“Avengers: Age of Ultron” naturally follows the first “Avengers” film, but because it’s part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it also follows one Hulk film, three Iron Man movies, two Thor vehicles, two Captain America box-office hits, a symbiotic television series, and the first film in a parallel, but soon to be interconnected, “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise.
For dedicated fans, it seems simple, the stories they know and love being realized on the silver screen. For newcomers, it might seem a daunting task to unpack a $7 billion franchise big enough to convincingly call itself a universe, but somehow, Joss Whedon and company manage to string both aficionados and neophytes along.
At the start of the film, we find our heroes celebrating the recovery of Loki’s scepter, lost in the first “Avengers,” from a Hydra outpost in the former Soviet bloc. While his fellow supers party, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) begins work on an artificial intelligence that he hopes will protect the world.
Using materials recovered in the Eastern European lair, he generates consciousness. The now-sentient being goes by the name Ultron.
Voiced by James Spader, in what may be the casting of the century, Ultron is programmed to bring peace to the world. Unfortunately, it becomes clear his version of peace doesn’t involve humans. Humanity, as far as Ultron sees it, is the cause of chaos.
With the help of twin science experiments Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Ultron works to tear the alliance apart. He does this with sheer physical power and, more compellingly, with psychological manipulation.
With these latter techniques, Ultron illustrates the ancient appeal of hero stories. The inner lives of each individual Avenger are in a tradition of storytelling as old as language.
Carol Pearson’s theory of the 12 common archetypes states that all characters are just the same few archetypal figures in new dress. In the Avengers, we see the full dozen: the innocent, the orphan (in this case, two), the warrior (arguably a dozen of them), the caregiver, the seeker, the lover, the destroyer, the creator, the ruler, the magician, the sage, and the fool. They sport new attire, but they are also made over to ensure we see that one person can hold many roles, with numerous goals, fears, and responsibilities.
Yet for all its primordial appeal, “Avengers 2” is, at its core, about the problem of modernity.
In 1945, the immediate implications of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan were clear: More than 200,000 dead from the blasts and the end of World War II.
But there were repercussions not immediately obvious. Like, what does it mean that humanity, with the practical application of science and reason, had created its own demise in nuclear weaponry?
A similar question is posed in “Avengers.” What does it mean that humans created Ultron? And, in this case, could they prevent their own demise?
The rest of the film attempts to answer this question and, like our leaders and great thinkers in the real world, the superheroes come up short. While matters of demise should be easily answered, given there are two more Avengers movies are in the works, audiences will leave the theater with larger questions unresolved.
Despite the very modern and scientific dilemma Ultron presents, Ultron himself holds much older beliefs. While he speaks of evolution, he believes in the power of a god. While he smacks of futurism, he admires Noah, and desires another flood.
In this way, Ultron defies the simple binary we cling to, the false line that divides science and religion. If you don’t trust Whedon, like New Yorker magazine critic Anthony Lane, you might argue it’s a flaw in the character’s rendering. But if you do trust him, you might argue Whedon’s deliberately resisting easy answers.
As the fate of the Earth hangs in the balance, so too do the quieter destinies of our individual heroes. Where “Avengers” succeeds because it not only grapples with the grander issues of good and evil, but with the smaller daily struggles of meaning and perseverance in the face of raw, human adversities.
Though the source of their crises are uniquely super — they are manipulated by a woman with telekinetic abilities — the painful outcome is all too familiar. The despair felt by the Black Widow as she recalls her time being trained as an assassin, and the expression on the Hulk’s face when he sees the destruction he has wrought, are things we have all felt. Even the brightest among us have been, however ephemerally, cloaked in darkness.
But what allows this rather marvelous universe to spin, despite the gravity of the topics it wrestles, is its humor and the camaraderie between the Avengers.
The jokes come back again and again, binding the movie in an additional layer of humanity. The characters laugh at each other’s eccentricities like they were on an ensemble comedy. And Downey’s quips are, thank Ultron, in no short supply.
While they fight among themselves and some are forced to leave for a time to face fears, they all come back to each other, bound by a real and human love.
“Avengers” grapples with matters of religion, issues of modernity, postmodern critique, suffering, chaos, the struggle for order, (super)human realities, and ontological and philosophical questions.
But in the end, “Age of Ultron” is just a lot of f---ing fun.
The verdict: Eat it up, but be sure to digest it, too.