With the success of the initial Marvel Cinematic Universe: Phase One culminating in the first Avengers film in 2012, it was a forgone conclusion that we’d get more Marvel films tied together. With another Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and a seemingly unrelated but still tied in Guardians of the Galaxy, we have two more films left in Phase Two: Avengers: Age of Ultron, which released this past week in the U.S., and Ant-Man, which releases later this summer. Ant-Man is the only one in Phase Two I haven’t been all that excited about. I didn’t see Thor or the first Captain America in theaters because I just didn’t like the characters much, but when I caught them on home video I really did enjoy them. Marvel’s done a good job making these characters work on screen when they fall flat for me on the comic page.
I’ve caught the other MCU films after the first Avengers in theaters, and I knew I really wanted to see what they cooked up with Avengers: Age of Ultron. I hoped it was going to veer off a little bit like Captain America: The Winter Soldier did. It plays fast and loose with what I’ll call the “Marvel film formula”, but ultimately, this is very much a Marvel Studios superhero film with some of the Joss Whedon touches I’d expect, except for one or two that I was happily surprised didn’t come to pass. So this afternoon we timed it out as a date between errands and caught one of the regular, non-3D showings, which was also a packed matinee. I will keep the spoilers to a minimum, but seeing as how they’ve pretty much announced a huge chunk of plot points in their own trailers, I’ll try and keep it to that.
So what’s our story? When Tony Stark tries to jumpstart a dormant peacekeeping program, things go awry and Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are put to the ultimate test as the fate of the planet hangs in the balance. The Ultron program goes off the rails, and while it recruits a few superhumans to help tear the Avengers apart from within, the team has to struggle to figure out what Ultron’s endgame ultimately is without all the resources they had with S.H.I.E.L.D. in play. If they’d given this film another thirty minutes or so, and got closer to a three hour runtime, it would have been dead on perfect with the first Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. There is a lot going on in Age of Ultron, and a few of the sequences that feel rushed mainly feel like they were cut down to make the film shorter.
As it is, there is an embarrassment of riches here, and while we get a lot of great development for characters that haven’t had their own solo films, the new additions, other than Ultron, aren’t given much time to develop at all, aside from some tidbits here and there. Siblings Wanda and Pietro Maximoff have a few moments to shine, and we get a good setup as to why they agreed to work for Ultron in the first place, but ultimately they’re introduced so it’s not entirely a robot army the Avengers are fighting at the start. They also paint a human face for several other sequences in the film tied to what’s going on with our robotic super villain.
That being said, there is a lot of care to make them feel like the Wanda and Pietro from the comics. Pietro is cocky and sarcastic, while Wanda can go all out when she wants. Vision is unfortunately really underdeveloped, mainly due to when he shows up in the film, but given who he’s created from the audience has a relationship with him from previous films. It really isn’t enough, though, as one of the more poignant scenes is between Vision and Ultron, and really speaks to the ultimate difference between Ultron and the Avengers. Ultron fits in as a great villain in this, and doesn’t end up suffering from the same under-cooked character fate as some of the other villains in the ongoing MCU. He’s no Loki, but James Spader ends up stealing most of the scenes he’s in as Ultron with some great dialogue. He’s not nearly as brooding as he is in the comics, but given that Stark is his ultimate creator, the snark fits perfectly here.
Avengers: Age of Ultron isn’t quite as good as the first group outing, and I do hope we get that rumored extended edition as I imagine a lot of what feels rushed ended up on the cutting room floor. Some of the character development doesn’t feel like it’s going in the right direction, mainly for one character, who was almost content with himself by the end of the first Avengers film, and his falling apart here from pretty much the start of the film just didn’t work for me at all, and felt like a convenience to add drama instead of proper development. I do like that it’s mostly character-driven throughout instead of action-driven. Therein lies the rub. This is one packed cast of characters, and while I love an ensemble film as much as the next person, this could have used either a little trimming, or a longer runtime. Banner and Barton get a nice bump up in screen time, probably from not being in any solo films at all, and this Barton is a lot closer to the wise-cracking Hawkeye I’m familiar with.
I do like that when they decide to have the Avengers have differences of opinions and go after each other, it feels very legitimate and on point. These are all people at the top of their respective games, and it’s a pretty heated situation. Even when things are all going smoothly there’s still a bit of believable friction. I also like that we get to see some downtime. Some of the best issues of the comic books end up dealing with teams going out and just trying to do normal things, and the party sequence is definitely one of those great moments in the film. The established characters, save one, really feel like they’re moving along, and while I personally don’t like the direction they’re going with him, my wife included, it works for the most part within the context of the film itself.
One of my other quibbles with Age of Ultron is that it feels like they heard people complaining about Man of Steel not having Superman rescue anyone during the big, drawn-out fight scenes, and instead went way far the other way. I get there are civilians in the way, and I get that they need to save them, but they make it a point to have this happen at least three or four times that I remember in the film. Hell, it’s even a huge freaking plot point towards the end of the film. The Avengers take time to save people. I get it. Hammer. Nail. Horse. Dead. Stop kicking it for a bit, and let the film roll on. Yes, some of the rescues are neat, but given all the other development and plot extras that probably got cut for this, it feels like they’re driving home a point just so people don’t complain about it on the internet. Show them save some people, but don’t spend so much time dwelling on it when we could be moving forward with the meat of the film.
Even with my issues in a number of ways they handle things, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a great time. The pacing is pretty good, the dialogue and banter are spot on, everyone ends up getting some time in the spotlight. Instead of it all being focused on New York, or one specific city again, we get some nice globe-hopping thrown into the mix for variety. I would definitely see this again, and despite a few flaws, it works for me. The witty dialogue, the obvious camaraderie between the cast members, the continuity between the solo films bringing in characters we’ve seen there. It all feels like one big world, and we’re back to visit with some of our favorite people all over again.
If you’re getting tired of the Marvel formula, you’re probably not going to enjoy this one as much as all the regular beats are here instead of them trying something a little different like they did with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. If you’re a fan who watches Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as well, you’re going to be even more disappointed. While the show obviously ties into the films, the films are not even acknowledging that the show, or Coulson, exist at this point. Age of Ultron is fun, though, and my wife and I both enjoyed the couple of hours we spent in the theater. This definitely ranks high on my recommended Marvel films.