To answer your most pressing question, no, Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn’t quite surpass its stellar 2012 predecessor. With that said however, this crossover sequel is still a highly entertaining, action-packed and visually breathtaking romp of epic proportions, and a superb way to kick off this year’s Summer blockbuster season! It’s just a shame that it’s let down by some annoying story issues here and there.
Fortunately, just about all of the high points of the previous movie are nonetheless intact, beyond some plot hiccups. The action is still fast-paced and exciting as ever. Each individual Avenger gets a great chance to shine throughout the many large-scale action sequences and character moments alike. The sense of humour remains outstanding. In fact, despite the clear efforts of Avengers: Age of Ultron to create a deeper, darker and more personal conflict for its titular team of heroes, it still feels just as gut-bustingly funny and has just as much frothy popcorn flick amusement as its predecessor did.
As great as it is to see Earth’s Mightiest Heroes reunite on the big screen once again however, it’s James Spader’s outstanding title villain that so wonderfully ties everything together, on every level. Ultron is arguably the Avengers’ most frequently recurring and dangerous foe in Marvel Comics, and rest assured that this movie delivers a grand struggle that is well worthy of his mighty presence. Likewise, the all-new personalities manage to easily stand with the veterans, creating a movie that is full to burst with appealing Marvel Studios personality, even during its weak points.
Die-hard Marvel enthusiasts will undoubtedly find things to pick at, particularly since Avengers: Age of Ultron, even with its enormous scale, buckles a tad under the unenviable task of having to follow the thoroughly excellent double bill of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy from last year. As long as you’re not expecting the world from it though, Avengers: Age of Ultron still provides tons of high-quality entertainment value, still ultimately standing as one of the stronger offerings from Marvel Studios.
As with The Avengers before it, Avengers: Age of Ultron largely takes for granted that you already know who its personalities are for the most part, and have at least a reasonable knowledge of the high-profile Marvel Studios solo flicks to come before. At this point, they’re not difficult to keep straight anyhow. Tony Stark/Iron Man is your arrogant playboy scientist, Bruce Banner/Hulk is your collected intellectual struggling with a dark secret, Steve Rogers/Captain America is your boy scout leader, Thor is your imposing demigod, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow is your morally grey assassin, and Clint Barton/Hawkeye is your supportive scout that makes sure to keep everyone in check behind the scenes. These guys haven’t changed much.
Oh, and Hawkeye’s actually a proper part of the team throughout this time. He doesn’t spend most of the movie working for the bad guys like in the previous movie.
In terms of creating good personal conflicts for the entire team, Avengers: Age of Ultron mostly rises to the challenge. Tony Stark naturally plays a big part in proceedings, since he’s responsible for the invention of Ultron, contributed to slightly by Bruce Banner, whenever he’s not keeping the Hulk within at bay. True, it wasn’t Tony Stark who invented Ultron in Marvel Comics (that would be the original Ant-Man, Hank Pym), but despite the change, it works to great effect. In a nice mirroring of Robert Downey Jr.’s real-life assessment of his future as a big screen superhero, Tony knows that he can’t be an Avenger forever, and especially can’t cover all of his bases. There’s a big part of him that wants to end the fight, and Ultron was supposed to be a way to render The Avengers obsolete, which is why the other Avengers are kept in the dark about it.
Naturally, that doesn’t last, as Ultron, built from a consciousness salvaged from Loki’s Sceptre that Stark had the misfortune of trying to build on, quickly becomes sentient, and decides that humanity is what’s holding back the good of the world, especially the Avengers. This creates a highlight character conflict for Tony, when he is forced to come to grips with not only his scientific recklessness once again causing a great ill for the world, but also that ending the fight isn’t as simple as pawning it off on someone, or something else. The Avengers are more than just a bunch of costumed do-gooders. They stand for a greater ideal, and not one that can be readily understood by a cold, calculated machine.
As I said as well, James Spader completely steals the show as Ultron. More than settling for being a hyper-calculated megalomaniac who is simply out to destroy humanity because he’s a bad dude, Ultron comes off as almost immature in a brilliant way. Spader plays him with almost naive arrogance, oblivious to the implications of his own destruction, which is displayed in some outstanding dialogue and actions by the villain, even before his big action-packed endgame. Ultron is almost like a raging, yet insatiably brilliant child, also presenting a twisted moral extreme paired with a proudly careless, almost comical disregard for secondary purpose, which eerily mirrors the unchecked ambition of Tony himself. In a delightfully sick way, Ultron really does feel like the perfect son to Tony, which is as unsettling as it is interesting.
