Long term readers will know that usually my movie related content is kept solely to opinion pieces, but from now on I’ll be running the occasional movie review, sometimes with spoilers and sometimes not. Speaking of which, SPOILER WARNING!
There’s a moment in the film where Hawkeye takes a moment to say, “The city’s flying; we’re fighting an army of robots; I have a bow and arrow; none of it makes sense…” The comment was directed to newcomer Scarlet Witch, but it may just as well have been directed at the audience. It doesn’t make sense, and we all know it. We don’t care. This is the world of comics where strange things happen all the time, where people manage to inexplicably pull off awesome poses, and where death doesn’t hold much emotional weight because the character will be back by next week.
So having ventured into society once again, a daunting prospect that left me whirling around in a panic and trying to claw people’s eyes out, I headed to the cinema, a very rare occurrence for me. Usually these days I just grab what movies I want on Blu-ray and skip the cinema part due to high ticket prices and the cost of actually travelling there, but for certain films, like Avengers: Age of Ultron, I’m happy to make an exception. So let’s talk about the film, shall we? And yes, I’m assuming you’ve seen it too, so spoilers are incoming if you haven’t. This is part dissection, though I have not the necessary critical skills for a true movie analysis, part review and part me just not shutting up, because it’s the Avengers and I fucking love comics.
Following up on first Avengers movie is no easy task for one simple reason; the magic isn’t there anymore. Avengers Assemble was a slow-build of five separate films before fans finally got to see the iconic force together on-screen at the same time, something most comic fans never actually thought would happen. The very idea of creating a film universe where heroes from individual movies would come together every few years for a massive event, similar to how comic book cross-over events occur, was unheard of. And yet even once the film was out it wasn’t until 45-minutes into the movie that the Avengers had all been introduced, slowly teasing viewers. And it wasn’t until nearly the end that the Avengers truly assembled as a team battling against a common foe. The magic of seeing these heroes who had been developed through five films before finally being on-screen together is hard to describe. It was a momentous moment, and one that I personally cherish, and couldn’t be replicated by Age of Ultron, putting it at an immediate disadvantage. What flaws we were willing to forgive in the first movie due to the sheer brilliance of seeing Earth’s mightiest heroes together at last wouldn’t be so overlooked here. Thankfully Whedon opted not to try to somehow recapture uncapturable magic and instead gave us the Avengers fighting as a slick team within the opening moments of the movie, a sequence which includes that famous trailer shot of them all leaping into action in snowy woods, a glorious homage to the comics. Whedon writes this team like old friends, that still don’t always entirely trust each other.
This time around the plot focuses on Tony Starks creation of a powerful, sentient AI by the name of Ultron, originally intended on being a method of keeping the world safe. Things go just a tad wrong, though, and Ultron decides that humans need to simply go away. Apparently Stark hasn’t watched any sci-fi movie ever or he would have foreseen this eventuality. Naturally Tony’s creation of this new power in the world also helps lay the foundations for the forthcoming Civil War movie, with tension between Stark and Rogers threatening to spill over. The nice thing here is that we see Loki’s staff, which was used in the creation of Ultron, confirmed as containing one of the Infinity Stones, or Gems or whatever we’re calling them now, a theory fans have been pretty sure of for a long while now. Specifically it’s the Mind Gem, created by the mad titan Thanos and given to Loki, hence his ability to control people. Infinity War is coming, ladies and gentlemen.
As a villain Ultron is a most pleasant surprise. Voiced and mocapped by the incredibly talented James Spader Ultron isn’t your typical emotionless artificial intelligence, rather he’s almost at times a petulant teenager. He’s flippant, funny in a darkly sarcastic way and dangerously human, a physical challenge and intensely intimidating, while at other times his emotions get the better of him. He was, after all, born yesterday. More than anything he’s partially Tony Stark, retaining aspects of the man’s personality, including the inability to judge the difference between saving the world and destroying it. He doesn’t quite topple Loki as the best of the Marvel villains and throughout the film does begin to feel like he’s less of a genuine threat than he should be. Having said that, aside from Loki the Marvel villains have been a little lacking, and Thor’s brother has had three films now to build him up.
