The Marvel comics universe is overflowing with some of the greatest villains created in any medium, from the regal majesty of Doctor Doom to the saturnine, brooding splendour of Galactus to the cackling, twitching megalomania of Annihilus. And amongst these villains, one of the greatest is, without question…not Ultron.
The character was first created in 1968 and introduced in the pages of The Avengers as the creation of Hank Pym, whose long storied history of fucking up we will touch upon at a later point in these chronicles. But make no mistake, Hank Pym fucks up in the same way that Michaelangelo painted. He fucks up like it’s what God put him on this earth to do. Created by Pym as an artificial intelligence based on his own brainwaves, Ultron decided pretty quickly that it hated Hank Pym like the Sharks hate the Jets and tried to kill him. Which, considering that Pym based it on his own mind, should tell you everything you need to know about the state of Pym’s self-esteem (dude needs a hug). Ultron later expanded his to do list to wiping out all human life and returned to bedevil the Avengers and threaten the world again, and again, and again. My problem with Ultron is that there’s just not much “there” there. He’s an angry shouty robot who wants to kill everyone. Have there been good stories with the character? Sure. Have there been writers who found interesting things to do with him? No doubt. But Ultron’s basic default setting has just never grabbed me as particularly compelling. Nevertheless, Ultron is generally regarded as the Avengers’ ultimate arch-enemy, the Moriarty to their Holmes if Sherlock Holmes was a conglomeration of brightly coloured WW2 era adventurers, Norse gods, billionaire tech-messiahs and former circus performers (and who wouldn’t read that?). But even that’s kinda by default. Loki is a Thor villain who sometimes fights the Avengers. Red Skull is a Captain America villain who sometimes fights the Avengers. Ultron would technically be a Hank Pym villain, but since Hank has never been popular enough to headline an ongoing series of his own Ultron just kinda became an arch-enemy for the whole team, like how the rest of the family adopts your little brother’s hamster once it becomes clear he can’t look after it himself. So when it came time for Marvel to follow up The Avengers with a sequel, choosing Ultron to be the villain was about as obvious as having the Joker be the bad guy of The Dark Knight. Who else was it going to be?
Now, let’s get this out of the way. For all you people who ask why I don’t, for example, review Moana the very second it comes out? This is why. To do a review justice takes time, preparation, fasting and prayerful contemplation. The review/tongue bath I gave Age of Ultron the day after it came out back in 2015 was written while I was still basking in the afterglow of explosions and Whedonisms falling on my ears like confetti and I did not see the plotholes and padding and questionable charecterisations and clear signs of executives sticking their grubby oars in. Honestly if I had it all to do again, I imagine I’d be a lot more critical. Oh hey, look at that. I have it all to do again.
So the movie begins with the Avengers now back together and launching an all out assault on a hidden HYDRA base in Sokovia in Eastern Europe. The film wastes no time reminding you just how far Joss Whedon has come as an action director with an epic tracking shot through the forest following first one avenger, and then another, and then another as they go through HYDRA’s forces like Polish vodka through a liver.
The HYDRA goons use a lot of weaponery that glows blue which tells Thor that it’s being powered by Loki’s sceptre. Hawkeye is shot and has to be evac’ed out, while Iron Man and Captain America battle their way to the base, somehow surviving armies of HYDRA goons, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch and Tony’s awful, awful potty mouth. Steve arrests Baron Von Strucker while Tony roots around in HYDRA’s basement and finds the sceptre and a big old Chitauri Leviathan hanging from the ceiling.
Tony’s about to take the sceptre when Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) sneaks up behind him and uses her telepathic powers to show him his worst fears, which is of course
sobriety all his friends dead and Earth conquered by the Chitauri. I need to digress here a little bit to talk about the Scarlet Witch and why I am such a huge fan of her movie adaptation.
