Avengers: Age Of Ultron
What kind of preamble can you give to one of the most anticipated films of the last few years? When Joss Whedon’s The Avengers arrived, garnering an avalanche of both critical and commercial success and providing the perfect cap to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Phase One”, even someone as cynical and resistant to the popular swell as I was taken aback. Here was a fun entertaining action movie, carefully managing a gigantic cast, with a script overflowing with warmth, humour and deep thoughts, that managed to manufacture a third act mega battle that wasn’t just CGI porn in the style of Michael Bay. It was one of Joss Whedon’s greatest achievements, and he’s had a few of note.
And so, to the sequel. Another few years of MCU movies has seen the Whedon style aped fairly liberally in terms of humour and character interaction style, while a more cosmic raising of the stakes has also become apparent. And it’s all lead up to this, the MCU “Phase Two” blow out (though not, it appears, the very end of Phase Two). Concerns of overplayed expectations, the weight of additional characters and constant fears of the MCU reaching a point of diminishing returns all revolved around one question: Could Joss Whedon deliver a second time?
In the aftermath of taking down a major HYDRA cell, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) and Bruce Banner’s (Mark Ruffalo) experimentation with an advanced alien AI inadvertently creates a new and more deadly threat for they and the rest of the Avengers (Luke Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner) to face: the sentient, and genocidal, Ultron (James Spader). Enlisting the help of superpowered twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), who have a grudge against Stark, Ultron goes about manufacturing his own vision of human evolution, with the Avengers in his sights.
So, how do you do it again? And can you possibly make it better, which is what people really want, that progression in quality. I’ve had a weird foreboding about this film for a while, especially as it seemed that director wasn’t being too chatty about it. To retread the same old ground was a possibility, but one that would make the exercise pointless, and to move off in a different direction entirely was a dangerous idea, that could alienate the audience entirely.
Whedon injects new things, namely a completely new villain (unlike the previously set-up Loki) and “the twins”. And he creates more and bigger set-pieces to keep things ticking over throughout (I counted six total) with a Hulkbuster fight midway through and an earth shaking finale probably the most notable. So, in the sense of characters and spectacle, Age Of Ultron is a bigger film than its predecessor, and I suppose the biggest film the MCU has yet offered.
But, it is also just same old, same old really, and that’s what stops Age Of Ultron from being the film that we all want it to be, the equal or better of The Avengers. For me, and for many others I can confidently state, Age Of Ultron will seem too familiar, too re-hashed, and too much of the same meal served up: a tasty meal to be sure, but one that you’ve eaten a lot of. And you see that in terms of tone, script choices, the playing out of action moments and the general progression of the narrative. But I don’t want to be mistaken either: Age Of Ultron is still tonnes of fun, entertaining and enjoyable, a film that no comic book fan will want to miss.
It starts off really well, in medias res as the Avengers we know and love bulldoze their way through Baron von Strucker (the ever great and ever under-appreciated Thomas Kretschmann) and his HYDRA crew, camped out in an imposing castle in the Balkan stand in of Sokovia (I’m guessing Marvel Studios can’t use Latveria then?). It’s a rapid, fast moving faux one shot introduction, and while the moment of slow motion heroism was a bit much, it was still a great re-introduction to each of these individual heroes and what they bring to the table, as well as being just sort of old school in its scope: just a bunch of heroes, taking down Nazi’s in a European castle, the ancient world contrasting with the laser weapons and giant space slug corpses, and they’re all having a blast doing it. The height that the Avengers have reached is presented beautifully, all the better for the fall that is coming.
It doesn’t take long for Age Of Ultron’s new additions, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, to get their proper introductions. The stinger for The Winter Soldier hinted that they were there against their will, but it’s a lot better for them to be volunteers for the HYDRA cause, though the deeper explanation – a rather illogical grudge against Stark and his old weapon manufacturing – doesn’t really land as well as it could, and brings back unwelcome memories of the drek that was Iron Man 2. But the twins are cool, mysterious players for the Avengers to face, ones whose potent threat is exhibited efficiently, especially in the case of Wanda. She kick-starts the resulting catastrophe by just opening up some of Stark’s already well-processed fears, and we know that we are in for a wild ride.
