This review will most likely be overly critical, as I think many reviews of Avengers: Age of Ultron are going to be. It’s a good, solid, action-filled comic book movie, and five years ago it may have had me giddy with excitement and using puns about how it’s a marvel. However, Marvel has set an incredibly high bar for what I should expect out of it’s films, and when a movie doesn’t live up to that high bar it’s important to explain why.
That being said, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a blast. See it in theaters for sure because that’s how big movies like this are meant to be seen. You’ll have fun. That’s a given. You won’t regret the money spent, but if you’d like to find out why it just isn’t up to par with its predecessor continue on.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Director: Joss Whedon
Release Date: May 1, 2015
Have you been keeping up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe? It doesn’t especially matter. Even the world shattering destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America: Winter Soldier doesn’t seem to have changed much for our rag-tag team of superheroes. They’re still a team backed by some sort of funding and they’re still chasing after Loki’s scepter in order to return it to Thor’s people. This task is accomplished early on in the film after a fantastic action sequence (they’re all fantastic) and the Avengers return home to have a party. But before that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) decide to use the technology in Loki’s scepter to create an A.I. that can protect the world.
Of course, as with all well-intentioned A.I., it quickly realizes the best way to protect the world is to destroy humanity or in this case evolve it. Building itself a body after being mysteriously activated, Ultron (James Spader) emerges, promptly kicks everyone’s ass and then flies off to recruit the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) to his evil plan. Imbued with Stark’s sarcasm and programmed to save humanity he decides to create the next evolution of man, a hybrid of machine and bio material, and force everyone else to evolve as well by holding the world hostage or else he’ll blow it up.
Avengers assemble… again. The biggest issue with Age of Ultron is that it’s just the first film with more characters. The plot is almost identical. A big bad guy shows up and the team argues over how to handle it showing fractures. Then, in the end, they come together. It’s not a bad plot, and it could have worked again, but the film is incredibly poorly paced. Ultron is rushed out the door thanks to an uncharacteristic lack of foreshadowing for Marvel and then we’re carried along from action sequence to action sequence with sparse emotional build. By the time the final showdown occurs you’ve been on high so long that the big payoff barely pays off. Sadly, Age of Ultron isn’t a very good MCU universe builder and it’s because it can’t do everything it wants. In a perfect world Marvel wouldn’t have wasted Iron Man 3 on a side story or at least have hinted at the creation of Ultron thus giving Spader’s villain far more time to grow.
Ultron is sadly not given that time. Spader is fantastically evil and arrogant as the crazed robot, but he isn’t given enough time to shine, eventually being relegated to bad one-liners as he yells at the Avengers. His opening speech is a fantastic monologue and his concluding dialog is sadly touching, but in between there’s far too little of him to develop a truly compelling villain.
The three new additions to the team, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and Vision (Paul Bettany), face much the same fate as Ultron. Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are hurried into the proceedings, though we did get a hint at them previously, but by the end their story arch is actually far better executed. Again, the pacing of it is off, but the eventual payoff works. Vision on the other hand comes along late in the film, which is too bad because the contradictions between him and Ultron are some of the best themes of the film. There’s so much to dig into there, but thanks to how the plot unfolds we get almost none of it. Even more of a let down is that just who and what Vision is is rushed through. A brief explanation of powers would have helped before he started shooting beams of light out of his forehead and shoving his fists through robots.
Ultron does do some of it’s characters right. Banner/Hulk is once again front and center, which is fantastic since he’s so great, but he also causes some of the pacing problems. The lack of ability for Marvel to have stand-alone Hulk films means they have to cram all his character development in Avengers movies. It’s great to watch, but it makes the movie a mess. The Hulk Buster scene everyone has been going crazy over seeing is really great and fantastically executed, but in terms of pacing the entire scene could have been cut for something else if it had appeared in another film. Still, this is the world we live in (or Marvel puts us in) and they do great things with Hulk. Ruffalo once again steals the show as Banner.
Then he gets the show stolen from him by the most unlikely source: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Long accused of being damned near useless, Ultron turns him into a character and it’s here where the film shines. When the movie isn’t rushing to get its characters where they need to be, it shows us who they need to be. Just as in the best comics this is what makes superheroes shine. Renner’s Hawkeye becomes the grounding force of a team of gods. It’s a fantastic turn for a character most deemed useless and not only delivers Hawkeye as a great character, but eventually makes the development of the characters around him better.
It would be possible to devote entire reviews to each hero in this film. That’s the power of having multiple franchises collide. If you compared all these reviews of different characters you’d have wildly different outcomes. Maybe that’s just the nature of the game when you’ve got a big team movie like this, but it’s still annoying. Iron Man is sadly never given the hard edge he needs because they want to keep him a good guy (despite what we all know is coming in Civil War), Captain America is shuffled to the side and Thor is almost entirely ignored except to give exposition that helps tie this all into Thanos and the upcoming Infinity Wars. It’s a mixed bag, and depending on what you’re looking for you’re either going to be wonderfully excited or disappointed.
What you won’t be disappointed in is any of the action, which is good since it takes up most of the movie. Despite the fact that the film is always on high, those highs are very high. Whedon shows once again that he can masterfully handle complex action sequences, and delivers an incredible panning shot near the end that almost makes up for every flaw in the film. The action is rock solid and brilliantly cohesive. It’s not easy weaving together set pieces with a team of this size, but Whedon does it and then does it again and again. It’s unfortunate the movie’s plotting doesn’t build the tension as well as it should or these action sequences would be even more of a pay off.
By the end of the film we’re clearly set up to roll into the next phase of Marvel’s MCU, but it feels like they forced it to get there. Evidently, Whedon’s original cut was 3.5 hours long, and it’s easy to see why. There’s just too much here to pull off in the time allotted. Whedon does his best, but in the end we’re left with a big, fun, sometimes functional mess. It’s one you’re going to want to see because when it shines, it shines bright, but Avengers: Age of Ultron is just a little worrying that the universe is already buckling under its own weight.