Avengers: Age of Ultron is quite possibly the most important Marvel movie to date. It’s tasked with resolving (or at least continuing) the story and character arcs that have been introduced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far; an astounding total of ten films. It’s also been assigned to set up future events and villains for the next Avengers outing, along with several other upcoming Marvel films. This alone is something that has been critically attacked in past superhero films which were more concerned with universe-building at the sake of a cohesive narrative (Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Iron Man 2). Most importantly, Avengers: Age of Ultron has to serve as a successor to 2012’s The Avengers…which, needless to say, is no easy feat. While the sequel (helmed once again by ‘the nerd king’ Joss Whedon) doesn’t manage to reach the insanely high bar raised by the previous installment, Avengers: Age of Ultron succeeds in so many other areas that it’s relatively easy to look past most of the noticeable issues on display.
The story immediately throws you into a massive action scene that sets the tone for the rest of the film to come. The Avengers assemble again to take on Hydra one final time in an effort to reclaim Loki’s scepter, a powerful weapon that must be returned to Asgard…safe and out of the hands of meddling men (Disclaimer: if the previous sentence made no sense to you, then you might find yourself lost as this sequel assumes the audience has working knowledge of the events in past films – all ten of them). Before that can happen, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) use the scepter to create a peace-keeping program that will be used as “a suit of armour around the world”. In the process, they inadvertently create Ultron (voiced superbly by James Spader), a rage-filled rogue A.I. intent on saving the world through the extermination of the Avengers…and all of humanity in the process.
Ultron is the main villain on display in the sequel and it’s unfortunate that he doesn’t get the attention or treatment he deserves. I am already well-aware that this opinion puts me in the minority, but I feel Ultron didn’t really work in the film. Many of the Ultron-focused scenes are inventive and fantastic, especially his origin and ensuing interactions with Tony’s friendly A.I., Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany). The two characters are formless beings, communicating through a grid of colors and lines in an abstractly beautiful moment. The first confrontation between Ultron and our heroes is unexpected and disturbing, perfectly showcasing the new villain’s menacing presence.
However, Ultron quickly evolves, taking form in a more substantial robotic body that feels like a drastic step backwards aesthetically. The first version of Ultron we see is housed within a corroded shell of a battle-worn Iron Man suit, which is terrifying and effectively intimidating. The most prevalent form Ultron inhabits looks cartoonish and a little bit too expressive…especially when paired with James Spader’s gleefully dark and glib one-liners. Spader’s performance is phenomenal, darkly mirroring his creator’s (Tony Stark) sense of humor in the form of many fun and quotable lines. In conjunction with the visual representation of his character, however, the effect is a villain who is humorous and witty but lacking any real menace. This is somewhat disappointing after the trailers featured a haunting rendition of “I’ve Got No Strings”, which had Ultron poised to be a chilling and memorable foe.
Any issue with his appearance and tone may be chalked up to mere personal bias, but Ultron’s over-arching plan along with the interweaving plotlines come across as convoluted at best. The Avengers felt simple and focused, almost to a fault for some viewers, but Avengers: Age of Ultron crosses to the other end of the spectrum. Featuring too many characters and storylines, the sequel feels overly complex and messy. Some of these storylines feel out of place and seem to be left wide open for further exploration in future sequels. A scene involving Thor and his Asgardian spirit quest comes and goes without much explanation, providing the best example of a story jump that leaves something to be desired in the film. While the new characters, notably The Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), are all fantastic additions to an already stellar roster, their presence only serves to add to the film’s biggest problem – instead of being a fun and enthralling superhero romp, The Avengers: Age of Ultron feels like work at times. Too many plotlines and character arcs are rushed in order to maintain the ‘quick and fun’ pacing of this two and a half hour film.
It has been widely talked about by the director, Joss Whedon, that one of the original cuts of The Avengers: Age of Ultron was just over 3 hours long. After seeing the final product, it’s hard not to think that the longer cut would have served the film better. With more time to focus on the characters and story moments (such as Ultron’s evolution and increasing determination to eradicate humanity), Age of Ultron could have been The Empire Strikes Back for the Avengers trilogy that Whedon had intended it to be. The resulting narrative seems compelled to highlight action scenes (which are fantastic) and witty banter (also fantastic), but only hints upon the greater themes of theology and creationism. It makes for an entertaining, though insubstantial, narrative that remains just compelling enough to work. No, the narrative isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination; it just falls short of what Whedon has proved he is capable of in the past.
The ensemble cast from the first film returns in full force, with each character feeling like the most fully realized and established incarnations of their comic book counterparts. The one surprising standout is Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who is given much more to do in the sequel, almost as an apology for being placed in the background of the first film. He is given many of the film’s best one-liners along with an emotional character arc that adds a desperately needed sense of gravitas and humanity to a film with literal gods and robots at its center.
Even though there are structural issues with the narrative and a few other negligible complaints, it’s hard not to forgive any faults when everything else works so well. The most fun I had with Age of Ultron wasn’t with the big, spectacular set pieces or the fluid tracking shots of the entire group fighting through hordes of minions. No, the most fun to be had is with the writing. Whedon’s sharp and witty dialogue might be at its best in Age of Ultron. Every character has a moment to shine, both in and out of combat, delivering memorable and hilarious lines. Even Ultron is allowed to partake in the fun with his own morbid sense of humor. One of the more amusing jokes is a recurring one that pokes fun at Captain America (Chris Evans) when his old-fashioned sensibilities accidentally slip out for everyone to hear. Though there are arguably better Marvel movies out there, no one quite understands or embodies the characters’ voices like Joss Whedon (aside from James Gunn, writer/director of Guardians of the Galaxy, perhaps).
Avengers: Age of Ultron is flawed – make no mistakes about it. I sincerely doubt many people will label it as the perfect comic-book movie and that’s okay. Age of Ultron is a great film and when it’s firing on all cylinders it works so well that fans and casual viewers alike are sure to walk away satisfied, if not pumped! It is enthralling from start to finish, providing the over-the-top spectacle and humor that fans have come to expect from Whedon. It offers some of the best scenes and moments of any film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date. As the credits began to roll, I was left with a wide smile on my face, eager to see what Marvel has up their sleeves next.