Things move swiftly on. A great party scene is given plenty of time to play out, offering a large amount of brilliant humour, team bonding and the establishing of new relationship dynamics. Stark and Banner are playing God, with Banner being only a little wary of it. Banner and Romanoff are edging closer to a genuine romantic connection. And there is a sense of everyone being in a happy place in some manner. Part of me would have been satisfied if the comedy had stopped at this point, since it was the perfect place to include it, before things got much more serious. But I’ll take about that more in a bit.
Ultron’s arrival is effected well, the disembodied voice gaining knowledge and awareness of his surroundings alarmingly fast, before he is suddenly in a body and taunting the Avengers. You might be forgiven for thinking that all of this went a bit too fast – I think it might be less than two minutes between Ultron’s birth and his first shot at the Avengers – but it worked for me as a demonstration of Ultron’s immense intellect and potential power. An alien AI, whose directives are meshed hideously with Stark’s over-protectiveness, doesn’t need to contemplate what he has to do for too long. His design is cool, imposing, threatening, and yet unique, but a huge problem with him is the comedy factor. I don’t want to be repeating myself a lot here, so I’ll save thoughts on that for a moment.
From there, the established pacing of the film takes over, marked by around 15-20 minutes of plot followed by 15-20 minutes of action, repeating this cycle for around two hours, as the Avengers play catch-up to Ultron’s remarkably successful scheming and deal with their own problems. The plot progresses nicely, and you really don’t feel Age Of Ultron’s 140 minute running time at all. What you might feel is some dissatisfaction with the tone of the talky sections in the later half, and elements of the action scenes around the same time.
Obviously, fans of the MCU will be particularly interested in the dynamic between Stark and Rodgers being presented, as those two will be coming to blows this time next year. It’s a subtle divide at first, Stark doing things Rodgers wouldn’t approve off and not telling him, before open recrimination later. But it doesn’t go to the places you would expect, and I have mixed feelings about that (see below).
The twins’ inevitable alliance with Ultron leads to several confrontations, with Scarlet Witch’s mind powers giving the film one of its most trippy sequences in the middle of a derelict shipping vessel. The Avengers face their fears – Cap see’s what he’s lost (featuring a really unnecessary and wasteful Peggy Atwell cameo), Black Widow see’s a grim initiation from her past, Thor see’s a death filled future for Asgard and Hawk-Eye, well, I won’t spoil one of his better moments. These sections had great potential, but felt somewhat cliché by their conclusion, and the way it led to a brief side-adventure for Thor, with Stellan Skarsgard dragged along for another needless cameo, was somewhat unpalatable, and all for a clumsy and vague set-up for Infinity War.
Whedon refrained from any romantic plot line for The Avengers, one of many smart calls, but can’t help himself in Age Of Ultron. Banner and Romanoff’s entanglement has all of his tragic hallmarks when it comes to love plots, not counting the dialogue beats straight out of a romcom, (but funny for that), and you can hardly blame Whedon when you look at what he has to work with: the guy with the crazy anger issues and the girl with the incredibly bloody past. The two share numerous nice moments that only occasionally feel insipid, and the culmination is an appropriate one. We’ve seen Romanoff get pally with Hawk-Eye and Cap in a few films, but it feels righter for her to contemplate an attraction to someone as damaged as Banner.
The introduction of a plot-critical character at the start of the third act is bound to divide some. Knowing what I already knew of this character from the comics, it didn’t feel as off to me as I’m sure it would to others, who have to deal with an incredibly powerful and incredibly important personality suddenly appearing just when the plot requires him to be there. But the role gets its time, and no better man than Joss Whedon to rapidly get you acclimatised to a new presence before the superteam flies off for their final battle with the AI menace.
Age Of Ultron rollicks towards another extended urban battle in its finale, and I don’t really think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that. It’s here that you will certainly begin to feel like you’re watching a retread, if you weren’t already: the city is different, but the set-up, some of the visual cues, the dirt cannon usage, the heroic circle shot, the hordes of faceless henchmen and the ticking clock on the villains plan are all present again (at least they didn’t do a “I meant for you to capture me!” thing again). As such, I couldn’t get engaged with the finale of Age Of Ultron the same way that I did for The Avengers, and it’s not the first time I’ve had this problem with the MCU. Thor: The Dark World, Guardians Of The Galaxy and, to a lesser extent, The Winter Soldier all had the same problem, but Age Of Ultron outstrips them all, where the finale couldn’t get too far beyond superpowered individuals smashing through a city, stopping their battle to the death only to usher some unfortunate civilians out of the way (and man, they do that a lot, to the extent that I fully believe there was some nose thumbing being aimed at other filmmakers).
