When it came out in 2012, The Avengers felt like a culmination. The end of a story that had been teased and promised since Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury walked in on Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark in the post-credit scene of 2008’s Iron Man and delivered that line. Immediately, it launched a thousand ideas of what it could mean and where the story could go. Through The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, the Marvel Cinematic Universe expanded; adding famous characters, villains and ideas such as S.H.I.E.L.D., the Tesseract, Loki, HYDRA and the Super-Soldier Serum. All of these eventually came together with The Avengers, as the various heroes introduced united to stop Loki and his use of the Cosmic Cube to conquer Earth. Had there never been another Marvel movie, the story would have felt completed. That said, like Iron Man had done at the start, the post-credit scene in The Avengers introduced a greater element to build towards: Thanos (Josh Brolin) and the Infinity Gauntlet.
The expectation had to be that the next Avengers movie would be built towards a similar conclusion, but it wasn’t specifically. Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World dealt with the aftermath of The Avengers. Captain America: The Winter Soldier did help set up this movie by revealing the hidden threat within S.H.I.E.L.D. Guardians of the Galaxy tangentially added to it by properly introducing the Infinity Stones and Thanos, as well as expanding the Cinematic Universe cosmically. But rather than deal with Thanos in this movie, the reveal was that the villain would be Ultron. Thanos would continue to wait in the background So how did it do?
Age of Ultron begins with the eponymous superheroes dealing with the fallout from The Winter Soldier and the dissolution of S.H.I.E.L.D. Amongst the things lost in the chaos was the staff of Loki, which is in the hands of Hydra’s Baron Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann). Desperate to get it back and have Thor (Chris Hemsworth) take it away to Asgard, the Avengers assault Strucker’s base in Sokovia. It is here they run into two of Strucker’s test subjects, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson respectively), but are able to emerge triumphant. Retrieving the staff, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) set about to study it and discover a new kind of artificial intelligence which Stark feels may be able to control his “Ultron” program. It’s Stark’s hope that, rather than waiting for trouble to arrive and calling on the Avengers to deal with it, Ultron could deal with potential threats before they get too big. Banner is eventually won over and they use the A.I. from the staff on the robots Stark has built….but things don’t go as planned.
The Ultron (James Spader) that rises out Stark’s laboratory is a terrifying machine that is hellbent on the destruction of humanity. After all, what better way to pacify the Earth than to remove the one species that most often puts it in danger. Then, a new sentience can rise – a new species that can better care for, provide for and build for the world. Humanity is the problem and he’s got the cure. His first step is to destroy the people that can stand up to him: the Avengers. And he’ll use the Maximoff twins to ensure they can never trust one another while he uses Strucker’s resources to build an army capable of dealing with them – each one as capable and dangerous as he is. The Avengers, for their part, having no backup or support like they did in the first movie are forced to find their strength as a team in order to stop the monster they brought into the world.
By now, all of these characters and their respective actors are known to us. Downey’s Stark/Iron Man is snarky and cutting, but there’s good intentions in his heart. Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers/Captain America is noble and capable, but a man still finding his place in the modern world. Hemsworth’s Thor has settled into life on Earth, but retains his proud Asgardian background. Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk is actually building a relationship of sorts with Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, whose background the movie actually delves into. It is actually the two most human characters – Romanoff and Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton/Hawkeye – who get the most new development, as we get to know more about them than the rest. It’s not surprising as they’ve not had their own feature films. The movie even brings other characters like War Machine (Don Cheadle), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), Heimdall (Idris Elba), Maria Hill (Colbie Smulders) and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) for various cameos during proceedings. It allows for the audience to recognize the greater world the MCU has built while giving a nod to fans who’ve met these characters in greater detail in the previous movies.
Of the new characters, Taylor-Johnson’s Pietro/Quicksilver is a brash punk who can run at super speed and Olsen’s Wanda/Scarlet Witch is a super-powerful telekinetic and mind-controller. They are powerful in their own way and the reasons for hating the Avengers are laid out in very straightforward manner – the loss of family to Stark’s former weapons. This is why they volunteer for Strucker’s experiments and how Ultron is able to recruit them and they do a solid job with the parts. Paul Bettany finally gets a chance to step away from being the formless J.A.R.V.I.S. and takes on the shape of The Vision, a synthetic creation of Ultron that Tony is able to get his hands on. He’s a formless innocent, but with tremendous power and a mission to protect life – and a powerful weapon to do it with. Meanwhile, Spader’s Ultron isn’t quite on the level of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, but he’s close. I found him far more menacing and dangerous, even as his plans remain hidden for the duration of the movie. When he battles Captain America atop a moving truck on the streets of Seoul, you actually wonder if Cap can win. That said, the screen doesn’t quite crackle like it did with Hiddleston’s Loki.
