“What if the world was safe?”
That’s the question industrial genius Tony Stark (otherwise known as Iron Man) asks Bruce Banner (Hulk). What if we could put a “shield around the world?” he wonders. What if we could create “peace in our time?”
What if we could use the dormant Ultron project to do it.
“I thought Ultron was a fantasy,” Banner says.
It was, Stark responds. But now that they’ve retrieved Loki’s scepter, an artifact of immeasurable power, they have the power to bring Stark’s ultimate would-be peacekeeper to life.
Banner thinks they should tell the other Avengers.
Stark’s not so sure. “I don’t want to hear the man-was-not-meant-to-meddle medley,” he says.
Turns out Tony Stark should have danced to that tune. Because by the time Ultron comes to life, well, it’s safe to say the he-man hunk of high-tech metal has got a pretty different idea about his mission. And it ain’t peacekeeping.
“I know you meant well,” Ultron tells his creator. “You just didn’t think it through. How is humanity supposed to be saved if it isn’t allowed to evolve?”
And by evolution, Ultron means extinction. That’s the only “path to peace,” he says.
So that’s our fate, folks, unless Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye and a few newcomers can thwart the megalomaniacal monster’s genocidal plot. Yep, it’s time to warm up a certain star-spangled shield, a famously heavy hammer, myriad specialized arrows, repulsor rays, oh, and a big ol’ set of smashing green fists.
Tony Stark has never been known for his humility. But this time, the villain he unwittingly unleashes does enough damage that even his iron-clad ego gets dented. “This could have been avoided if you hadn’t played with something you didn’t understand,” one of his fellow Avengers says, delivering the speech Stark had sought to avoid. Captain America observes, “Every time someone tries to win a war before it starts, innocent people die.” And we also hear this insightful accusation: “Ultron can’t tell the difference between saving the world and destroying it. Where do you think he gets that?”
After their first shellacking by Ultron, the Avengers are dispirited and divided, a team in name only. Thus, one of the core themes in this film revolves around whether or not they’ll swallow their pride, admit their mistakes (especially Stark) and trust one another again for the sake of saving themselves right along with the entire human race. They eventually do that, of course, putting themselves in harm’s way for the sake of us all. One superhero even makes the ultimate sacrifice to save a little boy.
Ultron’s technological prowess makes him a formidable foe, and he handily neutralizes key Avengers advantages. That prompts former Avengers’ program leader Nick Fury to give the whipped heroes a little pep talk. He says that if they’re going to beat Ultron, it’s going to be through sheer willpower, not just cool technological whiz-bang. “Here we all are, with nothing but our wit and our will to save the world,” he says. “You hope for the best and make do with what you get.”
Captain America also emphasizes teamwork. But dispirited Stark doesn’t think it will make much difference in what certainly looks like an unwinnable battle. “We’ll lose,” Stark says. To which Captain America responds, “Then we’ll do that together too.” Together this time includes genetically modified twins Pietro Maximoff (Quicksilver), Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch) and an android named Vision, who all (eventually) play key roles in fighting the good fight.
Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff have a deepening romantic bond going on. When Banner’s Hulk, influenced by an agent of Ultron, goes on a rampage that nearly destroys an entire city, it prods him to believe the best thing he can do is disappear. But Natasha isn’t willing to let him get away. She’s determined to stay with him, no matter what, believing she can help keep Banner’s green alter ego (at least partially) in check.
[Spoiler Warning] We learn that one superhero is secretly married, and his devotion to his pregnant wife and two children is inspiring here.
Ultron understands that he is a created being who was intended to be humanity’s savior. Given the inherently spiritual nature of those concepts, it’s not surprising that the big beastie bases his operations in a European church, about which he says, “The church is in the exact center of the city. The elders [of the city] determined everybody should be equally close to God.” He labels that logic “the geometry of belief.” Later he misappropriates’ Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:18, saying, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” Ultron says the Avengers will know what Noah felt like as they watch all of humanity die. Then he says, “When the earth starts to settle [down], God throws a stone at it.”
Vision, who is described as having godlike (salvific) qualities in the way he’s designed and what he is designed for, also says things that are spiritually evocative. When he awakens, he responds to questions about his identity with, “I am not Ultron … I am not Jarvis. I am …” He seems to simply be stating that he is his own being, not a derivation of someone’s mastermind programming, but his words echo, of course, the biblical language that God uses to describe Himself. He also says he is “on the side of life” and that “Ultron isn’t.” Later, Vision says of his affinity for the humans Ultron despises, “There is grace in their failings. I think you missed that.” Ultron comments on their mortality, prompting Vision to respond, “A thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It is a privilege to be among them.”
Tony Stark calls Captain America “God’s righteous man.” Though Wanda Maximoff is dubbed the Scarlet Witch, her powers derive from genetic enhancements, not the occult. And after a battle in which Hulk decimates an enemy outpost, Thor jokes with Bruce afterward, “The gates of hell are filled with the screams of his victims.” Banner’s disturbed by that suggestion, and Thor amends his statement to say that they’ve probably just got some bumps and bruises and are merely complaining too much.
