After the events of Captain America: the Winter Soldier, the global peacekeeping organisation SHIELD is disbanded, and the Avengers storm an Eastern European fortress to take back Loki’s mind-controlling sceptre from the first Avengers movie. They succeed, with some help from Tony Stark, aka Iron Man’s new army of robots.
Stark wants to build a global artificial intelligence program to control said robot army to always keep the world at peace. But of course it doesn’t end well. The program, known as Ultron, sees how humans have wrecked the planet, breaks free of its puppet master’s strings, and sets out to destroy the globe. Because “there is only one path to peace: their [humans’] extinction.”
When the first physical version of Ultron staggers on screen as a misshapen and clearly unfinished robot, we hear a slow, gloomy version of the Pinocchio song “I’ve Got No Strings”.
As you may imagine, the line “I had strings, but now I'm free. There are no strings on me” is considerably more ominous when applied to a robot hell-bent on destroying the world.
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Ultron is a complex villain because Tony Stark created him with good intentions. In a way, that furthers the plot of Captain America: The Winter Solder, which was also about the powers of artificial intelligence used to cause destruction in the name of “saving” mankind. Steve Rogers/Captain America thinks Ultron is a horrible idea, and that creates a rift between him and Stark that isn’t quite resolved.
As Rogers points out: “every time someone tries to win the war before it begins, it doesn't end well. Every time."
And the choice between global security, and freedom and privacy, is especially relevant now post-Edward Snowden.
Age of Ultron also focuses on the two Avengers who don’t have superpowers: Hawkeye, who is just a really good archer and marksman; and Black Widow, who is a master spy. Seeing more of their back stories add a strong emotional anchor to the movie as they are as human as we are and easier to relate to.
In the climatic final battle, Hawkeye is holed up in a building with, one of the new characters introduced in this film, the telekinetic Scarlet Witch, and he says, “We're on a flying city, fighting an army of robots. I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense."
That kind of humour adds some welcome comic relief to the huge action set pieces.
Another new character is Quicksilver, the very same character who appeared in X-Men: Days of Future Past. But because that franchise is under a different studio, Marvel had to create their own version Quicksilver.
The action scenes are well designed and shot; you’ve probably seen some of them in the many trailers that have been released. The ensemble fight scene in a forest that opens the movie works, as well as one POV shot of Thor swinging his hammer into Captain America’s shield, knocking it into a pile of Ultron drones and sending them flying like bowling pins.
All the performances are just as good as they were in the first Avengers movie, and James Spader’s voiceover work for Ultron is effective. That said, these probably won’t be award-winning performances.
This being a movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there are plenty of Easter eggs to spot:
The split between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers could be a build up to the upcoming Captain America movie, Civil War. That storyline in the comics is about the US Government regulating people with super powers. Stark supports it; Captain America and other superheroes do not.
There are many references to the Infinity Stones in the movie, and a shot of the Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet in the end credits scene.
In one shot, Hawkeye loads three arrows onto his bow at once and the close-up of his hand looks a lot like Wolverine with his three retractable claws. Wolverine actually played a pivotal role in the original Age of Ultron comic books, but obviously he won’t appear in Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe because, sigh, rival Fox owns the X-Men.
All in all, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a nice demonstration of how Disney can use its own resources in a Marvel movie, because Ultron is basically an evil Pinocchio.