Avengers: Age of Ultron is opening to some fairly lofty expectations. Everyone knows it, what with the first Avengers premiering to nearly universal acclaim, bringing every comic book fanboy’s dream to life while garnering $1.5 billion in the process.
So yes, director Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Serenity) in some respects set the bar incredibly high for himself. But over the last year, it’s been raised even higher. Last year’s Marvel Cinematic Universe offerings – the noir thriller Captain America 2: Winter Soldier and Star Wars/Dirty Dozen mashup Guardians of the Galaxy – were some of the studio’s strongest outputs to date, and it was up to Whedon to keep the ball rolling.
And, tragically, he starts with the titular villain, Ultron: James Spader (Boston Legal, The Blacklist, Lincoln), who voices the robotic nemesis, does his job. Whedon does not.
Ultron is scene-stealing, and it’s all thanks to Spader’s trademark verbal flourish, menacing and charming all at once. He would make an excellent Bond villain sometime just with the way he speaks, he’s so ostensibly threatening.
Spader brings Ultron to life – and literally so in a sequence that is gorgeously written and hauntingly brilliant, in the way it’s cinematically choreographed – but unfortunately it’s just downhill from there. Whedon simply can’t balance Spader’s euphemisms with the threat that Ultron poses. He ends up being underwhelming, comic relief more that we’d like. Which is a travesty given how horrifying the trailers built him up to be.
Loki, a constant highlight in MCU films, is a hard enough enemy to top in himself, but it seems like all the attention Whedon put on making Loki so endearing and mystifyingly brilliant in The Avengers was concentrated elsewhere.
That elsewhere being our heroes, banded together to finish off the remains of Hydra/S.H.I.E.L.D., albeit for only a time before cracks start to show. Age of Ultron once again does a great job balancing each hero’s contributions and showing off their abilities in battle and their humanity while not taking down enemies, especially – and invitingly – when it comes to Jeremy Renner’s (The Hurt Locker, American Hustle) Hawkeye, who has an exponentially larger role than he held in 2012’s The Avengers.
As with The Avengers, Whedon again shows his strength in the various little moments between huge action set pieces, as well as within them. The film is expectedly full of hilarious one-liners – heck, the very first bit of dialogue in the movie will make you laugh out loud – and there is even an unexpectedly human romantic storyline between Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanov. Their relationship is eloquently done, with just enough focus on it to detract from the world around them falling apart.
As awesome as the team is, it’s certainly not as exciting seeing them together on the screen this time around, which was what made the first Avengers so fascinating to behold. To compensate, Whedon goes noticeably darker with his sequel, something increasingly common in the MCU with recent films. The tone is about as consistent as you can be, and definitely puts the film on a different tier than Avengers, but not necessarily a higher tier.
There are some pacing issues too. It takes its sweet time on occasion, testing our patience, and Age of Ultron does have a small case of “How did you get here? Why are you here?” syndrome with some characters.
The plot isn’t exactly as straightforward as it could be, but in the increasingly interconnected and complex MCU web, when is anything ever simple anymore?
The premise is basic. Tony Stark has an idea. The idea goes berserk. Avengers assemble. It’s almost completely predictable, committing one of cinema’s cardinal sins. But Whedon covers his backside with new inclusions.
The bigger of which are the twins, themselves more interesting characters than Ultron ever hopes to be. While what drives Ultron is basically ripped off of Terminator, the motivations behind what drives Wanda and Pietro Maximoff – Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver – is much more down to earth and also much more sympathetic.
And interesting. Just much, much more interesting. Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass, Godzilla) and Elizabeth Olson (Godzilla, Oldboy) do a substantial amount with the limited exposure they have, something to be admired.
The twins also add an interesting new dynamic to the film’s action pieces, along with newcomer Vision. Whedon makes sure to get them their due diligence in what eventually becomes a pretty crowded field of players. Quicksilver doesn’t quite match the glory of Evan Peters’ iteration in X-Men: Days of Future Past, but he provides his own standout moment nonetheless.
Much of Age of Ultron’s two and a half hour running time can be attributed to his devotion to each individual hero, Thor’s “side mission” being the supremely weak link; it’s distracting and almost certainly there just to serve as a set-up for future MCU films (I mean, of course).
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the growing rift between Captain American and Iron Man is fascinating to behold. We seen the two going at it as they did in Avengers, and they have even more at stake by being at each others’ throats this time around. Get excited, people. Captain America: Civil War should be a good one.
But enough about plot and intimate moments. We know why we’re all here, why Age of Ultron is going to be filling up movie theaters for weeks to come – the action and spectacle!
Concerning explosions, flying cars and flying punches, this must be said: if you’ve seen the ten or so films in the MCU, you know what you’re getting. The action delivers at times, but in other moments it is mundane, kind of like you know you’ve seen a certain way Cap throws his shield at baddies fifty times before, or how you’ve become so familiar with Iron Man whizzing through the sky blowing up baddies.
At least they’re consistent, right?
That being said, out of the four or five distinct action set pieces, two of them stand out. The finale, obviously, is one of them. Michael Bay should take a few pointers from Marvel as to how to create action with weight and levity. Age of Ultron does an excellent job in his final, destructive act of infusing drama with the punches, actual consequences with each car or building that is blown up. The finale may run a tad long, but it’s something to behold, even though it is barely not just a rehash of Avengers’ New York City piece, with robots replacing alien invaders this time around.
And then there’s the Hulk vs. Iron Man Hulkbuster suit, without a doubt the most high-octane sequence of the film. Everyone wants to see the Hulk go out of his mind, and he does in a memorable sequence that the audience wouldn’t watching on repeat for an hour.
Maybe he should have been the primary antagonist. Avengers: Age of Hulk? No? Okay.
In a Nutshell
Whedon brings his strengths to the table with Age of Ultron, but also offers a glance at his weaknesses. If only he’d spent more time exploring the potential of Ultron himself, the film could have been much different.Thanks for the ride, Joss, but it’s time to hand the reins to the Russo brothers to finish off the Avengers’ story.
7.5 / 10
Avengers: Age of Ultron is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments.
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffallo…ahh c’mon, you’ve seen this lineup before.
Directed by Joss Whedon
David Lynch likes to talk about and write about movies, sports, and important happenings around the world. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.