Once again, Captain America appears to stand on the opposite side of Tony’s belief that the Avengers have limits. Cap is naturally highly against dodging the responsibilities of the team, and unlike Tony, seems intent on seeing through his purpose until his dying breath. It’s an extension of the contrast he already displayed in The Avengers, and frankly, Captain America: The Winter Soldier made more impact with the character last year. Still, the begrudging respect and underlying animosity between the two men is something played very well by both Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, with all sorts of hints of what’s to come when these two square off next year in Captain America: Civil War.
With Loki absent this time, Thor is left with less to do, beyond being another bruiser for the squad. In fact, Thor takes a sort of erratic side trip about midway through the story, which feels awkwardly crowbarred in, and disturbs some of the pacing, even if it also allows Stellan Skarsgard to reprise his role as Dr. Selvig for a brief bit. Without giving anything away, Thor’s arc is simply a way to foreshadow future events for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, reminding audiences that the war against Ultron is still just another play in a far larger game. Marvel fans may enjoy the teases, but general moviegoers will no doubt find them tedious.
Likewise, the movie attempts a romance between Hulk and Black Widow that works merely to mixed effect. Some scenes between these two are genuinely sweet and will really resonate with audiences in a heartwarming way. Others however just flat out don’t make sense, especially when the movie tries to make this love story work even during the times when Banner is The Hulk. Yes, Betty Ross was able to work some magic with the Hulk in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk (are we just forgetting about her at this point?), but the idea that Black Widow would become so devoted to anyone feels forced and out-of-character, especially after her attitude toward relationships in Captain America: The Winter Soldier most notably. Avengers: Age of Ultron ended up inadvertently undoing some of Black Widow’s cool personality from that movie, and that’s kind of annoying.
Fortunately, Hawkeye gets far better material, as I said. We learn some surprising secrets about Hawkeye in the movie, who has a seemingly unprecedented stake in the coming events. Again, I won’t give anything away, but I will say that this is Hawkeye’s best turn yet in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even if that feels like a low bar, since Hawkeye’s previous appearances felt pretty underwhelming.
Even when one can scrutinize the individual Avenger arcs however, it’s the ensemble rapport that rises above any issues with their actual characterization. The actors play off of each other as effortlessly and brilliantly as ever throughout Avengers: Age of Ultron, and they once again pull off incessantly amazing displays of both camaraderie and loveable banter throughout the runtime. It really is a delight unlike any other to see these characters cross over, and continue to do it so well.
It’s great to see how well the all-new personalities keep up as well. Chief among these are Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, a.k.a. twin siblings, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, two well-known Avengers from Marvel Comics whom Marvel had to negotiate with 20th Century Fox for in order to “borrow” for the MCU, since they’re both mutants from X-Men lore, and Fox technically owns the film rights to them, especially since a separate Quicksilver was already featured in last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. The two are no longer mutants, no longer the children of Magneto, and no longer have any affiliation with the seemingly non-existent X-Men. Instead, they’re just two war-scarred orphans from the fictional Eastern European country of Sokovia, a nation unique to the Marvel Universe.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen reunite after playing a separated couple in last year’s Godzilla reboot, with both being fun and memorable new characters. Taylor-Johnson’s brash, speedy wit is just as effective as Olsen’s calculated, sinister trickery, with both providing a nice sibling double act of confused antagonists who haven’t yet discovered their true potential as heroes. They are just as fun as both foils and allies to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Sadly though, Evan Peters’ Quicksilver from X-Men: Days of Future Past was a bit more fun and memorable than Taylor-Johnson’s incarnation, despite having a lot less screentime in that movie.
Other established MCU characters have small parts and cameos, but I won’t give them away. All in all though, even with some character arcs being better than others, Avengers: Age of Ultron maintains a consistent narrative truth that is true of the very team it portrays; The Avengers are at their best when they’re working together!
The Avengers already presented a positively daunting sense of scale back in 2012, and Avengers: Age of Ultron wisely doesn’t try and push the scope any further. Avengers: Age of Ultron is still a massive blockbuster, don’t get me wrong, but it’s definitely a more grounded and emotionally harrowing story for its lead heroes, rather than another larger-than-life war against gods and aliens.
The theme behind the movie asks the question of whether the Avengers are truly what’s best for the world, and for humanity. Each hero has to confront the best and worst of their identities, save for Thor, who seemed to have already done that in The Avengers, which is likely why the story decided to scuttle him away for a bit when these debates are actively going on. Each of the other title heroes has to face their limit, and each approaches the idea of it in different ways. On paper, it’s a fantastic approach to an ensemble superhero movie sequel of this nature.