Getting beyond the saneness of the climax – and a certain sameness in much of the rest of the production, especially in tone and tempo – the finale delivers an emotional punch (of sorts) and leaves off on an intriguing note, the promise of more adventures to come, only with a high degree of change probable. That’s to be welcomed, because the whiff of stale material entered the MCU a while ago, and getting away from that is going to be no easy task.
If Age Of Ultron succeeds in anything though, making up for the gripes that affected my viewing, it’s in the way Whedon crafts engaging character journeys for his principals. Some of them are very short, some of them seem a bit out of the way and suitable for another film (Thor especially) but most of the Avengers and the villain have things to do, personal growth to fulfil and destinations to head to. Stark is becoming more and more of an antagonist, and with so many good intentions, Rodgers is coming to realise that his whole life is being a soldier, Romanoff wants something more traditional for her life, Banner is trying desperately to escape his inevitable nature, Barton is hiding a very big, but very important, secret and Thor, well, he might be the odd one out: literally, in the context of Earth born heroes. And Ultron has his journey too, of manipulating his ingrained vision to suit a more diabolical and final assessment of humanity’s future. They all have these separate journeys, but they all intertwine at the right moments.
The disappointment comes from the other new additions. The twins are one note in most respects, and I never felt fully engaged with them or their struggle. The Pietro character in particular felt very unappealing, between his rather stupid accent and his inability to live up to Evan Peters’ much better (and much briefer) interpretation of the same character in X-Men: Days Of Future Past (and maybe that was why Whedon didn’t try too hard with Taylor-Johnson).
Olsen does OK, but Age Of Ultron is surprisingly – for this director anyway – underwhelming when it comes to its female characters. It isn’t that they get sidelined, or are dominated by male characters. It’s just that they aren’t given the opportunities to do things or make their mark as much as you will probably like, or expect from this director. They can kick ass and make their presence felt – any Widow interaction with the Hulk is an example – but then there are other things, like how, for a brief few moments, Widow is reduced to being a damsel in distress that has to be rescued by one of the guys, or how Scarlet Witch gets overwhelmed at various points. It’s not really fair to blame this all on Whedon, as the entire MCU is top heavy with male roles, and that will only partially be addressed in the coming years with Captain Marvel. But enough time has passed that this can only be seen as an undefendable sin of the entire MCU generally, that Joss Whedon has, surprisingly, played his part in perpetrating.
The major gripe, which I’ll talk about here rather than when I discuss the script, is the comedy. The unrelenting, repeated constant comedy. I don’t think the film goes more than a minute without some kind of joke, quip or sarcastic aside, even in the midst of the most deadly kind of peril. Whedon is famous for this, and The Avengers was full of it, and part of that sameness feeling comes from having that all over sense of comical self-awareness and referentialness (if that’s not a word, consider it created). But it goes into overdrive in Age Of Ultron, and it came close on points to ruining the experience. Jokes are fine, comedy is good. There are moments in a story like this when levity is both appreciated and needed (like that early party scene).
But for me, you have to leave the serious moments serious. It cuts the legs out from the tension and drama when jokes are being dropped all the time, because if the characters don’t care enough about their peril, then why the hell should I? The Phase Two films, to varying degrees, all did this, taking their cues from The Avengers, and Whedon seemed to take that as a challenge. Well, when it comes to this kind of thing, consider the challenge won. There are some great laugh out loud moments in this film, but it comes at the expense of being completely onboard with other aspects as much as you might have been. I recognise that plenty of others, a majority even, won’t have a problem with this. But, for me, the amount of humour in this film is a serious drawback that should have been addressed. You don’t have to go full Man Of Steel serious, but you don’t have to be a comedy classic either.
The worst offender/victim is the titular antagonist. I never expected, or wanted, Ultron to become Battling Joke Robot. The voice and his appearance make the jokes seem painfully out of place, and results in him being very hard to take seriously. Sure, it speaks to him being a real functioning AI with a personality, but it’s not a personality that I want to see in a villain of this type in a film of this type. Ultron isn’t deranged in his humour, like Heath Ledger’s Joker, he’s just…jokey. All the time. And that can be very frustrating to watch if you are anything like me. I recall Loki telling jokes, but being more smarmy and sneery in the process, which made it more palatable.
