Avengers: Age Of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015) The biggest problem with Avengers: Age Of Ultron is simply that no movie could have possibly lived up to the expectations. The Avengers had the advantage of being the first movie to ever combine independent superhero franchises into a rock em’ sock em’ team-up. The sequel had to not only follow up the third most successful blockbuster in history, but offer satisfying plot threads for five protagonists, introduce four new major players, and deliver massive action scenes every 20 minutes. That was pretty much impossible, yet Joss Whedon did his best and delivered a damn fun movie. It’s just not the greatest comic book blockbuster ever made and unfortunately for some fans that’ll mean the whole production is a failure.
Things kick off in the middle of a massive action scene in which Whedon attempts to top his one-take-wonder from the last Avengers. It’s a bold opening and a heck of a lot of fun, but doesn’t pack the same whollup as the first time, which is indicative of the movie as a whole. From there we learn the gang are seeking out the Loki-pokey stick from the last movie. They find it. All is well. At least until Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, duh) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., double duh) decide to use a little of the technology they find at the secret base containing the stick to launch the A.I. Avenger project that they were batting around called Ultron. From there, it’s time to party with the gang cracking wise Whedon-style and reminding us all why we love these crazy cats. Then Ultron (James Spader) bursts into the room to announce his plans to be the villain in Avengers 2. After that, the gang must bicker and battles must commence. Captain America (Chris Evans) frets about justice, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) goes on a mission that goes nowhere, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) falls for The Hulk, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) gets a backstory, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are introduced, as is Vision (Paul Bettany), a few other subplots pop up, and it all builds towards a finale in which Whedon cleverly pokes fun at the MCU’s “stuff falls onto a city” climax cliché.
As you might have noticed, that’s a hell of a lot of plot for one blockbuster, even at 141 minutes. There have been rumors of a 3.5 hour rough cut of Avengers: Age Of Ultron and looking at the final cut that seems entirely possible. At times things feel a little too rushed and at other times threads are left dangling. The filmmakers have still managed to condense all of the sprawling excess and unfinished subplots into a satisfying summer blockbuster though. So it’s hard to complain too much. Given the massive expectations of Marvel movie lovers, the easiest first reaction is to fret over all the things that this sequel isn’t. However, doing that requires you to ignore what the movie actually is and that’s a mistake given all of the geeky fun on display.
First off, Whedon’s crackling snappy dialogue and characterization are on full display. With The Avengers now finally a team, he lets the gang banter off each other freely with some big laughs sneaking in. Some of the best scenes and moments in the movie don’t involve a single explosion. They are the result of Whedon and his cast having fun with the gang, whether they are arguing over who can pick up Thor’s hammer or icing Don Cheadle whenever he tries to tell a War Machine story because his adventures can’t compare to Avengers shinanegins. This time, Whedon writes his Avengers like old friends and the audience is invited in on their private party. Downey Jr., Evans, Hemsworth, Ruffalo and Johannson all wear their roles like comfy old jammies now and slide into that tone with ease. Renner gets a bit more meat and backstory to chew on at long last, so Hawkeye finally feels like a full character (but given everything else going on, he only gets a fraction of the running time so don’t expect too much). Olsen and Taylor-Johnson make for an amusing Russian accented tragic-hero team in their roles, even if they are mostly setting themselves up for expansion in later Marvel movies (ditto Bettany whose Vision looks and feels right, but is ultimately a ringer tossed into the mix for the finale). Meanwhile, James Spader smarms and sleazes out a delightful voice performance as Ultron, who is officially the most sarcastic movie robot outside of Douglas Adams’ creations. Spader’s Ultron is one of the most enjoyable Marvel villains to date, but to be fair that’s mostly because aside from Loki and Red Skull, there’s not much competition in that department.
The action sequences are certainly big and expensive with a few amazing highlights like the long awaited Hulk Buster fight and Captain America’s unique use of a motorcycle as a projectile. However, it must be said that action spectacle has never been Whedon’s greatest strength and overall the movie represents a mild step down from last summer’s Marvel blockbusters. His ability to juggle characters and plotlines with pithy ease is remarkable though and the mere fact that he managed to deliver a movie with this many moving parts that somehow feels cohesive and propulsive is a heroic task that most viewers will take for granted. If the movie feels a little light on style and subtext after Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians Of The Galaxy, that’s likely because there just wasn’t space for more. Whedon touches on the perils of AI, the challenges of being a hero in this wonky world, and questions the motivations of The Avengers, but doesn’t dwell too much on any of those themes because he’s got a climax to deliver and individual character fanbases to satisfy.
If Avengers: Age Of Ultron feels a little hollow that might be a result of this sequel not serving as a payoff to Marvel Phase 2 like the last Avengers did for Phase 1. All of the movies in this run were more self-contained and the few franchise seeds they planted were either setting up Infinity Wars or Civil War. So, Whedon couldn’t design the movie as a MCU payoff picture or do too much to rock the boat. This is a mid-season adventure in the grand scheme of the MCU. It’s big and fun and loaded with fan service, but it ultimately doesn’t advance things much. The sequel just gets the band back together for one more big show and squeezes in as much superhero fun as possible. Can’t complain about that. If anything it’s Marvel’s fault for suggesting that all Avengers adventures must be universe-shattering events. That’s never been the case.
Unsurprisingly, the movie arrives on Blu-ray with all the trimmings (well, except for an extended 3 hour cut, but to be fair I’m sure Whedon just wants a break from anything Avengers related at this point.). The HD video and audio are top notch, with every glorious explosion and movie star face presented in the prettiest package Disney can provide (aka damn pretty). Special features are slim, but worthy. A decent 20 minute EPK kicks things off giving all of the Avengers and their creators a chance to tell the tale of the film’s production through soundbites, with a further 10 minutes of that material split off to specific featurettes on the globe-hopping locations and the mighty heroes for some reason. Next up, a hilarious gag reel that shows just how much fun this gang has having saving the world one green screen sequence at a time. Then there are 12 deleted scenes (including an extended version of Thor’s lightening bath in a cave that makes sliiiiightly more sense) with optional director’s commentary. But best of all is the audio commentary on the film from a weary Joss Whedon, filled with his usual wit and also hints of melancholy for a film he describes as a collection of compromises. All Whedon commentary tracks are amusing, but this one has a little extra punch since he politely makes it clear that this isn’t quite the Avengers sequel that he hoped to make even though he’s still proud of the results.
Some Avengers comics are just new adventures that only a team of the mightiest heroes could possibly take. Age Of Ultron feels like one of those comics on a $300 million scale and there’s nothing wrong with that. Whedon and co. also deserve credit for delivering an unapologetically nerdy superhero experience without any concessions to mainstream audiences. Characters wear capes, shoot lasers from their heads, and engage in all manner of larger than life heroics with no connection to the laws and logic of our world. If you’d shown a Comic-Con crowd this movie ten years ago they wouldn’t have believed such a thing possible and would have wept with joy. Now we’re all jaded enough to expect this sort thing from a superhero flick. That doesn’t mean that Avengers 2 isn’t a very impressive and satisfying bit of comic book blockbuster fluff. It just means that the bar keeps getting raised and anyone who dares to make superhero blockbuster now had better really step up their game or the genre will die quickly through repetition. We’re not quite at the point of total superhero saturation just yet, but if a blockbuster as accomplished as Avengers: Age Of Ultron feels even remotely like a letdown, then clearly we’re well on our way to that sad future.