age of ultron review

(I consider this a fairly spoiler light review, given the majority of news that has been reported about the film already, but for anyone that wants to go in cold, or as cold as possible, certainly tread as lightly as you’d like)

Following up on 2012’s Earth shatteringly successful The Avengers, which grossed over 1.5 billion worldwide and was a widely hailed critical hit, was never going to be an easy task for director Joss Whedon. Sequels carry the weight of massive expectations already, and when your initial film in the series makes that big of a mark, it’s hard to imagine the pressure he must have been under to find some way to elevate the adventures of a group that’s also split among three successful solo franchises.

In some ways, Age of Ultron is possibly the most “comic book” superhero movie ever made. Discarding the veneer of political paranoia of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, or the attempts at sci-fi/fantasy of the Thor films, Age of Ultron is an outing that proudly wears its four-color origins on the screen. Plot and character beats are tossed out at a mile a minute pace, and the film never really lets up that momentum until the final climax hits. On the whole, this is a really intriguing idea, the concept of a “superhero film on steroids”, with locales changing more often than in a Bond film. This is also a bit of a double-edged sword, as at no point does the film ever lull (provided heavy duty action sequences appeal to you), but it also produces a bit of a fractured narrative. Sub-plots are introduced and discarded with regularity, and at no point does it give the audience an opportunity to connect with the plight of the team, as throughout, the viewer feels curiously held at a distance. It is the cinematic equivalent of a runaway freight train, for all the appealing and unpleasant aspects that may imply.

The story that it initially sets out with finds our team In media res, attacking the HYDRA base of Baron Von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) in order to recapture Loki’s staff from the first film, and running afoul of superpowered twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who are in his service. From there, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner work together to utilize the staff to create an artificial intelligence that can “armor the world” against threats like the Chitauri. Instead, they accidentally give birth to Ultron (voiced by James Spader), who rebels and enlists the Maximoff twins into his genocidal scheme. As you can imagine, only the Avengers can stop him.

As set-ups go, it’s a pretty good one.

With the full court press effort engaged, it’s no surprise to note the entire gang is back for this adventure including Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Other Marvel Cinematic Universe players also make cameo appearances and while this does highlight the larger shared-universe aspects, it often proves to be a distraction, serving as a reminder that these solo franchises also exist and are to be watched. If there is one major flaw in Whedon’s swan-song, it is that Age of Ultron seems constantly torn between the story it wants to tell vs. the story it needs to tell, and all too often has its gaze over the horizon to the studio’s 2016-2019 entries. Sadly, this is not the only issue affecting this much anticipated follow-up.

While the “Big Three” Avengers only get so much to do, with Iron Man benefiting the most given his higher profile and direct involvement in the antagonist, the other Avengers who aren’t actively engaged in their own movie franchises are given some really nice time to shine. After spending almost all of the first film under mind control, Hawkeye finally gets a welcome delving into his personal life and a couple of big heroic moments by the third act. Black Widow and Bruce Banner are also intrinsically tied together in a bit of an unlikely romantic pairing that unfortunately doesn’t really work and leads to some forced character motivations by film’s end. That latter issue is rather endemic of the entire enterprise. Where each character starts, and where they end up by film’s end, feels more like chess pieces being put into place for the next big franchise move, rather than natural, logical extensions of these heroes as we’ve come to know them. The Tony that we saw overcoming PTSD and coming to terms with his self-actualization in Iron Man 3 doesn’t quite jibe with the Tony as he’s presented here. Captain America, too, seems to have reverted back to his characterization pre-Winter Soldier. And Thor? Well, no one ever seems to know what to do with Thor, and little has changed here.

Over the course of Age of Ultron’s 2 hours and 21 minutes, so much franchise heavy-lifting has occurred, that the entire affair ends up feeling like an obligation, a song and dance we have to get through before we get to the REAL main event of Avengers: Infinity War Parts 1 and 2. This development is a bit of a waste, as there are some fascinating ideas at play in Whedon’s script regarding the invincibility of its characters vs. the fragility of those they “avenge” and the fickle nature of the public’s adoration of them. Ultron is not a particularly interesting or strongly motivated villain (though he is quippy in that still enjoyable Whedon “big bad” mode), but what he sets into place could have led the team into some unexplored territory for the genre, instead we have to spend time with Thor having visions and wading into a pool among other excursions.