So, in plot terms Age Of Ultron comes out with thumbs up in my eyes, but only just about. As I said at the top, Age Of Ultron is fun, entertaining, and unmissable for fans of the genre, but it isn’t up to the same level as its predecessors, doing plenty of things wrong even as it gets most things right. The talking/action/talking/action rota is obvious and plenty of other aspects of the production have a familiar feel to them. But it still shows off superheroes doing their thing, saving the world and battling a unique menace.
If these films are ever going to have a largely over-riding positive, it will be in the acting stakes. You can tell that the main cast have become immensely comfortable in the roles they inhabit, Downey Jr and Evans most of all. No one will ever getting tired of seeing “RDJ” play the billionaire playboy turned superhero, who infects every iota of the screen with his confidence, brashness and, well, coolness, which is contrasted nicely with the more stoic, reserved nature of Luke Evans as Cap.
I would say those two are the main players, but in truth the Avengers generally get plenty of the spotlight. Chris Hemsworth (now with second billing I noticed) remains as forceful and charming as ever in the Thor role, managing to make his Shakespearian utterances both compelling and funny in equal measure. Mark Ruffalo brings a certain tenderness and weakness to Banner that was missing from his first appearance, and that largely banishes the memory of Edward Norton’s acceptable portrayal of the same character some time ago. Jeremy Renner hasn’t been up to all that much between films, but he reminds me just why he was cast here: as cliché as it may be, his bow wielding agent might just be the heart of the team, the ordinary guy doing something amazing.
Scarlett Johansson remains a stand-out. You could see, in The Winter Soldier, the kind of performance and screen-dominating presence she could manufacture, and while she has less time in front of the camera here, she still makes the most of it, and adds a bit to the Widow too. In Age Of Ultron, she brings a vulnerability to her private moments with Banner, something that is unexpected and largely captivating, helping to cover up for some of the more glaring flaws with the character.
Taylor-Johnson and Olsen I have already discussed. I’m not too familiar with Olsen, but I know Taylor-Johnson should be doing a bit better. Between the accents and being one-upped by other characters in just about every other scene, you have to say that neither of them is doing enough to grab enough attention. That’s a shame, but who knows what might happen in the future.
And then there is James Spader. He certainly has the right gravelly low tone for the part, but you can’t help but feel that we’re just seeing a nine foot electronic version of his character from the rather overrated The Blacklist, at least when it comes to the voice. Spader can’t pull off the comedy in the right way, but when he is menacing, he can be very impressive.
From there you’re moving into the large amount of minor appearences and cameos, some of which stick in the mind, and some of which don’t. The better include Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue, Thomas Kretschmann’s Baron Von Strucker and, of course, Samuel L. Jackson’s obligatory appearance as Nick Fury. Not so good are the limited appearances of Don Cheadle’s James Rhodes/War Machine, Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson/Falcon, Cobie Smoulders’ Maria Hill, Idris Elba’s Heimdall, Haley Atwell’s Peggy Carter, Claudia Kim in an original role and Stellan Skarsgard’s Erik Selvig, many of which feel like they are just being thrown in for the sake of it (No Clark Gregg though, which was a surprise).
Visually, it might seem strange, considering my general love for Joss Whedon, to say that Age Of Ultron is nothing special on the directorial front, but then again it is in writing and the crafting of characters that Whedon has always been at his best (not to say he’s a bad director, but I think he works better on TV in that regard, though Serenity had reams of great visual choices, not least the introduction to the titular ship and its crew). There are some nice shots here and there, but most of them involve some form of computer wizardry to make them really work (like that opening faux one shoter, which had many of the same elements as the same sort of track in Serenity). Some of the set-piece moments are framed very nicely: like in the well put together tanker, or in the ultra-stylized Avengers tower, with sets that have been built to look good on camera. Everything is else is basically competent and lacking any real special sense of something amazing. There’s been a much linked around “Every Frame A Painting” video recently that drew a contrast between Whedon’s Avengers and the works of Akira Kurosawa that illustrates the point fairly well, though I detect a hint of hyper-criticism in some of it (as an aside, I saw three different criticisms of Whedon’s direction within a week of that video being posted, none of which cited EFAP, so, welcome Tony Zhou to being an influencer, I guess).
