If there was one criticism that could be leveled against 2012’s The Avengers, it might be that the film was just a little too perfect. I know that sounds like a ridiculous thing to say, but bear with me. The second highest grossing film of all time was almost universally beloved and forever changed the landscape of the film industry with its success, but it was perhaps a little too polished. The action was too slick, the one-liners too well-timed and well-written, the effects too impressive, the heroes too heroic and the villains too villainous. For Avengers: Age of Ultron, the second Avengers film, the eleventh movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Joss Whedon’s second and final outing in the MCU, that perfection is intentionally avoided and the result is a film that’s messier, dirtier, more complicated, and ultimately a richer and better film than its predecessor.
Following the events of Marvel’s Phase 2 of films (Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Guardians of the Galaxy), the Avengers are living and working together in Tony Stark’s Avengers Tower in New York. They’re on the trail of HYDRA, trying to track down Loki’s missing scepter, fighting together as a well-oiled machine with each member playing a vital role and with everything going smoothly. Backed by Stark’s Iron Legion of Jarvis-controlled drones, they’re kicking ass and taking names, and earning quite a negative reputation around the world due to all of the collateral damage in which they’ve had a hand. Off the field of battle, they all seem to get along despite their drastically different personalities, but things can only go smoothly for so long before something happens to turn everything on its head.
Following the recovery of Loki’s scepter, Stark and Bruce Banner work together to use information inside of it to realize a dream. They create Ultron, the first true artificial intelligence, with the hope being that it would take the lead in defending the planet from whatever threats it might face, with a global network of drones at its side. As these things often do in movies, Ultron decides that protecting the earth means humanity needs to evolve, and he wants to be the one to trigger the next stage of evolution, in as destructive a way as possible. During a party at Avengers Tower, where the team plus past friends from other adventures and some new faces celebrates their latest victory before Thor returns the scepter to Asgard, Ultron breaks free of his digital creation, setting himself loose onto the internet, building a body, and attacking the team before flying off with the scepter. The fact that Stark and Banner didn’t tell the others their plans makes things worst, and erodes the trust on which their harmony as a team was built.
Ultron’s mission leads him to the twins, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, who were first seen in the mid-credits sequence of The Winter Soldier. Products of HYDRA experimentation and enhancement, Pietro has the ability to move at superspeed while Wanda has telekinesis and can control people’s minds, giving the Avengers a new and different challenge to face. Wanda in particular wreaks havoc on the team, as she invades the minds of each of them causing visions of their greatest fears, regrets, or traumas of their past, causing them to second guess their choices and doubt themselves. As the Avengers threaten to tear themselves apart, they must race against the clock and around the world to discover Ultron’s plan and stop it before it’s too late.
All of the Avengers are back for Age of Ultron, and all have been changed by their experiences in the previous films. Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark may have come to grips with his near-death experience saving New York by the end of Iron Man 3, but he is still shaken by the Chitauri attack and his dread of an eventually war they can’t win forms the basis for his dream of Ultron. With the collapse of SHIELD, Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is leading the Avengers, calling the plays in battle and keeping the team focused. Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) are along for the ride as the only “normal” members of the group, feeling slightly overwhelmed and vulnerable but still filling key roles. Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) main purpose is to recover Loki’s scepter, while Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) works with Tony on Ultron while waiting on the sidelines hoping that the Hulk isn’t called into the fight. They’re joined by a cadre of familiar faces from many of the Marvel movies thus far, some for nothing more than a cameo while others play key roles in the story.
Then there are the newcomers, with Ultron standing front and center. Ultron, a menacing robotic CGI creation voiced to perfection by James Spader, is the sort of villain whose presence looms over even a film as jam packed with heroes as this. He’s creepy but often somewhat charming, completely remorseless but cheeky and funny, and there’s even a dose of logic behind his intentions. He’s more of a direct threat than Loki was in the first film, as Loki was more of an instrument of battle while Ultron’s plan is more precise and he’s more of a physical threat to the team. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen make the twins’ powers feel believable, and ground the characters by their thirst for revenge and a style and backstory that feels far removed from anything we’ve seen thus far in the MCU. And Paul Bettany gets to make more than just his usual voice appearance as Jarvis, playing the mysterious Vision, whose presence, existence, and story would be too filled with spoilers for me to discuss except to say that Bettany steals every scene in which he appears.
Age of Ultron is unique in that it feels both bigger and smaller than its predecessors. In many ways the film has grown to dwarf the first Avengers, taking the audience on a global journey whose international feel sets it apart from the rest of the Marvel films, and expanding the scope and scale proportionally. On the other hand, the film feels more intimate and character driven than what came before, with our heroes more three dimensional, broken, damaged and flawed than we’ve previously seen them, yet the movie never feels dark in the way that some of Marvel’s competitors strive for. That such a film could be pulled off at all is a testament to Joss Whedon’s storytelling ability, but the fact that it is such a success speaks to the strength of these characters and his deep understanding of them and the shared universe they inhabit.
