Cinema has a long, storied history of computers running amok. From 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner to the Terminator and Matrix series, intelligent machines have become the new evolution of Frankenstein’s Monster.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron appears on the surface to be yet another superhero juggernaut, but what separates it from its Marvel brethren — and what elevates it above most of them — is that the villain isn’t a malevolent alien or a possessed scientist, but an artificially intelligent monster of our heroes’ own creation. Even Earth’s mightiest heroes aren’t invulnerable to hubris.
Following an elaborate, storm-the-castle sequence in which Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) retrieve the powerful scepter used by the villain of 2012’s The Avengers, a couple of the characters make a decision to employ the weapon’s tech to create a self-aware defence program, to protect the Earth from further attacks.
That program is Ultron, played with palpable malevolence by the inimitable James Spader. When he decides, as all self-aware computers seem inclined to, that humanity is Earth’s biggest threat, Ultron sets about destroying the Avengers and cleansing the planet of humanity.
He’s not alone in his plot, however. Assisting Ultron are a pair of twins who’ve been genetically experimented on to imbue them with powers of their own: Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who can move faster than the human eye can fathom, and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who can manipulate objects and people with her mind.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron is slightly better than the first movie, but inevitably less impressive. While the original superhero supergroup film writer-director Joss Whedon first assembled three years ago had a surprising coherence and narrative audacity, there is a sense of sameness by this point, especially following the mammoth action of last year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
What makes Age of Ultron so entertaining, terrifying, and successful is the sheer force the team is up against here. Not only is Ultron a villain of their own creation, fighting back against his parents in an Oedipal rage, his ability to transfer his consciousness through computers and to manufacture an army of replicants anywhere on Earth makes Ultron the greatest foe any of Marvel’s roster have yet faced.
Spader is absolutely brilliant as the maniacal machine, chewing his lines with condescension and gravitas. Voiced by any other actor, Ultron could have become over-the-top, but Spader’s line delivery keeps a rational tone that makes Ultron all the more unsettling and unreasonable.
Whereas The Avengers felt like it went on too long as a result of too many scenes, every scene here feels necessary or important. And yet, while Whedon eliminates any gratuitous scenes, many (particularly in the movie’s first half) go on way too long. A fight scene that could have easily sufficed in three minutes extends to nearly 10; a light-hearted party scene seems to spin its wheels longer than is warranted by the laugh or two it elicits.
Age of Ultron, of course, is just a middle cog in the labyrinthine franchise of interconnected Marvel movies, and it serves its umbrella narrative well, but it strongly holds its own as a stand-alone parable of the dangers of scientists being so preoccupied with whether or not they could they don’t stop to think if they should.
The summer of 2015 still has the similarly technologically themed Jurassic World, Terminator: Genisys, and Fantastic Four, all of which will further attempt to exploit the ever-growing worry of technology turning against us. Time will tell how each will tackle the well-worn material, but it will be hard for any to top Whedon’s work here — even if Ultron is just the latest model in a long line of HAL-9000s.