Strings Attached, by David Bax
In 2012’s The Avengers, we saw more than once what it looks like when Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) turns into The Hulk. We saw the way it drastically shifted the balance of power in a battle against a horde of alien foes. We saw the terror rush into the eyes of even those on his side, like Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). But we never watched him come back to being just Bruce. Early in Joss Whedon’s follow-up, Avengers: Age of Ultron, we are witness to a sort of werewolf detransformation, full of pain and sorrow, that ends with Banner hesitantly asking for a recap of his violent actions. Whedon is giving us the whole movie in miniature up front. If The Avengers was the tale of Earth’s mightiest heroes coming together, Age of Ultron is the tale of them trying to live with who they are.
That Hulk sequence is part of a white knuckle, James Bond-style mini-mission prologue that finds the team recovering Loki’s scepter from a mad scientist who has used it to, among other things, create “enhanced humans” Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who now have powers of telekinesis/telepathy and super speed, respectively. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) allows Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Banner three days to study the artifact’s scientific properties before he will return it to Asgard. Stark, inspired by the potential of the scepter’s power, decides to harness it to create an artificially intelligent worldwide defense system that will lead to “peace in our time.” Of course, as must always happen in movies about A.I., it goes horribly wrong. What Stark ends up creating is a new and very powerful villain named Ultron (James Spader) who has come to the conclusion that the only way to save humanity is to destroy most of it and start over.
As the Avengers globe-hop from New York to South Korea to Africa to Eastern Europe, Whedon’s camera jets along with them. The forward velocity he established in the previous film continues apace, as each action set piece is covered by a thrilling, fluid frame that hurtles ahead so quickly, it’s sometimes unclear whether it’s keeping up with the superheroes or they with it. The only occasional respite is when Whedon shifts into super slo-mo to capture all of the good guys at once, replicating the look of a full-page comic book panel that lets you take in multiple badass tableaus at once. It’s a technique that could threaten to be too winking but Whedon uses it sparingly and to rousing effect.
Whedon’s psychology-first approach to storytelling provides a welcome counterbalance to the fireworks and visual effects. He even has an onscreen ally in Scarlet Witch, who has the ability to make people hallucinate their fears and traumas. Tony and Thor see themselves as unable to save everyone. Black Widow relives the prolonged childhood torment that formed her. Captain America (Chris Evans) worries that he has no purpose other than war. We don’t know what Hulk sees but, whatever it is, it drives him berserk and a berserk Hulk is a dangerous proposition indeed. The way each character’s psyches are so clearly defined may be a tad Screenwriting 101 but, even at that, it’s a depressingly rare thing to find in a studio tentpole. One of the few complaints to be lobbed at Age of Ultron is that there may in fact be too many interesting characters to explore, which is hardly a complaint at all.
If anyone does get a chance to stand out, though, it is – unexpectedly but intriguingly – Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). In the terms of Whedon’s seminal show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hawkeye is the Xander of the group. He lacks superpowers and would seem to be the most expendable but, in this go-round at least, he is the heart that holds the group together. His one-on-one motivational speech to Scarlet Witch is, both comedically and emotionally, one of the film’s high points. Even on an Avengers team that has essentially doubled in size by the story’s end, Hawkeye stands out.
Age of Ultron may be overstuffed with protagonists but if there weren’t so many characters, there wouldn’t be as many opportunities for Whedon’s trademark banter. Some may roll their eyes at the self-conscious quippiness of Whedon’s writing but what they miss is that it’s less about jokes and more about establishing camaraderie. He eases the group into a friendly cadence so that, just when you’re starting to feel that you could happily watch them hang out for two and a half hours, he can shatter the mood by throwing killer robots at them. He makes popcorn movies with the emotional stakes of high drama. The Avengers may mostly like each other now but they will have to face their demons – both internal and external – sooner or later and they’ll have to do it together. Like the movie itself, they may not be perfect but their disharmony is what makes them strong.