First things first, I fucking hate the Scarlet Witch in the comics because she breaks what (for me at least) is a cast iron rule of good storytelling in superhero comics; the reader should always have a very clear idea of what the hero can and cannot do. If a modern Superman story shows Superman, say, throwing the moon like a beachball, the readers will cry bullshit because they have a clear understanding of just how strong Superman is supposed to be, to wit: strong but not that frickin’ strong. If you don’t have a clear idea of a character’s limitations, it’s hard to feel any sense of tension when they’re in danger because you have no idea if they’re actually in danger or not. Scarlet Witch’s power is that she can manipulate probability. To put it another way, she can cast spells that makes things happen. What things? Just things. That’s pretty vague as guidelines go and depending on the writer Wanda can be either pathetically underpowered or one of the single most powerful beings in the whole Marvel universe. Age of Ultron solves this problem elegantly by nixing the whole magic/probability guff and giving her the standard Jean Grey starter pack, telekinesis, telepathy and mental manipulation. Nice, simple, easy to understand. Two thumbs up.
Anyway, once she’s had a poke inside his mind Wanda rather sensibly realises that if you want to destroy Tony Stark the quickest method is just give him some incredibly powerful technology, ladle on some crippling guilt and then run before things start exploding. So the twins leave Tony to take the sceptre and the Avengers jet back to Avengers tower. Because, once you’ve saved the world it’s time for one thing.
But before the big party Tony asks Thor if he and Banner can tinker with the sceptre and Thor’s all “Well if I can’t trust YOU with insanely powerful alien tech who can I trust?” and says yes. Tony has Jarvis analyse the sceptre and learns that, much like Sarah Plain and Tall, it’s what’s inside that counts. Tony takes Banner aside and shows him what he’s found in the sceptre; an artificial intelligence far more sophisticated than JARVIS, who was previously thought to be the most sophisticated program on earth.
Tony tells Banner that he wants to use the AI in the sceptre to run the “Ultron Program”, a plan that he and Bruce designed to protect the Earth from a second alien invasion. So, here’s the problem with this script; it’s basically two or three great action scenes and a couple of really good hang-out scenes strung together with a plot that’s just a basic mechanism for moving various characters to be where they need to be, doing what they need to do. For example, the action thus far would lead you to think that Tony’s driven to create Ultron as a way to avoid the terrible future that Wanda showed him. But this exchange of dialogue shows us that he’s been working on Ultron with Bruce since long before that, probably since right after the Battle of New York. Secondly, Tony’s plan is to create an army of autonomous robots to replace the Avengers and protect the Earth from alien invasion. Okay, fine. Probably not something he should be doing on his own without co-ordinating with the world’s governments but not a terrible idea in and of itself. But the project was shelved and dismissed as a fantasy until right now, when Tony discovers the AI in the sceptre. But…why? Why is this the magical missing piece? If Tony wants an army of autonomous robots, he can just build an army of autonomous robots. Know how I know that?
He needs a state of the art AI to run the whole shebang? He’s got JARVIS! JARVIS who runs his army of autonomous robots and co-runs one of the largest corporations on earth in between hosting gala balls to raise funds for the New York met! He doesn’t need Ultron. There is no reason for him to do this. And that’s not even getting into the whole nonsense of there being a computer programme in the mind stone. It’s a fucking stone, what does it need an OS for?
Anyway, we get your standard science montage complete with papers scattered on the floor, drinking coffee, lots of screens and bleepy-deety music. But in the end they can find a way to extract the code and they leave JARVIS to it and get ready for the party.
The party is honestly one of my favourite scenes in any Marvel movie, with lots of lovely little character moments; Thor and Tony’s dick measuring contest over who’s got the most brilliant and accomplished girlfriend, Rhodey’s insecurity that his War Machine stories aren’t as cool as everyone else’s, and of course Natasha putting the moves on Banner.
I like the pairing, so sue me! Look, here’s the thing. This is the fourth movie to feature Black Widow and we still know next to nothing about her. Characters are revealed through their relationships with other characters. That’s why literally every other Avenger has a love interest. I’ve heard some people…
I have heard people who’s opinion I highly value say that giving her a love interest weakens Natasha as a character but I have to disagree for reasons that I’ll get into later. Anyway, the evening winds down with the Avengers sitting around and taking turns pulling on Thor’s hammer (that came out wrong) when suddenly they’re rudely interrupted. The AI in the sceptre has woken up and and downloaded itself into a damaged Stark bot which then staggers into the room to tell them that they all suck.
