TIME movies

Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron Introduces the Cloud-Based Villain

Avengers: Age Of Ultron
Marvel/Disney Chris Hemsworth, Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans star in Avengers: Age of Ultron

Joss Whedon's super-sharp writing elevates the newest Marvel film beyond the pack

Like many if not most people, I have a favorite Avenger. Mine is the Vision. He’s not an A-list Avenger like Thor or Captain America, but he has a ridiculous number of superpowers: he’s superstrong, he can fly, he can walk through walls and shoot beams out of a gem on his forehead. Also, he’s married to the Scarlet Witch.

The Vision is never going to hold down his own solo movie—probably because he’s weird-looking and an android—but he does make an appearance in Avengers: Age of Ultron, the sequel to Marvel’s vast, Olympian, franchise-melding The Avengers, which made more money than any other film in history except Titanic and Avatar. You can see why: there’s something decadent and supersaturated about these movies, like you almost can’t believe the munificence of a Hollywood that would put Iron Man and the Hulk (and the Vision) in the same movie.

Like the first one, Avengers: Age of Ultron was written and directed by Joss Whedon, among whose many virtues is an indelible, infallible touch with character, which is important because in Ultron he has to introduce them at a furious rate. In addition to the six regular Avengers—and irregulars like Nick Fury, War Machine and the Falcon—we get not only the Vision but also the sorcerous Scarlet Witch and her twin brother Quicksilver, who has superspeed. Or as one character describes them, “He’s fast, she’s weird.”

Then there’s Ultron himself, a super-intelligent, borderline indestructible robot created with good intentions that have gone awry—he’s now trying to wipe out humanity. Physically Ultron looks like an animate, damascened suit of armor; having no nose, he also bears a family resemblance to Voldemort. As voiced by James Spader, Ultron displays a finely honed, mordant sense of humor. Responding to a noble, idealistic speech, he begins, “I can’t physically throw up in my mouth …”

If anything, Whedon’s writing is almost too sharp. The characters are so finely drawn and verbally quick (they name-check Banksy and Eugene O’Neill) that they seem to belong to a different universe than the cartoonish one they find themselves in. They’re smarter than it, but in order for the plot to get rolling, Tony Stark has to make the rookie mistake of trying to create a superpowered artificial intelligence using a gem embedded in the staff of Loki, god of evil. You can see Stark actively struggling to convince even himself that this is a good idea. Likewise, no one ever seems quite sure why the nonsuperpowered, merely handy Avengers, Black Widow and Hawkeye, are in the group at all, since they’re constantly in danger of being squashed like bugs.

With Ultron, Whedon has the opposite problem: he’s got too much power. Ultron represents a new trend, the cloud-based villain. While he has an impressive robotic hardware body, his essence is software, so he can spread anywhere on the Internet more or less instantly and copy himself at will. Pulverizing his body doesn’t do much good: he sheds bodies the way we shed old iPhones.

To give the Avengers even a fighting chance, Whedon has to keep Ultron in shackles, like a robotic Harrison Bergeron. He makes Ultron fond of small talk and sentimentally attached to the human form—we know what killer robots look like, and they don’t look like Ultron, they look like Predator drones. Ultron doesn’t back himself up conscientiously either. He’s not even fully wireless—-several times we see him tethered by what look like Ethernet cables. He pulls his punches: never mind trying to hack the world’s nuclear arsenal, why doesn’t he hack the Avengers’ jet? Surely there are a couple of zero-day flaws in the firmware. Or never mind that—he ought to hack Iron Man’s suit.

A real Ultron would be completely distributed and systemic, the way real-life supervillains are: climate change, Ebola, political inertia, economic inequality. You couldn’t smash them with Thor’s hammer—or you could, but it wouldn’t do any good. That would be truly scary. But not nearly as fun to watch.

TIME Executives

Why It Matters Who Steve Jobs Really Was

Apple Unveils iPad 2
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images Apple CEO Steve Jobs speaks during an Apple Special event to unveil the new iPad 2 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on March 2, 2011 in San Francisco.

Dueling biographies fight over the story of Steve

In 2011 Walter Isaacson published a biography of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Isaacson’s biography was fully authorized by its subject: Jobs handpicked Isaacson, who had written biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. Entitled simply Steve Jobs, the book was well-reviewed and sold some 3 million copies.

But now its account is being challenged by another book, this one called Becoming Steve Jobs, by Brent Schlender, a veteran technology journalist who was friendly with Jobs, and Rick Tetzeli, executive editor at Fast Company. Some of Jobs’ former colleagues and friends have taken sides, speaking out against the old book and praising the new one. Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO and Jobs’s successor, has said that Isaacson’s book depicts Jobs as “a greedy, selfish egomaniac.” Jony Ive, Apple’s design chief, has weighed in against it, and Eddy Cue, Apple’s vice president of software and Internet services, tweeted about the new book: “Well done and first to get it right.”

But who did get it right? And why do people care so much anyway?