That’s why it’s too bad that there are some kinks in the highly ornate narrative mechanisms driving Avengers: Age of Ultron’s highly ambitious plot. They’re nowhere near the point of sinking the movie, but in a follow-up to a simple, but flawlessly executed ensemble tale in The Avengers, they’re noticeable enough to distract from what’s otherwise an incredibly entertaining experience.
Sadly, I can’t discuss most of the story without some considerable spoilers. Naturally, there’s plenty that happens in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the story does boast some pretty surprising curveballs here and there. Some of the sequel’s story ideas are a bust though, and those expecting a relentlessly bleak movie on par with the Age of Ultron event from Marvel Comics are bound to be disappointed, since Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn’t ultimately betray its need for a happy ending and a mostly clean progression, even with all of the scads of trouble that Ultron effortlessly causes. A pessimist could say that it somewhat wimps out of truly pushing these characters to irreversibly dark places.
Even then though, Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn’t disappoint as an entertaining, action-packed superhero extravaganza. It’s only barely deeper than the mostly straightforward plot of The Avengers, but its small gripes aren’t nearly enough to distract from all of the fun it offers to Marvel fans especially.
The only casualty is Quicksilver, who sacrifices himself towards the end of the movie to save Hawkeye, in a moment that, frankly, feels a tad forced. It’s likely a result of the unseen deal that Marvel made with 20th Century Fox to use Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch in the MCU, allowing Fox to carry on with Quicksilver in the X-Men movies, while Marvel can continue using Scarlet Witch, who is already confirmed to return in next year’s Captain America: Civil War.
Avengers: Age of Ultron also lays some foundations pretty thick for future Marvel Studios movies, which, like I said, may come off as tedious to non-fans of Marvel. Most of Thor’s arc is one giant tease for both Thor: Ragnarok and the two-part Avengers: Infinity War, as is a very quick mid-credits scene that simply shows Thanos coming upon the Infinity Gauntlet, and saying that he’ll gather up the Infinity Gems himself, since he’s tired of waiting. On this note, yes, as fans suspected, the Mind Gem was indeed in Loki’s Sceptre, and is indeed the power source of The Vision, who is a surprise rebirth of the seemingly-deleted J.A.R.V.I.S. for the movie’s climax. This makes four Infinity Gems currently showing up in the MCU, with two still unaccounted for, and even conveniently left out of Thor’s visions of the future.
Likewise, the movie actually shifts focus to fictional African Marvel nation, Wakanda, home of the Black Panther, for a pretty lengthy stretch, confirming another fan speculation; Andy Serkis guest stars in the movie as Black Panther arch-nemesis, Ulysses Klaue. Yes, “Klaue”, not, “Klaw” apparently. Klaue’s presence is both a means to an end for Ultron, namely getting lots of Vibranium to replicate himself (Ultron is made of Vibranium in his MCU incarnation, not Adamantium like in the comics, since 20th Century Fox owns the film rights to Adamantium), as well as a setup for the solo Black Panther movie in 2018. The African setting also happens to be where the highly publicized Hulk vs. Hulkbuster action sequence takes place, after Scarlet Witch enrages Hulk and makes him attack a nearby city. The wave of destruction that follows from this is sure to be the catalyst for Black Panther making his MCU debut in next year’s Captain America: Civil War.
Joss Whedon returns to direct Avengers: Age of Ultron, after helming The Avengers in 2012. Whedon’s upbeat direction has been reined in a bit in contrast to the first movie, with the sequel having less corny dialogue bits, and the humour still being playful, but noticeably grimmer. Make no mistake though. Whedon’s undeniable fanboy touch has no issues with setting up plenty of shots for the sole purpose of creating fangasms. You can probably see most of these shots from the trailers.
Naturally, Whedon is as exceptional as ever when it comes to maximizing the banter of his stars. Everyone is clearly having a great time on set, giving Avengers: Age of Ultron an undeniable sense of positivity, even during its handful of truly depressing moments. Like its predecessor, Avengers: Age of Ultron ends up being funnier than even a good chunk of dedicated big screen comedies, yet doesn’t do so at the expense of the drama or the story material, at least most of the time.
If there’s one tweak to Whedon’s playful direction though, it’s the fact that the action is definitely shot to be more intimate and close-up in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The sweeping wide shots of The Avengers feel much more rare in its sequel, which feels more focused on a sense of weight and heart-stopping internal power. The battles against Ultron’s constructs feel closer and mightier, sacrificing a sense of grand scope for a better sense of true, savage violence. Since our heroes are against robots this time, they can now be shown brutally tearing them apart and engaging them on a more direct level, though not to the point where it overrides a sense of spectacle, or compromises the PG-13 rating.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is still unmistakably helmed by the touch of someone who loves Marvel as much as the fans do. It’s a movie that doesn’t struggle to feel truly ‘awesome’ in its sense of fun and ambition, yet also effectively replicates a sense of being more brutal and dark, while amazingly not overriding the popcorn sense of enjoyment that Marvel Studios has consistently delivered to outstanding effect.