Whedon has constructed a story and a film that seems intentionally designed to defy expectations and subvert what’s come before, and it keeps the movie feeling fresh. He gives Barton, who was sidelined through most of The Avengers as Loki’s puppet, a key role that redefines what we thought we knew of the solider. He gives us hints of an unexpected (and controversial) romance between Romanoff and Banner while using that romance to show us not only what the world thinks of them but how the world has shaped their views of themselves. There’s plenty of the humor one would expect, but many of the laughs come not from clever one-liners or jokes but instead from the situations in which the heroes find themselves or their reactions to unexpected moments, and they feel richer after ten movies getting to know these characters. Whedon opens the film with a long, single take of the opening action scene, capped with a slow-motion hero shot, intentionally taking the visual highlights from the end of the last movie and dropping them at the very beginning as if to get them out of the way in order to free up the action to feel less choreographed. In contrast, the final battle features an extended sequence entirely framed in close-ups of the heroes faces as chaos unfolds around them, with the spectacle set aside in favor of character.
As with any Marvel film, there’s generally something for everyone in Age of Ultron, and what you get out of it is often a reflection of what you bring in. Those looking for a popcorn movie full of laughs and action won’t go away disappointed, but those looking for something more will definitely be happy. The long-term Marvel fans will find their allegiance rewarded in moments big and small that continue to tie all of the films and Agents of SHIELD together in one cohesive yet diverse universe, but the casual fans will find equally as much to enjoy. It’s is a superhero movie with a lot to say, particularly about monsters, fear, and choices, but with plenty of room for interpretation and lots of fun to carry it along. In the end, what you take away from Avengers: Age of Ultron is most likely a reflection of what you wanted to see, and it can be as deep or shallow as you want it to be. As for me, I think this might be the best Marvel film yet, and given the trend of their Phase 2 of films, I can’t wait to see what Phase 3 holds.
Just saw the film today, and I also enjoyed it. I love the characters’ quirks and depths that help to distinguish each voice and make it that there feels to be a deeper story in each of them despite having a limited time to spend with them. I think that’s the appeal of the Marvel films in the case of such little things such as the dialogue (my favorite would have to be “and I…am running out of things to say…”) or the subtle references to make people happy. That’s not to say they aren’t good at the big things. That opening scene alone almost eclipses the first movie (what is it with Marvel and long takes recently?), and the story did take into context the characters. I think this film did what a group superhero film needed to do: be a representative of their greatest screen moments whether it be stunts, story, characters, or dialogue.
In other news, I appreciated Fury’s comment at getting the Helicarrier fixed from “some old friends.” 😉 With Civil War coming up for the Avengers (and SHIELD quite honestly), I can’t help but hope for a couple of these allusions.
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My only regret is that I have not yet caught up with Agents of SHIELD…so I know I’ve missed a few references there…
And some spoilers…
Agreeing with Lindsay on Thor’s “running out of things to say” comment. At first it seemed to skate perilously close to an outtake… then I thought about character development, and how familiar these characters have become to us, and to the actors… to the point where the actors don’t actually seem to act at all, but to simply become the characters, and a “Thor outtake” fits perfectly. While still being that fantastic “other”, that alien, he is not so much the Outsider anymore. He can laugh (so very Norse Thor) and quip in the midst of danger, spoofing his earlier “mightiness”.
I found it a pretty perfect film, hitting every note just right. Of course, the internet is full of fans who simply need to criticize rather than critique. Thanks for being one of the ones who can do an intelligent critique.
Some of my favorite bits:
Paul Bettany, Paul Bettany, Paul Bettany. Perfectly suited for this sort of “other” “alien” character. Nice to actually SEE him in a role. And nice supersuit.
And Thor’s face when youknowwho moves Mjolnir slightly. And when Vision does more than slightly.
And Stan Lee… always Stan Lee… excelsior!
And getting Hawkeye’s backstory. And that, as an ordinary guy surrounded by superpowers, he is still vital to the team. And his quip about being that ordinary guy in the midst of a war with killer robots and he has a bow…
And Black Widow being vulnerable, and still kicking butt… thus being a well rounded character. for the naysayers who were peeved because she “had to be rescued” let’s just remember that she orchestrated her own rescue with the help of her two closest allies.
I grew up with the Bill Bixy/Lou Ferrigno Hulk, but Mark Ruffalo brings something to Hulk that is inimitable. Real. Human.
And the cameos. All of them. Wow. More Falcon please.
My post on theonering.net’s forum:
I’ve enjoyed all the Avengers films and spinoff series (SHIELD, Carter) and I think this latest one nails what makes it great:
1. Fantastic action, but not Fast and Furious tripe… rather action that is Art, action that is Traditional Comic Book come to vivid life with all its mythic exaggerations.
2. Characters: people we identify with, laugh with, cry with, people we’d like to hang out with (*cough* testosterone *cough*), we’d all like to try to pick up Mjolnir and laugh when we fail utterly to wiggle it (*cough*youknowwho*cough*),
3. Big mythic elements, deep meanings, going below the surface. Not just an action whacked two hours of gun and games. Comics are our modern faerie tales, our contemporary mythology (aaaaand, we’ve thrown in an ancient mythic figure or two: *cough* Norse guys *cough*). We can, as in faerie tale or science fiction, talk about social issues, Good and Evil, how much Government is enough, fear vs freedom, and our relationship with technology.
Carry on Marvel!
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