Warning: This is a spoilers review. Plot details from Avengers: Age of Ultron will be discussed openly. Only continue if you have seen the film or don’t care about having the story spoiled.
It’s been a solid week since the theatrical release of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Now that we’ve seen the film and had a bit of time to digest it, let’s talk through its pros and cons and give it an overall score.
Relentless Cinematic Action
The first Avengers spent its first act getting the band together. We didn’t see them fighting as a team until their climactic battle in New York. This time around, the fighting starts from the opening scene. The gang’s all here and working relentlessly to storm the stronghold of Hydra’s mad scientist, Baron Strucker.
The pace rarely lets up from there, offering some of the most kinetic comic book action ever put to screen. Indeed, there may be no other film which has so perfectly portrayed what comic books can only suggest through still images.
There’s probably as much destruction in Avengers: Age of Ultron as we saw in Man of Steel. But unlike the latter, we never grow fatigued or lose our capacity to care.
For the most part, Avengers: Age of Ultron continues to showcase writer/director Joss Whedon’s uncanny ability to juggle a large ensemble of characters without making the screen feel crowded. For the most part, each team member gets their due.
The most notable development surrounds the non-super-powered characters. Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, who was arguably underutilized in the first film, gets much love this time out. We learn that he has a family. We get to meet them. We also deal directly with Hawkeye’s mortality and vulnerability alongside a pantheon of gods.
Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff likewise addresses her role on the team. Arguably the most popular Marvel character without a standalone film, and certainly the most prolific, the Black Widow reveals some of her veiled backstory in an effort to relate to Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk-harboring Dr. Banner.
“Still think you’re the only monster on the team?” she asks after divulging one of her past’s darker details.
Advancing the MCU Mythology
In ways both large and small, Avengers: Age of Ultron advances both the character arcs of its main players and the overall mythology of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Indeed, what has come before directly triggers what happens here and leads naturally to what we know comes later.
In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark dealt with the trauma of events endured in the first Avengers film. Never let it be said that an alien army pouring through an interdimensional rift won’t shake up even the most alpha of males. One thing this cinematic universe has done very well is meld wildly different styles into a larger whole. But that doesn’t mean a relatively normal human being reliant upon technology won’t balk at extraterrestrial horrors.
That fear and apprehension drives Tony to take drastic and risky measures in this film. The villainous artificial intelligence Ultron is born of that effort in an attempt to protect humanity from threats like the alien Chitauri. Obviously, that attempt went very wrong and produced a greater threat in Ultron, which leaves us to wonder how these events will inform the conflict between Stark and Captain American in next year’s Captain America: Civil War.
Of particular note among the new characters is Paul Bettany’s Vision. With scant screen time available to develop his character, Bettany and writer/director Joss Whedon nonetheless produce a compelling new addition to the team.
The introduction of the Vision presented Whedon with a problem. In an already character-packed film, how do you get both the audience and the other Avengers to buy into this strange new being who appears out of nowhere? Whedon’s solution was brilliant. Early on, he went out of his way to remind us of the significance of Thor’s hammer. Only those who are worthy may wield the power of Thor. In that moment when the Vision effortlessly lifts Mjölnir and offers it to Thor, we instantly accept that he can be trusted without question.
Another great moment comes during the climactic battle with Ultron’s drones when Don Cheadle’s War Machine is aided by the Vision without introduction. Upon witnessing this red and green flying android rip through drones and zip away, we cut to inside Rhodey’s helmet as he quips with bewilderment, “Okay, what?”
Doesn’t Really Stand Alone
Considering this is the eleventh film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we should regard ourselves lucky that each entry to this point has more or less stood alone. You could jump into the franchise at Thor: The Dark World or Captain America: The Winter Soldier and fully understand the events of those films without having seen anything that came before.
That’s not the case with Avengers: Age of Ultron. In fact, even if you have seen every other Marvel film, you’ll be hard-pressed to follow every detail of Ultron upon your first viewing. There’s just too much happening, and it happens way faster than you can digest it. The film relies largely upon the assumption that you’re already familiar with these characters and know the formative events of their lives.
Whedon faced the same challenge with the first Avengers. How do you put all these superheroes in the same movie without rehashing the backstory of each? Rather than get around that, Whedon opted to truncate the backstories in a way that made sense in the overall narrative. We don’t need to know everything. But we do need to know the basics of who these people are and how they can do what they do.
Whedon doesn’t bother with that this time around. You either need to have seen previous films to know why Banner hulks out and why Thor can fly, or you just suspend disbelief and choose not to care.
Beyond character abilities and origins, we’re not offered much context for why these guys are fighting together in the first place. If you saw the first Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Solider, then you know. But if you didn’t, you just have to take it for granted.
Whedon gives Ultron some incredible moments, infusing him with Stark’s wit, hubris, and ambition. However, the character literally comes out of nowhere. We know what he is and how he emerges, but next to nothing about who he is and what motivates him. He just wakes up and decides to kill everyone.
Whedon attempts to humanize Ultron a bit by crafting an estranged father/son relationship between him and Stark. But the attempt never really connects on either end. We don’t feel the stakes between the two, because they (and we) haven’t known each other long enough to care.
Another sadly underdeveloped villain is Baron Strucker. Aside from popping up in a previous film’s post-credit scene and appearing here for a few minutes, this key figure from the comics meets with unceremonious death after accomplishing next to nothing. We feel nothing for him, positive or negative.
Finally, the all too brief appearance of Ulysses Klaue feels entirely tacked on as an Easter egg teasing the forthcoming Black Panther. On the plus side, the character seems menacing and driven, played with relish by Andy Serkis, which bodes well for that future film. But his role in this film seems contrived.
The Maximoff Twins
Some cool moments not withstanding, the utilization of Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, known in the comics as Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch, leaves much to be desired. Their motivation for opposing the Avengers seems petty and irrational.
Sure, having your parents killed by a Stark weapon may engender some hard feelings. But have they been living under a rock for the past several years during which Stark stopped producing weapons and trod the globe fighting terrorists and arms dealers? Did they not catch wind of the events in New York, where Stark literally saved the city from a nuclear catastrophe? How do you continue to hold this guy, let alone the rest of the Avengers, responsible for something he didn’t even directly do?
The death of Quicksilver proved underwhelming given the lack of development afforded his character. He essentially became the equivalent of a Star Trek redshirt. The only emotional weight lent to that scene was the relief in Hawkeye surviving.
Overall Impression / Final Score
All things considered, the above cited cons are nitpicks in what proves a rewarding time at the movies. Avengers: Age of Ultron may not surpass the original. But it doesn’t need to in order to succeed. A different edit of the film may have resulted in a true masterpiece. But when you’re having that conversation, about how a great movie might have been Whedon’s magnum opus, you’re still left with a great movie.