That’s right. I called the biggest movie of the summer a tone poem. Joss Whedon effectively took his superhero super-group to new intellectual heights by doubling down on the fantastical and enveloping the characters in their own hermetically sealed world of action beats and acidic quips.
At the top, we find our heroes battling an infantry designed to protect the compound first seen in the credits sting of ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier.’ As they fight past trooper after trooper, Whedon’s trademark wit and palate for action editing really shines through. It’s an exhilarating sequence that reassures us there won’t be an hour of bickering before a team connection forms.
At the risk of sounding like a ten-year-old, I will not continually reintroduce each character’s alias and who they are played by – excluding characters specifically introduced in this film – because if I have to do that at this point, then these movies clearly are not for you.
So, towards the end of the opening fight, Tony Stark finds the last of the scepters from the previous Avengers film inside the compound. He also finds his nightmare, stealthily provided by the brain-bending powers of Wanda Maximoff, or The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). In the trance, Tony sees his super-friends dead and all sorts of advanced technology set free for nefarious purposes. This sets into play his drive for the rest of the film to save the world from his mistake, which ends up being the once-peaceful, soon-malevolent artificial intelligence program known as Ultron (voiced by James Spader).
Most of our other protagonists also have bad dreams because of Wanda, and each one reflects their inmost fears: Captain America’s loss of a true home; Thor’s potential for ruining Asgard; Black Widow’s past as part of a sort of experiment in her younger years in Russia. All of these fears play into the movie’s themes at some point or another, and I applaud Whedon’s grasp of visual storytelling here. It feels so refreshing to not be barked at in a comic book movie, but shown.
As the story progresses, Ultron becomes more and more of a worldwide threat, we’re given more information about Wanda and her speedy twin brother Pietro, or Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and Hawkeye actually becomes an integral part of why I call this movie a tone poem.
There’s a point at which our heroes take refuge at Clint’s house. They meet Laura, his wife (Linda Cardinelli) and come to terms with what it must be like to raise a family and live some semblance of a normal life after the battle. For at least two of the characters, this becomes a heavy psychological burden. Bruce and Natasha have developed a healthy flirtation since we saw them last, but being in a household with kids forces them to have a serious chat. Mark Ruffalo’s natural screen presence and wonderful Hulk interpretation are a joy to behold, and Scarlett Johansson’s heartbreaking conviction that Bruce can control the green guy gives their action scenes an emotional core.
It’s here that ‘Age of Ultron’ becomes more than just a popcorn action flick. For the first time since Brad Bird’s ‘The Incredibles,’ a superhero movie has dared to force its characters to think about the outside world. But what sets ‘Ultron’ apart is that the characters are in a race against time; they are just as stressed to battle the baddies as they are to introspect and reflect on the costs of those battles. But it’s definitely not an Ang Lee ‘Hulk’ situation. Whedon seems to perfectly understand the balance between the two sides of this kind of movie and how the action and emotion are symbiotic. There are a lot of other wonderful examples besides Bruce and Natasha to prove this point, but I’ll leave them for you to discover.