Avengers: Age of Ultron
So, it’s finally here. Joss Whedon’s eagerly anticipated follow up to the hugely successful The Avengers -or Avengers Assemble if you live in certain places- finally lands on cinema screens in the form of Avengers: Age of Ultron.
This film has big shoes to fill given the success of the first one and the innate expectations that result from that. It can’t have been easy to come off a film that received that much acclaim and craft a follow up.
As the film begins the Avengers are a fully functioning team who have taken over from S.H.I.E.L.D. in keeping the world safe from threats. The mission that we join them on has them hunting down Baron Von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) so that they can recover Loki’s sceptre from the first film. Thor wants to take it back to Asgard where it belongs and Tony Stark wants to study it to see what makes it tick. It turns out to be more than Stark could have imagined and allows him to create the maniacal robot villain Ultron (James Spader).
From then on the film becomes focused on Ultron’s plan and the Avengers constant attempts to thwart him. It’s a really simple narrative that doesn’t really need any unnecessary bells and whistles to make it interesting. It’s all about the Avengers taking down the latest threat that comes their way and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Where Avengers: Age of Ultron excels is in the portrayal of the characters both new and old. The entire team from the first film are back and if you follow their solo films then you’ll know them pretty well by now but it doesn’t stop Whedon giving each of them a defined character arc to follow.
One major criticism from the first film was that Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton/Hawkeye and Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow were somewhat sidelined to make room for the heavy hitters. Joss Whedon more than makes up for those shortcomings here and actually makes Hawkeye something of the central figure to this whole story. He is completely fleshed out as a character with some really surprising additions that I certainly didn’t see coming. I won’t spoil them here but it absolutely worked.
I found his story interesting as it was focused on a man with a bow and arrow questioning his worth when compared to a super solider, an infinitely powerful rage monster, a genius in a high tech suit and a God. Even Black Widow has her spy/assassin training to fall back on where Hawkeye seems to be just a simple guy who’s good with a bow and arrow. Having the most human member of the team question where he fits into all of this absolutely makes sense and does a lot to carry the film.
As such Hawkeye got a lot of strong dialogue and some wonderfully written scenes that really punctuate how worthwhile this character is. He’s genuine and relatable so is able to give a human anchor to all of this madness being thrown on screen.
Black Widow’s development is also handled in an unexpected way. Up until this point we’ve seen her be this cold and detached expert spy but this film allows her to open up and show some vulnerability. Her relationship with Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner gives the film some of the strongest emotional moments. There’s a really wonderfully acted scene where the characters truly open up to one another.
Banner is portrayed as this increasingly damaged individual who appears to be losing his sense of identity in a lot of ways. He is definitely afraid of becoming the Hulk partly because of what he might do when he does but it also runs deeper than that. I get the sense that he no longer sees where Banner ends and the Hulk begins. There’s a hint that the Hulk’s own personality is really starting to emerge but it doesn’t play out in this film.
Tony Stark’s arc is a little all over the place in some respects. It seems that he’s turned his attention to creating a world where the Avengers are no longer needed and as such makes a lot of impulsive, stupid decisions. His intentions are noble when he creates Ultron but it goes horribly wrong and he’s never really made to pay for it. Sure he makes it his mission in life to stop his creation but the consequences of what he has done are never really felt and the rest of the Avengers don’t quite seem as disgusted as the film suggests they should be.
The rest of the returning Avengers have fairly minor character development by comparison but I think that’s because they’re fully formed already. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) doesn’t really have to learn anything as such because he is who he is and Captain America (Chris Evans) still acts as the moral center of the group.
With these two characters their part to play in the proceedings tends to come from how they bounce off the other characters. Thor brings innate cosmic knowledge to the table and has resources the rest of the team don’t have. Captain America generally forces everyone to take a step back and consider what it is they are really doing and why they’re doing it. He also inspires people with his presence.
Pietro/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) make up two of the new recruits and their characters are handled well for the most part. The accents are a little dodgy but they were presented well enough as characters. Wanda gets a lot more development opportunity and therefore has the most depth where Pietro only seems to exist to play off his sister. It works but there’s definitely an imbalance there. It works for me as Scarlet Witch has always been one of the most interesting Marvel characters as far as I’m concerned so seeing her presented in such a faithful light was great. Her powers were really cool as presented and there were some great touches when she forced the Avengers to have visions of their greatest fears.
As for Quicksilver, is this version better or is the version in X-Men: Days of Future Past better? I can’t honestly choose one myself so I’d say it’s about equal.
The Vision (Paul Bettany) is another new character thrown into the mix and considering how late he arrives in the film he works nicely. He represents an interesting counterpoint to Ultron as the Vision is everything that Ultron should have been in a lot of ways. The film doesn’t explicitly develop that idea but it’s definitely there in the narrative.
Now onto the villain. James Spader’s Ultron is definitely one of the better villains that this universe has had so far. There’s a sympathetic edge to him and James Spader imbues him with enough humanity that he never feels like a detached machine. His arc is played cleverly as he starts off being really naive and lets his plan evolve as he learns more about humanity. His conclusions are always slightly off because he never has enough context to arrive at them in a rational way. He’s basically a spurned child and that’s nicely in keeping with his comic book counterpart.
