In "The Freshman," the first episode of the fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, our heroine, having killed the villainous Mayor by exploding her high school, discovers that the vampires have followed her to college. Buffy's trusty sidekick Xander knows what to do: Get the gang back together.
"Avengers assemble!" he exclaims.
Now, 16 years later, Buffy mastermind Joss Whedon has released his second, and if the director is to be believed, final, Avengers movie to a different world. In 1999, "Avengers assemble" was a reference to Marvel Comics' B team — it was funny because it wasn't the X-Men. Now, Captain America (Chris Evans) helms the flagship of the biggest film franchise in the world. Disney's success with Marvel has set the standard for the 21st-century blockbuster, and all other Hollywood studios are trying to emulate it. Even Star Wars, the original modern film franchise, is adapting the model. It's no accident that Furious 7 has the same number of main characters as The Avengers. Whedon's 2012 film, the first to unite all of the different strains of the Disney-owned end of the Marvel Universe, was used as a blueprint, with Vin Diesel playing the Captain America role and Dwayne Johnson playing Nick Fury. The results of that cargo cult appropriation was laughably bad but extraordinarily profitable for Universal. Even car chase movies have to be superhero movies now. Comic books are rewriting film in their own image.
Is this a bad thing? If it means more quality movies like Avengers: Age of Ultron, maybe not. It's a sprawling epic that represents the best work the corporate Hollywood studio system can produce. With Whedon's work, that's not damning with faint praise, it's just a statement of fact.
Contemplate, for a moment, the extraordinary difficulty Age of Ultron's screenplay alone represents. Whedon had to juggle Captain America, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), from the first film, while introducing new villain Ultron (James Spader), as well as three new members of the team, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Vision (Paul Bettany), and integrating Don Cheadle's War Machine from the Iron Man sub-franchise and Anthony Mackie's Falcon from Captain America: The Winter Soldier into the outfit. That's 11 superheroes and a supervillain. The Batman franchise has repeatedly choked on one superhero and two supervillains. Only a few of the X-Men movies were able to pull off something so complex, and Whedon moonlighted as a script doctor on the first one of those back during the Buffy days.
Creativity often flourishes while pushing against restraints, and in this case, Whedon is in one of the tightest straitjackets any writer/director has ever had to don. With so many subplots and characters to deal with, every beat in the screenplay has to be accounted for. Whedon pulls it off, even accounting for the fact that the first cut he turned in to the studio was reportedly more than 40 minutes longer than the final 2-hour-20-minute running time.
Whedon is the best in the business at teasing out real human emotions from fantastical characters in unbelievable situations. One of the ways he does this is by being honest with the audience. As Hawkeye, who seems to serve as Whedon's voice in Age of Ultron, points out late in the picture, here's a guy with a bow and arrow fighting an army of robots in a city that is currently being levitated into space. "None of this makes any sense!" He's telling Scarlet Witch, the new member of the team who just a few minutes ago was an enemy, to cowboy up, and it works, both in plot as a motivational speech and as a Shakespearian aside to the audience.
Shakespeare looms large in Whedon's world. When he worked himself into exhaustion on the first Avengers movie, he directed an all-star cast in a low-budget adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing to unwind. He has also absorbed the greatest lesson from the English language's greatest humanist: "The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves."
Early in the film, while our heroes are busting up yet another Hydra base in Eastern Europe, Scarlet Witch uses her mind-bending powers to trap each of the heroes in a hallucinatory world where they are confronted by their fears and desires. At that point, Whedon has been in action mode from the word go, but things suddenly slow down and get weird. Captain America sees what his life would have been like had he not been frozen in ice before World War II ended. Black Widow relives her childhood dream of being a ballerina perverted into a life of killing in a brutal Soviet training camp. Thor sees Asgard ruled by evil. And Iron Man sees himself unable to prevent the destruction of the Avengers and the world. The sequence, which cuts back and forth between frantic action and reverie, is the single greatest moment in any Marvel movie to date.
Ultron is a creation of Tony Stark's hubris. Tony's worst fear is the destruction of humanity by superpowered cosmic forces, but his solution is to create an artificial intelligence that wants to accomplish just that. Ultron is the best kind of villain: One who honestly believes he is the hero of the story. He thinks if he can just explain the plan in clear enough terms, everyone will be on board with human extinction. Think of the benefits! The cyborg race he will create to replace us will be a great improvement over this mortal coil. Spader's performance is mostly a voice performance laid on top of motion capture and CGI work, but that doesn't make it any less brilliant.
Age of Ultron has one of the things The Avengers lacked: romance. It pairs the most emotionally vulnerable of the team, Bruce Banner, with the most emotionally cut off, Natasha Romanoff. But, this being a Whedon joint, the gender roles are switched. Johansson's Natasha pursues Ruffalo's Bruce, who flees like Cinderella from the ball at the stroke of midnight. The two actors have great chemistry together, even when one of them is a green CGI creature the size of a front-end loader. When Natasha, faced with a choice between love and duty, inevitably chooses duty, her solution will look very familiar to Buffy fans.
That Banner, for the first time, has a possible future outside of super science and "Avenging" gives the big, mandatory fan service moment emotional heft. When the Hulk, driven insane by Scarlet Witch, goes on a rampage in a populated area, Iron Man has to super-size his armor to subdue him. Iron Man fighting the Hulk has been a fanboy favorite ever since it played out on the comic pages 30 years ago, and Whedon's interpretation proves just how good at this stuff he is. He out-Transformers Michael Bay in the giant robot fighting department while simultaneously echoing and outdoing the city-destroying brawl between Superman and General Zod in Zach Snyder's Man of Steel.
Most importantly, Age of Ultron does what big studio movies have been trying to do since before Errol Flynn took up his bow and rapier in 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood: It's a fun flick to watch in a big theater full of people. Is it a perfect movie? No, but its failings are set by the limitations of the genre. Is it the kind of movie Whedon would be doing in this critic's ideal world? Not really. His skills and vision are bigger than men in tights. Historically, we've had Westerns, adventure movies, spy movies, science fiction, war movies, and all the other action movie variants to deliver swashbuckling good times. Now, with Marvel banking $187 million in three and a half days, and Warner Brothers planning at least 10 more movies set in the DC Comics universe, the superhero template is all we're going to get for the foreseeable future.
Whedon's contract with Disney/Marvel is up next month, and he's been telling everyone who will listen that he's not coming back. Marvel's still got a crackerjack team, but Whedon is the secret sauce. Age of Ultron seems like the end of an era.