In fact it’s Scarlet Witch who feels more genuinely dangerous to the Avengers than Ultron. If the first film was about assembling the team then this one is about ripping it to pieces, and while Ultron feels threatening the truth is Scarlet Witch feels like the person far more capable of bringing down the entire team, especially with her brother Quicksilver in tow. As she throws down later on in the movie her ability to simply toss enemies around and blast them off their feet makes her truly badass, but it’s her terrifying power to infect the mind that proves the deadliest challenge in the entire movie. It’s unclear as to whether she shows people visions of possible futures or just purely nightmare scenarios created by their own minds, especially since Thor’s vision seems to be a potential portent which sends him scampering back to Asgard at the end of the film, but its her powers that results in the creation of Ultron, and Iron-Man going head-to-head with the Hulk. With Quicksilver backing her up, and providing capable of taking on the Avengers in a fight, the twins presence is impressive.
Which is why it’s a shame that the movie is so busy that we don’t always get to spend the time I would have liked with them, leaving Scarlet Witch to get an actual real fleshed-out personality in the next movie. Their backstory is certainly interesting, but also means that their switch to the side of the Avengers felt a little too easy. The Avengers have always been a team ready to explode at the slightest provocation, so their unraveling so quickly makes sense, especially with their minds being messed with, but Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver blame Tony Stark for the death of their parents and that’s a serious grudge to hold. While putting it aside to deal with Ultron makes sense, after all he wants to destroy the world you’re standing on, I would have expected more ramifications afterwards. Furthermore some quality time with the pair would have made Quicksilver’s death feel a little more hard-hitting. As it stands his demise was supposed to make the viewers feel like the stakes were real, but this failed because firstly we all know the big names make it due to Marvel announcing their slate of films, and second because we don’t know very much about him. His role never felt important enough to make his death trick us into thinking everyone really was in danger.
There’s also the slightly iffy question of their origin. Due to legal junk Marvel don’t actually have the right to have “mutants” in their current cinematic universe so they’re simply referred to as being enhanced, with the implication that their powers came from experimentation with the staff. It’s vague at best, and while it explains Scarlet Witch’s powers it doesn’t really explain Quicksilver’s. Considering mutants were a key component in the Civil War storyline I’m curious to see where Marvel head with this.
The structure of the movie played a little too close to that of the first film, it does have to be said. While we don’t have the recruitment phase we do get that quiet, down-time moment in the middle with the Avengers having to rally back to the fight before heading off for a destructive climax that once again has seemingly nobody (well, almost) get hurt and an army of faceless metal goons to batter around. Yet in truth an army is sort of needed: the Avengers are a team full of people who in their own right could topple overwhelming odds, so in tandem they practically need an army to battle against. A single person, like Ultron, would just make for a film where the bad guy gets ganged up on. Hardly entertaining. Perhaps what we need is an engaging team of villains who can go up against them, but that would require a movie with enough time to set up a team of developed enemies while also managing to give the heroes enough screen time, too. Not an easy task, and if there’s one theme running through Age of Ultron it’s that of a movie trying to juggle a bit too much already.
But let’s keep going with what the movie does juggle well for now, namely the main Avengers we all know and love. Joss Whedon has shown numerous times now that he knows how to handle an ensemble without ever making one of the characters somehow far less important than the rest. Once again the big players feel like they get enough screen time to fully display their personalities individually and as a group, their often hilarious dialogue and banter paying testament to Whedon’s clever writing. This is a damn funny movie, but more importantly it’s funny at all the right times, something which Thor: Dark World struggled with. One could sit there and complain that people like Captain America don’t have a proper arc, but that’s what the individual movies are for. It was also nice to see Hawkeye getting some time to shine this time around, especially since he was probably the least favored Avenger last time around and hasn’t gotten to appear in any of the other movies, unlike Black Widow who get to hang out with Steve Rogers in Winter Soldier. The fact that he actually has a wife and even kids living in the country is a little jarring, but gets explained away by his keeping their existence off record with the help of Fury. Having said that, his decision to use his own home as a safe house for the team feels a bit stupid. It’s also weird to see Black Widow perfectly comfortable with her best friend’s family, the kids happy to see their aunt Nat. A good weird, though.
