As Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe drew to a close, there came time to revisit the Avengers, the meta-franchise in which every component, standalone superhero movie in the MCU gets drawn back together for an ensemble adventure that somehow defies all known laws of storytelling by managing an increasingly complex web of characters, storylines, and shared universe. The result here is Avengers: Age of Ultron, a movie that is at once both wildly successful and yet somehow underappreciated. One feels sympathy for the task of meeting impossible expectations set by one’s predecessor, resulting in being overlooked despite one’s own outstanding qualities. It’s almost as if the titular villain, the sentient robot Ultron, is a stand-in for the movie itself; a creature that knows it will never be appreciated for its own qualities, and so revels in it. Or something like that.
The story opens as the Avengers, acting independently of the now-defunct superspy organization SHIELD, destroy the last remnants of the evil group HYDRA. But in so doing, they release a pair of superpowered twins—the hyper-fast Pietro Maximoff (a.k.a. Quicksilver) and the telekinetic telepath Wanda Maximoff (a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch). The Maximoffs have a grudge against Tony Stark from his days as a munitions manufacturer and Wanda implants a nightmarish vision of global apocalypse in his head that does a real number of Stark. Still reeling from his PTSD from the Battle of New York, Stark collaborates with Dr. Bruce Banner (the Hulk) to create an artificial intelligence called Ultron that will oversee global security. The whole thing goes awry, however, and Ultron runs amok, nearly destroys Stark’s own AI JARVIS, escapes in a stolen robot body, and proceeds to build a mechanical army with the intent to extinguish the human race. The Avengers must deal with their legion of internal troubles and focus once more to defeat their enemy at hand, all while coping with the fact that the more they work together, the more impossible it becomes for them to do so.
There is a lot going on in this movie. In the run-up to Age of Ultron, we see our main heroes stripped to their cores and their missions for being challenged. Age of Ultron does the same for the secondary cast as well, leaving us with a phalanx of heroes who all doubt themselves, distrust each other, and secretly long for a life beyond their roles as protectors of the world. One of the great strengths of Marvel storytelling is its willingness to remember the humanity in its heroes (even those who are not even human), and what we get are compelling, relatable characters who we know will save the world, but might never be able to save themselves. All of the things we in the audience take for granted—family, inner peace, the ability to go home—are things none of our heroes have access to, and it makes them all just a little tragic in a way that makes us cheer that much more for whatever victories they do achieve.
While Age of Ultron is, like any Marvel movie (and especially an Avengers outing), replete with eye-popping action sequences, what really drives it are its character dramas, from Ultron’s own terrifying, hypnotic rise to the growing friction between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, to the budding romance between Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff, to the struggle of the Maximoff twins and the superhuman android Vision to find a place for themselves in a new era of gods and monsters, to the humble desire of Clint Barton to retire to the family he knows is waiting for him and fears he might one day never return from saving the world. It all never quite gels as a cohesive uber-drama, but each of these component stories collectively offers a decisive middle act of the greatest superhero cycle ever told on screen. Throughout it all, Age of Ultron reveals just what stakes our heroes are playing for, and what their odds really might be.
Because Age of Ultron spends so much of its time doting on its characters, we get a ton of special moments that would have meant a lot less in any other movie. Stark’s recurring nightmare of the death of the Avengers. Steve Rogers almost lifting Thor’s hammer. Natasha and Bruce deciding to run away together…and realizing they can’t. Ultron’s dire warning that a world of superheroes can’t really create anything except more reasons for people to need them. By the end of it all, we get a spectacular battle against a legion of Ultron drones within the ruins of a flying city, but the only reason why any of it matters is because of every quiet moment of introspection we get along the way from the people doing the fighting. Otherwise, it would have just been noise.
The moment of truth comes within a climactic spectacle, when Wanda Maximoff takes cover in a shattered house with Clint Barton, the super-archer we know as Hawkeye. Wanda has a choice to step up and join an insane fight in an insane world, and Hawkeye lays it down for her: Yes, none of this makes sense. I am a guy with a bow and arrow shooting killer robots in the sky. But this is where we are, and if you join it, you join as an Avenger. Do you want in or not? It’s such a great moment because Hawkeye is the one Avenger who retires from all this madness, and he could have easily barked at Wanda to put her powers to good use at a time when the world absolutely needed them. But even then, he still understands that nobody can be forced to become a hero. It requires too much sacrifice beyond risking one’s own life and limb. Walking the hero’s path is something that must be chosen. And in the end, Wanda’s decision to help save the day is her own, and nobody else’s.