It’s an unpopular opinion in Marveland, but The Avengers has always felt like half of a movie to me. Rewatching the film earlier tonight, it struck me how long it takes the team to actually assemble. It’s not just in the final fight: The Avengers are battling in New York City for some time before Hulk finally appears. And when he does, the stakes aren’t really elevated. More than any other Marvel Studios film, The Avengers suffers from being an origin story, only giving us the fully-formed team for a few precious moments at the very end.
Series writer/director Joss Whedon understood this. With Avengers: Age of Ultron, Whedon created what feels more like two, or even three films, all compressed into a shorter package than its predecessor. Age of Ultron is Marvel’s densest film, packing more lore and character moments than any other film. Yet remarkably, the film doens’t feel overstuffed; every moment leads naturally to the next, building a superhero tapestry that feels larger than any that came before.
Age of Ultron doesn’t feel like the conclusion to Phase Two, it feels like a whole new Phase of Marvel films in its own right.
The very first scene of the film feels almost like an epilogue to the first. The Avengers bounce off each other, often literally, as they invade a frosty enemy compound. Captain America barks orders, Iron Man teases him, Hulk smashes. There is an easy rapport between the superheroes, as old friends come together to fight an enemy. Here, the Avengers are more connected and integrated than they’ve ever been before. Given how low the film will go, it’s exciting to see Earth’s Mightiest Heroes fully in sync on at least one mission.
But the film’s central theme is that nothing good lasts forever. Tony Stark creates Ultron, a formidable and psychotic robot hellbent on making the Avengers suffer. His creation awakens deep fissures within the team. Tony fears that Earth remains vulnerable after the alien invasion of the previous film. Thor mistrusts Tony, and humanity on the whole. Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, struggles with her dark past. Bruce Banner deeply desires to put down roots, but knows that his id will always be a danger. Captain Steve “America” Rogers struggles with doing the right thing in an increasingly murky world. And Clint Barton, the archer Hawkeye, is trying to reconcile his life outside the Avengers with his superheroing ways. These cuts in the team run deep, and threaten to fracture them altogether in the face of their greatest threat.
And the threat is palpable. It’s easy making James Spader a villain, even if the villain is a nine-foot-tall robot. But Spader brings a deeply compelling vulnerability to Ultron; he’s not an unfeeling android, but deeply confused, insecure, and above all, angry. Ultron’s maniacal mission is defined from the beginning, but there are multiple scenes where you can kind of see where he’s coming from. In particular, Ultron has an odd amount of affection for Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, superpowered twins with their own tragic histories. This trinity of villains poses not just a physical threat to the Avengers, but an existential one, able to hurt them with their deepest fears and darkest secrets.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but Age of Ultron is not really an actor’s showcase. Unlike the first film, the plot never stops moving; there’s barely a moment to breathe, let alone allow the actors to riff for a few minutes of precious screentime. In this film, the best performances come from actors who don’t anchor solo franchises. Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo are the emotional heartbeats of the film, giving their characters a deep sadness and longing. Those two actors make a strong case that the world is poorer without a Black Widow or Hulk film. Jeremy Renner is finally allowed to shine as Hawkeye, bringing not just sly quips, but real emotional resonance to the team. Robert Downey Jr. carries the brunt of the screentime, but since Stark is brought to his darkest corners, Downey is not as zippy and irreverent as previous outings. Surprisingly effective is Chris Hemsworth’s Thor; even though his arc is limited, Hemsworth gives the normally peace-loving Thor a cynical edge.
Unfortunately, though the action is more intense in this film, it lacks the clarity of the first Avengers. The much-ballyhooed Hulk v. Iron Man fight is underwhelming, dragging on too long and relying on CGI punches instead of emotional stakes between the two heroes. The final brawl is exhilarating in concept, but keeping track of more than eight superpowered fighters becomes disorienting. I’m surprised that Quicksilver’s super-speed isn’t highlighted more; depicting the abilities of the Avengers in slow-motion while Pietro ducks and weaves between them feels like an obvious evolution of the first film’s long tracking shot.
Age of Ultron could be considered a stopgap, a stepping stone on the path to Marvel’s Infinity War saga. However, I think it represents an evolution: the first film was very much an adaptation of the gee-whiz tone of the first Avengers comics, created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. Age of Ultron feels similar to the Avengers as depicted by Roy Thomas and Sal Buscema in the late ’60s/’70s. The storylines are darker and more complex. The heroes are often the architects of their own suffering, and the villains their own demise. There is a much larger focus on supporting characters that couldn’t carry their own titles. As iconic as the Kirby/Lee era is, there are decades of Avengers titles to draw tones and themes from. Unlike other studios, Marvel isn’t mired in origin stories and reboots, and it’s exciting to see their confident march forward in the biggest narrative in Hollywood history.
This film comes tinted with some sadness. Age of Ultron is the end of the Age of Whedon, and his direct influence on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Paradoxically, I think Whedon was absolutely the right director for the Avengers duology, but perhaps not the best writer. Whedon is more interested in emotional truth than in plot developments, but for a longform series, this can be infuriating. The Scepter, created by Whedon for both Avengers films, is maddeningly confusing, simultaneously underpowered and overpowered.
Yet Whedon directs the shit out of these films. He creates moments that are very cinematic, yet feel ripped right out of comic pages. Though Whedon emulates comic book aesthetics, he never loses sight of the very human characters at the heart of the film. No film quite captures the excitement of reading a great comic book like Avengers: Age of Ultron.
4 Hulkbusters out of 5.
No one-shots in this review! In the next couple of days, we’ll have a full-fledged spoiler discussion up. This is one of Marvel’s densest movies, and there’s a lot to digest.
In the meantime, keep spoilers out of the comments, please.