Speaking of Black Widow there’s now a strong relationship with her and Banner, leading to some surprisingly nice moments where Romanov has to calm the Hulk down after a mission, gently touching his arm to relax him enough to change back to Banner. I’ve heard people say that they felt this came out of left-field, like they somehow missed something, but to me it does make some sense. Time has passed between the two Avenger’s movies, as can be seen in how the team interacts, and dynamics change. Having said that I didn’t feel like the chemistry was entirely there just yet. I did like how Whedon opted to give us a glimpse of Widow’s dark origin and then connect Banner and her through the idea of them being monsters in their own way. It also makes me want a Black Widow prequel, too. Maybe one where we get to find out what happened in Budapest with her and Hawkeye.
The action is downright impressive, but obviously does tend to rely on CGI very heavily. It’s one of those situations where you can clearly tell its graphics at work and that does somewhat take away from the experience because as good as CGI is these days it still can’t replicate real life, but you’re willing to forgive it entirely because it does look incredibly good. The opening tracking shot is a beautiful sequence that plays on the very same type of shot used in the final climatic battle of the first Avengers, and every fight is hugely entertaining, including the Hulkbuster armor vs the Hulk. It’s not perfect, mind you; there were some rough moments, including a terrible green-screen moment of Banner standing in front of a quinjet.
If you though Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and Ultron weren’t enough new faces just as you think the movie should be getting ready to stride forth into its finale here comes The Vision, finally giving physical form to Paul Bettany’s Jarvis. Much like Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, though, the sizable cast means this his late appearance in the film doesn’t leave much time to actually do anything with him as a character or explore his unique personality. Truthfully he could have been removed entirely and it wouldn’t alter the movie very much, although a brilliantly funny scene involving him and Thor’s hammer (cough) would have very much been missed. As much as the geek in me loved seeing him brought to the screen, and in such an impressive fashion, his inclusion feels rushed and a little awkward. I’d much rather of seen him introduced far earlier, or kept for another film altogether.
There’s also War Machine and Falcon whose inclusion in the move is purely about the final scene. Now, the final scene is pretty awesome as it shows us Cap and Black Widow working together to create a brand new team of Avengers, of which War Machine and Falcon are a part of, reminding us all that the name of the movie doesn’t refer to any specific character. The Avengers can be anyone, and having this new team lays further foundations for Civil War. The thing is War Machine and Falcon didn’t need to be in the rest of the movie. They appear in the party scene early on with no explanation, so some viewers who are only interested in the big Avenger milestones rather than the individual movies will be left confused, especially when both characters appear later on in full costume with no context. Their roles in the movie could have been taken out just to help streamline things, leaving them to appear only in the final scene where Marvel veterans would have instantly recognized them, and newcomers would have felt intrigued by the new team.
The movie’s biggest flaw is that after a while it has a little too much going on. At one point the film is attempting to juggle setting the groundwork for Civil War, slapping viewers in the face with Infinity Stone exposition in order to set up Thanos later on, bringing in three new characters to the team while also bringing back two previous ones in the form of War Machine and Falcon, and have Ultron wrecking stuff. There’s even a scene for Thor setting up his new movie that feels completely out of place in the script, like it was written in purely because management said it had to be done. It gets a little messy, and certain things could have been taken out to help that. Nick Fury doesn’t need to be in the movie, for example, as he doesn’t serve much purpose except to remind people who Shield is dead but actually kind of isn’t, and to deliver a method of fighting the robot army which feels incredibly convenient for the plot. He could have been removed, all with the plot points I mentioned earlier, to create a more manageable movie. It’s no surprise that the rumour mill says Whedon’s initial cut was three and a half hours long, and we may get to see it when the movie arrives on DVD and Blu-ray.
