The Avengers was an unprecedented bit of superhero derring-do. No one had ever done a superhero team up on the big screen before and the epic blockbuster represented the cathartic pay off for five movies of set up. That made for a wild ride of crowd-pleasing that Avengers: Age Of Ultron simply can’t hope to match despite being a very well made and accomplished superhero blockbuster. Not only have we been here before, but writer/director Joss Whedon has to provide character arcs for no less than six protagonists, introduce four major new characters, and provide cameos for a handful of others. Plus, his movie has to be fairly self-contained, since all of the dollops of universe building in Marvel’s Phase 2 have been setting up Civil War and Infinity Wars rather than this Avengers picture. The fact that he even made a watchable movie while juggling all of those elements is amazing and he did more than that. He made a damn fine bit of superhero blockbusting. Age Of Ultron just isn’t quite the event of The Avengers and that’ll be enough to make some fanboys call it a failure, which it isn’t.
Things kick off with the Avengers back together again in the midst of a wild heist to steal back Loki’s pokey stick from the last movie. There are some big glorious action scenes and Scarlet Witch/Quicksilver are introduced. Then things slow down for a bit so that the Avengers can hang out and have a party. All sorts of wise-cracks are made and cameos pop up. Then the party is rudely interrupted when Tony Stark and Bruce Banner’s secret AI invention Ultron appears fully formed for a big speech about how he plans on destroying earth’s mightiest heroes to create a utopia. Ultron then blows a bunch of stuff up and jams a wedge in the middle of the Avengers. So now they’ll have to make friends again and find a way to join forces once more to stop a threat that just might end the whole gosh darned world. Plus Iron Man finally busts out his Hulk Buster armor for some Hulk-busting, Black Widow develops a crush on Bruce Banner, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver learn to harness their powers for good, Nick Fury returns from hiding, War Machine finally makes a mark on the team, The Vision is introduced, and a bunch of other stuff happens.
More than anything else, Avengers: Age Of Ultron posed an insane writing challenge for Joss Whedon that he somehow managed to meet. With the easy n’ satisfying “get the team together” structure of the last movie no longer an option, he’s got to juggle a massive swab of characters and plots while also delivering big blockbuster action scenes every 15-20 minutes. The movie could have easily been gobbledygook (and indeed there are times when it’s hard to keep things straight, like Thor’s subplot that goes absolutely nowhere), yet for the most part Age Of Ultron feels effortless. The best sequences are the ones when The Avengers simply hang out and Whedon gives them all crackling dialogue that plays off their personalities and is an absolute pleasure to watch. These moments are asides, which there theoretically should be no room for in a film of this scale, but Whedon finds a way to sneak ‘em in constantly without losing his rushing sense of narrative momentum. The film touches on themes like the perils of AI, what it means to be a hero in this wacky modern world, and questions the need for their even to be an Avengers. So Whedon’s script has some thoughts on its mind, there just isn’t much room for those thoughts to be explored thanks to all of the colorful characters and pretty explosions competing for attentions.
All of the returning cast members fit their roles like a glove. Whedon gives them all just enough to do to satisfy the fans and actors and thankfully they clearly still all enjoy each other. Robert Downey Jr. of course steals the show, but you know that already. Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk is charming enough to make you yearn for a solo picture that might never arrive, while Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson’s characters continue to be expanded to the point that their solo movies would be welcome as well. The new characters are all fairly welcome additions. James Spader’s Ultron is an amusingly smarmy and sarcastic evil robot in a way that only Spader could muster and despite limited screentime he’s one of the best villains in a Marvel movie to date (though to be fair, there’s very little competition for that title). Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen are endearing Russian accented and morally mysterious additions to the team, even though their characters are only really introduced here with plenty of room for expansion elsewhere. Ditto, Paul Bettany’s Vision, who looks and sounds right, but ultimately only shows up to be a ringer in the climax. There’s just not enough screentime to go around for the new characters to feel fully fleshed out while all the old stalwarts are getting showcased. Thankfully, Whedon’s good enough at pithy dialogue and quirky characterization that their brief appearances make enough of a mark for audiences to not really realize some characters have been short changed until the credits roll.
Now that Marvel Studios is an institution and it’s easy to take for granted that an Avengers movie can be as good as Age Of Ultron.
Once again, the MCU formula is starting to feel increasingly familiar. Whedon might come up with a clever twist on the “stuff falling onto a major city” cliché Marvel climax, but it’s ultimately not that different from what we’ve all seen so many times before. These movies are starting to become a little overstuffed and predictable, but that doesn’t by any means suggest they are bad. The trouble is that you can only be the new guy on the scene for so long. Now Marvel Studios is an institution and it’s easy to take for granted that an Avengers movie can be as good as Age Of Ultron after last summer delivered to unexpectedly brilliant additions to the universe with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians Of The Galaxy. Inevitably, these movies are going to get stale, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty to enjoy along the way.
For one thing, it’s astounding how unashamedly nerdy this superhero epic is after years of Marvel and DC movies that have tried to curb off the fantasy edges of comic book mythology for mainstream acceptance. Capes are flaunted, laser beams are fired out of heads, magic is wielded through dancing hands, and gloriously silly dialogue about fate and the universe is dropped without irony. Age Of Ultron feels like a flat out geeky Marvel Comics romp in a manner that few of the Marvel movies have been willing to embrace thus far. Five to ten years ago, it would be unthinkable that such a movie would arrive on screens in such a grand scale. Now it’s an exciting reality, but one that will come with a cost. As the MCU becomes increasingly, nerdily fantasy based, the universal appeal of the franchise will slide a bit with it. That’s the risk the studio is taking by pushing this series into flat out cosmic adventure mode. It’ll be fun to see that happen, but we’ll all also have to start to accept that these things won’t be for everyone anymore. The nerds must take it all back and hopefully a few bros will be willing to come along for the ride.