I always saw 2012’s The Avengers as a game-changer in same way as something like Jaws or Star Wars. The thought of seeing multiple comic book characters for the first time in a live-action theatrical release may not seem like a big deal, but it credited to the approach that Marvel Studios decided to take. Using the producer-driven storytelling of early Hollywood serials, Marvel Studios under the oversight of Kevin Feige were able to craft multiple franchises balancing multiple characters and arcs that crossed into other stories in multiple films. However, it could’ve all been in vain if The Avengers didn’t work out. The fact that The Avengers paid off, critically as well as commercially, that’s when I realized things would change. And they kind of already have, just look at how many studios are now making their own attempts at a shared universe. The upcoming DC Cinematic Universe aside, Warner Bros are currently working on a series of films based on the King Arthur legend headed by Guy Ritchie, who has been confirmed to direct the first of six films, and Paramount are planning a complete revamp of their Transformers franchise as a planned cinematic universe which will be headed by Akiva Goldsman working alongside producer, Lorenzo di Bonaventura. Obviously not every attempt at copying Marvel’s style will work out (just ask Universal how their try at a new Monsters series is going), but that’s how it is when you have a film released that changes the way things work; you can even look back at the countless inferior Jaws and Star Wars knock-offs that came after their respective releases. But let’s focus on the film at hand – Marvel Studios brings their eleventh film in their MCU and direct follow-up to the 2012 crossover bringing Joss Whedon back as the writer/director with Avengers: Age of Ultron.
After an attack at a Hydra stronghold, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) uses Loki’s scepter to create an artificial intelligence that he intends to use for his “Ultron” program, which is meant to protect the planet without the need for the Avengers. However, when the A.I. gains sentience and takes control of a damaged robot and confronts Tony along with the rest of the team. Proving as an increasing global threat, the Avengers will have to work together to stop Ultron (James Spader) who is continuously gaining strength and using the mysterious and powerful twins, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, respectively) to his advantage.
It seems as if with every project, Marvel Studios is facing an uphill battle of some kind. Be it introducing lesser-known properties with the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy and later, Black Panther and Captain Marvel or having to follow-up a much beloved crossover film. In this case, Age of Ultron not only acts as a sequel to several solo films, but first and foremost, The Avengers, which is considered to be one of the best comic book films to date. It has the reputation for a reason, given the fresh experience it was, and thankfully, Joss Whedon is smart to realize that it would be a disservice to try to replicate the same experience he already provided three years ago. Not only does he manage to pull off another great team-up film, he manages to make it better in its own right, while also being a pure Joss Whedon film through and through.
When I say that Age of Ultron is better than The Avengers, it is a bit more complicated than that statement might entail. With The Avengers, it was a steady rise in action and character that culminates into an incredible final act; it’s full of instantly iconic scenes and plenty of fist-pumping/stand-up-and-cheer moments. Age of Ultron is not like that. This film starts with a bang and keeps a very steady energy throughout the entire running time, and it doesn’t reach near as many of those high moments, like the “Puny God,” “Mewling quim” or “Hulk…Smash” scene. However, where Age of Ultron succeeds is by having more nuanced character work with emotional and thematic complexity. It’s basically better than the first in the same way Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather Part II are better than their predecessors. Marvel Studios has always been about putting their characters first, even if it risks placing them in otherwise formulaic plots. The greatest misunderstanding that people seem to have it that the films are impossible to have any investment in because you know the good guys will win. The thing is, it’s hardly ever going to actually be about whether a good guy will die or not, it’s the personal stakes that matter. It’s not the fight itself that matters, it is what everyone is fighting for. Joss Whedon understands this incredibly well. He “gets” the characters, and he is able to flesh them out in ways that creates an immediate connection, both with the audience and the other characters.
Age of Ultron is also a much more introspective film, as it takes many moments for the characters to look at themselves and see that the situation at hand is not a simple as they might think it would be. They often find themselves in loneliness and self-doubt, facing harsher and darker truths that the first film doesn’t come close to. There is even genuine depth in Ultron, who could’ve been a one-note villain (an unfortunate commonality of Marvel films, with Loki as the one exception). Ultron in the comics has been a character with some “daddy issues,” and that element resonates in a surprisingly subtle way in the film. Obviously, there is the change with his origin (since Hank Pym created Ultron in the comics), Ultron can be seen as a reflection of the darker side of Tony Stark as a character. He inherits Tony’s sarcasm and passive-aggressiveness, which is clear enough, but it is in his arrogance and hubris that speaks to Tony as much as it does for Ultron. Also, for anyone disappointed in the lack of Hawkeye action from the first Avengers (myself included, both as a fan of the character and of Jeremy Renner), then you will be ecstatic to learn that not only has his role grown significantly in Age of Ultron, but he’s practically the heart and soul of the team. A certain reveal is made about halfway through that enlightens quite a bit about his character, allowing his humanity to ground the team. There’s even a lot of interesting things involving Vision (played by Paul Bettany), which I won’t go into since it might be considered a spoiler. Regardless, the big reason that it all still works with the characters is that Joss Whedon’s love for them is so abundantly clear, and he shows a lot of care for all their struggles. That care resonates, and it makes for an emotional and thematically rich experience for anyone willing to look past its blockbuster coating and explore its subtext.
