The first Avengers film was a true majestic feat. It took the idea of an ensemble cast to new heights. The film didn’t consist of just any ensemble, it was full of massive stars in their own rights, with huge egos and well-known, popular characters while somehow managing to bring them all together, sharing out the screen time and character development, to create a coherent film. All of the fan boys and girls were crying out ‘All hail Joss Whedon!’
But there is a big difference between the first Avengers and the second, Age of Ultron. One was the culmination of a wider cinematic universe building towards a team event, the other more of a springboard for the new team that will take said universe forward. Age of Ultron had to cement what we learned in the first film while breaking apart what was established and building something new all at once. Marvel wasn’t asking for much, were they?
Thankfully, Marvel saw sense and kept Whedon on board for the second installment (though this is where his work for Marvel ends). Age of Ultron might feel clunky in parts and a tad heavy-handed on the metaphors, but overall Whedon delivers on everything he always promises the fans – something fun, with heart, three dimensional characters, great dialogue, action, and plenty of actual consequences (which too many blockbuster films just don’t have).
There are no strings on me!
The film doesn’t bother to detail how the Avengers ‘got back together’ other than it being Thor’s interest to retrieve Loki’s scepter. It isn’t important to the plot. Instead, the film picks up in the middle of an action sequence, immediately gripping the audience and having us locked to our seats.
Hydra has been up to their old tricks, using the scepter to perform enhancement experiments on humans. And they succeeded with the Maximoff twins (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen). The Avengers storm Hydra’s stronghold and barely escape with the scepter. Back in the Avengers tower, Tony and Bruce discover that within the scepter is an incredible AI mind and work on integrating the AI with some of Tony’s creations. They create Ultron (voiced expertly, and entirely creepily, by James Spader).
While Bruce and Tony’s intentions were noble, to create something to protect mankind and initiate peace, Ultron interprets his mission in a more extreme manner. Joining forces with the Maximoffs, Ultron sets out to destroy the Avengers – and the world.
Every time someone tries to stop a war before it starts, innocent people die.
The defining message of Age of Ultron is that good people and good intentions are easily perverted when trying to defeat ‘evil’ in one fell swoop. While there’s no denying that Tony’s intentions are to protect the world, his single-minded approach is just as dangerous, if not more so, than taking on each crisis as it comes. It’s not a new theme for the Marvel Cinematic Universe – it is something that has been extensively mined as part of Tony Stark’s history, with an ethical dissection of the development of weapons more generally, and formed the basis of Hydra’s plan in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Weapons are created for the defense of a country, world, ideology – and they are used to destroy others.
This underlying theme throughout is often when the film feels the most bogged down and sluggish. Ok, we get it, there’s some philosophical depth to all these explosions and fight scenes, but you know what? I’m not sure I cared. When the characters get serious, they get dull. All the shining moments are when the characters are allowed to show a little humour, shooting off one-liners that will have you in stitches (not that you ever get enough time to adequately respond to any of the good lines). I understand that there needs to be some ideological pull to drive the characters and their actions, but sometimes it just felt a little too high and mighty, too soap-box like.
No matter who wins or loses, trouble always comes around.
Despite the undeniable energy of the film, it can’t overcome the problems of too many stars and not enough screen time for any of them. Really, Whedon does admirably well in spreading out the focus as much as possible while still allowing them enough comments to express their characters, but it still gets tedious. There is so much shifting, flicking between character after character, there’s no time to get attached to any one person in particular, especially when trying to introduce a new baddie and three new characters into the mix.
There are good lines for each of them, but the camera rapidly pans off them to the next character and the next piece of dialogue. There’s no room for any of the excellent dialogue to make any real impact. When some of the peripheral characters turn up, like War Machine, The Falcon, and Maria Hill, you could easily blink and miss them entirely. While in previous instances fans complain and say ‘Where was War Machine, he would have been really useful in this fight?’, for instance, I wonder if now they see why it just doesn’t work that well in this fictional world. Too many people in one film creates a messy, confused story and little to no character development.
Black widow and Bruce Banner’s budding relationship, as well as Black Widow on her own, are the most interesting development of the film with the most characterization and grounding piece of the film. While there are plot threads that will impact the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe coming out of Age of Ultron, it is really only this budding romance that is at all a kind of hook. Everything else is obvious or at least inevitable.
Despite the film’s many flaws, I did thoroughly enjoy it. Without sounding like a Whedon fan with blinkers on, the humour, silliness, and action-packed energy on screen was enough to carry me through the more heavy-handed aspects of the theme and clunkyness of the constantly switching focus between an enormous cast of characters.
Verdict: At this point, you are either a fan of the MCU or not. If you are, this is another must-see installment. If you don’t already love the MCU or have any exposure to the rest of the films (where have you been, living under a rock!), certainly don’t use this film as your entry point, it won’t do any of the characters justice.