Well, judging from the opening weekend box office records, statistically you have seen Avengers: Age of Ultron. Seriously, the only film opening better than the Avengers is The Avengers. The culmination of the four previous movies of Marvel’s “phase 2”, Age of Ultron is a 2 1/2 hour juggernaut of a superhero adventure, one which highlights the best and worse parts of Marvel’s unprecedented and ever-expanding movie universe.
The Plot: Following the events of The Avengers (and Iron Man 3, Thor 2, Captain America 2, and Guardians of the Galaxy) the team is reassembled and on the hunt for Loki’s scepter, currently in the hands of Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschan). Upon retrieving the staff, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) secretly set upon using its tech in an attempt to build and advanced, peacekeeping AI program codenamed Ultron. Upon coming to life, Ultron (James Spader) sets about learning about humanity and their violent tendencies, including those of the Avengers. Recruiting super-powered Orphans Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Ultron sets about attempting to “evolve” mankind, first by destroying the Avengers and then by decimating the rest of humanity. With the threat of robot annihilation looming, the Avengers must overcomes personal grievances and warring ideologies to save humanity once again.
As with the best Marvel movies, Age of Ultron’s best assets are its characters. Seven years of films and world building have made these actors comfortable in their roles and in their relationships with each other, and this is reflected in the best moments of the movie. Before the first Avengers was released, my biggest concern was how these outsized personalities would agreeably share the screen together, and those interactions ended up being my favorite part; and the same is the case with Age of Ultron. The opening action set piece is elevated by the ease with which these characters quip with and tease one another as they tear through an army of Eastern European goons. At its highs, the movie is a much-anticipated reunion with a loved group of friends, but the script makes sure that these relationships are still developing and shifting in respect to plot developments and developments from the previous movies (Thor’s development mainly being to find more interesting villains than evil elf Christopher Eccleston). The tense relationship between Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man escalates appropriately, setting the stage for their inevitable falling out. Similarly, Iron Man and Banner share some excellent screen time and adds dramatic weight to the heavily touted Iron Man/ Hulk brawl.
For their part, the newly minted Avengers fit into the existing dynamic pretty well. It’s hard to talk the development of Wanda and Pietro from villains to Avengers without getting spoilerific, but I will say that their development works well within the film and promises some interesting developments in coming films. The true star of the new Avengers is easily Paul Bettany’s android/ potential robo-messiah Vision. The CGI team on the film stepped up their game brining the character to the screen and it pays off; I can’t remember the last time I was floored by a CGI character, but it happened here. The movie gives Vision the hard-sell as the raddest dude ever that gets a little too heavy at times, but when he’s able to stand his own ground without prodding, he owns the film. He’s a welcome nudge towards what’s to come in the Marvel Universe in a film that at times would rather jab you in the ribs.
Look, I get that if you’re going to weave together a massive macro-series of interconnected movies and TV shows, the likes of which have never been seen before in cinema, you’re going to have to do some leg work in your movies to set up what’s coming next so that your non-comic-reading audience gets why everyone will be chasing after a magic cube or why they will eventually be fighting a giant purple guy*, but seriously. Whereas the first Avengers felt soundly like the culmination of all the movies that had come out in the four years prior, Age of Ultron tries to be a similar culmination while also pushing to be a springboard for the next phase of Marvel movies. The plot frequently takes us to places and characters that exist solely to get us amply primed for the eventual release of Black Panther and other Phase 3 movies. A few scenes emerging from a series of dream sequences leads to a tangent in the film that feels like a post-credits scene accidentally stuck into the middle of the action. These expositional moments put squealing breaks on the film and steal the focus away from the central plot and steal some of the thunder from the movie’s titular villain.
James Spader’s Ultron is the central villain which the Marvel movies have needed. Ultron shares the same planetary destruction ambitions as many of his superhero movie villain counterparts, but there’s more psychology and character work here than in the past. Played as a smug, funhouse mirror version of his “father” Tony Stark, Ultron shares the “humanity must be destroyed for Earth’s protection” ethos of other rogue AIs before him, but Spader gives it vitality and menace. His plot is at the most sinister when he’s pulling at the thread of the Avengers team. His grander scheme may not see its end, but his prodding of his opponents will have lingering effects. Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk in Daredevil is still probably Marvel’s strongest villain to date, but 13 episodes of development vs 2 1/5 hours will do that.
.Age of Ultron tries to do right by some of the overlooked Avengers, putting Hawkeye in the spotlight and making him the necessary, vulnerable humanity of the team. Actually giving him a backstory helps too. Black Widow doesn’t fare quite as well, lacking some of the autonomy she had in Winter Soldier, and a few choices are made that have lit up internet discussions, but which I won’t get into in this (relatively) spoiler-free review.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is a fun and frequently satisfying reunion with a group of friends, but one that will bring your friends’ annoying habits unavoidable. The movie’s strength lies in its character moments and its spectacle, but bares the franchise mark in distracting ways.
*Super Spoilery Rant: Thanos, buddy, what are you doing? I know we’re going with the gradual reveal thing here, but with three failed plans now, the “I’ll do it myself” schtick in the mid-credits scene is looking less-threatening than it should. Step that Infinity Gem game up, bud, I know you can.