Whether you love or hate the films, there’s no denying that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a major accomplishment in the history of the superhero film. The gritty realism of the millennial comic book film was burst through as the studio gave fans films filled with spectacle and high stakes while balancing the camp and fun, with each film feeling as though it jumped right off the page. Then came 2012 with The Avengers, an eventuality promised to fans in the end-credits scene of 2008’s starting point Iron Man, in which Nick Fury finds Tony Stark in his home and tells him about The Avengers Initiative. The culmination of these characters a mere 4 years later was a once-in-a-generation cinematic experience; we had seen many comic book teams such as the X-Men and Fantastic Four on screen already, sure, but this was different. This was THE Avengers, a superhero team many could have only dreamed of seeing in action a decade earlier.
With such a phenomenal success on their hands, the next logical question for Marvel Studios: ‘What now?’ So, the films got bigger and more expansive; plots became more integral to the over-arching universe, action set pieces became more elaborate, and we got a film about a talking tree and raccoon in space. Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron adopts this principle thru and thru in all aspects to both overwhelming effectiveness and frustration. Its embracing of the ‘bigger is always better’ mentality fits (it is logical for a sequel to raise stakes), creating an overall satisfying and highly entertaining progression for the team and fans alike with a few speed bumps along the way that hinder it from cementing itself as truly great.
Avengers: Age of Ultron picks up post-Winter Soldier as everyone’s favorite crew conducts a successful mission to retrieve Loki’s scepter from a rogue Hydra compound led by Baron von Strucker. While en route to retrieving the otherworldly item, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) receives a horrific vision of a dreary future, causing him to use the staff’s power alongside Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to create Ultron (voiced by James Spader), a sentient android designed to keep the world safe. When things go unexpectedly awry, the team must come together, alongside newcomers Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen) and The Vision (Paul Bettany) to stop their creation from performing worldwide extinction.
The opening action sequence of the film sets the tone completely as we follow our heroes in their aforementioned conquest for the scepter. Filled with beautiful camerawork and stunt choreography, the entire sequence is an absolute blast filled with all the cheer-worthy moments and quick wit we’ve come to love from this franchise in the past. Watching Captain America flip over a motorcycle and throw it at a truck or the Hulk completely decimate a bunker with a quick sprint and fist highlight the impact the start of a film can have; with respect to the final major battle sequence, many of the other fight scenes didn’t seem to have the pop that these bookends did. The chase sequence in Korea lacked the togetherness of the team that makes these films so special and the Hulk vs. the Hulkbuster, which looked to be the shining moment in the film from the trailers, reduced itself to nothing more that ‘destruction porn’ and lacked the feeling of passion to make it seem like anything other than obligatory fan service.
Clearly taking the fan reactions of the first film to heart, what’s truly admirable about this installment is how invested Whedon and his team were in fleshing out these characters past stock stereotypes. We see these individuals evolve throughout the crux of the story; Tony Stark deals with the concept of trying to protect the ones he cares most for, Banner continues his longing for normalcy and the burden of the monster, and so on and so forth. A character reduced to nothing more than a slave in the first film, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye gets the full treatment in this installment, allowing him to rise above the previous misconceptions of his character to become the shining light of this film. These little moments with the characters give us more to learn and layer these superhumans, allowing the audience to relate and root for them even more. Do all of the story lines and character moments work? Absolutely not (one romance portrayed in the film feel somewhat forced throughout and Thor’s side quest in the middle of the film was completely unnecessary), but the effectiveness of Whedon’s script heavily outweighs the negatives.
An immediate issue with Avengers: Age of Ultron from the beginning was the concept of overcrowding. Although Whedon did a marvelous job giving each of the characters in the first film his or her moment to shine, this movie was going to be introducing three new heroes, a new villain, and laying the framework for future movies in the universe. Although at points the film did feel a bit too focused on the future rather than present, the characters introduced in this film luckily were very effectively used and realized. Considering the hoops the MCU had to jump through in terms of these characters to make sure they weren’t breaking any rights laws with X-Men and Fox, both Maximoff twins’ origin was handled very tastefully and the two found a way to mold themselves into the world with grace. Elizabeth Olsen turned in a fantastic performance as Wanda, and Taylor-Johnson’s Pietro showcased some of the most interesting and epic uses of powers in the entire film. Between these two and Vision, who was easily one of the most morally interesting characters in the film, the team at Marvel succeeded in once again creating cohesion in the film rather than handing fans a jumbled mess.
However, a comic book movie is only as good as the villain the group has to face, and if you’ve followed this franchise for all of the films, you would know that was one of the major problems the studio has faced. From the forgettable villains in Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 2 to the botched ones in Iron Man 3 and The Incredible Hulk, Loki had really been the only formidable and fully fleshed out villain in the series until the Winter Soldier just one year ago. Here, fans get Ultron, a psychopathic and almost unstoppable android bent on ‘saving’ humanity as well as one of the best villains we have received yet. Smart, sophisticated, and surprisingly hysterical, Ultron’s villainy works because he truly believes he’s saving the planet by trying to make it evolve, bringing complexity to what could have been a very one-sided and boring attempt at this cybernetic being.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is what you want from a summer blockbuster film, infusing all of the interesting personalities of the superhero team we loved from the first one and raising the stakes in glorious proportions. It’s clunky and overstuffed at times, sure, but Whedon and company have created a worthy successor that’s on par in many aspects with their first effort, a feat that not many comic book films can say they have achieved. Is it as good as The Avengers? For my money I would probably say no, but the discrepancy isn’t that far, and I think that’s quite admirable enough.
Review by Nicholas Franco