There is a moment early in Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron in which the superhero team contemplates how they could possibly fight against another onslaught of interstellar monsters. Captain America quietly states, “Together.” In the moment, it seems somehow sad, maybe even pathetic, to think that the only consolation about impending death is that they’ll die alongside one another. The moment has power, but not because it is inspirational.
The inspiration comes later, after the in-fighting and paranoia. After blame is thrown around and the characters are belittled by one another. Only after the team is at its lowest, with virtually no cohesion at all, do they finally come together to fight against an army of robots. Why does this happen? Because when you’re that low, you come to realize just how weak you are and how much you need other people. It is at that moment, after exposing one another’s flaws and fears and accepting them, that the Avengers truly comes together as a team.
These Avengers movies are incredibly difficult to pull off, as they literally need to be greater than the sum of their parts. This can’t be Iron Man and the Avengers. It has to be a group of equals. Whedon not only understands this, but underscores it in this film with the emphasis placed on the Hawkeye character. I remember when the first film came out, after watching the trailer, my wife incredulously said to me, “What’s Bow-and-Arrow Guy gonna do?” It’s a good question; when we’ve got demigods and hulks running around, what can one man- albeit an extremely skilled one- contribute to the team?
When it comes to the physical fighting, Hawkeye holds his own. He often realizes that he is outmatched, but goes ahead anyway, and the film champions this as true heroism. However, we see that the Hulk, possibly the most powerful member of the team, brings with him tremendous liability and danger. Tony Stark, the smartest of the team, brings ego and hubris, to the extent that the primary threat in the film is literally created by him. While these men are remarkably powerful, they need somebody like Hawkeye and Black Widow to keep an emotional and philosophical balance. So, ultimately, everybody has a part to play, and every part is important.
Of course, as with the first film, the action sequences are well choreographed and shot, with moments of cleverness and drama. What I particularly liked is that fights somehow felt different than those in the first Avengers. Even at the end, when the team is fighting off a team of anonymous soldiers, the dynamic was different. There seemed to be more desperation here, like the team has more to prove, to the world, to their enemy, and to themselves. That is key, as it’s entirely possible that the action from one movie to the next could become repetitive. By changing the emotional stakes, Whedon has kept things fresh.
He does this by exploring the characters we already know, and introducing some new ones. As the genetically enhanced “twins”, Elizabeth Olson and Aaron Taylor-Johnson turn in a pair of good performances. They both have a significant beef with the Avengers- Stark specifically- and their bitterness is palpable, even as the characters seem a bit undercooked at times. Much more fascinating to me is Vision, a soulful robot who seems appropriately distanced from the proceedings, but always understanding of the implications of them. Paul Bettany, who has been doing stellar work for years as Jarvis, Tony’s automated butler, finds exactly the right tone for the character. He understands everything, yet is somehow confused by it all. He truly seems like a new kind of creature, rather than just another well-intentioned character.
I also really responded to Ultron, played with relish by James Spader. Beautifully designed for maximum intimidation, Whedon wisely allows Spader a playful, sadistic side, as well. While the character arrives a bit too quickly in the film and gives us very little opportunity to even understand why he exists, the personality of Ultron is so forceful, we don’t really care where he comes from; we only care that he is here now and an imminent threat. The Marvel films haven’t really fleshed out their villains particularly well- with the exception of Loki- so it was nice to see a character that can share the screen with our heroes, both in menace and in personality, and not be completely swallowed up.
Part of Ultron’s sinister brilliance is the way in which he pits the team against one another. He understands just how petty and unforgiving people can be, which is undoubtedly one of the reasons he wants to kill them all. For a while, he is successful, capitalizing on the characters’ weaknesses, but he fails to recognize a key component of humanity: our deep desire for connection with others. The Avengers may not be perfect and may not always get along, but they need to. More than that, they want to. And, in times of extreme adversity, that necessity can be enough to bring people together in a way that is larger than their personal problems. They can be their best selves by putting their selfishness aside and committing to a larger goal. This is what the Avengers films are about, and Age of Ultron is a wonderful contribution to that ongoing message.