It’s in the action scenes that Whedon and his cinematographer (Guardians Of The Galaxy veteran Ben Davis, with Avengers cinematographer Seamus McGarvey moving on to, um, 50 Shades Of Grey)must live or die, and they mostly live. Occasionally there is some redundant stuff (a truck chase sequence goes on way too long) and sometimes the close quarters combat is too fast and too confusing (the first fight scene with Ultron). But generally it’s all handled fine, fun even, with lots of smashing, crashing and bashing. It starts to get more noticeably repetitive by the last half hour, especially with the robot minions (there are only so many ways you can beat them down) but it’s a diverse amount of superhero hijinks and fighting.
An exception I want to call out is the Hulk/Hulkbuster fight that takes place halfway through (liberally included in trailers, so no cries of “Spoilers!” please). Tony Stark and his “Veronica” mega suit go toe to toe with an enraged Hulk, smashing through buildings, pavement and a few more buildings for around ten or so minutes, in a sequence featuring the worst kind of “Bayhem” style filmmaking. Lots of confusing shots, too much rapid movement, and big CGI creations doing everything and not feeling real enough. This was stuff straight out of the largely derided (by the nerd “community” anyway) finales of Man Of Steel or Transformers, but I doubt it will get the same level of criticism. And it absolutely should, because this sort of 100% CGI slobberknocker fight isn’t something that Whedon should be touching, and it shouldn’t be the path Marvel goes down with its MCU either.
And the carnage threshold does get close to being breached throughout, most notably in the finale. Not in a human way of course, with Age Of Ultron at pains to show their heroes saving all of the lives, all of the time, but in a visual way, as cities get crumpled up and blown to bits, though not quite on the level of poor Metropolis.
In terms of the more low intensity effects, Ultron looks pretty cool, especially the face, which comes together with all of these moving metal parts to recreate facial muscles and give the behemoth a real sense of identity. It’s no small thing really, because the design features a lot of moving parts and gets a lot of screentime in which holes could become obvious, but they don’t.
There won’t be any mentions of scenes in Age Of Ultron 20 years from now as being classics and unforgettable, but the direction does its job. Partly it might be that much of this has been done already – the pan around of the Avengers in the final battle is probably the most egregious example – but it’s really because there just isn’t much in terms of direction that makes Age Of Ultron spellbinding.
OK, but the script. The script is good. The script is Joss Whedon through and through with all of the quirkiness, the strength of interaction, the development of character and the overload of humour that you will have come to expect. Right from the off the jokes are starting, with a recurring laugh at the expense of a profanity avoiding Captain America, and they never stop coming. Some of them are great – the Mjolnir lifting contest is a good example, which was also set-up for one of the film’s best moments much later on – and some of them are not so great: like any joke Ultron makes.
Getting beyond the humour, which can be hard, there are lots of other great moments in the script. The chasm between Stark and the other Avengers is illustrated by Scarlet Witch, claiming that he “doesn’t know the difference between destroying the world and saving it”. Cap and Stark bicker back and forth about Stark’s original purpose with Ultron with Rodgers’ moralising hitting the right spot: “Every time someone times to stop a war before it starts, innocent people die. Every time.” Ultron whimsically but darkly quotes Pinocchio as he enacts his plans: “I’ve got no strings to hold me down / to make me fret, or make me frown / I had strings, but now I’m free / There are no strings on me…” And Banner and Romanoff get closer, further apart and then closer again, just trying to decide if they are not monster-like enough to “run with it”.
This is only a small selection, because I don’t want to get into a whole thing where I spend a thousand words praising the writing. But the writing is very good. In line with the acting and the characterisation in the larger narrative, it creates beings that, while they would be doing well to cut back on the jokes, feel unique, believable and real, in their statements and in their conversations with others. And that seems like such a cliché thing to say, but it is very rare that a film, with this many characters and this much to do, can actually pull that off to the stellar level that Whedon does here. I just wish, again, that the humour could have been tailed off in the last 45 minutes at least.
Danny Elfman’s score, a simple evolution of the rousing music for The Avengers, does the business without ever threatening to reach John Williams level good, which is a recurring point that I make about the scores of MCU films. None of them, so far anyway, could be considered as potential for the musical pantheon when it comes to films, and Age Of Ultron is no exception. The soaring winds, the piercing violins, the crashing percussion, it all comes and goes to make the heart swell or the sadness rise whenever it is appropriate, but you won’t be leaving the theatre with the theme tune ringing in your head, and no one is going to be racing to ITunes to download the soundtrack.
