When Tony Stark and Bruce Banner try to jump-start a dormant peacekeeping program called Ultron, things go horribly wrong and it’s up to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to stop the villainous Ultron from enacting his terrible plans.
THE REVIEW: The Avengers came out a month before I started this movie marathon so I don’t have a written review for Joss Whedon’s first entry into Marvel’s tentpole franchise. I do remember being blown away by the action, dialogue, and newfound camaraderie as all the big name superheroes gathered together for the first time. It truly was a defining moment in cinematic history and the pinnacle of Marvel’s domination up to that point. Three years have passed since that time and in preparation for seeing Avengers: Age of Ultron, the kind-of sequel to Whedon’s first film (if you don’t count all the story developments that take place in subsequent films like Thor: The Dark World or Captain America: Winter Soldier; but you should since they’re directly related), I re-watched The Avengers and a strange thing happened: it wasn’t nearly as great as I remembered it.
The reason I bring all of this up is because I feel a similar thing will happen with Avengers: Age of Ultron. In many ways, this film tops the original and raises the stakes to extraordinarily high levels. For fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) who watch all the movies, the overlapping storylines and plot elements are starting to come to a climax. The convergence of all these characters is reaching a point where it almost feels like the biggest-budget, extensive, and highly-orchestrated television show ever produced, where each new film is just another episode (with each phase corresponding to a season in this analogy). It’s harder for uninitiated fans to just jump into to the next Marvel film without watching a primer on all that’s happened since Iron Man in 2008.
Avengers: Age of Ultron can be viewed as the epitome of a summer blockbuster: it’s got lots of thrilling action and stunning visuals with a decent-to-good story to keep your attention. It’s a spectacle film that benefits from being seen in a theater while also having compelling characters whom you care for to give the film more than just the outside aesthetics. Age of Ultron maintains the humor, wit, and camaraderie we’ve come to expect from Joss Whedon and the rest of the MCU. James Spader (who voices and portrays the villainous Ultron through performance capture) brings a darker, more sinister, vibe to the film while not necessarily heralding impending doom (which producer Kevin Feige has said will never come to the MCU). The biggest difference in Age of Ultron is a drastic increase in conflict, of all kinds. Characters’ inner-conflicts, like Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) fighting against his anger and rage. Conflict within the Avengers themselves as Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Banner argue for the AI-based Ultron program against the wishes of Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth). And of course, the conflict with Ultron and Hydra that causes a lot of things to go “boom!” and crumble into dust and rubble.
But as I alluded to before, there’s also something missing from Age of Ultron. Despite having all this conflict, and having raised the stakes to newer and higher levels, this film doesn’t quite click. Parts of the film feel disjointed and the characters not fully integrated into one cohesive unit. In The Avengers, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) was there from the first scene until the end; he was a focal point from which we as an audience could build upon as the story developed. With Age of Ultron, our perception of who the villain is changes fairly often. Is it Hyrda, the genetically altered twins Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Ultron, or the Avengers fighting amongst themselves?
On the one hand, this complexity is great; it is more enticing than a traditional good vs. evil storyline which can often feel overdone. There are many nuances and subtleties to pay attention to which keeps you more alert while watching the film. But on the other hand, this comes across as a Christopher Nolan/The Dark Knight Rises solution where instead of picking the choice bits, just throw every storyline in there and jumble them together in a semi-understandable way. Yes, we get to see everyone do their own things throughout the movie — including an extended subplot with minor character Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) — but instead of them all feeling fully-fledged, some come across as crammed in to fill a checkbox. The example that’s drawn the most attention is Thor, who had a large chunk of his story excised from the final cut. I’m not saying that the film was made worse by removing large chunks or that it would be better if they remained in the cut. As a fan of lengthy extended editions (I’m looking at you, Lord of the Rings) my preference is usually to err on the side of showing too much (especially for fantasy/mythology-heavy films like those in the MCU). However, taking the opposite approach and culling the breadth of material covered to focus on a few key points (Avengers in-fighting with Ultron serving as the opposition) could work as well.
THE TAKEAWAY: Avengers: Age of Ultron isn’t up to par with The Avengers or several other Marvel films (Guardians of the Galaxy is the best recent release), but I don’t think this is a sign of the apocalypse for the MCU. Age of Ultron is still an incredibly entertaining, funny (“for gosh sake, watch your language!”), and all-around good time at the theater. Sure there may be some story and character issues, but they don’t stand out too much and most of the time can slip under the radar.
THE RATING: 4 out of 5