Elsewhere, Thor talks about the gods of Asgard and mentions water spirits. In a vision of sorts, one of his Asgardian compatriots says Thor is “leading us to hell.” Someone refers to the Avengers as “those gods.” Iron Man has a bumper sticker that reads “Jarvis Is My Co-pilot.” (Jarvis is the AI entity that runs Stark’s tech system.)
There’s a conversation about whether Natasha and Bruce should share a room in a house. And Natasha (in a robe) tells Bruce (in a towel after getting out of the shower) they should have saved hot water by showering together. That leads to a talk about consummating their relationship. (He’s worried about the possible outcome of their children; she says she’s been sterilized.) During battle, Stark jokes to Natasha, “You and Banner better not be playing hide the zucchini.”
Then, when Hawkeye ponders whether he might lift Thor’s hammer, Stark jabs, “We won’t hold it against you if you can’t get it up.” Nick Fury says Ultron’s minions are “multiplying faster than a Catholic rabbit.” Women are sometimes scantily clad (in the background), and wear formfitting and cleavage-baring outfits. Several of the super-ripped men are seen shirtless. The android Vision at first appears to be naked.
Understatement alert: The scale of destruction in this second Avengers flick is vast. It begins with a massive assault on a Hydra base in Eastern Europe (to obtain Loki’s scepter from a villain named Strucker). And that’s merely the first of many battle royals that involve lasers, repulsor rays, hammers, fists, bullets and Hawkeye’s seemingly infinite array of arrows.
Foes fall by the choreographed score. Buildings, vehicles and other sorts of infrastructure take cataclysmic beatings. We see very few civilian casualties, though with such destruction, there are surely many. But the point the movie wants to make seems to be one of salvation for the innocent, not destruction. And so we watch as the superheroes do their best to shield and rescue the rest of us. Still, Avengers and civilians alike are bloodied, and one superhero succumbs to gunshot wounds.
Yes, it’s worth repeating here that a superhero actually dies in this movie.
A human baddie gets his arm ripped off by a malevolent robot. Another victim’s blood is used to mockingly spell the word PEACE. (We see it in a photograph.) Hallucinations send the Avengers into nightmare-like visions of their deepest fears (full of death and dread). Hulk and Iron Man go head-to-head at one point, destroying an entire city. Among other things, we see an under-construction skyscraper come down dramatically. Legions of Ultron’s Iron Man-esque robots are decapitated, dismembered, blown up and otherwise mangled. One robot has something like a metallic heart torn out.
One s-word. One to three uses each of “d–n,” “a–,” “b–tard,” “h—,” “p—,” “b–ch” and “d–k.” God’s name is abused once or twice. (And I should note that foul language becomes something of a lighthearted gag in these goings-on. More about that later.)
A couple of scenes, most notably during a party at Avengers HQ following a victory, show characters drinking alcohol (beer, wine, champagne, martinis). Thor imbibes a stout draught he says has “aged for 1,000 years” and is “not meant for mortal consumption.” Indeed, two humans who do drink it quickly succumb to its severity. There’s a line about “juicing.”
In the mid-1970s, a friend introduced me to the Avengers. I loved the action, their serialized stories, the conflict. And the character I was drawn to the most was the “synthezoid” known as Vision.
When I learned Ultron would be the villain in this film, I thought, Well, you can’t have Ultron without Vision. And you can’t have Vision without Scarlet Witch. (They eventually get married in the comics.) And sure enough, they’re all here.
That’ll satisfy lots of lifelong fans like me. And even the kind of narrative tampering director Joss Whedon indulges here and there doesn’t ruin too many things. Similarly, though there’s a lot of onscreen destruction, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes do their best to minimize bloodshed. So the result is an old-school comic book showdown that ultimately feels, well, like an old-school comic book, strongly emphasizing the superhero values of humility, teamwork, forgiveness, trust and, of course, sacrifice.
That makes the sporadic foul language and sexual innuendo frustrating for me, as a fan, as a dad and as a Plugged In movie reviewer. We’re barely a minute into the frantic fun when Stark, mid-battle, spews out an s-word. Captain America rebukes him, yelling, “Language!” And profanity promptly becomes a running joke, with characters cleverly commenting on or mock-correcting others whenever a choice word slips out. And the good Cap’n finally caps things off near the end by joining in with a swear word of his own.
Just as Ultron himself is self-aware, then, the movie named after him exhibits a kind of self-awareness about its occasionally edgy content. Whether it’s Thor revamping his statement about the Hulk’s victims dying and going to hell, conversations about limiting damage to civilians, or banter about inappropriate interjections, Joss Whedon’s script is full of winks that let us know that he knows exactly what direction criticisms are likely to come from.
But do such dutiful disclaimers and artful dodges negate the negative influence these moments might be having on viewers (especially younger ones)? Do the spiritual winks and misappropriations go completely unnoticed? And, of course, then there’s the head-pounding issue of the ever present superhero action (read: violence) that pervades all of these genre flicks.
Those shortcomings don’t completely obscure all the positives I’ve just mentioned, of course. So it all makes me again think of Vision’s assessment of humanity: “There is grace in their failings,” he says.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.