Three years ago, the stars of several different superhero films joined forces in Marvel’s The Avengers. Not only was it a moment that comic book fans had long thought they would never see, but the film also struck a chord with the general moviegoing audience, garnering tremendous acclaim on its way to grossing a colossal $1.5 billion worldwide.
A lot has changed since then, and Avengers: Age of Ultron opens with our heroes in a very different place. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is still reeling from his brush with death, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has watched the world’s biggest peacekeeping organization crumble under an old enemy, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has suffered the agonizing loss of a brother and mother. The team is well past the point of fatigue, but there’s always one more battle to fight in their seemingly endless quest to protect those that cannot protect themselves.
When the recovery of Loki’s scepter opens the door to a massive technological advance, Stark and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) attempt to harness the power to create “a suit of armor around the world,” protection plan that will allow The Avengers some much-needed breathing room. But the artificial intelligence known as Ultron (James Spader) has a much different plan, one that calls for the extinction of humanity in order for the world to evolve into something greater.
While The Avengers took its time getting to the action, Age of Ultron opens with an absolutely thrilling sequence that also works in a clever nod to the excellent tracking shot from the original film’s third act. The pace is quickly established in these first few moments, and the film rarely lets off the throttle until the end credits, resulting in an experience that is exhausting in the best way possible.
Balancing screen time for such an enormous cast of characters is a tall order, but Age of Ultron fares far better than the original film at giving everyone their moment in the spotlight. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) was noticeably short-changed in The Avengers, but this time around he plays a pivotal role that serves as the emotional centerpiece of the narrative. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) also steps into the forefront, with some haunting glimpses into her past and a poignant depiction of her vulnerability.
Of course, it’s the newcomers who everyone will be talking about. Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his twin sister, Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) bring an entirely different perspective on how the disenfranchised can be affected by those who wield all the power – and speaking of powers, they’ve got some of those, too. The character of Pietro has already appeared onscreen in X-Men: Days of Future Past, but it’s easy to argue that this darker depiction carries significantly more emotional weight, and Wanda’s abilities are the stuff of nightmares – literally.
But it’s Ultron himself who has the most commanding presence, with his massive robotic frame towering over his human counterparts, and his chilling metallic voice sending shivers down the spines of moviegoers. Spader is perfectly cast as the gleaming villain, infusing a perfect blend of humor and intellgience into the performance to create arguably the most fascinating Marvel antagonist yet.
Avengers: Age of Ultron isn’t without its problems, however. The creation of Ultron is glossed over a bit too quickly, feeling contrived even for a superhero film, and there are so many major action sequences that the audience barely has time to appreciate the spectacle before we’re barreling right along to the next one. But honestly, these are mere quibbles – Age of Ultron is a superhero sequel that improves on its predecessor in all the right ways, and continues Marvel’s standard of cinematic excellence.