(This article comes with a bouquet of disclosures, starting with the fact that Isaacson is a current contributor and former editor of TIME magazine and as such my former boss. I’m quoted in his biography—I interviewed Jobs half a dozen times in the mid-2000s, though he and I weren’t friendly. Schlender spent more than 20 years writing for Fortune, which is owned by TIME’s parent company, Time Inc., and Tetzeli was an editor both at Fortune and at Entertainment Weekly, also a Time Inc. magazine.)

Schlender and Tetzeli have given their book the subtitle “The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader,” and its emphasis is on the transformation that Jobs underwent between 1985, when he was ousted from Apple, and 1997, when he returned to it. “The most basic question about Steve’s career is this,” they write. “How could the man who had been such an inconsistent, inconsiderate, rash, and wrongheaded businessman … become the venerated CEO who revived Apple and created a whole new set of culture-defining products?” It’s an excellent question.

Becoming Steve Jobs is, like most books about Jobs, tough on his early years. He could be a callous person (he initially denied being the father of his first child) and a terrible manager (the original Macintosh, while magnificent in its conception, was only barely viable as a product). On this score Schlender and Tetzeli are clear and even-handed. It’s easy to forget that Jobs originally wanted Pixar, the animation firm he took over from George Lucas in 1986, to focus on selling its graphics technology rather than making movies, and if the geniuses there hadn’t been more independent he might have run it into the ground.

Schlender and Tetzeli argue that it was this middle period that made Jobs. The failure of his first post-Apple company, NeXT, chastened him; his work with Pixar’s Ed Catmull and John Lasseter taught him patience and management skills; and his marriage to Laurene Powell Jobs deepened him emotionally. In those wilderness years he learned discipline and (some) humility and how to iterate and improve a project gradually. Thus reforged, he returned to Apple and led it back from near bankruptcy to become the most valuable company in the world.

Schlender and Tetzeli strenuously insist that they’re upending the “common myths” about Jobs. But they’re not specific about who exactly believes these myths, and in fact it’s a bit of a straw man: there’s not much in Becoming Steve Jobs that Isaacson or anybody else would disagree with. What’s missing is more problematic: as it goes on, Becoming Steve Jobs gradually abandons its critical distance and becomes a paean to the greatness of Jobs and Apple. Jobs was “someone who preferred creating machines that delighted real people,” and his reborn Apple was “a company that could once again make insanely great computing machines for you and me.” It reprints the famous “Think Different” spiel in full. It compares Jobs’ career arc, without irony, to that of Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story. It unspools sentences like: “Steve [we’re on a first-name basis with him] also understood that the personal satisfaction of accomplishing something insanely great was the best motivation of all for a group as talented as his.”

Read More: Apple’s Watch Will Make People and Computers More Intimate

It’s easy to see why Apple executives have endorsed Becoming Steve Jobs, but it has imperfections that would have irked Jobs himself. The writing is slack—it’s larded with clichés (“he wanted to play their game, but by his own rules”) and marred by small infelicities (it confuses jibe and gibe, twice). It lacks detail: for example, it covers Jobs’ courtship of and marriage to Laurene in two dry pages (“Their relationship burned intensely from the beginning, as you might expect from the pairing of two such strong-willed individuals”). By contrast, a Fortune interview Schlender did with Jobs and Bill Gates in 1991 gets 13 pages. Whatever its faults, Isaacson’s book at least dug up the telling details: in his account of the marriage we learn that Jobs was still agonizing over an ex-girlfriend; that he had a hilariously abortive bachelor party; that he threw out the calligrapher who was hired to do the wedding invitations (“I can’t look at her stuff. It’s shit”); and that the vegan wedding cake was borderline inedible.

Jobs was famously unintrospective, but Schlender and Tetzeli seem almost as incurious about his inner life as he supposedly was. Jobs’ birth parents were 23 when they conceived him, then they gave him up for adoption; when he was 23 Jobs abandoned his own first child. It takes a determinedly uninterested biographer not to connect those dots, or at least explain why they shouldn’t be connected. We hear a lot about what Jobs did, and some about how he did it, but very little about why.

Jobs was a man of towering contradictions: he identified deeply with the counterculture but spent his life in corporate boardrooms amassing billions; he made beautiful products that ostensibly enabled individual creativity but in their architecture expressed a deep-seated need for central control. Maybe making educated guesses about a major figure’s private life is unseemly, or quixotic, but that’s the game a biographer is in. Ultimately there’s no point in comparing Steve Jobs and Becoming Steve Jobs, because the latter book isn’t really a biography at all, much less a definitive one.

A more interesting question might be, why has the story of Steve Jobs become so important to us? And why is it such contested territory? He’s also the subject of a scathing new documentary by Alex Gibney and an upcoming biopic written by Aaron Sorkin. Was Jobs, to use Schlender and Tetzeli’s terminology, an asshole, or a genius, or some mysterious fusion of the two? It’s as if Jobs’ life has become a kind of totem, a symbolic story through which we’re trying to understand and work through our own ambivalence about the technology he and his colleagues made, which has so thoroughly invaded and transformed our lives in the past 20 years, for good and/or ill. Apple’s products are so glossy and beautiful and impenetrable that it’s difficult to do anything but admire them. But about Jobs, at least, we can think ­different.

Read next: Becoming Steve Jobs Shares Jobs’ Human Side

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