This might makes the film sound very dark and depressing (the trailers didn’t quite help in that regard either), but the film is so much fun, having a good balance between its light and dark moments. Honestly, if I hadn’t seen What We Do in the Shadows, Age of Ultron would’ve been the funniest film I’ve seen so far this year. There’s a great combination of witty Whedon dialogue and physical gags, all of which are deeply rooted in character and how they interact with one another. One particular gag involving Vision manages to be fan-service, a huge character building moment and a hilarious pay-off to an earlier gag all at the same time. The little touches like that add a lot to the film. It simply oozes of optimism and joy that perfectly encapsulates everything there is to love about being a kid reading your favorite superhero comic.
One word that I see pop up a bit when it comes to Age of Ultron is “messy.” I disagree wholeheartedly with that sentiment. The film isn’t messy, it’s just very dense. It does very much come across like an event comic put on the big screen. There is a lot going on the film, there’s no denying that, but for each scene, there is purpose and context. If you want to know a mess, look at The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which featured subplots that went nowhere, unclear arcs and character motivations, and constant attempts at opening possible places of exploration in future films. Age of Ultron definitely features scenes that are mainly for set-ups, but there is still relevancy. For example, there is a quick scene where the Avengers go to the African nation of Wakanda and bump into Ultron. There we meet Ulysses Klaue (played by the excellent Andy Serkis). Ulysses is a significant character in Black Panther stories, and Wakanda is Black Panther’s home country. So, obviously the scene is meant to get people somewhat familiarized with the nation so we don’t have to have everything explained again in the Captain America: Civil War and the Black Panther film. However, in terms of the scene’s relevancy in this film, Ultron is there to get Vibranium (the same material that makes up Captain America’s shield), and Ulysses is a dealer of that particular metal. It’s a testament to Joss Whedon as a storyteller to be able to craft such a tight and efficient screenplay, despite a few rushed moments, which is likely due to the film being cut down to two hours and 20 minutes from its original three-and-a-half hour cut. The Marvel checklist stuff is never distracting and Whedon is able to work them in very well.
Joss Whedon noticeably improves as an action director, which is captured to great effect by Guardians of the Galaxy cinematographer, Ben Davis. While there are some moments where distances between certain characters in the large-scale action scenes were a bit confusing, he manages to pull off wonderful, exhilarating set-pieces. The way the characters bounce off each other as they take out the bad guys are a blast, the effects and production values are top-notch, and the stakes of each scene are always made perfectly clear. One thing that I adored about the action in the film is that at every big set-piece, the characters at one point will go out of their way to make sure that civilians are taken away from the fight and to safety. Every. Single. One. It’s almost funny after a while, but it continues to serve the inherently optimistic viewpoint of the franchise, always emphasizing the “hero” in superhero.
The acting is also really solid across the board. The main returning cast members including Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth and Jeremy Renner, among many others, are in top form. Their chemistry together is better than ever, and they are able to embody their characters inside and out by this point. The new additions are also great. Aaron Taylor-Johnson gets to have some great moments as Pietro, and Elizabeth Olsen has an eerie presence that works wonders with the character of Wanda. Paul Bettany does excellent work as Vision (major props to the costume and make-up team who pulled off the look of Vision perfectly). The appearances from Linda Cardellini, Claudia Kim, Andy Serkis and Julie Delpy are brief, but they still give it their all. In the end though, it’s James Spader’s terrific performance as Ultron that steals the show. The VFX team was able to really showcase the wide range of emotion and attitude that James Spader pulls off. He is known for his quiet intensity, and he utilizes that very well here to great effect. It results in a villain performance that is funny, terrifying and sometimes both at the exact same time.
I’m not gonna sit here and argue that Age of Ultron is a perfect film because it’s not. There are definitely some nitpicks I can make like how Tony Stark’s decision at the end of Iron Man 3 is pretty much ignored (which I feel like could say a lot of interesting things about his character, but the fact that it is never even addressed is kinda lame), some scenes definitely felt like something was cut out, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen’s Eastern European accents aren’t very good, Ultron’s evolution is really fast, the music (aside from the occasional swelling of the Avengers’ theme) is fairly bland, the final action sequence goes on just a little too long, some of the techno-babble explanation behind Ultron, J.A.R.V.I.S. and Vison go by too quick and the post-converted 3D is non-existent. There’s probably more, but none of these issues ever sink the film.
As I said already, Marvel is always about putting characters as a priority first, and the fact that Joss Whedon was able to pull-off deep, thoughtful and emotional character work for over six characters in a story as densely plotted as this is a praise-worthy achievement. For a film full of so much action, what really stays with you after the film are the quiet moments with the characters. My favorite being a key scene with Vision and Ultron near the end, it’s a perfect, beautiful little moment. These moments give characters to shine in ways that flipping around in a battlefield doesn’t. It’s about exposing the humanity of the characters because ultimately that is where all the stakes are. This is what makes Age of Ultron an incredible film, and not just as a follow-up to The Avengers. It’s also one of the most ambitious comic book movies ever made and one of the most unabashedly comic-book-y with all it’s weird, astonishing glory. Joss Whedon’s presence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be missed, and I look forward to what the Russo brothers bring with Infinity War. For the time being, if you aren’t full of this so-called “superhero fatigue” that I’m so sick of hearing about now, then Age of Ultron is more than worth your time. It’s an emotional and thematically resonant piece of character-driven filmmaking that also happens to be about a group of costumed heroes fighting an army of robots.