At this point, how are we to judge any single Marvel movie? They are each but a piece in a larger story, this movie as much so as any of them.
It’s no small task to bring together the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe into a cohesive whole of a movie, and all the more impressive when the novelty of the Avengers together is somewhat passed.
Such is the rough sum of Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s a movie that’s virtually impossible to take on without the context of the nine movies come before it and the many more (though particularly the two part Avengers: Infinity War) to come after. Yet on some level, it must be approached as a singular piece of entertainment. And when you get there, I can’t say it’s not wildly entertaining.
Age of Ultron begins with the Avengers team together again, rooting out the remnants of S.H.I.E.L.D.-turned-Hydra (see Captain America: The Winder Soldier if you’re confused) and trying to secure the powerful staff Loki was using in the first Avengers movie. Before very long they’ve succeeded, and Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) sets to experimenting on the device before Thor (Chris Hemsworth) takes it away to Asgard for safekeeping. Perhaps predictably, this doesn’t quite go as planned, and the result is the birth of Ultron, an artificially intelligent program Stark and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) had hoped would control global peacekeeping force capable of deterring some of the more powerful threats (like the Chitauri from Avengers) that they now know to exist in the wider universe.
Ultron (voiced by James Spader) takes to heart Stark’s hope for “peace in our time,” and with Machiavellian efficiency sets to destroying humanity and creating a new organic/machine hybrid life form that will be to humans what mammals were to the dinosaurs.
It’s Ultron himself that’s actually my biggest gripe with the movie. The character, empowered with the full resources of the internet, decides rather immediately on his course of action, one that’s painfully familiar to anyone who’s seen a sci-fi movie, ever – A.I. decides that the best way to protect humanity is to eliminate humanity. About the only bit of real characterization is that Ultron is prone to Biblical allusions. It’s cute, but the villain the whole movie is named after is boring, merely a threat to all mankind that gives the Avengers a physical challenge. (I’m also not crazy about his mechanical lips and mouth, just in terms of visual design, but that’s a little beside the point.)
More interesting are Ultron’s associates, twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), better known as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. The twins have a personal vendetta against Tony Stark, and see Ultron as the means by which to get their vengeance. Quicksilver is mostly just there to provide a new sort of physical challenge (it’s hard to knock someone out when you’re not fast enough to punch him), but Scarlet Witch is able to fill the Avengers’ minds with horrifying visions of their own failure.
This actually plays directly into the climax of the film is a way that’s somewhat less than satisfying, with one character going on a sort of vision quest we’re mostly separated from and arriving at a solution because Reasons. (It begs the question, when we’re dealing with literal gods if a “deus ex machina” ending is, by definition, acceptable? But I digress…) Altogether, the story is competent. A lot like the first Avengers, the plot details aren’t particularly remarkable outside of some heavy telegraphing that a couple of the characters might die, but the plot as a whole is still impressive in the way it keeps track of so many characters. There are nods to pretty much all of the recent films, particularly Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but you won’t be completely lost if you haven’t seen any of the character movies, either.
It’s in the references to movies past and future that Ultron gets, not bad, but a little weird. In some places, it’s very clearly setting up for movies like Captain America: Civil War and Thor: Ragnarok; whereas the first Avengers felt like a culmination, this feels more like the ending of the Act 1 of a new story. But Ultron is also full of simple pleasures like the aforementioned fight between Iron Man and the Hulk. Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking it’s anything more than two humongously powerful individuals beating the tar out of each other, but damn, it’s still cool. There’s lots of great action to go around, but that particular fight was one of the highlights of the entire movie.
In many ways, Age of Ultron actually campier than any of the previous Marvel movies; see for example an early slo-mo shot of all six Avengers leaping into battle together. But it’s cool to see them all in battle together. It’s fun to watch the superpowered destruction and listen to their (maybe slightly on-the-nose) banter. There is a plot here, one that even moves characters forward through an arc (if only a small one). That anchors the action effectively so we can enjoy the massive fight sequences.
The Verdict: 4 out of 5
There’s little use in trying to dissect Avengers: Age of Ultron as a piece of high art. That’s not what it wants to be. Instead, it occupies the space of a well executed, highly exciting pulp story. If you’re into that, it’s great. It could use a villain that’s actually interesting, but in a movie about the craftsmanship of superpowered carnage, one that has to meld effortlessly with a much larger story being told over the course of fifteen to twenty films (!), a lousy antagonist that still presents a physical challenge plus a few plot contrivances can be forgiven in the light of otherwise stellar organization of so many moving pieces.