you get when you put a bunch of super-dangerous loners in a room together. Once again, the Avengers assemble to save the world. But the movie’s drive is about making sure they assemble at all, and wondering if they even should.
3. Age of Ultron understands its characters so well that much of the fun and conflict revolves around how different they truly are. Iron Man and Captain America see the world in essentially opposite ways, to the point that when they spar with each other—over the former’s accidental creation of an artificial intelligence named Ultron that wants to destroy the human race—you understand why, and can comfortably pick a side based on your personal beliefs. (Trust the inherent goodness of humanity, or try to protect the world from it?) Then you throw in Thor and Hawkeye and Black Widow and whatever that huge angry green guy’s name is, and the mix becomes combustible.
Meanwhile, the actors, all of whom will end up playing these characters for more than a decade before they’re done, wear their roles like skin. Iron Man has been around for 50 years, but from now on, he’s Robert Downey Jr. I’m particularly fond of Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk: He’s unusually skilled at playing gentle and wounded, which makes his transformation that much more powerful. But Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is the surprising standout this time—the dullest character from the last film but, improbably, the emotional center of this one. He’s arguably the weakest of the Avengers (“I’m out here fighting killer robots to save the world with a bow and arrow”), and Renner wisely steers into the skid, grounding the guy in simple humanity and thus elevating what everyone’s fighting for. These are extremely difficult roles to play— characters we know intimately, and have for years—and none of these actors ever take a wrong step. It’s kind of amazing. And once again, Whedon hits all the right notes and puts the plot through its obligatory paces, all while remaining keyed in to his characters’ needs and desires, their worldviews, their belief systems. Even the (plentiful) fight scenes are constructed with logic and narrative flow. Whedon respects his audience, and himself, too much not to give every second his all.
4. One of the best things he’s got going for himself this time is a good villain. (The first one almost had too many bad guys: Loki wanted world domination, but he was so impish and charming about it that they had to import a whole alien race just to give us someone we want killed at the end.) Ultron is a robot gone mad who tries to organize an “extinction-level event” so humanity can “evolve,” which is not the newest idea—I’m pretty sure every robot being with artificial intelligence in the history of cinema has ended up trying to kill us all at some point—but he’s given life and zest by both Whedon and James Spader, who voices the character the way he should be voiced: Like someone who believes he’s so much smarter than everyone he meets that he just can’t believe he even has to be in the same room as these puny inferiors. Ultron has most of the movie’s great laugh lines (you can see Spader flashing that lopsided sneer/grin through every word), but he’s also legitimately terrifying, particularly when he gears up with the metal that makes up Captain America’s shield. (Or, as Ultron puts it, “Humans found the most powerful metal in the world and used it to make a Frisbee.”) You get what drives him, and at times, as the Avengers lay waste to all in their path, you wonder if maybe he’s right about them, and humanity, after all. He’s a fantastic, and worthy, adversary.
5. This is Whedon’s last Marvel film; he says they they take too much out of him, and watching them, you can absolutely see why. Marvel movies will keep going—forever—and most of them will remain quality products, but it won’t be the same without him at the helm. (He may still be consulting, if he can stay sane while doing so.) I find myself dreading an Avengers film made by someone else the same way I’m dreading the first post-Christopher Nolan Batman movie. (Though I’ll take the Russo brothers, who are doing the next two Avengers installments, over Zach freaking Snyder any day of the week.) These are his films, so full of life and thought and affection and warmth, with characters he clearly adores and thus feels an almost religious obligation to get right. Age of Ultron is part of a franchise that’s going to make a billion dollars by Monday. But it still feels like one of Joss’ little sandboxes, blown up to a massive scale without losing any of its intricate resolution. It isn’t quite as thrilling and jaw-dropping as its predecessor. It’s close, though. I miss Whedon already.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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