Director: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, James Spader
In a curious move, Marvel decided that their second Avengers movie would only be the penultimate film in their “Phase Two” (with the finale oddly being provided by Ant-Man a few months later). But, with the teasers and early trailers promising James Spader as Ultron (an inspired bit of casting if ever there was one), the introduction of Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch and Vision, and Avengers Assemble helmer Joss Whedon returning to direct all of our favourite heroes as they do their world saving bit once again, the table was set for what could easily be the MCU’s high point so far.
As it turned out, Age of Ultron suffered from both the burden of expectation and some fairly heavy-handed studio meddling, falling short of its potential in the eyes of almost everyone who watched it. After a bombastic opening which saw the Avengers take out a Hydra (or should that be S.H.I.E.L.D.?) compound in style, things dip noticeably in the middle, with a series of dream sequences and foreshadowing moments – along with a fairly underwhelming attempt to give Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye a turn in the spotlight with a secret-family-on-the-farm sequence – that manage to completely detail any of the momentum built so far.
For every great moment (the Avengers chilling out and taking turns trying to lift Thor’s hammer), there was another head-scratching one (Banner and Natasha’s forced relationship which was oddly acted by both Johansson and Ruffalo, and felt completely at odds with the characters to this point), making it incredibly difficult for the movie to generate any kind of momentum as Whedon missed opportunity after opportunity to deliver some much-character development in favour of silly banter and forced shared universe nonsense (see: Thor’s magic “Infinity Gem infographic” bath).
On the subject of missed opportunities, let’s talk about the ‘big bad’ himself. Ultron was blessed with one of the most memorable introductions for a Marvel movie villain so far, and the scene where he ‘awakens’ and takes over Jarvis was genuinely creepy, as was his first appearance “in the flesh”. Unfortunately, after this fantastic start, he quickly devolved into your typical cackling, monologuing cartoon villain with poorly chosen comedic moments and an inexplicably animated mouth that made him look like a Pixar bad guy. Yes, he served as a visceral manifestation of Tony Stark’s hubris, which played heavily into the upcoming character arc for a lot of the Avengers, but at the end of the day, I don’t think there’s a single person watching this who thought Ultron reached anything near his true potential.
On the flip side, and putting their ropey accents to one side, the Maximoff Twins actually ended up being pretty damn entertaining. And while Pietro’s story was cut off before it really had a chance to begin and Wanda has done little of note since (aside from blowing up a building full of innocent civilians… but we’ll get to that in a couple of weeks), the pair did a great job of giving this movie something fresh in comparison to Avengers Assemble a couple years beforehand. The same went for Vision, who had several great moments – including his awakening and subsequent “worthiness” – proving once again that it’s perfectly possible to introduce engaging and enjoyable characters without them needing their own solo movie.
There are some enjoyable action moments, including a ridiculously convoluted (but still kinda cool in a “Fast and Furious” way) attempt to steal a body-making cradle from Ultron which ended up with Natasha riding it from a flying trailer into the back of the Quinjet (as you do), and a fun scrap between both sides in Ulysses Klaue’s black market weapons lair. Unfortunately, the much hyped debut of the “Hulkbuster” armour ended up being little more than an uninvolving Man of Steel-esque collateral damage fest, complete with some weirdly jarring comedy moments thrown in for no apparent reason. Sigh.
On the flip side, while the premise (raising an entire city into the air using a giant rocket before slamming it back into the ground to create an extinction level event) was definitely more than little ludicrous, the third act finale actually played out pretty damn well, with each of the Avengers playing to their individual strengths, some well-choreographed action scenes and a couple of fantastic character-based moments, one for each of the Maximoffs. Whedon also treated us to another cracking rotating shot of the Avengers in action, and while it didn’t quite have the same impact as that moment from Avengers Assemble, watching the team protect the McGuffin from Ultron’s soldiers is still nothing less than pure blockbuster awesomeness.
Following its release, and in the years since, the narrative for Age of Ultron has always been that it was something of a failure or a disappointment (albeit not a commercial one, with a $1.4 billion worldwide gross, good enough for 7th best all-time). But while a lot of the flaws present in 90% of other Marvel movies are definitely present here (sagging middle section, pantomime villains, over-reliance on CGI), this one actually holds up a lot better than I remembered. The good parts are great, and the bad parts, while definitely distracting, aren’t anywhere near as unforgivable I initially thought they were.
So, at the end of the day, while it doesn’t quite make it into the upper echelon of Marvel movies, and there’s at least twenty-odd minutes of fat that could easily be trimmed without skipping a beat, Avengers: Age of Ultron is actually a heck of a lot better than I remembered, with some enjoyable character and story-based moments and some cracking blockbuster action set-pieces. Definitely a pleasant surprise for my first real re-watch almost three years after its initial release.