There’s also the sense that Marvel didn’t tie their films together too well. The ending of Iron Man 3 where Stark all but hangs up the armour and destroys his robotic army is entirely ignored for the sake of the plot, meanwhile Cap and Falcon’s decision to hunt down Bucky Barnes at the end of Captain America: Winter Soldier is also hastily glossed over in a throwaway line which does nothing but make the ending of Winter Soldier feel pointless . Meanwhile Nick Fury, who was also supposed to have vanished at the end of Winter Soldier, just appears with minimal explanation. Even the destruction of Shield doesn’t feel like it has quite the impact it should, largely because the TV series of the same name has hastily managed to create two sort-of Shields. Things like this indicate that Marvel need to spend more time developing their long-term plans so that each movie can slot together more neatly.
That roughness sometimes translated over the camera work and editing, which headed too far into generic jumpy action movie territory a couple of times. What I loved about the first Avengers is that the way it was shot was clean and simple, allowing me to always enjoy the spectacle of it all, which is important in a film about superheroes. For the most par the action was kept in focus, but there were moments when shots were being cut every second or two and the camera wasn’t keeping up with the mayhem, leaving me squinting at the screen and trying to figure out exactly what was going on. Mostly these seemed to be in any scene with the Hulk. On top of that the massive roster of characters also meant that the film has to change location a lot to keep up with everyone, further enhancing the sense Age of Ultron could have done with calming down a little.
It says something that my favorite parts of the move wasn’t the intense action scenes or watching iconic heroes I grew up with do battle with each other and villains. No, my favorite moments were the quiet ones. My favorite moments were the endearing scenes between Widow and Hulk, or watching the whole group hang out in the Avengers Tower, laughing about trying to pick up Thor’s hammer. It was watching the look on the Asgardian’s face when Captain America manages to move Mjolnir just a little. It was watching The Vision prove himself to the group later on by handing the hammer to Thor while the camera focused on the incredulous looks on the teams face’s, a great payoff to the earlier party scene. It was watching the weirdness of the Avengers simply sitting in a little house in the country, and watching Hawkeye with his family and Black Widow. I love the action, but I love the quiet moments more. It has been like that in almost all the Marvel movies thus far, but even more in the Avengers due to Joss Whedon’s brilliant ability to write convincing, funny, touching dialogue. These superheroes on screen feel like friends now, and I love to catch up with and just watch them interact.
The ending is a little strange in the sense that after Stark creates Ultron and then goes behind his team a second time to make The Vision the rest of the Avengers seem oddly calm around Tony when really they should have been wanting to punch his lights out like they did earlier. It’s like everyone forgot how pissed off they were, which is odd when we’re heading into the Civil War storyline and it would seemingly have made more sense to have Cap and Iron Man part on less than agreeable terms.
Speaking of the ending it seems that shipping Hulk off in the quinjet was both a way to make his own story arc a little sadder and to explain his absence in the forthcoming movies which he thus far has not been confirmed for, and while I’d love to buy into forum discussion that he’s actually been fired into space in order to make a Planet Hulk film I don’t see it happening, although since Planet Hulk is one of my favorite storylines it would be amazing.
Ultimately Age of Ultron does feel a bit sloppy and even hollow, as Whedon touches so very briefly on things like the dangers of artificial intelligence, what it means to be a superhero and even whether the Avengers are truly a force for good, and then doesn’t come back to them because he has a checklist of things to hit. At times the film feels rushed, and at others like it isn’t long enough. This would explain the rumours that the Blu-ray and DVD version of the film might come with Whedon’s original three and a half hour cut of the movie, which if true I’ll be happy to watch. More than anything Age of Ultron feels like a Whedon project being interfered with by higher-ups that demanded certain things be crammed in for the sake of a gigantic cinematic universe which is becoming harder and harder to keep in check. Because of this lack of focus Avengers: Age of Ultron isn’t the best Marvel has done. In fact, it sits behind both Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, and doesn’t manage to beat its own predacessor, either. It’s still a damn fun film, though, brimming with wonderful action, snappy dialogue and characters that we’ve grown to love. I enjoyed every minute of it, and will doubtless watch it many times more. It has flaws, but even when Whedon and Marvel aren’t at their best they can craft a damn good movie.