[A version of this review appears in the May 7, 2015, edition of the Rutland Reader.]
WARNING: This review contains moderate spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron.
From the opening scene, “Avengers:Age of Ultron hits the ground running, and doesn’t let up. The sequel to 2012’s triumphant Avengers tentpole, and the latest chapter in Marvel’s epic (seemingly endless) superhero franchise, is a fun albeit bloated spectacle that still finds time for levity and sadness.
The film opens in medias res with the Avengers launching an assault on a Hydra stronghold in the fictional European country of Sokovia. The scene is fun, giving the characters a chance to flex their muscles as well as flap their lips. In attendance is the same lineup we saw in the last film: Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).
The mission’s objective is to retrieve Loki’s mind-controlling scepter (last seen in Avengers) from Baron Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann). Along the way, the team also encounters the twins, two super powered siblings who have been teased in the MCU for a while now. Longtime Marvel fans will recognize them as Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a., Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch respectively. Here, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen play the pair with serviceable eastern European accents.
If it sounds like I just gave away the whole movie, don’t worry that was just the pre-credits sequence. The thrust of the film deals with Tony Stark developing an artificial intelligence called Ultron. As always, Tony’s intentions are good — he wants to build a figurative suit of armor for the entire planet and render the Avengers obsolete — but hubris clouds his judgment.
Ultron inevitably turns bad, as super-intelligent AI are wont to do, and hatches his own plan for world peace, of which humans are not a part. From there the film is a globetrotting CGI slugfest that moves along at a decent clip despite its 141-minute runtime.
For all the action, it’s in the smaller moments that writer-director Joss Whedon’s deftness for ensemble character work really shines as he finds humanity in these larger-than-life characters. Whedon’s skill for writing sharp dialogue is also on display making for some of the film’s best moments.
A fun hangout scene early on sees the team taking turns lifting Thor’s hammer to no avail. Only Captain America manages to get it to budge at all. (Thor’s face upon seeing this is a great bit of humor). And while it’s all played for fun, the question of worthiness is woven through the rest of the film.
In battle, however, the tendency toward spectacle means the numerous action sequences occasionally wear out their welcome making the film feel a somewhat overlong.
Fortunately, Whedon makes up for it with fun banter throughout. Ever the Boy Scout, Cap’s aversion toward cursing on the battlefield is a fun little runner.
The cast continues to do great work with these characters. Chris Evans, in particular nails Captain America as he continues to complicate him while maintaining his unwavering goodness. Downey remains on point keeping the Stark snark rolling. As Thor, Hemsworth is warm but wooden; though he’s able to mask his lack of depth as godly aloofness.
Whedon does his best character work with Renner’s Hawkeye. Largely sidelined in the first film, the arching avenger gets a fleshed out backstory that shows why this regular human is so vital to the team. Whedon is playing with the audience here delivering an old movie trope, which he ultimately flips for a bigger payoff.
Black Widow and Hulk are the film’s unlikely romantic pairing. The lack of comic book precedent may have some hardcore fans griping, but it makes sense in the context of these films. Johansson and Ruffalo have good chemistry and sell the longing and sadness of these two tortured characters. Though it does get a bit mushy at certain points.
As the only three characters without their own franchises within the MCU, Whedon is free to play with them in ways he can’t with Thor, Cap, and Iron Man. It’s a smart move that adds some emotional depth to a film that would otherwise be a hollow CGI plod.
Rounding out the team is Paul Bettany as the Vision. Bettany, who has voiced Iron Man’s J.A.R.V.I.S. computer system throughout the franchise, finally gets a body of his own as the fan-favorite android with a heart. Vision’s iconic design is brought to life beautifully here.
James Spader gets to chew some serious scenery as the villainous robot Ultron. Among Avengers big bads, Ultron is right at the top. Seeing him onscreen is a treat. But while he’s visually sharp, his motivations are less distinct. His scheme is bit convoluted, but its execution does makes for some great visuals.
Of course, a number of other MCU characters show up in various capacities. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Maria Hill (Colby Smulders) both pop in to represent S.H.I.EL.D., or at least their faction of it (see recent episodes of ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.EL.D. for more details). Don Cheadle once again dons the War Machine armor. And Anthony Mackie gets a couple of cameos as Falcon; though, he’s sadly underused.
Visually, Age of Ultron is something to behold. The best fight sequences unfold like splash pages come to life. But so soon after witnessing the excellent fight choreography in Daredevil and intermittently inventive work in Agents of S.H.I.EL.D. (as well as Arrow), these scenes felt a little a little too rushed and sloppy by comparison. However, when Whedon does take time the slow things down and get more creative with the camera, the scenes really do pop.
Throughout the film you can feel the push and pull between Whedon’s creative impulses and Marvel’s larger narrative mandates. At the end of the day, this film needs to advance the overarching plot, putting characters in place as it sets the table for phase three of the franchise. Such external pressures must be hell for a director. It’s no surprise, then, that after two films Whedon is ready to retire from the MCU.
Here and there we do see flashes of Whedon in the dialogue and those aforementioned smaller scenes. However, it’s the invisible hand of Marvel producer and MCU architect Kevin Feige that is the true guiding force that reminds us that Age of Ultron is part of a much larger whole.
While you can’t argue with the box office success or the mostly positive critical reception, the increasingly dense universe Marvel has created is starting to become taxing. Since 2008, Marvel has put out more than a dozen interconnected films and TV series. By 2019, they’ll have put out almost a dozen more.
For all the fun and thrills, I wonder if we are approaching franchise fatigue. Have we reached a point of diminishing returns? Has the novelty worn off? Are we trapped now too far down the road to Infinity to turn back? After two and a half hours, I walked out of the theater last week, bleary-eyed and exhausted. “Only four more years,” I said to myself. “Four more years.”
- The film’s two deaths, while not shocking in context, were unexpected considering how significant the characters were in the comics. Of course, dead doesn’t mean all that much. My guess is that the resurrection of one of them will somehow factor into “Infinity War.”
- Kudos to Whedon for taking the time to show the Avengers actually rescuing civilians. DC films like “Man of Steel” have taken flack recently for their blasé treatment of people as collateral damage (goo.gl/B0qR0j). Big-ass fights are cool, but it’s nice to see heroes actually being heroes, too.
- Andy Serkis was a lot of fun in his brief appearance as Ulysses Klaw. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait until 2018’s Black Panther film to see him again.
- Speaking of Klaw, did you catch the “Empire Strikes Back” reference? Since Marvel phase two is pitched as the “Empire” era of the franchise, every film has had one.
- The film explained the Scarlet Witch’s powers about as well as the comics do, by which I mean poorly. In the comics, Wanda is a conduit for the extremely powerful (and often unpredictable) Chaos Magic, which she has used to unconsciously rewrite reality on occasion — or something, it’s really confusing.
- Hardcore Avengers fans have been griping about Ultron’s MCU origin — Hank Pym, not Tony Stark, created him in the comics — but I think it was an efficient way to streamline the story.
- Nerdpick: Didn’t Tony Stark quit being Iron Man and dismantled his Iron Legion at the end of “Iron Man 3.” What motivated him to suit up again? My guess: contractual obligations.
- I know we needed to get the information about the Infinity Gems out there, but Thor’s dip in the Asgardian Exposition Hot Tub felt really clunky.
- Missed fanservice opportunity: How could we visit Hawkeye’s home and not meet Pizza Dog? Unacceptable!
- Finally, I was waiting for Thor’s classic “Ultron. We would have words with thee” line from the late-1990s “Ultron Unlimited” story. Did I miss it?