The action in this film is superb with several really impressive set pieces scattered throughout. It never leaves the audience wanting for long before a really cool action sequence kicks in and every Avenger gets their share of solid hero moments. One thing I really loved about the action sequences is that the Avengers actually worked as a team with all of the characters having a defined role to play within that team. Hawkeye acts as the sentry, Cap’s the leader, Hulk’s the muscle and so on. It’s great to see that rather than a group of people in the same arena fighting their own battles.
As for the climatic battle it is similar in principle to the first one where the Avengers take down endless waves of anonymous cannon fodder but it’s still damn cool. Also, the much anticipated Hulk vs. Hulkbuster Iron Man fight does not disappoint. Whedon’s script is peppered with some really hilarious humourous moments as well so as a summer blockbuster romp it really fires on all cylinders.
One thing that never quite works is the hinted at father/son relationship between Ultron and Stark. As I mentioned above Stark never really takes true responsibility for creating him beyond his desire to stop him and as a relationship it remains somewhat unresolved by the end of the film.
In general that’s a valid criticism of the film as a whole. There are lots of plot threads that are hinted at and introduced but never fully developed in a meaningful way. It also lacks the wow factor and excitement of seeing the team come together for the first time as per the first film. None of this hindered my enjoyment in any way so I won’t be marking this down for that. Oh, don’t wait until after the end credits because there’s nothing there. After the mid credit scene just go home.
Stick around after the rating for some spoiler talk if you’ve seen the film/don’t care to be spoiled.
I can’t let this review exist without fanboying just a little and discussing some of the more spoiler filled comic booky stuff. This is my wheelhouse and this is the sort of stuff I like to talk about.
First of all I’ll talk about how this film fits into the overall canon of the franchise. It definitely feels like an episode of a TV show rather than an event film in its own right but that’s fine by me since long form storytelling is what Marvel have committed to and it’s something they do very well.
As for how well this film sits there’s some awkwardness to it as Phase 2 of the franchise spent a lot of time focusing on Thor, Captain America and Iron Man as individuals so this wasn’t actually set up at all. I found it a little jarring to see Tony Stark blow up all his suits and basically give up being Iron Man at the end of Iron Man 3 then have him back in the suit in this film without any explanation as to what made him do so again. There’s some chat about making sure the world is safe but there was no previous hint that he was working on this stuff. Also why is he in the suit rather than piloting it remotely? There’s almost a missing film showing these guys getting back together and committing to their mission.
This film did a good job of planting the seeds for Captain America: Civil War. Almost every time Tony Stark and Steve Rogers were in a scene together they were arguing over what was the right thing to do and whether Stark had crossed the line. It doesn’t come to a head here and they sort of leave it on good terms but it’s definitely there. I’ll be interested to see what causes the major disagreement in that film.
There was also a lot of time spent on discussing the whole notion of being worthy to wield Mjolnir. It is brought up several times and is played for laughs but I get the impression that it’s going to become important in subsequent films. Perhaps we’re heading to a situation where Thor becomes unworthy of his hammer and the mantle gets passed onto someone else. I did enjoy all the jokes made about it. One about an elevator being unworthy is especially memorable.
Giving Hawkeye a family was a really interesting and unexpected touch. Whedon’s script plays with the notion that we don’t know this character at all and gives us plenty of opportunity to get to know him. Turns out he’s a pretty normal guy who has a wife, a farm and some kids. It certainly humanises this character who has been largely sidelined up until now and definitely gives him plenty of agency in the plot.
My favourite moment from Hawkeye in this film was when he gave Wanda the choice over whether to fight. He makes it clear that he won’t judge her if she doesn’t but ensures that she knows that once she joins the fight she is an Avenger. It was a great scene as Hawkeye was struggling to take in the scope of what was going on and really needed to get his head around it.
In a way it would have made sense to kill him off in this story as he definitely had the most to lose. It would have made more dramatic sense than killing Quicksilver who doesn’t have enough to do to have bonded with him quite yet. Don’t get me wrong I’m glad that Hawkeye wasn’t killed off but it would have given the story much more weight.
I loved how this film celebrated the diverse universe that has been created. Don Cheadle’s Jim Rhodes/War Machine makes a return here in a capacity that works really well and there’s a small appearance by Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson/Falcon. Using characters like Idris Elba’s Heimdall and Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter as manifestations of Thor and Cap’s fear and doubt in the Scarlet Witch created visions was a nice touch as well.
I found the ending to be pretty interesting yet confusing. It looks like the Avengers is both expanding and diminishing. It reminds me of the comics when all of the founding members decided to go elsewhere and leave Captain America in charge of a less powerful team. The lineup is a little different but it’s the same here. I’d love to see a film where Cap, Black Widow, Falcon, War Machine and Scarlet Witch are a really well oiled team. As for the Hulk’s fate, I have no comment as I have no idea what happened there.
I’m sure there’s plenty of others that I’ll pick up on with subsequent viewings but there’s no doubt that Whedon gave appropriate fan service. Some references existed merely to do some name dropping like the mention of Wakanda or Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue losing his arm. It all adds to the DNA of this universe.