It’s easy enough to say that Avengers: Age of Ultron is a must-see film – certainly, short of the new Star Wars it’s likely to be the biggest cinema-going event of the year. And for good reason, as returning writer-director Joss Whedon gives audiences what they’ve come to expect from Marvel’s superhero saga.
Despite this, it’s hard not to feel at least a twinge of disappointment, as Age of Ultron fails to reach the heights of its predecessor – and I didn’t even go in with great expectations (the marketing campaign never won me). Ultimately, I found Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy – all movies from Marvel’s Phase 2 slate – to be superior experiences in and of themselves.
Age of Ultron finds itself in a holding pattern – it’s ‘just another Marvel movie’ rather than the next big thing, as it doesn’t show us anything new like Guardians did last year, nor does it upend the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Winter Soldier did previously. Instead, Age of Ultron is like a ‘monster of the week’ Saturday morning cartoon albeit on a grand scale – and suffering somewhat from Iron Man 2 syndrome.
That’s to say, Age of Ultron features a disposable plot that seems more concerned with setting things up for Phase 3. By contrast, the original Avengers felt like the proper culmination of Phase 1. Ultron feels expected, simply because it’s the sequel to one of the biggest movies ever made, but not as a natural progression or climax to a story that’s been carefully built up from day one. To examine this more closely, let’s break it down by character:
Iron Man 3 saw Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) scratch his itch and cut back on building Iron Man suits. It left us with Tony accepting that the man, not the suit, made the hero. Age of Ultron begins with Tony having been working closely with Bruce Banner to develop Ultron – a computer AI that will do the avenging when the rest of the superhero club are drinking piña coladas on a beach. This is a nice nod to the fact that Tony and Bruce left in each other’s company at the end of the first Avengers, also tying in with the post-credit scene in Iron Man 3 and working with Tony’s decision to start from a clean slate.
Naturally, things go awry and Ultron turns on his maker and sets about achieving ‘peace in our time’ through human extinction. More on Ultron later.
Chris Hemsworth brings charisma as Thor, but that aside the character doesn’t have much of an arc this time. Thor’s subplot, involving a detour to a magical pool giving him visions of the future (yes, you read that right), feels the most egregious – being solely there to signpost the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok and other future films.
Cap (Chris Evans) is also short-changed, without much to do except lead the Avengers when they’re on screen together. Some hints are dropped about the continuing search for Bucky, but there are no significant steps forward for the character.
Bruce Banner & Black Widow
I’ve lumped these two together as there’s now a blossoming romance between the green giant (Mark Ruffalo) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). It’s not a huge leap based on the character interactions of these in the past, and while not all will appreciate this narrative turn, it was at least something of an arc – which is more than can be said of the others. Still, this is probably Black Widow’s weakest appearance next to her debut in Iron Man 2 as she is somewhat disempowered in this instalment for a couple of spoilery reasons.
After a cameo appearance in Thor, and a mind-controlled turn in the original Avengers, Jeremy Renner is finally given the material to bring Hawkeye to life. Clint Barton (Hawkeye) emerges as a fully-fleshed out character – so much so that you might even call this Hawkeye’s movie. He gets some of the best lines and there are some surprising reveals about his history, while his actions here cement his position as a worthy Avenger.
Ultron (& Others)
James Spader’s surprisingly sassy Ultron is a decent one-off baddie – a twisted mirror of its creator’s ambitions – but he doesn’t really do anything deserving enough of the film’s subtitle ‘Age of Ultron’, which suggests some kind of drastic upheaval of Earth’s status quo. His ultimate endgame is supervillainy at its most cartoonish, but his evil-doing doresn’t really leave a lasting mark (with one exception). The other new faces, being the superpowered twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) are fine additions, although necessarily second-fiddle to the core cast.
With so many characters (and more that I haven’t mentioned), you would be right in thinking that there’s perhaps a little too much going on for the film to handle. A longer cut would have given these characters room to breathe, resulting in a superior experience. As it is, Age of Ultron has the undeniable feel of a chopped studio product. It’s also stuck between two tones, wanting to be darker and more ominous but constantly reverting back to one-liners, ‘jokey’ dialogue and easy outs (it also concludes on an odd note by dialogue being cut off mid-sentence – I’m not sure what they were going for but it didn’t work for me). By the end, the CG battles begin to blend into each other and the tension is all but traded for spectacle.
Don’t get me wrong, Whedon does exemplary work here as there’s much to be impressed by – that the movie doesn’t buckle under the weight of everything going on is downright incredible. Still, for such a tentpole film and milestone entry of the franchise, it’s a shame that it doesn’t do more. Again, it may sound like I’m being overly critical but that’s a deliberate choice of mine in writing this review – there are plenty of positive reviews out there that focus on Age of Ultron’s strengths. Nevertheless, I do recommend it – I had a great time watching Avengers: Age of Ultron, even if it doesn’t reach the heights Marvel’s best.