Avengers: Age of Ultron is an entertaining movie. There are some spectacular – and brutal – action sequences that raise the level expected from now on for any Marvel film, and it does an excellent job of making the endgame of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) crystal clear. Unfortunately, this focus on the future comes at a detriment to the story.
The basic plot revolves around Tony Stark’s efforts to reboot a peacekeeping program called Ultron so that it will be able to protect the Earth without the need for Earth’s mightiest heroes. When it comes to powerful artificial intelligences though, things predictably don’t go according to plan, as Ultron has a few ideas of his own.
You can sense overconfidence from Marvel here. They aren’t worried at all about Age of Ultron not being a hit – they know it’s going to smash box office records.
From there we get a huge sweeping chase to various parts of the globe in the effort to stop Ultron (played by James Spader) from enacting his dastardly plans for humanity. Spader is outstanding as Ultron, and he feels tangibly threatening whenever he’s on screen. In fact the performances from the whole cast are good, and the new members all have their moments to shine. Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor Johnson (Wanda and Pietro Maximoff) both fare very well alongside their more seasoned counterparts, but both feel like they needed more time to become fully formed within the story; and this is where the issues manifest themselves.
Whedon himself said that there is a lot of backstory in the script explaining the motivations of not only the Maximoff’s, but of everyone that didn’t make it into the finished film. With so many moving parts, and so many story threads within the MCU that have to be serviced, the film begins to struggle under the weight of telling its own story. Too much time here is also devoted to sub-plots and to teasing us with threads that don’t really get picked up again after they’ve been introduced. It manages to hold on in the end, but only by the barest of margins.
As a result, a lot of the main story gets glossed over (like when Ultron goes from a plucky newborn to 10 foot tall super robot between two conveniently timed cuts) and much of the action just seems to “happen” without adequate build up as we jump from one action set piece to the next.
What worked so well about The Avengers was that Marvel weren’t sure at all that it was going to be successful. They put everything they had into making sure that The Avengers was perfect. There were no overt references to future entries in the MCU, no blatant set ups to be paid off in four movies time; they just swung for the fences. What they came out with was the third highest grossing film of all time and the confidence to plan beyond Phase 2, into Phase 3 and beyond. And that’s the problem.
You can sense overconfidence from Marvel here. They aren’t worried at all about Age of Ultron not being a hit – they know it’s going to smash box office records – so it doesn’t feel like they had their eyes solely on this film. With the endgame in sight now, Marvel seem to have brushed past what could have potentially been a wholly engrossing and defining story in their history.
That isn’t to say that the film doesn’t have some exceptionally strong moments. As usual Whedon’s script is full of great one-liners, while the majority of the film’s action sequences are gorgeous, kinetic, and ultimately exceptionally brutal affairs. The highlight of which is the Hulkbuster sequence that has already been heavily showcased in the marketing for the film. Collateral damage is everywhere as they really amped up the threat that these super powered beings indirectly pose to the innocent people caught in the cross fire.
The climactic battle is also tremendously well put together. Whedon somehow finds a way to highlight the main abilities of each hero during each of these sequences, and this is especially true here. There is one particular shot that contains within it more “money shots” than most summer blockbusters do in their entire runtimes, and is worth the price of admission alone.
Ultimately though, it’s just so tough for Age of Ultron to escape the huge shadow cast by the first film. The bar was set so tremendously high that it was always going to be nigh on impossible for them to reach that level again.
What makes it hard to love Age of Ultron is that if Marvel had really wanted to, they could have done it.