As for the new additions to the cast, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are serviceable, but separated from their X-Men origins due to movie rights entanglements with 20th Century Fox, edge towards blandness. Wanda’s power-set (as poorly defined here as it is in the comics) at least provides some form of visual fireworks, but Taylor-Johnson’s version of Quicksilver is such a non-factor that it makes you long for Evan Peters’ take on the character from X-Men: Days of Future Past. The one stand-out is Vision (Paul Bettany), whose character origin hearkens back to the elements of the film that I find most intriguing, while also being tied into segments that frustrated me in equal turn. Regardless, he’s a visual wonder in his magenta, yellow and green splendor, and maximizes the comic book potential of the character. Bettany finally gets his chance to shine physically in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and he makes the most of it.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is the kind of film tailor made for you if getting lost in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and all of its “connected” glory is what you find appealing, or you just want to absorb wall to wall action, of which there is plenty. If you have fond memories of the Battle of New York from the first film, there are a number of moments here that aim for those same “money shots”, producing images that feel as though they’re pulled right of out of the comics. On the other hand, if you’re hoping for an actual improvement on the previous film, look elsewhere, as just about every facet of Age of Ultron; character interaction, dialogue, plot and narrative structure, fails to match its predecessor (exceeding is completely out of the question). On the whole, the film feels like a cold and soulless endeavor, rather than the triumph that we were all waiting for. It is a sadly frustrating, and fairly exhausting, effort and we can only hope that it is not a sign of things to come for Marvel’s Phase 3.

28 COMMENTS

  1. ‘Obligation’ was exactly the word I thought of. First film felt like a challenge that Whedon was excited to tackle. This felt like something he needed to be done with.

    The MCU has a major Thor problem and nobody seems to know what to do with him if Loki isn’t involved. The thoughtful emphasis on Hawkeye this time around and that random-and-then-quickly-tossed-off magic pool thing made it that much more of an issue.

    Logistically it probably wouldn’t have been possible, but I wish Disney had announced their Phase 3 slate perhaps a week after this film was released. Maybe I could have enjoyed the film as it is instead of seeing all the gears in play, all the pieces in place. I’m still holding out hope that ‘Civil War’ isn’t as clear-cut as everyone’s implying with the Tony vs Steve stuff. AoU didn’t really end with them on two opposing sides of ideology, so forcing that in CAP 3 might be a bit contrived (as contrived as it was in the source material).

  2. I actually thought Thor was pretty funny in this film and the last one. I think he definitely adds the Conan-ish appeal to the group that would be lacking otherwise. So, no, I don’t think he’s an Aquaman. Totally up for further discussion thought.

    So…about the rest of the movie…I wasn’t impressed either. I thought the beginning was really off putting and expected the tone to sort of middle out from there. The tone from the snow sequence completely defined the film moving forward.

    It was filled with action, humor, and lots of characters. Yet, I can’t help but shake the fact that the whole thing did feel soulless like you said above. I’m honestly incredibly disappointed — troubled with the fact that I didn’t like a main Avengers film.

  3. This fast food hamburger was slightly better than the last fast food hamburger.

    I prefer steak, but what are ya gonna do?

  4. I saw it again last night in the hopes that perhaps something would settle better with me the second time.

    On a second viewing, my appreciation for Jeremy Renner and Paul Bettany increased even more so, but everything else worsened in my eyes, especially once the thrill of the new had worn off.

    This movie has a really bad Natasha problem by the way, and it’s something I hope people start talking about soon. There’s one scene that is particularly mishandled.

  5. I’m going to argue that Thor is not Aquaman because he was actually able to support a book that kept selling and wasn’t cancelled for a long time, continuously, so there is a there there.
    I think Thor really appeals to young kids who like great, simple stories about a badass guy in a fantasy world. He’s a little tougher for grown-ups.

  6. I pretty much disagree with every single line of the above. Sorry. I liked it.
    Then again, I tend to approach sophomore efforts with patience. I don’t expect them to be GREAT or NEW or MIND-BLOWING again. I just want them to be good and fun and cool.
    It was very, good, fun and cool.
    It wasn’t the first movie. A team can only be born and find each other once, tho. What I did appreciate, tho, was what a great job Whedon did of showing that in the intervening years they had become a team. They really work together in this film. They have a shared identity. That’s great.
    The one thing I didn’t like was how FAST Ultron happened. It would have made more sense to me if he’d been a sort of Brother Eye thing that Tony had been working on for a while. The fact that he was kind a made in an afternoon felt a little stupid.

  7. BTW… how does Marvel seriously not think a ScarJo/Renner SPIES LIKE US buddy movie wouldn’t absolutely destroy at the box office. All dark, covert operations, flirty ScarJo, broody Renner… maybe in some weird developing world backwater underground hunting for some “secret weapon.”
    And boom! The secret weapon, in the end, is BANNER, a la Ennis’s PUNISHER run! And ScarJo and Banner are reunited. Love ensues!
    It would kill.