Some brief spoiler talk follows (maybe not so brief this time)
-I was a bit mystified by Iron Man’s status in this film, after the end of Iron Man 3 anyway. That film’s closing had an air of finality to it, but here Stark is again, donning the suit right from the start and doing his thing. But by the end of Age Of Ultron, he’s stepping back once more. Marvel can’t afford much more of RDJ, and I hope that Civil War will be a suitable outro, but they should stick with a path.
-Thor’s whole side escapade, starting with the Scarlet Witch induced dream and ending with a trippy look at the Infinity Gauntlet, was odd. Confusingly odd, to the extent that you couldn’t even call it set-up for Ragnarok. I’m not sure what a vision of Asgard going all “Roman Empire as seen by Edward Gibbons” has to do with anything.
-I’m not joking about the Hulkbuster sequence. My jaw dropped at the visual inanity of it. Only its climax had any redeeming value whatsoever, and just as a way of showcasing the real power of the Hulk and what it takes to even bring him half down.
-So, the Vision. Paul Bettany plays him understatedly, but it’s a welcome contrast with the bombastic Ultron, and he gets the lion’s share of the better wordplay by the conclusion. His involvement so late in the picture is bound to leave some a bit mystified, but I thought he was a fun inclusion, whose little mini-arc, opposed but so different to Ultron, was well put together given the severe time constraints. It’s suitable that Vision was the one to put an end to Ultron, even as he marked himself out as intrinsically different to humanity. And I’ll admit to having some soft feelings for Bettany, who along with Downey Jr has been here from the start, and thoroughly deserves an enlarged role.
-And man, that scene with the hammer. The set-up earlier in the film was so wonderfully subtle, and the pay-off was immense: at my screening I would say 90% of the cinema gave a hearty “Ohhhhhh” followed by laughter. It was one of the films genuinely perfect moments, both because of what it told us about the Vision character – that he was trustworthy despite his nature – and because of his sincere lack of understanding for what he had just accomplished. That’s Joss Whedon.
-There I was, enjoying the finale, when I suddenly realised that Stark’s back-up suit program, “F.R.I.D.A.Y”, was sporting an Irish accent. And not just any Irish accent, but a Tooralooraloora accent that had me wondering if we would hear something along the lines of “Faith and begorra Iron Man! There’s a bomb in me potato!” F.R.I.D.A.Y was voiced by Tipp born actress Kerry Condon, once of Rome, and it’s a shame she had to overegg the accent so much. As in, whoever told her to do it that way should feel shame.
-Another great choice: Giving Hawk-Eye a family, which just really fit him for reasons I can’t properly elaborate on. Maybe it’s just because no MCU hero thus far has had kids or a family, so it was positively unique, and just told us so much of Barton’s internal thought process.
-Romanoff declaring herself to be “a monster”, just like Banner, because she was sterilised seemed a bit much. I know what Whedon was going for there, in regards her rejecting motherhood to make herself a better killing machine, but it was one of the few muddled moments of scripting.
-Naturally, the reveal of Clan Hawk-Eye meant that Barton was set-up big time for death, with lots of moments between him and his wife, kids, and deciding that this is going to be his last hurrah with the Avengers. And then, of course, he has to go back into the field to save one last kid. But, it was too obvious, clumsy almost.
-So Quicksilver bought it instead, the final evidence that no one in the MCU development process wants to try and match the X-Men franchise version. His death had little impact on me, because the character had little impact on me, but at least it was s sign that there were stakes in that final battle (not withstanding the way that Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D sucked the same stakes out of the original Avengers).
-This film, especially in that grand finale, was obsessed with saving people, to the extent that I am convinced Whedon, and Marvel, are making a definite statement of delineation between themselves and DC, and with some of the CGI heavy blockbusters that have no problem with body count. Guardians Of The Galaxy did much the same, but I think its worse here, with Captain America literally deciding that he’d rather risk the entire human population than let one person in the city die. It isn’t that I don’t expect superheroes to save people, though I’m satisfied with them doing it indirectly by, you know, stopping the bad guy. But there’s something unreal about the Avengers saving everybody, which sucks you out of the film. It’s a pitched battle in an urban setting: the audience isn’t going to turn on the Avengers if a few people get caught in the crossfire.
-I can’t have been the only one who saw Stark visit the “nexus” in Stockholm to have thought “This Jen, is the internet”.
-It was interesting to see Ultron’s plan slowly change,. From almost standard AI related “perfect being” stuff (which brought to mind some of the better episodes of Justice League Unlimited) to this outlandish, but entertainingly so, idea of turning Sokovia into a meteor to wipe out humanity. Very comic booky.
-And that did make for a very interesting spectacle. It was all Whedon could do, I guess, to try and differentiate his final urban superhero battle from the final urban superhero battle in the first one. But I’ll admit a little incredulity when I saw the engines fire up.
-And then the helicarrier turned up with the S.H.I.E.L.D team and the also rans to lend a hand. Obviously a bit throwaway, but almost more noticeable for the absentees: Like Falcon, and Phil Coulson and the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D crowd, who I would have put money on making a small appearance.
-Our last look at the Hulk fit with the inherent tragedy of his life: no happy endings for him, despite the possibilities with Romanoff. Though, I will say that seeing him fly off in a CGI plane was a little less affecting than his more famous departure. Where Banner goes from here, with no stand alone films planned, is anyone’s guess. But he will be turning up again, maybe as soon as next year.
-I was a bit put off by the progression of the interaction between Stark and Rodgers. They argue, they even come to blows very briefly, but as the film concludes they seem to be friends once more, with no hint of any future trouble between them. I just found that a very odd way to go, considering.
-I do like the look of the “New Avengers though, and I’ll tell you why: Two black men, two women, a…red android guy and Cap. Captain America is the token white guy in the Avengers as it stands. And that’s great, especially with Captain Marvel and Black Panther to come.
-The last moment was pure Whedon of course. Poor Cap just can’t grab the spotlight the way Stark does, and the director won’t really let him have the chance.
-The mid-credits stinger was pure fanboy bait, but I guess it did its job. It did raise questions for me though, like why Thanos let one of the Infinity Stones out of his grasp voluntarily.
-And no post-credits scene! Has Marvel Studio finally come to its senses? Have they gotten the message from enough directors about this stupid practice? One can hope.
With Phase Two just about done – Ant-Man seems to have been designated as its final film by a quirk of scheduling more than by design – Age Of Ultron leaves the MCU in a good enough position. A lot has changed, and a lot will be changed. New heroes have emerged, and new threats won’t be far behind. In Age Of Ultron, especially in its closing stages, Whedon teases a vision of a different MCU going forward, with personalities and figures that we might not expect to dominate proceedings doing just that.
And I look forward to that. I would even say that, while it is unlikely to stay there, I would easily place Age Of Ultron in the top five films I have seen this year. But I also have to say that, unlike The Avengers, I probably won’t be shelling out the ticket price to see Age Of Ultron again. It’s not that kind of film, maybe because so much of it is a rehash, that I felt like I needed to see on the big screen once more just so I could appreciate it properly. While this might not be the most damning critique, I think it says something about the nature of superhero films, and the MCU in particular, that are saturating the blockbuster market, and increasingly TV as well. Diminishing returns, critically and commercially, are inevitable. Age Of Ultron is very far from being a dud, and the amount of money it’s going to make will propel Whedon into the upper ranks of highest grossing directors ever (if it earns as much as the first one, he’ll be somewhere in the top 15, but divide gross by the number of films directed and he’s probably in the top five). But I really don’t think it will have the same impact as The Avengers did, and won’t have as big an impact, long term, as several other MCU or super hero films.
I, for one, don’t find that a terrible sin, and further am somewhat glad that this will be Whedon’s last jaunt with the MCU (presumably). He’s doing amazing work with these two movies, but a large part of me thinks that his best work will be found in something of smaller budget, on a less extreme premise, and maybe not in film at all. Whatever it is, I’ll be there waiting, one of the first to buy a ticket.
But beyond all of that, there is Age Of Ultron. It has its problems. Way too much humour, a bad guy gutted by the same flaw, some disappointing additions to the existing players and other minor issues that rankle, not least the sense of repetitiveness and ground firmly trod on already. But it’s also just tremendous fun, a great spectacle for the most part, entertaining and riveting, a film that most people can see, consume and enjoy with its great script, characters, action (mostly) and position as the King of all that the MCU has been striving for. Age Of Ultron has given Phase Two the proper send-off, but roll on New Avengers, new characters and now horizons. A proper blockbuster and summer smash hit, Age Of Ultron is must-see cinema, an experience for all comers and all ages, that demonstrates some of the best aspects of the superhero and the comic-book adaptation genre. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).