(I consider this a fairly spoiler light review, given the majority of news that has been reported about the film already, but for anyone that wants to go in cold, or as cold as possible, certainly tread as lightly as you’d like)
Following up on 2012’s Earth shatteringly successful The Avengers, which grossed over 1.5 billion worldwide and was a widely hailed critical hit, was never going to be an easy task for director Joss Whedon. Sequels carry the weight of massive expectations already, and when your initial film in the series makes that big of a mark, it’s hard to imagine the pressure he must have been under to find some way to elevate the adventures of a group that’s also split among three successful solo franchises.
In some ways, Age of Ultron is possibly the most “comic book” superhero movie ever made. Discarding the veneer of political paranoia of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, or the attempts at sci-fi/fantasy of the Thor films, Age of Ultron is an outing that proudly wears its four-color origins on the screen. Plot and character beats are tossed out at a mile a minute pace, and the film never really lets up that momentum until the final climax hits. On the whole, this is a really intriguing idea, the concept of a “superhero film on steroids”, with locales changing more often than in a Bond film. This is also a bit of a double-edged sword, as at no point does the film ever lull (provided heavy duty action sequences appeal to you), but it also produces a bit of a fractured narrative. Sub-plots are introduced and discarded with regularity, and at no point does it give the audience an opportunity to connect with the plight of the team, as throughout, the viewer feels curiously held at a distance. It is the cinematic equivalent of a runaway freight train, for all the appealing and unpleasant aspects that may imply.
The story that it initially sets out with finds our team In media res, attacking the HYDRA base of Baron Von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) in order to recapture Loki’s staff from the first film, and running afoul of superpowered twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who are in his service. From there, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner work together to utilize the staff to create an artificial intelligence that can “armor the world” against threats like the Chitauri. Instead, they accidentally give birth to Ultron (voiced by James Spader), who rebels and enlists the Maximoff twins into his genocidal scheme. As you can imagine, only the Avengers can stop him.
As set-ups go, it’s a pretty good one.
With the full court press effort engaged, it’s no surprise to note the entire gang is back for this adventure including Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Other Marvel Cinematic Universe players also make cameo appearances and while this does highlight the larger shared-universe aspects, it often proves to be a distraction, serving as a reminder that these solo franchises also exist and are to be watched. If there is one major flaw in Whedon’s swan-song, it is that Age of Ultron seems constantly torn between the story it wants to tell vs. the story it needs to tell, and all too often has its gaze over the horizon to the studio’s 2016-2019 entries. Sadly, this is not the only issue affecting this much anticipated follow-up.
While the “Big Three” Avengers only get so much to do, with Iron Man benefiting the most given his higher profile and direct involvement in the antagonist, the other Avengers who aren’t actively engaged in their own movie franchises are given some really nice time to shine. After spending almost all of the first film under mind control, Hawkeye finally gets a welcome delving into his personal life and a couple of big heroic moments by the third act. Black Widow and Bruce Banner are also intrinsically tied together in a bit of an unlikely romantic pairing that unfortunately doesn’t really work and leads to some forced character motivations by film’s end. That latter issue is rather endemic of the entire enterprise. Where each character starts, and where they end up by film’s end, feels more like chess pieces being put into place for the next big franchise move, rather than natural, logical extensions of these heroes as we’ve come to know them. The Tony that we saw overcoming PTSD and coming to terms with his self-actualization in Iron Man 3 doesn’t quite jibe with the Tony as he’s presented here. Captain America, too, seems to have reverted back to his characterization pre-Winter Soldier. And Thor? Well, no one ever seems to know what to do with Thor, and little has changed here.
Over the course of Age of Ultron’s 2 hours and 21 minutes, so much franchise heavy-lifting has occurred, that the entire affair ends up feeling like an obligation, or a box to check off before we get to the main event of Avengers: Infinity War Parts 1 and 2. This development is a bit of a waste, as there are some fascinating ideas at play in Whedon’s script regarding the invincibility of its characters vs. the fragility of those they “avenge” and the fickle nature of the public’s adoration of them. Ultron is not a particularly interesting or strongly motivated villain (though he is quippy in that still enjoyable Whedon “big bad” mode), but what he sets into place could have led the team into some unexplored territory for the genre, instead we have to spend time with Thor having visions and wading into a pool among other excursions.
As for the new additions to the cast, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are serviceable, but separated from their X-Men origins due to movie rights entanglements with 20th Century Fox, edge towards blandness. Wanda’s power-set (as poorly defined here as it is in the comics) at least provides some form of visual fireworks, but Taylor-Johnson’s version of Quicksilver is such a non-factor that it makes you long for Evan Peters’ take on the character from X-Men: Days of Future Past. The one stand-out is Vision (Paul Bettany), whose character origin hearkens back to the elements of the film that I find most intriguing, while also being tied into segments that frustrated me in equal turn. Regardless, he’s a visual wonder in his magenta, yellow and green splendor, and maximizes the comic book potential of the character. Bettany finally gets his chance to shine physically in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and he makes the most of it.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is the kind of film tailor made for you if getting lost in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and all of its “connected” glory is what you find appealing, or you just want to absorb wall to wall action, of which there is plenty. If you have fond memories of the Battle of New York from the first film, there are a number of moments here that aim for those same “money shots”, producing images that feel as though they’re pulled right of out of the comics. On the other hand, if you’re hoping for an actual improvement on the previous film, look elsewhere, as just about every facet of Age of Ultron; character interaction, dialogue, plot and narrative structure, fails to match its predecessor (exceeding is completely out of the question). On the whole, the film feels like a cold and soulless endeavor, rather than the triumph that we were all hoping for. It is a sadly frustrating, and fairly exhausting, effort and we can only hope that it is not a sign of things to come for Marvel’s Phase 3.