  8. >>>instead we have to spend time with Thor having visions and wading into a pool among other excursions.

    Having now seen it I can safely say Thor wading into a pool was the 10000% HIGHLIGHT OF THE MOVIE, Kyle! Followed closely by Mark Ruffalo taking a shower.

  9. I agree with Brady… I thought it was fun and cool. The reviews seem to be seriously nit-picking for things to hate. True its not Marvel’s best, but I enjoyed it much more that GotG, if only that the females weren’t down played to make male characters look cooler.

    I thought Pietro was perfect. Note perfect. He was arrogant, sarcastic, and lovingly over-protective of his sister. The small changes, making me a little more “bro” like when dealing with other Sokovians, didn’t bug me, they served the character well.

    I thought there was a lot of work to imply story beats they probably didn’t have time for, such as setting up a possible romance for SW and Vision, very well.

    I didn’t fully get Ultron’s birth, but I thought he captured his comic counterpart well, the quips really served to support the “trying too hard” to be both human and better than human at the same time.

    I do agree though, that Marvel needs to consider not so heavily connecting the films into some sort of giant serial, but at the same time I think disconnecting say Ant-Man or Dr Strange from being heavily connected might hurt them overall. Tough call.

    I found it really satisfying to see so much attention given to helping innocents and by-standers after Man of Steel.

    Still miles ahead of WB’s thinking when it comes to superheroes.

  10. Village Voice review: AGE OF ULTRON fills Buffy fan with despair.

    “The Avengers, those paragons of flawed individuality who find their great strength in working together, have made Joss Whedon just like everybody else.”

    http://www.villagevoice.com/2015-04-29/film/why-avengers-age-of-ultron-fills-this-buffy-fan-with-despair/

    Of course, anyone who’s looking for an individual vision in a $250M corporate product like AGE OF ULTRON needs to look elsewhere, maybe to more interesting films like IT FOLLOWS or EX MACHINA.

  11. @George
    Eh, and Vox saw it as a complement of Firefly and a uniquely personal vision for Joss.
    http://www.vox.com/2015/4/30/8519829/avengers-age-of-ultron-review/in/8285314

    The Vox review squares with my take, but, then again, I am easily moved by these characters.

    As I’ve thought of this review above, too, I think all the obsessing on details of the personalities of the characters from their solo films misses a larger point.
    Individuals are different than people in groups. In the Avengers, the team is the character. In groups, real people and fictional people fall into roles. They don’t tend to come out as so layered as we do as individuals.

    The character of the team definitely moved forward, if you ask me.

  12. No doubt George, Ex Machina is great. I liked It Follows a lot as well, but Ex Machina is the best movie I’ve seen this year, along with A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.

  13. If the first Avengers was the film version of an origin issue, Avengers: Age of Ultron felt to me like the film version of a giant-sized annual or anniversary issue: plot-driven, bringing in as many Avengers (old and new) as possible to battle a classic foe whose scheme develops and unravels within the issue/movie. There were moments in the film where I half expected a little yellow box in the corner with a footnote explaining the cameo/reference. A very, very comic-booky film, and one that I enjoyed on the level at which it seemed pitched and didn’t try to exceed.

  14. It was very entertaining. It’s a COMIC BOOK MOVIE, folks. Not Shakespeare. Joss did a great job. I loved all the “Hawkeye Family” stuff, which came totally out of left field. Those scenes represent Joss at his best – wonderful character development, which is his trademark. Paul Bettany rocked as the Vision!

    I’ve read criticisms of his directing action scenes, which strikes me as way off-base. Both films had outstanding action scenes…

  15. I actually preferred it to the first one. Lots to like although some of the character stories deserved a little more room to breathe (Black Widow, Hulk and Ultron in particular). Action moments fit the story. Not as good as Cap 2 or Guardians, but definitely ranking in the top half of Marvel movies.

  16. I didn’t think it was great. My kids (12 and 10) just loved it. I thought the opening scene was a cartoon, and I agree that much of the dialog was a setup for another movie. However, I enjoyed the Vision immensely, much of the character interplay was well-done, and the action was about as good as can be expected.

  17. Black Widow – being sterilized makes you a monster? Oh dear.
    Also, that bit made her whole character into a variation of the rape/revenge trope. Yawn.

  18. “It was very entertaining. It’s a COMIC BOOK MOVIE, folks. Not Shakespeare.”

