By Rick Bentley
The Fresno Bee
LOS ANGELES — The Avengers are tough but they are facing a huge challenge with “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk and even director Joss Whedon had to find a way to make the sequel to the monstrous 2012 “Marvel’s The Avengers” good enough not to disappoint fans.
And, there are a lot of fans. “The Avengers” is the third highest-grossing movie in history, taking in more than $1.5 billion around the world. Only “Avatar” and “Titanic” have pulled in more money. Even the critics loved “The Avengers,” giving it a 92 percent fresh score on the Rotten Tomatoes scale.
“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is facing a tough battle. But, it does have 10 things going for it that should help.
1. Joss Whedon is directing: There are only a handful of directors working today who can handle all of the elements of a big-budget action film with the same ease as Whedon.
He brings the same skills at staging action, drama and comedy to the “Avengers” films that he showed in “Firefly,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel” and “Dollhouse.”
His biggest concern with “Age of Ultron” was making sure the growing list of characters all got attention.
“It’s just making sure that everybody’s got their moment, that everybody’s got their through-line, that it’s connected to the movie,” Whedon says. “I love all these people. They’re extraordinary. At some point during the editing process, I could not have told you who they were, who I was, what movie I was making, I got so lost in it. But I think it all came together.”
2. Super cool villain: James Spader not only provided the voice for Ultron but wore a motion-capture suit so that the metallic villain would move properly when the computer team did their work.
He gets across the same chilling evil that has made his work in “The Blacklist” so haunting. And he found how to play Ultron quickly.
“I really was just trying to hold on and then stay on the train that was moving very, very quickly,” Spader says. “I arrived in London, and within the first half hour they put on a suit, they put on all this gear and I’d gone through a range of motion. Then within 15 minutes, I was watching me walk around a big room, moving and doing this and that and everything else, and watching Ultron, or at least a formative stage of Ultron, on a monitor in front of me.”
3. Cobie Smulders: Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) helped create a link between the Marvel movies for years. Now that he’s busy on “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” the job falls to the Canadian actress. She’s a worthy successor. Her Maria Hill is a strong member of the team — even if her job title is a little different.
“Maria’s now under the employment of Tony Stark and she’s now working with him to privatize security. It’s very fun being a thread to be able to tie the TV show and the movies together. That’s been a lot of fun,” Smulders says. “She doesn’t have S.H.I.E.L.D. at her disposal anymore, so it’s a much more difficult job.”
4. Great ensemble: Casting of each of the Marvel movies was spot on, from the snarky approach of Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man/Tony Stark to Chris Hemsworth’s awe-inspiring turn as Thor. Each character has been so well-defined that when brought together they just get better. The trend continues with the new characters introduced — from the Falcon to Agent Carter.
There are no ensemble casts with better chemistry.
5. Scarlett Johannson: The people making DC Comics into TV shows and movies have been fumbling for years trying to launch a good version of Wonder Woman. While they struggled, Marvel found one of the toughest and engaging female superheroes in Black Widow. Johannson shows the super tough character’s human side.
“Widow let her guard down, she was hopeful for something. I think she had this moment of false hope where she kind of felt like she kind of put in the work and there should be some kind of personal payoff,” Johannson says. “She realizes her calling is a greater one and that’s not necessarily something that she’s thrilled about. What is most heroic about her is that she’s accepting the call of duty, even at her own personal loss. And I think it’s an interesting place to kind of leave her there, because you know, there’s many different directions to go.”
6. Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk: He’s not the first to show the human side of the big green fighting machine, but Ruffalo has done the best job since Bill Bixby starred in the TV version of the comic book character. What he understands is that while it is anger that brings The Hulk into being, Bruce Banner isn’t constantly depressed. Being able to give the character a sense of humor and showing his intelligence makes this Hulk a smashing success.
7. Secrets revealed: There are a lot of surprises in the movie, including some connected to Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. He was originally hesitant to take on the role of Hawkeye, who could have been no more than a human with a high skill set. Without giving too much away, he gets to explore more sides to the character in this movie, which gives him more depth. No more can be said.
8. Keeping up with the Marvel universe: Ever since Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) told Tony Stark that he was part “of a bigger universe” the Marvel movie world has continued to grow. And all of the projects are connected by a master plan that would give Reed Richards a headache. It’s not just the scenes in and after the credits (yes, you need to watch the credits again), but story lines brush up against each other. Missing a single film could create confusion.
The Marvel team is committed to keeping order in their universe. Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios president, says expectations from the fans are “crushingly overwhelming.” But that’s OK.
9. Paul Bettany: The British actor has been the voice of Tony Stark’s computer, Jarvis, in the “Iron Man” and “Avengers” movies gets to do more here with the addition of The Vision. He takes on the role with ease. It’s a different work experience for him.
“The main difference is I have to show up,” Bettany says. “The great thing is being able to work with all these incredibly creative and talented people.”
10. New faces: Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson join the team as Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. They play an important part in this film but are a key part of future tales.
The actors worked together on “Godzilla.” Olsen says having Taylor-Johnson by her side helped in joining the intimidating group.
“It was comforting stepping on set when it was such a big ensemble and cast that you kind of have someone to feel comfortable with,” Taylor-Johnson.