Faced with the daunting task of a follow-up to his critically-lauded 2012 box office sensation “The Avengers,” writer/director Joss Whedon faced a lift as heavy as Thor’s hammer. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), are all stars in their own right. You need to do more than just give them moments, you need to treat them like stars.
In order to accomplish this, six character must be portrayed as heroic. Six characters must have their characters and mythologies deepened. Six characters must have their inter-relationships advanced in some way. Naturally, all of this must be delicately structured into a screenplay that delivers a cohesive, compelling story interrupted by jaw-dropping action set-pieces.
Whedon’s screenplay, which deserves an Oscar nomination, doesn’t just hit a home run, it hits a grand slam. Not only does “Ultron” achieve everything mentioned above, a number of surprise guests (at least for me) are also allowed to shine, as are two new super-powered individuals: Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen reuniting from last year’s “Godzilla”).
There’s also the villain, Ultron (voiced brilliantly by James Spader), who you really believe is a match for a baker’s dozen of superheroes.
On top of that, without being jokey or self-referential, “Ultron” delivers ten times the laughs of most Hollywood comedies. Whedon’s dialogue has always shined. “Ultron” is a creative peak. The quiet moments between the characters, especially a celebration that ends badly, are every bit as enjoyable as the action scenes. And that’s saying a lot. Not for the dialogue — but for the action scenes, that are almost always soul-deadening in today’s cartoonish, CGI spectaculars.
The worst thing that can happen in a sequel is a “bigger is better” mentality. Let’s face it, the first “Avengers” was already big and already a sequel. Most of the films in the Marvel Universe also have a problem with the stakes. The stakes are always huge — the world or the galaxy or the universe or the whatever is always on the line. The problem with this approach is that you never buy into the idea the villain will succeed.
Whedon’s true masterstroke is dialing the stakes way down. Don’t worry, Ultron still intends to annihilate our planet. What I mean is that the theme Whedon paints in is what gives “Ultron” both a beating heart and a real sense of jeopardy: The worth of the Individual.
Anyone who watched “The Avengers” had to wonder just how many civilians were killed during the devastating battle for New York. The movie itself seemed to want to whitewash that reality. This approach wasn’t callous or mean-spirited, it was just weak storytelling; too much disbelief to suspend.
“Ultron” attacks that problem head on. Sure, the planet is in jeopardy … again … yawn … whatever — what grips you, especially during the climax, is the individuals who are in jeopardy during a hellacious battle that takes place over a populated city. We know Earth is going to be saved, so instead Whedon has us worry about a little boy, a dog, a family trapped in a high-rise. For this and other reasons I won’t bore you with, we are emotionally invested in each and every action scene. The effect is the opposite of numbing, it is exhilarating.
In the film’s best moment, The Avengers explain that they really aren’t fighting to SAVE THE PLANET. What they are risking everything for is a way of life exemplified by a Middle America farm with the star and stripes hanging proudly in the barn and next to the front door. After 15 years of Hollywood films portraying people as a disease, that tide is finally turning. Like Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, humanism pulsates to great effect through “Ultron.”
“The Avengers: Age of Ultron” will almost certainly accomplish another impossibility: bring a franchise, that is already wildly successful up to a whole new level. The emotional investment we have for these characters quadruples by the time the credits roll. Even though you have just spent 141 minutes with them, you’re appetite is whetted for more.
After a dozen or so films, most of them just okay (“Iron Man” and “Captain America: Winter Soldier” are exceptions, both terrific), Marvel is now hitting a creative stride that will further burnish audience goodwill of this increasingly mighty brand.
You exit the theatre believing the best is yet to come (and wanting to walk right back in for a second round).
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC