Early in Avengers: Age of Ultron, there's a scene that plays to some of the movie's biggest laughs, built around one of the pillars of the Marvel Universe: the fact that the hammer of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) can only be wielded by one who is worthy. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) throw on their respective Iron Man and War Machine gauntlets to get a little power behind their pull; Captain America (Chris Evans) seems to budge it, briefly freaking Thor out. Built on the kind of loosey-goosey character moments that made writer/director Joss Whedon seem like a great choice for the first Avengers, it's a frisky bit of business — and it also happens to be the key to why Age of Ultron is a bit more than just the latest pop-culture machine cranked off the Marvel Studios assembly line.
Because as it turns out, Age of Ultron is fundamentally about what makes humanity worthy. When Stark, inspired by disturbing visions of a ruined Earth, decides to create an artificial intelligence to help protect the world, the result is Ultron (James Spader), an entity that doesn't take long to conclude that humanity itself is the world's greatest threat. And he's got a pair of allies in super-powered twins Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) — the former a telepath/telekinetic, the latter with super speed — whose own experience with the Stark name was seeing a bomb created by his company kill their parents.
Whedon is choreographing a metric ton of moving parts here, introducing new characters, while dealing with subplots for our established Avengers, like the never-before-seen personal life of Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and a budding romance between Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).
But there's also some potent subtext rolling around here, partly kicked off by Wanda getting inside our heroes' heads to make them face some of their darker thoughts. Multiple characters are framed in terms of their "monstrosity": Banner with his out-of-control id; Stark with his often-more-out-of-control ego; Natasha with a history of being trained from childhood to be a killing machine. Ultron, meanwhile, is the embodiment of Roosevelt's "fear itself," a monolithic consciousness that pokes its way into all electronic communications and creates the kind of damage it was meant to prevent.
That's why some of the centerpiece battle sequences here pack more than just a CGI wallop. The donnybrook between Iron Man and Hulk on the streets of South Korea may be a whoop-it-up blast, but it also culminates in a skyscraper collapsing to the ground in a disturbingly familiar plume of smoke and debris.
The grand finale showdown revolves around not just the obligatory rampage of Ultron's seemingly infinite robot army, but also around the previously fragmented Avengers pulling together in a crisis, and overseeing the evacuation of thousands of people from a threatened city. Hollywood movies have taken some heat at times for appropriating the visual language of real-world catastrophe, but in Age of Ultron the decision feels earned, because Whedon is making his grand summer entertainment into a story about the circumstances that bring out the best in people, about the self-sacrifice and compassion that we can show when we set aside petty nonsense and pull together.
Of course it's possible to enjoy Age of Ultron without giving such a reading the slightest consideration, full as it is of geeky pleasures and action spectacle; it's equally possible to see it as the latest exhausting pinnacle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's bigger-faster-more aesthetic.
But comic books have always been, in part, a modern mythology, and mythology has always been humanity's way of understanding our place in the world. Sometimes the super-heroism is just brightly colored junk food. At other times, it's a way of giving us a glimpse of how we flawed, messed-up, occasionally monstrous humans can sometimes prove ourselves worthy.