For his part, director.writer Joss Whedon does a solid job of kickstarting things with energy and does a terrific job of making the various action sequences and parts feel unique. Every battle is unique – with The Hulk vs Hulkbuster battle in Wakanda a particular highlight. The movie also does a well in establishing how the team has learned to work with one another and allowed for growth like friendships (the scene where they all try to lift Thor’s hammer) and romance (Romanoff and Banner) that feels natural given the previous film. Likewise, from the score by Brian Tyler & Danny Elfman, to the cinematography by Ben Davis, the editing of Jeffrey Ford & Lisa Lassek and the special effects by Industrial Light & Magic and the various other studios, each part by the crew is done well and helps create a cohesive whole that feels like the natural continuation of the story. A special note to The Imaginarium Studios, who helped Ruffalo with the motion capture performance to bring The Hulk to life. They’ve come a long, long way from even just a decade ago.
I really feel I have to stress I enjoyed the movie before I go any further. Because any criticism of it may feel disingenuous given how much I’ve enjoyed Marvel’s cinematic output. I mean, we are living in the Golden Age of comic book movies. They used to be considered second-rate fare that barring the odd Superman: The Movie or Batman (1989) would get B-movie actors and directors, poor special effects and almost nothing to dazzle the audience. I mean, one year after Burton’s Batman, out came Captain America — one of the worst movies ever made, period. (And I can say that cause I’ve seen it). Even with the odd modern dud – Green Lantern or Ghost Rider – things are much, much better for comic book movies and their fans.
But as I watched Age of Ultron, I began to feel like a kid who’s had too much cake at a birthday party. You like cake. I like cake. Everyone likes cake. But there is such a thing as too much cake. It stops tasting delicious and becomes bland. It becomes repetitive. And that’s where I was headed with this movie. It feels too similar to the last one: massive threat to the world, megalomaniac villain with a plan to rip the Avengers from within, team struggles with doubts, in particular with the actions of Tony Stark, but comes together at the right time to face off the threat in an epic battle that rips a city to bits. The Avengers arise victorious and another thread in Thanos’ hidden plan is revealed. We saw this before in 2012. This movie adds a few wrinkles, but sticks to that central storyline and does not deviate from it.
Another issues is that, whereas The Avengers was the culmination of Marvel’s Phase I, Age of Ultron feels like just another movie in the greater MCU. It’s simply another piece that’s building towards a greater tale: the coming of Thanos and the Infinity War. In that sense, it does well. Now the Avengers themselves know of the Stones and, if the mid-credits scene is to be believed, Thanos has had enough and is coming for them himself. But that doesn’t help give this movie the sense of grandeur that its big brother had. The sense that Ultron was a threat big enough and dangerous enough to require the Avengers to come together isn’t quite there, even if Ultron is dangerous.
What’s more, the feeling that this movie is simply being used to set up the further movies to come from Marvel is inescapable. Whether it’s the talk between Stark and Rogers about “why we fight” or Thor’s vision about an upcoming war or even mentioning Wakanda, it all points towards the next phase of the MCU. Don’t get me wrong. It’s perfectly okay to begin laying the groundwork for future conflicts. But they shouldn’t be so blatant nor come at the expense of the story being told on screen. It’s part of the reason why Edgar Wright walked away from Ant-Man – because the subservience to the Marvel master plan meant that there was no room for creativity. And that’s a bad way to go about it.
Like I said, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a good movie. A fun movie that you will have a good time at and will likely go see again because the characters are fun and the action is dazzling. None of my concerns or complaints should diminish from that overall message. However, I do have reservations about where this story went and where the greater tale is going. I’ve felt like what separated Marvel’s movies from DC’s was that they knew they were meant to be fun but that they found original ways to adapt their characters – even as recent as last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy proved that. This movie shows some fraying around that idea. It can’t just be heroes meet villain and battle ensues. It has to be more. Otherwise, it becomes bland and boring – and that shouldn’t ever be the case.