Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Welcome to the summer.  The opening weekend of May is the launch of the summer movie period, and Marvel Studios has claimed this weekend for their superhero films for a long time now.  Avengers: Age of Ultron is the sequel to 2012’s wildly successful The Avengers.  Not only is it the sequel, it is also the continuation of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, currently in Phase 2 (that began in Iron Man 3), that has been created by the Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and Guardians of the Galaxy stand alone franchises, and expanding to Ant Man later this summer and Doctor Strange and other in Phase 3.  There were a lot of expectations attached to this film, considering the first is the 2nd highest grossing film of all time and also a whole lot of fun.  While it is fun to see all of these characters back together in the same picture, Avengers: Age of Ultron fails to achieve the same heights as its predecessor.

The film picks up right in the middle of action as all of the Avengers are assaulting a Hydra stronghold in a fictional Eastern European/Western Asia country, trying to take back the scepter that Loki possessed in the last movie.  Every character Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow/NatashaRomanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) are given a spotlight as a moment to reintroduce the characters to the audience.  Awaiting them in the bunker is Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), and his two new toys and newcomers to the party in the Maximoff twins who possess special abilities (called Enhanced instead of Mutants), Pietro/Quicksilver (superhuman speed) and Wanda/Scarlet Witch (mind manipulation and energy projection).  After this extended introductory encounter, in which Tony Stark’s mind is manipulated by Scarlet Witch to see his fear of a future demise where he didn’t do enough to save the world and the rest of the Avengers are dead, Stark and Banner use some of the tech they recover to try to make an A.I. that can protect the entire world and eliminate the need for the Avengers, the Ultron Project.  It succeeds, but goes horribly wrong, as the A.I., Ultron (voiced by James Spader), sees the Avengers and ultimately humans as the greatest obstacle for peace on Earth.  The Avengers must battle Ultron and his plans for human eradication while also battling their own inner turmoils that are brought to the surface.

There is a lot to like in Age of Ultron.  There is no shortage of action, for sure.  As far as blockbusters go, this is right up there with the biggest comic book movies and other action blockbusters in terms of scope and spectacle.  In particular, the Hulkbuster scene between Hulk and Iron Man is probably the action highlight of the movie.  The money that went into making this movie is on full display on screen.  The final action sequence is epic in scale and every Avenger is given showcase moments.  There are some interesting back stories provided to some of the characters, in particular Black Widow and Hawkeye, that provide some extra shading for the characters that are part of the Avengers, but take a slight back seat to the four main guys (Cap, Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor).  It is also just fun to see these characters interacting again.  Their banter is enjoyable and there is an ease to it, that team camaraderie where everyone enjoys busting each others chops a bit.

The additions to the cast are mostly good too.  James Spader is terrific as Ultron.  He plays him as a slightly crazed A.I. and gives him just the right amount of menace.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen are good as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, respectively.  They are given a basic and obvious back story, but as supporting players they feel like they belong in this world and fit in nicely, even if you feel less invested in them than other main characters.  Also, Paul Bettany, who has voiced Tony Stark’s computer program J.A.R.V.I.S. from the beginning, finally gets to make an appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as he portrays The Vision, an A.I. that Ultron tries to create as the next step in his own evolution that doesn’t play out as he intended.

Unfortunately, this film is not without its flaws.  While the quips and jokes that lightened the tone of the first film are still here, the levity, for some reason, is not.  The first film had a dexterity and looseness to how all of these big characters who could carry their own franchises blended together.  Here it feels more clunky, which is probably due to the fact that there are so many characters.  They’re all easy to keep track of, but the narrative feels weighed down by having to service so many characters in the process of spinning its yarn.  It is also beholden to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and there are several pieces of the story that are merely there to set up future film franchises, further weighing down the film.

Narratively, it is a little messy as well.  There are parts of the creation of Ultron and later of The Vision that feel glossed over or not fully explained.  If they are, it slipped past me on an initial viewing.  The film makes a point of Tony Stark saying that they weren’t really close to completing the Ultron project when Ultron came to life, and for Ultron to suddenly appear doesn’t make sense to him, but the script doesn’t follow-up on that dialogue in a clear way.  There is also a few scenes where the Avengers are shown their fears after having their minds manipulated by Scarlet Witch.  Thor, Captain America, and Black Widow have prolonged dream sequences, that don’t do much for the story.  Black Widow’s serves mainly as back story and Captain America’s is completely dropped.  Thor’s is the only one that has any narrative imperative, but even that leads to a weird side track with where he seeks answers, with the help of Stellan Skarsgard’s Erik Selvig, in some mystical underground pool that is never fully explained and ultimately just leads to a big exposition dump that will inform Avengers: Infinity War.  There is also a romantic relationship between Banner and Romanov that is sprinkled throughout the film that I’m not sure really works.

Like its predecessor, Avengers: Age of Ultron is going to make a ton of money, but will probably fall short of its predecessor’s #2 rank, due to slightly less buzz and maybe a slight feeling of disappointment that it’s not the home run that the first movie was.  It’s still a fun movie and better than most comic book movies, but there is less vibrancy and life to this film than the first one.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a bold and ambitious approach to movie making.  It has been wildly successful to this point, both in terms of financial rewards and film quality.  However, Marvel Studios needs to be careful because laying too much groundwork for future franchises can be a detriment to the current one.  By all accounts Joss Whedon is a little burnt out by the process of having made two of these films, essentially, back to back.  Kudos to him for producing these two films and having the smarts to not keep going if it was going to be too much for him, because it felt like some of his weariness was visible, as there was less spark to this movie.  Hopefully two-part Infinity War films will be a fitting conclusion to this story that Marvel has been weaving for so long.  Age of Ultron did not resonate with me like the first movie, but it is still worth seeing and a good start to the summer.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars

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