TV AND FILM are edging closer toward each other: Movies are reaping the benefits of long-form storytelling, even as TV swipes Hollywood's style and ambition. No soulless multimedia conglomerate embodies this hybridization better than Marvel—and it isn't a coincidence that Marvel's best stuff has come from Joss Whedon, a third-generation TV writer who can turn massive casts, sitcom quips, and blockbuster spectacle into movies that are more than the sum of their billion parts.
And there are a billion parts: Avengers: Age of Ultron is the 11th (11th!) Marvel movie, and it features not just the core Avengers—Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, Hulk, and Hawkeye—but also tosses in the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the Vision (Paul Bettany), and eeeevil robot Ultron (James Spader, who finally gives the Marvel movies something they've desperately lacked—a decent villain). Things explode, the plot hurtles forward, and everybody cracks jokes. But more importantly—in between all the callbacks to previous films and setups for sequels—Whedon finds a great movie. In challenging the Avengers, Ultron forces the heroes to ask why they do the things they do, which makes room for excellent interplay between these characters, particularly Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), and Cap (Chris Evans), and (bet you didn't see this coming) everybody and... Hawkeye? (No. Really. If Hulk was the breakout star of The Avengers, Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye steals the show here.) The cast is still fantastic (especially Johansson and Ruffalo), and Ultron's best, funniest moments come not from action but from scenes when the characters are just sitting around, having a few drinks, shooting the shit.
Whedon does something else that makes Ultron stand out from recent blockbusters. In films like Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel, and even the first Avengers, buildings were toppled and cities were destroyed in sequences that relied on 9/11 imagery to impart a sense of chaos and danger—giving the impression that, somewhere just offscreen, a whole lot of innocent civilians were dying. In Ultron, buildings still topple and cities are still destroyed (Ultron is a really angry robot), but something pretty important happens first: The Avengers rescue the people caught in their crossfire. Entire plot points hinge on making sure people get to safety; it's both welcome and bizarrely unexpected to see superheroes acting like... well, heroes.
Not too long ago, recommending a movie like this would've required a disclaimer—something like, "Good luck figuring out what's going on if you missed any of the previous installments!" But not anymore. It's 2015; of course you've seen the previous installments. And watching Ultron, you realize just how well—in the right hands—this serialized format can work. Bring on the next episode.