Overview: When the Ultron program becomes sentient, the Avengers are forced to question their purpose in the world. 2015; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures; Rated PG-13; 141 minutes.

(Before we get started let me note: This is a SPOILER FREE review. Nothing will be spoiled here for Age of Ultron. That comes in the spoiler heavy review this Friday.)

The Age of Miracles: For all the moving parts in Avengers: Age of Ultron, it’s a miracle Joss Whedon even wrote and directed something so functional. Beyond the moments we find ourselves whooping and hollering when Hulk smashes something, there are tender character intricacies woven into this behemoth tapestry Marvel has constructed for itself. This isn’t the “Hell yeah!” feeling you get when you come out of the first Avengers. It’s a more character focused piece with each action sequence complimenting characters in different manners. If the Battle of New York is the Avenger’s Death Star, Ultron is their Dagobah/Cloud City. Our heroes now have to wonder if they can stand together when they’re fighting anything more powerful than arms dealers and Hydra agents. This is the real test, and they might fail.

Avengers Assembled: As reigning king of all things geeky, Whedon has fancied himself as a master of witty banter that extends from the emotional core the characters find themselves in. Age of Ultron never forgets to bring the fun. The party scene that has been shown everywhere is a perfect example of why audiences love Marvel movies so much. We come for action but we love watching these characters just talk to each other. Drinking games, flirtations, and more are on full blast. It’s one of the only moments of downtime in the entire feature before the Age is upon them.

Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man all have plenty to do, but they’re mostly pushed to the side (not as bad as it sounds) to make way for Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye to have their time in the limelight. That’s not to say the big 3 have nothing to do. I just found their emotional undercurrents less standout as in the previous movie. Tony Stark’s Phase 2 arc comes to a close that makes sense given the events of all his movies. Thor goes off on a spiritual journey that is essentially a trailer for future Marvel movies but is suitable enough to the tapestry of this movie. Captain America is now the bonafide leader of the Avengers and gets a fight that homages the truck scene in Raiders.

Boy, does Hawkeye have a significantly better role in this movie. As a huge Hawkeye fan from the comics, I was ecstatic at his role in the team. He’s just a guy with a bow and arrow among gods, metal men, and monsters. As the other Avengers question their modern purposes, Hawkeye remains self-assured in his worth. Sometimes the best heroes are the everymen – who happen to be able to fight armies of robots with a bow and arrow, so not that normal. I walked away from Age of Ultron thinking Hawkeye was the MVP and the heart of the team (possibly the movie). It’s actually Hawkeye who gets a majority of time with a duo of newcomers, the twins.

Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are, simply put, awesome additions to the MCU. The Eastern-European accents weren’t too distracting and worked well enough from the young actors. Aaron-Taylor Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen get their own big moments in different ways, each actor bringing a believability to their own pain brought upon by the Avengers. This version of Quicksilver actually has an arc beyond being a cool set piece and Scarlet Witch is what we all hoped Jean Grey would be in the X-Men movies. I grew quite fond of the twins but another duo really grabbed my attention.

This time around, Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner are more than coworkers; there’s a budding romance at play. It makes perfect sense to pair the characters who suffer the most tragedy together. It’s classic Whedon (think Buffy and Angel). Black Widow’s past haunts her to where she’s had self-doubts about being a hero. Bruce Banner will forever be tormented by the Hulk leaning over him. They’ve both done terrible things but they’re striving to be better and do good. It’s a surprisingly heartwarming Beauty & the Beast style romance that ties into the thematic grasp of the movie. Where do these Avengers belong? Maybe if they belong nowhere, they can at least have each other? Or are they just monsters.

The Messy Avengers: Whether we’re spending time with characters exploring new emotional outlets or hinting at future Marvel movies, everything works in Age of Ultron. The ideas in the movie aren’t mere lip service or faulty in their delivery. Sometimes they just don’t work in unison with the material surrounding it, but everything still functions properly. It’s just messy.

In the first Avengers, we didn’t want to stop spending time with these characters, wherein Age of Ultron could have used more time to let the characters breathe. Empire Strikes Back has the benefit of only following a few character stories. Age of Ultron follows about 10 characters. It’s stuffed with goodness and at times may feel too tight around the waist. Stories have obviously been trimmed down from a behemoth triple hour runtime (helloooo deleted scenes) but it’s never choppy.

The first Avengers has a choppy first act, settling into an entertaining second, with the third punctuating with the glorious assembly of heroes coming together for the first time. Age of Ultron undercuts that by ending with the original heroes in very different places, logistically and emotionally. It’s unsatisfying but finely tuned to the story being told. Age of Ultron finds itself in the grander space of being a middle piece to a trilogy of Avengers stories and to an entire universe. It’s less about the assembly and more about keeping everyone assembled.

You’ll find yourself feeling familiar plot beats on occasion, but the context is different now. Age of Ultron is a bigger movie with better characters and thematic meat to chew on at the expense of plot cohesion. Everything is understandable at the least. Motivations are clearly defined and action is clear with a sense of purpose and weight. We know the Avengers will win. The stakes come from what they’re fighting for and how their experiences shape them. That’s where Ultron comes in.

Ultron Unlimited: In this iteration, Ultron is a byproduct of Tony Stark’s never-ending tinkering to try and save the world. His fears are brought to the forefront and through some assistance of another Avenger, he gave birth to Ultron, a peace-keeping security force meant to be a suit of armor around the world. Ultron realizes the Avengers may be doing more harm than good, so he resigns himself to exterminating the Avengers and causing the extinction of humanity.

Ultron is more than just a robot. There is anger in his robotic mind. His designs (there are multiple) aren’t too busy like a Transformer and not too sleek. It’s a mix of haphazard and calculated, with red eyes erupting from his robotic skull. He suffers and wants to save us from ourselves. His motivations could have used some time to sink in, but we get enough of an introduction to understand them. At times he wants to be a real boy (the Pinocchio song wasn’t just for the trailer) to prove he’s better than us.

The most fascinating thing about Ultron to me is less that he’s a physical threat (he is) but he can cause havoc between each team member individually to cause them torment. The finale still contains some dazzling visuals (Comic. Book. Heaven) but it comes down to proving whether or not Ultron is truly right about the Avengers, and by extension, humanity.

James Spader’s motion capture and voice work for Ultron has fascinating choices behind it. Ultron has a nonchalant menacing rhythm behind his words. He’s tired of humanity and hurt that we can’t understand why he’s going about trying to destroy us. The way Ultron carries himself has an aura of pompousness, supporting the idea of this artificial intelligence thinks too highly of himself with extravagant hand gestures and stoic stances.

The biggest surprise to audiences will be how funny Ultron can be. He’s quite grim but he loves a chuckle. Whedon is able to establish how badly Ultron wants to be better than us and has him go through differing emotions. Most often, however, he’ll just settle on anger. And that’s the scariest thing about him.

Final Thoughts: All the complaints about superhero movies being similar to each other, sticking to a status quo, Age of Ultron and the titular character seems like an answer to all of these presumptions. Our heroes take beatings, they fight, there are massive destruction sequences, and unfinished plot machinations that are only there to establish future properties. (See you in Infinity Wars!) And yet, Age of Ultron is still a worthy competitor for best Marvel movie.

The works of Whedon are never entirely perfect in their execution (except for Dr. Horrible). The brilliance comes from his attempts at pushing the material and testing characters in ways that makes them tick. His final product may have been trimmed down from a colossal 3+ hour package, but by the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron, I felt I had just experienced a true historical era for the Avengers. His awkward strut to home wasn’t perfect, but Whedon knocked it out of the park.

Grade: A