Avengers: Age of Ultron has switched composers, with the music now being managed by Danny Elfman, along with the help of Brian Tyler. The uplifting theme song of The Avengers still plays every so often, but with a weightier variation that nicely complements the movie’s attempt at a darker tone. The rest of the soundtrack follows suit as well, being more harrowing and intense than the fluffy and light-hearted score from The Avengers, and creating a much greater sense of imminent peril for humanity.
Naturally, the rest of the audio doesn’t disappoint either, especially if you’ve gone all out with the IMAX 3D cut. Given the more brutal action, you can imagine that the mighty destruction unfolding on-screen sounds with more imposing fury than even the first movie. The action will constantly rock audiences with the ravaging of metal and bone, making even these grand Marvel heroes consistently feel like they’re fighting for their lives, easily able to invest audiences in the earth-shattering displays of action that persistently unfold before them.
Surprising no one, Avengers: Age of Ultron is another special effects masterpiece, even if some of the more fantastical style from the first movie is now gone, in favour of more harrowing destruction. The all-new effects behind Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are very cool though, with Quicksilver’s duplicating blur nicely separating him from the style of the other, zippier Quicksilver from X-Men: Days of Future Past. Likewise, Ultron himself is a great effect, to the point where audiences will forget that he’s an effect. James Spader’s outstanding performance is a large part of what’s to thank for this, though the imposing and eerie presence of Ultron’s visual design is just as impressive.
One thing that really works in favour of Avengers: Age of Ultron’s more intense action scenes is the fact that they don’t rely nearly as much on showcases of CGI, in contrast to many other superhero blockbusters. CGI still plays quite a big part in the effects, but the Ultron constructs are often portrayed by real-life stuntmen, just like a lot of the Chitauri in the first movie. This helps create a greater sense of actual danger, without sacrificing the incredibly high polish that one would expect from a Marvel Studios movie. It also makes the inevitably widespread destruction that unfolds throughout much of Avengers: Age of Ultron feel more impressive to behold, since none of it feels false or calculated. The environments are continually ripped apart with wonderful, savage glory, just as much as Ultron’s copies.
As for the 3D presentation, it’s a bit of a step down from the first movie, unfortunately. It’s still alright, and it’s definitely beneficial to see Avengers: Age of Ultron in 3D if you prefer your big screen movies in that format, but the more grounded and close-shot action in the sequel works against the 3D presentation in most cases, which was better suited to the grand, sweeping style of The Avengers before, or even last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy. You might be able to wring an extra bit of 3D immersion from the IMAX 3D cut, which really is the best way to watch Avengers: Age of Ultron if you have that option, though Marvel Studios has certainly done better 3D work than they have here. Those that prefer to stick to 2D screenings won’t find that they’re missing a whole lot.
Regardless of format though, Avengers: Age of Ultron reliably kicks off 2015’s Summer blockbuster season in style. It presents no shortage of breathtaking action sequences and super-powered glee, and is one of the most amazingly destructive and imposing Marvel Studios movies delivered yet!
Avengers: Age of Ultron may not manage the Herculean task of topping its stellar predecessor, but it’s still leagues better than the majority of movies that 2015 has delivered so far, and is still a very fine product from Marvel Studios. It can’t really be called a masterpiece, but it’s a commendable and entertaining sequel that succeeds at most of what it sets out to do, if not everything.
Perhaps the especially ambitious concept of the Avengers movies can’t adequately balance both story and spectacle without a sense of compromise in one direction or the other, at least in a mere two to two-and-a-half hour movie space. When you collect all of these personalities that are already proven to be able to sustain their own solo movies, you’re bound to hit a limit with what you can explore in a crossover. Avengers: Age of Ultron shoots for the stars with its efforts to create dark, compelling upsets for a multitude of franchise superheroes at once, even if it somewhat misses the mark in that respect.
Still, it would be unbecoming to dwell on one disappointment in a movie that is still full of so many successes, especially considering its lofty ambitions. The fact remains that Avengers: Age of Ultron is excellent in terms of action, entertainment value, and the ever-loveable rapport of its lead heroes, made all the better by a truly worthy and superbly complex, memorable villain. It’s not Marvel Studios’ best movie yet, but it’s still a whole hell of a lot of fun!
- Avenger rapport is hilarious as ever
- Amazing, highly destructive action sequences
- Spader's Ultron is a superb villain
- Some character arcs fall flat
- A few questionable story elements