Ultrons sends some robots to attack them and after a brief battle tells them that the only way for humanity to evolve is for the Avengers to just die already. He then absconds with the sceptre, leaving the Avengers to lick their wounds. The rest of the team are understandably royally pissed at Tony, particularly Thor, who actually is a royal. Tony pulls the “I’m allowed to do this kinda stuff because I saved the world with a nuke” card (which honestly is just tacky) and the team get to work trying to find Ultron.
Meanwhile, in Sokovia (“come for the bombed out Soviet architecture, stay for the pie”) Ultron recruits Wanda and Pietro to help him destroy the Avengers. I really like what James Spader does as Ultron and there’s a probably somebody writing a PhD right now on how comics Ultron and movie Ultron map how perceptions of Artificial Intelligence have changed over the last century. Comic Ultron is a very “mid twentieth century” idea of what Artificial Intelligence would be like; mechanical, harsh, unfriendly, industrial. Now that we actually have AI, or at least, narrow, non-sentient AI, we know that this wouldn’t make sense. Why design a machine that’s supposed to interact with humans that’s unpleasant and awkward for humans to interact with? Movie Ultron is a megalomaniacal super AI as designed by the Apple Store, all smooth curves and friendly, chipper demeanour. You get the feeling, even as he plots the destruction of the world, that he genuinely just wants to help and hopes that this end of the world was pleasant and enjoyable for you. The twins tell him why they hate Tony Stark, because he built the missiles that killed their parents and left them trapped underneath tons of rubble for days, thinking every moment they were going to be killed.
Another key difference between this Ultron and his four colour counterpart? Empathy. Ultron seems genuinely moved by what the twins have been through and promises them “We’ll make it right.”
Back at Avengers tower, the team learn that Strucker’s been murdered in his cell by Ultron and get to work tracking down his known associates. Tony recognises a name; Ulysses Klaw (the always welcome Andy Serkis), a weapons dealer who supposedly managed to smuggle a shit-ton of vibranium out of Wakanda (vibranium being the metal that makes Captain America’s shield so dandy). They track Klaw down to his base in an abandoned oil tanker which, as the movie’s subtitles helpfully tell us, is “somewhere off the coast of Africa”.
Ultron and the twins are already there, looking to buy Klaw’s entire stock of vibranium. He doesn’t really want to sell to them, but Ultron twists his arm.
The Avengers arrive and Tony tries to get Ultron to monologue his evil plan and Ultron is all “………..no?” and blasts them. In the ensuing battle Wanda manages to put a mind thingamajammy on Natasha, Steve and Thor. Natasha remembers her brutal training in the Soviet Red Room (gorgeously shot I have to say), Thor gets a vision of himself bringing destruction to Asgard and Cap imagines he’s at a V.E. Day party dancing with Peggy and then suddenly everyone vanishes because they’re all really dead. Which…is less a vision or a traumatic memory and more the telepathic equivalent of…
But the shit really hits the fan when Wanda tries that shit on Bruce and he Hulks out and attacks a nearby city and Tony has to break away from his pursuit of Ultron to stop him. Tony has to break out “Veronica”, his super deluxe Hulkbuster armour that he and Bruce designed together over one lazy, magical summer. The fight is pretty darn epic but I know how to make it better.
You can also very clearly see the lessons Marvel learned from watching the backlash to DC’s Man of Steel released two years prior. Tony is very careful about ensuring no civilians are hurt in the battle, in stark contrast to Superman’s “Meh. Can’t make an omelette…” approach to superheroism. Anyway, Tony finally manages to knock the Hulk unconscious and the Avengers leave Africa shaken by their experiences. Banner in particular is wracked with guilt. I mean Christ, he’s sitting on the floor with his back to cold metal and no shirt on. Bruce, get off the floor, you’ll catch your death.
