“Peace in our time.” That’s what billionaire inventor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) says to justify using artificial intelligence to create Ultron, the ultimate robot defense system in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Once created, Ultron turns on his master and transforms the call for world peace into a mission to eradicate the human race.
Ultron begins his evil plot by enlisting evil twins Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) to use their respective speed and hallucinatory powers to divide Stark and the other members of the Avengers’ team, comprised of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), reunited from the 2012 Avengers film.
Once the Scarlet Witch succeeds in invading the Avengers’ minds and hearts, Ultron quickly creates an android army and a device set to destroy the earth. Will the Avengers prevail? Will there be elaborate action scenes, smashing of cars, trains, and trucks, along with the slaying of myriad robots? Is this the first big comic-based action movie of the summer?
After we saw Age of Ultron this past weekend, my daughter and I began to pick apart the film. My son chimed in from the back of the car: “It’s just an action movie,” adding that we didn’t need to overanalyze it.
My son obviously has a point: it’s a well-made and entertaining action movie. That said, I do enjoy picking apart a big-budget film like Age of Ultron to see how it tries to grab and hold on to our attention at multiple levels. While I may give away too much of the plot (spoiler alert!), here are some aspects of the film to think about.
Security: History buffs will recognize Tony Stark’s line “Peace in our time” as an ironic reference to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s treaty with Hitler before World War II. As that didn’t work out for Chamberlain, viewers have a hint that Stark is on the wrong path in putting his trust in Ultron. Like so many superhero and science fiction movies, Age of Ultron taps into our fears of worldwide conflict, but what does it say about our relationship to technology and security?
A Wired Frankenstein: Ultron is clearly a modern Frankenstein tied to the Internet, able to travel from one robot host to another. Voiced by James Spader (The Blacklist), Ultron is also Stark’s evil alter ego: the same snark yet no heart. Despite Spader’s engaging voice work, is Ultron a compelling villain? Or is Ultron, as is my opinion, the weakest link in the movie?
God Talk: The evil Ultron is not just an inventor’s troublesome stepchild; he is clearly presented as a deity gone bad. Holding a chemical element that will hasten his plan for world destruction, Ultron intones “Upon this rock I will build my church.” To counter Ultron, the scientists in the film, along with some help from Thor, bring to life another synthetic creature, full of artificial intelligence and goodness, whose first words are, “I am. I am.” Yes, the movie clearly references God’s words in the burning bush to Moses—listen for it! Do such lines act as clever dialog filler or do they have any religious significance? In other words, is the film just using biblical references to get your attention or actually saying something about the risks of putting your trust and faith in technology?
One-liners: To lighten the darkness of the plot and offer a break from or amidst all the fighting, most action movies are filled with one-liners. Director and writer Joss Whedon, along with his experienced cast, are particularly good at delivering clever jokes. Some fall into cheap innuendo and others are genuinely funny, like the joking about Captain America’s swearing or about who is worthy to carry Thor’s hammer. But does the constant joking take away from the suspense?
Mumbo Jumbo, Backstory, and Confusion: Watching a summer blockbuster, I expect to be confused at some point. Characters spout scientific mumbo jumbo or mention an aspect of Norse mythology as if it were common knowledge. And while I have watched all the Marvel comic-book movies, I’m beginning to confuse the characters’ backstories. (Hasn’t Tony Stark retired? What happened to Loki? Are those aliens or robots?). Before seeing Age of Ultron, I wondered how Whedon would craft a plot to hold the ensemble cast together. Look for the way the superheroes’ dreams tell us of their past and, at the same time, how the relationships between the characters develop.
The Bechdel Test: The graphic novelist Alison Bechdel is credited with proposing this test for fictional works: does the story have two women who talk to each other about something other than a man? Age of Ultron has two prominent female superheroes, and both are given the chance to do more than just show off their good looks. But compared to the male superheroes, do the female characters interact at all with each other? And despite the presence of prominent African-American actors like Samuel L. Jackson and Don Cheadle, try a similar test for the minority characters in the film.
Product Placement: I used to dislike the way movies make money by having characters wear or use certain products. I have now given in to product placement and try to see how many I can find. In Age of Ultron, Audi cars, Beats headphones, and Under Armour compression T-shirts are obvious, but there are more brands to spot. . . .
Given these various critical comments, should you then go see Age of Ultron? If you like seeing Marvel superheroes in action, then you will probably enjoy the film. The film fulfills and at times exceeds summer blockbuster expectations. At the same time, I also think it’s possible to enjoy the movie by thinking about how it is constructed or how it reflects our society’s preoccupations. In that respect, Age of Ultron is more than just an action movie. (Marvel/Disney)