    It’s a shame that your opinion of comic books is so low that you can dismiss any criticism of a film just because it was based on one, comic books apparently being so vacuous a from of entertainment in your eyes that nothing derived from them can avoid being mindless schlock.

  19. Heidi MacDonald said: “Having now seen it I can safely say Thor wading into a pool was the 10000% HIGHLIGHT OF THE MOVIE, Kyle! Followed closely by Mark Ruffalo taking a shower.”

    Heidi, if that’s what you go for, you should see 2003’s IN THE CUT, where Ruffalo does full frontal nudity (as does Meg Ryan).

  20. I agree with Nick Jones’ comment. I’m tired of hearing “It’s a COMIC BOOK MOVIE” used to let crappy movies off the hook. There’s no reason why a movie based on a comic book can’t have depth and artistry (as well as really big explosions). The first Avengers, the first Iron Man and the second Spider-Man movie achieved it. So did GHOST WORLD (without the explosions). It’ll be a few more days before I have time o see AGE OF ULTRON, so I’ll reserve judgment until then.

    Kyle: UNFRIENDED is another interesting and offbeat movie in theaters now.

    I recommend this long, rather sad profile of Joss Whedon, which makes clear his deep knowledge of the Marvel Universe AND his exhaustion from the corporate/commercial demands of making these gargantuan movies. So he’s done with Marvel Studios for the time being.

    http://www.buzzfeed.com/adambvary/joss-whedon-spine-tingling-soul-crushing-marvel-adventure#.mymeqQD6d

  21. I am not a Marvel Comics fan, and I really liked the first Avengers, Cap and Thor movies. I LOVED Cap II, I thought Thor II sucked, and I thought Avengers II was just more of the first one… though I loved The Vision and I kind of wish he had been in it more. One thing I really hated was Ultron’s Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor-esque dialogue. Maybe that’s how he talked in the comics? I have no idea. It wasn’t a bad movie but I don’t need to revisit it again.

  22. I thought it was fun, pretty good and definitely agree with how comic booky it was.

    Trying to fit Ultron, Vision, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and Klaw into it really overstuffed the story. The action scenes were also too frenetic and a bit hard to follow, unlike the first one.
    The most serious issue is that even the good stuff feels like something we’ve seen before…because we have.

    Mike

  23. I really enjoyed AaoU. My problem with the film is that there was no definitive “Puny God” moment that the audience could rally around. I was also expecting a talking Hulk this time around. Perhaps they thought a talking Hulk might draw unnecessary attention to the Hulk cgi(which I thought were fine). But I felt that the battle between Tony and Hulk and the scenes of Natasha calming the Hulk would have benefited greatly from a talking Hulk.

    I also think Spader’s Ultron was a far more complex with far less incomprehensible motivations than Loki who didn’t seem to have any reason at all for what he was doing in Avengers other than being a dick. I think ultimately Avengers 2 might hold up better upon repeated viewings than Avengers 1 as the first film really suffers from a exposition heavy and nonsensical first 30 minutes. A2 seems more expeditious. I do agree with the above article that long time Avengers readers will enjoy it more than anyone else. After all, the “new line-up” Avenger stories are the comic book equivalent of seeing white smoke at the Vatican. The final scene of the new line up left me awash with waves of nostalgia for Silver Age Avengers.

    I disagree with the “too many characters” criticism though when it comes to the Avengers. What will ultimately give this franchise a long life will be to introduce as many new characters as possible. Evans and Downey and the rest won’t be around forever and the franchise will need new characters to pass the torch to, keeping the continuity the franchise has built intact without unnecessary reboots or remakes. Also, I’m not getting the criticism of “obligation” or the idea that the existence of future films bogs down this film. You realize that it is the interconnectedness or continuity of the franchise that made it unique as well as wildly successful, right? Each film linking to the other and hints of things to come is what drew audiences into this world in the first place. Why on earth would they not continue to do that? When Iron Man came out, general audience not in “the know” did not wait for the pre-credit sequence. Now everyone waits to see the post credit teaser to see what happens next. The films have successfully turned general audiences completely unfamiliar with comic book continuity into an army of comic fans who love it.

  24. SNL’s Black Widow trailer. Yes, it will be a rom-com, with Thor as the obligatory gay roommate.

    “Marvel: We Know Girls”

  25. Trac Tran:

    I don’t think anyone has a problem with the Marvel movies being interconnected, but the issue many are taking with Age of Ultron is that its all set-up with the actual story that you’ve paid money for feeling like an afterthought.

    The best Marvel films build off from the past, the worst ones do nothing but set up for the future.

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