Maria Hill tells them that the UN are talking about issuing a warrant for Banner’s arrest but that the media response to the battle has been hugely positive. Which, no shit, they caused massive damage in a Third World country, no wonder the media’s dicks are hard.
Figuring everyone needs a place to just de-stress, Hawkeye takes them back to his farmhouse where he lives with his lovely, pregnant wife and his two adorable children and oh Christ Hawkeye is fucking dead. He is so fucking dead. Anyway, it’s all ridiculously bucolic and sweet but Thor decides he needs to go away. He tells Steve that he needs to investigate the vision he had and just flies away. And it’s so, so obvious that Whedon was told he had to set up Thor 3 and just gave up on finding a believable or organic way to get Thor to where he needed to go and just said “Fuck it.”
So while Hawkeye has a sweet scene with his wife where she tells him to be extra careful because they have another baby on the way (OH GOD HE IS SO DEAD), Bruce and Natasha try to figure out where they go from here. Bruce says that he’s got to go on the run now that he’s a wanted man, hitching lifts while sad piano music plays until he can find a way to quell the raging spirit that dwells within him. Nat wants to go with him but he tells her that they could never have a normal life together and that because of his condition he can’t have children. Natasha then reveals that she was sterilised against her will to make her a more effective assassin and asks him “Still think you’re the only monster on the team?”
Jesus Christ, Joss.
Okay, I’m gonna give Whedon the benefit of the doubt and assume that Natasha is saying that she considers herself a monster because of the decades of killing human beings professionally and NOT because she can’t have children but JESUS. That is not the kind of thing you should need to clarify.
While that’s going on, Thor meets up with Erik Selvig who’s gotten a job lecturing at a prestigious English university despite the fact that he collaborated with an alien invasion, has a history of psychiatric problems and was seen by the entire world running around Stonehenge stark bollock naked. He must interview amazingly well. Thor tells him that they need to go set up Thor 3 and Selvig’s all “Why?” and Thor says “Because the script has so decreed just, just, get in the car please? Just get in the car so we can get through this and I can get back to the main plot. Thank you.”
Meanwhile, the Avengers get a visit from everyone’s favourite one-eyed former spy, Nick Fury, who, ever since SHIELD was taken down has just been walking the Earth like Kane in Kung Fu. Fury gives them some exposition; Ultron has been trying to hack the codes to nuclear arsenal but somebody has been staying one step ahead of him. Oh, and they also figure out that since Ultron has stolen vibranium and he keeps upgrading his robot body, he’s clearly planning on coercing Avengers ally Helen Cho into using the vibranium to create a techno-organic body for him and before you can say “To the Avengersmobile!” they’re jetting off to Korea to stop him. Oh, and Hawkeye stops to tell his wife how much he loves her and that he’s quitting the team after this one last mission.
Sure enough, Ultron has used the sceptre to coerce Helen Cho into using the vibranium to create a techno-organic body for him in Korea (what brilliant deduction!). Ultron places the mind stone in the construct’s forehead and starts downloading his program into the body, meaning that Wanda can read his thoughts for the first time. From this she learns that Ultron left out a tiny caveat when telling her and Pietro what his plan was. See, he told them that it was “Save the Earth by destroying the Avengers” when it’s actually “Save the Earth by destroying the Avengers and also every other living human being.” Which, as you can imagine, is a bit of a deal-breaker. The Avengers attack Ultron and manage to capture the artificial body. Unfortunately, Natasha gets captured by Ultron but Wanda and Pietro join the Avengers which means they’re an Avenger up from what they started with so they’re technically winning. Tony learns that the person who’s stopping Ultron from getting the nuclear codes is JARVIS who everyone thought had been killed by Ultron but was really just hiding on the internet all stealthy like. Tony decides to just go full on mad scientist and upload JARVIS into Ultron’s artificial body just to see what happens. Before we can get a scene where Steven beats Tony repeatedly over the head with his shield while yelling “STOP! UPLOADING! STUFF! ONTO! STUFF! YOU CRAZY! CRAZY! LITTLE! MAN!” Thor arrives and charges the body with lightning because there’s a mad scientist trying to bring a dead body to life and when you gotta roll with it ya gotta roll with it. The body snaps to life and JARVIS (now called the Vision and played by Paul Bettany) offers to help them stop Ultron. The Avengers are wary of him, given who his Daddy is, but Thor vouches for him, saying that the stone in the android’s forehead is one of the infinity stones and that he saw it in his vision. So yeah, Thor knew to bring this incredibly powerful machine to life because he saw it in a dream.
