Do you remember viewing the first Avengers for the first time? How cool it was to see all these superheroes introduced in separate movies finally share the screen? To see them actually become the Avengers? Well, that whole deal is done now and in a way that’s Age Of Ultron‘s major disadvantage: we’re used to Marvel Studios’ hero squad and formula now. You can’t repeat the rush of excitement generated by a first time, that particular flavor of anticipation. Wisely, returning director and scribe Joss Whedon never tries to. Age Of Ultron takes firm steps forward, but some of the creative decisions can’t help but make you look back at what has been done before.
Avengers 2 hits the ground running. Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) attack the stronghold of the devious Baron Strucker, a madman who’s performing experiments on humans and who’s tinkering with advanced AI. Right off the bat we’re treated to a sequence that surpasses Marvel’s The Avengers climactic Battle Of New York tracking shot, a setpiece that immediately showcases the Avengers brand of action and quippery. Cap destroys an enemy vehicle with his motorcycle, Hawkeye uses trick arrows to disable both thugs and tanks, and Hulk, well, is the Hulk. All of this thrilling mayhem is accompanied by the team taking verbal jabs at each other, having fun, acting like it’s just another day at the office. It’s great stuff: not only because it gives its action blockbuster audience what it came for from the word go, but also because this sequence successfully bridges the gap from Avengers 1 to 2 to where Age Of Ultron‘s plot goes next. We’re introduced to the well-oiled machine that is the Avengers, before the piece’s villain Ultron tears everything down.
Leave it to Joss Whedon to come up with a clever angle that offers viewers both a lot of the familiar and the unfamiliar. While Age Of Ultron doesn’t win any awards when it comes to the overall plot of the movie – Tony Stark creates the AI Ultron to protect the world but his creation ends up wanting to destroy the world instead -, Whedon certainly knows how to toy around with genre conventions and to cleverly set up gags. Similarly, it’s obvious Whedon is right at home with his characters: it shows in Whedon’s trademark banter and the naturalness of our heroes’ actions and decisions. Additionally, the returning cast members all slip into their parts like it’s their second skin and this contributes to feeling like you’re right at home when watching Age Of Ultron. Even the new characters played by Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Paul Bettany add to this sensation: their implementation is seamless and exciting, even though they largely play second fiddle to the old guard.
What’s unsatisfying then is that the film’s villain and namesake Ultron doesn’t work. He comes into existence and then immediately is evil, a foil for our heroes, a walking and talking device to move the plot forward. While actor James Spader’s performance is fun to watch, the CGI and design are terrific, and Whedon gives him a couple of solid lines, Ultron boils down to a one-note baddie that wants to destroy the world. It’s not hard to see that Whedon was going for a twisted creator-creation dynamic between Stark and the robot, but Ultron simply lacks the depth, complexity and pathos to make him interesting, and his relationship with his “father” isn’t explored at all. Ultron isn’t a compelling villain because the character and what he stands for simply don’t get developed and Ultron is given little else to do than to simply punch Avengers. Had less of the film been about action and was more of its time spent on the central themes, characters and relationships, Avengers 2 would have worked far better. While there are definitely a couple of moments of downtime dedicated to the team’s personal lives, Age Of Ultron plays out like a series of action scenes hastily stitched together, instead of offering a truly involving, flowing and moving narrative. It doesn’t help matters that the finale feels like a rehash: save a notable difference it’s the first film all over again, down to a beat that’s very much like the fan favorite meeting between Loki and Hulk in Stark Tower.
Age Of Ultron is a solid follow-up to the first Avengers, but it sorely lacks a strong antagonist and the first movie’s focus on characters and character-driven conflict. Instead it’s a fun romp with crisp quips, a thoroughly entertaining superhero action blockbuster, but it’s not nearly as special, smart or resonant as the best films from Marvel Studios’ catalog. 7/10