The Boilerplate: One of my biggest complaints about Avengers: Age of Ultron is that there are simply too many juicy points of entry for anyone wanting to review this sequel to 2012’s The Avengers: the hashed pacing, the thumbs to the eye of sacred-cow continuity, that one supposedly anti-feminist scene, the “Ultron represents humanity inventing itself into obsolescence” canard, the fact that this movie—just like most other entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—is basically a giant-sized special issue in a ballyhooed crossover event, cf. Acts of Vengeance or Inferno.
One could gripe about Joss Whedon having lost or misplaced his mojo (I can hardly speak to this). One could gripe about Marvel Studios suits being as game to interfere as suits at any studio. One might observe, rightly, that comic book translations to film don’t make any damn sense, because the thrill of reading comic books is curling up in your dorm room listening to Pavement and eating shitty Americanized Chinese food as your imagination takes flight on the backs of talented artists and writers—a vastly different thing than watching explosions on a huge glowing screen in a dark room with complete strangers. And, honestly, Age of Ultron wouldn’t have meant much to me if I hadn’t seen it with my eight-year old son, whose own fascination with spandexed heroines, heroes, and villains is now in early bloom.
The Backstory: Here’s the thing: I never much bought into Avengers lore, though I collected briefly. For some reason, I shelled out for issues #280 through #303, a transitional, “Fall of the Mutants”-esque stretch where Captain America was M.I.A. and Dr. Druid was quietly hijacking the wills of his teammates; the diminished team battled the Super-Adaptoid and dived ruinously into the heart of the Time Bubble and generally just fell apart. (By the way, there’s a mind-warping Fantastic Four run a year or so later that pays off handsomely on the Time Bubble thing.) Unlike, say, Uncanny X-Men, the storied, stentorian lure of America’s Mightiest Heroes was never quite enough to overcome that sense of leaping headlong into a book with decades of established mythos.
The West Coast Avengers: The West Coast Avengers (later rebranded Avengers West Coast) held much greater appeal, because that book bore an anarchic, bickering edge that was easier for a pre-teen/teen loner like me to relate to. Hawkeye led that team as a swaggering, sawed-off jerk with a chip on his shoulder about Captain America and a transparent fear of insubordination, while Wonder Man and Iron Man flat out loathed one another, Tigra was constantly in danger of going full feline, and U.S. Agent was a steroidal thug with the emotional range of a sixth-grade bully. I would need two or three columns to really dissent the Mockingbird/Moon Knight storyline. The grounds crew at the team’s California headquarters were both exclusively Latino and granted actual names and a smidgen of centrality to plots, a startling reflection of real-world domestic help preferences then and now. The West Coast Avengers ran for 100 messy issues and never seemed like a sure thing, more a bundle of neuroses than an institution, but it felt alive in a way no iteration of The Avengers ever has.
Oh, Right, the Actual Movie: All of this is to say that I’ve had to approach Whedon’s two movies (and the X-Men franchise) from a certain remove with an excitement tempered by mild cynicism even as I accept that they’re impeccably crafted. Whereas, of course, my son hasn’t spent much time with the floppy book versions of these characters: to him they’re archetypes on a poster on his bedroom wall or figures from Lego sets, so that any representation of them in writ-large media is inherently jaw dropping. His eyes grew wide during the previews for Ant-Man and Fantastic Four—we are so there, by the way—and his unbridled glee lent Age of Ultron a Jolt six-pack rush I probably wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. It was all bright, shiny, and new to him, and through his eyes I didn’t mind that Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is reduced to wallpaper or that Don Cheadle is utterly wasted here or that Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver was dull as dishwater in comparison to his equivalent in X-Men: Days of Future Past.
The premise of Age of Ultron is that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) screw around creating a world-protecting peace keeping system (Ultron, voiced by James Spader), but everything goes shithouse and that system decides that the best way to protect humanity is to kill everyone and replace them with Ultrons; also, you know, Infinity Stone interludes. In a lot of ways the movie is information-overload squared, smashing one over the head with action and details and kick-ass CGI, building out the world, placing actual people in actual danger, ripping a fictional Russian city out of the ground and attempting to transform it into a humanity-extinguishing meteor.
There are tons of characters and locations and plot points, which makes trying to map every aspect a hardship—and even as the plot grid is mapped out logically, there is sometimes the nagging sense of people as chess pieces and threads lost to the cinematic sausage factory. Three years from now, after several viewings, it will all feel clearer and more purposeful somehow. Yet within managed chaos, moving and magical moments emerged: wily, witty dialogue brokered throughout; a running joke where Thor’s fellow heroes try to hoist his mighty hammer; an aggrieved Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) slaying one of Ultron’s duplicates; the furious choreography of robots, Avengers, and exploding buildings; every moment of Ruffalo as the tortured Banner; and the late revelation, at once grace and mildly comic, of Paul Bettany emerging as The Vision after years of voicing J.A.R.V.I.S. in so many of these movies. It all worked even as it didn’t, somehow—and my exhilarated son and I spent the drive back from the theater struggling to whittle the whole down into favorite standalone vignettes. It was that kind of flick.