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REVIEW: The Avengers: Age of Ultron

THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON. Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and James Spader (by voice). Directed by J.J. Abrams. Rated M (Action violence). 141 min.

This American fantasy-superhero film is based on the adventures of the Marvel Studios team, The Avengers. It is the sequel to The Avengers (2012), and follows the release of Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier in 2014. The storyline is drawn from the fragments of plot-lines that have been developed in past Avenger movies, and in the line-up of superhero films for the future, other sequels to the original film are already being planned.

In this movie, the Avengers team, Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) come together to try to defeat Ultron (voiced by James Spader). Most of the threats in the Avenger series are associated with either high-tech weaponry or digitally-controlled attacks, but Ultron is a computer-robot, who, in human-consciousness terms, is mentally disturbed. He is the most technologically sophisticated villain the series has yet attempted to feature.

While engaging with a mysterious piece of computer hardware captured in an Avengers escapade in Eastern Europe, Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) jumpstarts the program, called Ultron, which is an artificial intelligence program capable of self-awareness. Stark creates Ultron to preserve the peace, and assumes it will act kindly, but it doesn’t. Ultron thinks that humans are the problem, and he takes steps to eradicate them from Earth – “there’s only one path to peace: their extinction”, he says, and the world must make way “for the new man”.

With some personal issues between them still unresolved (and likely to remain so), Captain America, Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, Hawkeye, and The Black Widow decide they have to stop Ultron, and they join forces to do it. New characters appear in the story, such as the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who engages in telekinesis and magic, and creates particular havoc by causing bad dreams among The Avengers. She is the twin sister of Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who has the ability to move at super-human speed, and who aligns himself initially with Ultron.

Whereas,”Winter Soldier” was a smart political thriller, this movie plays more imaginatively with the nature of humanity and the theme of computer technology advancing itself too far. Underlying the film are major concerns about the limits of IT, and what happens when the dividing line between operator-control and computer-initiative breaks down. The familiar issues of national security, the nature of intelligence-gathering, and the nobility of the task of saving humanity are all there, but they are given new twists in this fantasy-adventure tale, where cyber intelligence reigns supreme.

The special effects are relentless. As with “Winter Soldier”, the plot-line is strong, and the feelings of paranoia keep coming through. The film interestingly expands the chilling pathology of “Hal”, the murderous computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film classic, “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Unlike Hal, Ultron kills whoever he can with sweeping, calculated intent, regardless. He is an evil mix of wit and aggression, and the best villain in the Avenger series to date.

The notion of what is needed to supply superhero moral strength has less play in this movie that in some of the preceding movies in this series, given the challenging odds of super-computer intelligence. But the film incorporates its action thoughtfully, and often humorously, into eye-acting special effects scenarios that manage to keep the wider issues alive and well. The Avengers struggle with their own inadequacies and debate among themselves what war does to people, and whether humanity in its present form is worth saving. The movie is overloaded with action, however, and sometimes the crowding of all that is happening on the screen affects the nature of the human drama, and the force of the moral issues at stake. But the movie takes special time-out to concern itself with character development and to display soul-uplifting moments.

This film is an entertaining, worthy successor to the Marvel Avenger movies that have preceded it. Its visual effects are imaginatively conceived and brilliantly executed.  Given the series’ extraordinary draw-power, it is inevitable that future Avenger movies will maintain the frantic pace of this film. The energy of future sequels is bound to be expended in some undesirable, cyberworld in which the odds are stacked heavily against The Avengers, even after they have stopped quarrelling among themselves.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Released April 23rd., 2015