The usual caveats apply when I review a Marvel project. I am a fan of these characters, and have been for years. I want these movies to be good, though I like to believe I can weigh the films somewhat objectively. That out of the way, no spoilers will be contained in this review beyond information available in the trailers.
Avengers: Age of Ultron picks up in the aftermath of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Iron Man 3, with Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans) at opposite sides of a key issue. Is the role of The Avengers to be a constant, watchful protector of earth or a stop-gap measure to fill a hole until a better plan is conceived and all the members of this superteam can walk away, secure in the knowledge they leave a protected world behind? On the one side, Tony Stark wants to see the light at the end of the superhero tunnel, a way past the constant battling into something approaching peace. Cap, as expected, believes in remaining vigilant, and sees The Avengers as the necessary response to the world’s greatest threats. Thus, the central conflict of Age of Ultron becomes Stark’s belief in a technological and final solution to conflict. There are a number of dualities presented, with characters defined by their philosophies, gazing at one another over a thematic question, but it’s the differences between Iron Man and Captain America that define this film.
Using questionable methods, Stark creates Ultron (voiced by James Spader), a sentient robot who sees The Avengers as one of the greatest threats to the peace he has been created to achieve. As one might expect, things get crazy and The Avengers must, once more, save the world. Only this time, it’s a threat one of their own has created, and this, among many other issues, creates a schism in the team of heroes.
Age of Ultron is a BIG movie, in every sense of the word. From the remarkable action set pieces to the influx of new characters, the movie hums along at a steady clip, firing this way and that, each shot designed to entertain. With the business of bringing the heroes together out of the way thanks to the events of the first Avengers film, this time around we get a peek into the fragile psyches of our heroes, to get a greater sense of what makes them tick. In some cases, like with Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), this brings a quiet poignancy to characters that are haunted by personal demons. Other characters are given less graceful treatment, and the introductions of new characters Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are particular cases where the exposition feels clunky and a bit too on-the-nose.
The film is haunted, too, by the things to come. Just like every event in comics, where there are a dozen issues leading the charge to set the stage for some big, universe-changing kerfuffle, Avengers: Age of Ultron seems to be setting the stage for Black Panther, Captain America: Civil War and the next pair of Avengers films already on the slate. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but there are clear moments where we’re laying groundwork for the next round of Marvel projects rather than focusing on the more intimate stories at work in Age of Ultron.
The second act, too, drags a bit under the weight of an unnecessary reveal regarding Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) role as an Avenger. Though I’m happy to see Renner getting more to do in this film, it bogs down the movie a bit more than it should, drawing attention away from the drama between Stark and Cap, which is where the movie shines.
These complaints out of the way, this is still a rollicking, vibrant, surprisingly intimate film filled with sneaky sprinklings of comedy and interplay between the leads that makes a movie of this type feel surprisingly immediate and satisfying. I look forward to seeing it again, just to pick out one more tidbit of craziness in the fight sequences, which are elevated beyond those of the preceding film. It’s hard to top Loki as a villain, and Ultron doesn’t quite live up to the task, mostly due to his shifting motivations, which may be more explained in the already-promised director’s cut of Age of Ultron.
What director Joss Whedon gets most right is the comic book-ness of these films. These are larger-than-life characters that are able to find their own humanity, and the multiple references to other corners of the Marvel Universe may be off-putting to some, but they are the linchpin of the comics from which the movies draw. One character introduction in the film (not spoiling who!) made me recall the cosmic nature of the Marvel Universe, and how downright weird it is. And yet, here it is, on the big screen. People are tossing around references to the Infinity Stones and Captain America is tossing his shield at Thor, who in turn whacks the shield with a hammer to send it flying at enemies at even greater speed. Here’s Hulk shouting with unstoppable rage right before shouldering into Iron Man in full Hulkbuster armor. These are the moments, confined before to the panels of a dog-eared comic, now presented with confidence and glee on an IMAX screen. As a kid, I never would have dreamed of it, and, now that we live in this world of superhero saturation, you can’t turn around with seeing Captain America on a soda cup.
I’ll take the occasional mediocrity (the Thor films) and even obvious awfulness (Green Lantern) of these movies if it means, every now and again, I get to step into the cool dark of a theater and see characters I’ve lived with for three decades come to life in a way I could never have imagined. That’s the real magic, and Marvel shows no sign of stopping its surprisingly successful train anytime soon. I can sympathize with many who are already groaning under the weight of another round of these films, but, for me, there’s a joy in many of them that matches the nonsensical glee of the comics. Age of Ultron may be the finest example of this, where every downbeat is matched by a pair of scenes where magic happens.
If you’re not a fan of these films, this one ain’t gonna turn you around. If you enjoy them to any degree, this is a worthy follow-up to The Avengers, spiked by a darker tone without descending into the joyless gloom of the DC offerings of late. In fact, Age of Ultron seems to make a pointed attack on Man of Steel as a film, especially in regard to the somewhat-controversial destruction at the conclusion of that film. I think if you are aware of the issues surrounding this new Superman’s apparent disregard for safety, there are several scenes that will provide stark (hehe) contrast here.
Age of Ultron is ultimately an entertaining and fitting continuation of the Marvel Universe. By embracing the crazy, skewed world upon which these films are based, it somehow becomes the most Marvel-ous film so far, and proves once more that Whedon and M arvel have not forgotten the key component to what makes these movies most appealing – they’re simply a whole lot of damn fun.