Anyway, the team get ready for their final battle with Ultron, with Tony solemnly saying “There’s no way we all get through this” while Hawkeye looks at a picture of his wife and kids and tries to ignore Death sitting in the corner nonchalontly sharpening his scythe.
Ultron, like all good supervillains, understands that sometimes you need a complex, intricate plan, and sometimes you just need to throw a big rock at stuff. To that end, he travels to Sokovia and uses the vibranium to create a massive machine capable of lifting an entire city into the air and then dropping it on the earth from miles above.
As they fly to Sokovia to stop him Cap gives a speech where he says that Ultron thinks that they’re monsters and that this battle is about proving him wrong. Which of course they’re not mon…okay, Banner is, technically speaking, a monster. And Tony is a reckless near-sociopath who unleashed a hostile and lethal AI on humanity and that was after a lifetime of profiting from death and destruction. And Natasha has killed a shit ton of people. Barton too, probably. And Wanda and Pietro worked with Ultron and are probably complicit in several murders not to mention Wanda mentally violating most of her current teammates. And Thor ignited a war between Asgard and Jotunheim. And Vision is basically a rebooted Frankenstein’s monster.
Okay, the team is 89% monster but Steve Rogers is a saint, dammit!
Anyway the arrive in Sokovia and while the rest of the team evacuates the city Banner finds Natasha and frees her. As Sokovia starts to break apart a massive chasm opens in front of them. Bruce tries to get Natasha to safety and she kisses him.
“I adore you.” she murmurs.
And then she pushes him into the abyss.
“But I need the other guy.”
This is why the Bruce and Natasha relationship works for me, and not just because I’m an easy mark for stories about broken people coming together to form something whole. It’s because it illuminates an essential truth about Natasha, a character who can often be as opaque and inscrutable to writers as she is to the audience. And that truth is that Natasha Romanoff is not a monster. She is not a soulless killing machine. She is not an icy automaton. She cares deeply about those close to her. She loves them. She’d die for them.
But if she has to push the man she loves over a cliff and very possibly kill him? She’ll do it.
Because the mission always comes first.
Anyway, it wouldn’t be an Avengers movie without scores of CGI mooks for our heroes to destroy and Ultron lays on a full buffet of robot soldiers. While the other Avengers are tackling that, Tony figures out a way to save the Earth.
But it’ll destroy the city and everyone in it.
Fortunately Fury, Hill and Rhodey arrive with a Helicarrier and they start evacuating the remaining civilians. And then, of course, as was inevitable with all that foreshadowing, Quicksilver dies.
Oooooooh big man. Yeah, I’m sure that took guts. “Oh I hope nothing happens to Quicksilver” said nobody ever. Pff. I remember when Joss Whedon used to kill off characters that people loved more than members of their own family. You sold out man, you got soft.
Wanda rips out Ultron’s heart-drive in revenge and Tony manages to destroy the city so that it detonates harmlessly over the ocean. The movie ends with the Avengers setting up shop in a new facility out in the countryside. Hulk’s missing but Fury assures Nat that he’ll turn up sooner or later. Thor leaves to track down the rest of the infinity stones, Tony leaves to…I dunno, do something else awful while suffering absolutely zero legal repercussions and Steve and Nat get ready to train the next generation of Avengers.
Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies are like watching a man juggle eight chainsaws and a live bear. The first time your see it it’s jaw-dropping, thrilling and utterly unlike anything you’ve seen before. But it’s not really a show you can watch over and over again. Once you know he’s not going to drop that bear and cut his arms off, a lot of the thrill goes and you’re left with something that, while admittedly impressive on a purely technical level, doesn’t really have that much intellectual richness. The problem, I think, and this holds true for both Avengers movies, is that these movies are not about an individual but about a team. How the team is formed, weathers adversity and comes out stronger on the other side. The main character arc belongs therefore not to an individual, but a thing. And things are just fundamentally less interesting than people. I think this is why ultimately, the best Avengers movie is not Avengers of Age of Ultron but a movie that’s not technically an Avengers movie at all; Civil War. That movie works as an ensemble piece with all our favourite heroes getting a moment in the spotlight, but it’s also not afraid to push them out of the spotlight when the time comes to focus on the main characters, Steve, Tony and Bucky. This way you get a strong central narrative that follows one character’s journey that’s a lot more compelling than Ultron’s “a lot of stuff happens to a lot of people for poorly explained reasons”. This is how the best Avengers stories work in the comics, shifting focus from one character to another as each story requires, while keeping the rest of the team as supporting characters. Civil War represents a better template for Avengers movies in the future; pick a main character and tell their story.
A lot of the changes from page to screen are definitely for the better. I vastly prefer the new take on Ultron and streamlining Scarlet Witch’s powers is very welcome. And, while I haven’t read the comic series that it takes its name from, I’ve heard that the Age of Ultron comic is a long streak of hot cat piss so I’m not overly burdened with the fact that it doesn’t follow that story. The trouble is the story that it does choose because it simply does not hold up on a second viewing. The first Avengers movie got around the problem of juggling a large cast with no clear central protagonist with a story that was playground game simple: Loki has the thing that does the thing. We need to work together to get the thing and stop him doing the thing. Age of Ultron is considerably plottier than its prequel and by the time it reaches its conclusion it is a wheezing, bow-legged thing indeed. I imagine that Joss Whedon wakes up in a cold sweat, remembering the things he had to do to his script and the rules of plausible, coherent narrative in order to get this thing home. He pours himself a tall scotch and stares numbly in the mirror. You weren’t there, man. You weren’t there.
Our Heroic Heroes: 20/25
Fortunately we still have a great cast who’ve really found their groove. Most of the best parts of the movie are just the Avengers hanging around and being super friends.
Our Nefarious Villain: 22/25
Probably the best non-Netflix, non-Loki Marvel villain. Enjoy him while you can, we’re in for a dry spell, villain wise.
Our Plucky Sidekicks: 15/25
I’m almost tempted to score this as “N/A” because the number of speaking roles that aren’t Avengers or villains is downright tiny. Helen Cho is both a nice easter egg for fans (she’s the mother of the current Hulk, Amadeus Cho) and an appealing character in her own right.
Thanos grabs the Infinity Gauntlet (sans stones) and puts it on, snarling “Fine! I’ll do it myself!”
And the audience went
Thanos, your demeanour is that of a pouting child.
The Second Stinger
There is no end of credits stinger.
And the Audience Went
DAMMIT MARVEL THERE ARE RULES!! DESTROY EVERYTHING! BRING ME THE HEAD OF KEVIN FEIGE!
Infinity Gem Count: 4
The Mind Stone plays a key role in the plot, but we’ve seen it before.
Any names of characters awkwardly worked into dialogue no one would ever say in real life?
“My Vision, they really did take everything from me.”
Wait a minute, was that Stan Lee?
That was Stan Lee, playing one of Steve’s WW2 veteran buddies who gets blitzed on Asgardian hooch.
Hey, what’s Thanos doing?
FINAL SCORE: 68%
NEXT UPDATE: 18 May 2017. Yup. I am going on holiday. I am going to enjoy myself. I am going to lie on the beach and read and relax and get brown as a frickin’ nut.
NEXT TIME: Hello canon, my old friend.