Sneaky superhero movie! It was another caped-crusader tradition which gave us the idea that heroes who don't die in the line of duty live to become villains, but it took The Avengers to let it play out onscreen. The bad guys in Age of Ultron? Tony Stark and Bruce Banner. For real.
In Tony's case, his villainy is externalized in Ultron, an AI creation that he has been working on for years, which he can finally bring to fruition now that the Avengers have reacquired Loki's wondrous scepter from what's left of Hydra (this is the opening sequence of the film); something to do with the extra computing power the scepter offers. Ultron (the voice of James Spader) has some of Tony's (Robert Downey Jr.) attitudes, but a glitch in its "birth" makes it go a bit cyber-insane, and it extrapolates Tony's notion of world peace to mean "a planet without humans."
Now it's gotten loose and must be stopped. It's not so much the twisting of Tony's attitude that's the near-villainy here, but that Tony was keeping yet more secrets — and Ultron is a huge one — from the people who are supposed to be his partners in saving the planet. The rest of the Avengers learn about this new danger to the planet after it has tried to kill them all; this literally ruins the Avengers' party.
In poor Bruce's case, though, it's he who has become a menace. Well, the Hulk has, anyway. In the middle of a battle rage that gets even more out of control than usual, the Hulk goes on a rampage that causes massive destruction in downtown Johannesburg, one stopped only when Iron Man (in Hulk-scaled power armor) steps in... and it's not an easy thing, either.
It's a fairly horrifying sequence, watching friend forced to battle friend and knowing that Bruce doesn't want to be doing this (never mind what the innocent, injured people of Jo'burg must be feeling). His horror once he has transformed back into his human self, which continues through the rest of the film, is palpable — Mark Ruffalo is fantastic — but also tough for us not to share in. The Hulk is dangerous to everyone, not just bad guys.
Tony and Bruce have finally gone full mad-scientist. It's a fascinating upending of genre tradition that might make this flick work for non-fans, even though it assumes a lot of familiarity with what's come before in the series, including that you'll know what Loki's scepter and Hydra are about without having to be told.
But it's not all gloom: Director Joss Whedon insures that Ultron continues the Avengers tradition of big, bold action blockbusters that don't need to toss away thoughtfulness to remain pure popcorn fun. Tony and Bruce's second-guessing of their work is more comic-book soap opera than serious drama anyway, as are some of the other things we learn about the personal lives of the Avengers: romance is budding between Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce, though she has to push it a bit; and Clint, aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), turns out to have a surprising secret. The finale is truly sci-fi superhero action-movie whackadoodle, taking urban destruction to a new (antigravity-assisted) level.
The film isn't without problems. Urban destruction — Seoul also takes a beating here — is getting old. The effects in the opening attack-on-Hydra sequence are surprisingly cartoonish. And 45-minute battle finales have to go: it's overkill, and we've had enough. Can we find something new for these movies to do?
The cool thing is, Age of Ultron ends by suggesting that yes, maybe we can find something new. Big changes are initiated here indicating that the team, at least, is going to be very different next time out. This is a franchise that isn't afraid to move on from aspects that aren't working anymore, and any tiredness in some of the characters here is confronted directly and dealt with. When I say that this is the weakest of the Avengers movies so far, I don't mean that it isn't still hugely enjoyable. Any complaints are mollified by the hint that this huge, ongoing story isn't going to shy away from refreshing itself as needed. ♦