With so many films already up to this point in my #RoadToInfinityWar series, you would think that addressing the concept of sequels would have come up by now, but it feels most appropriate to talk about here. With this film the eleventh Marvel Studios-produced film, it followed several sequels to the original “solo” films that made it possible: Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, Thor, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Singular entries like The Incredible Hulk and Guardians of the Galaxy inform this film in slight ways, but mainly, it’s best to evaluate this movie in conjunction with the film it really follows, 2012’s The Avengers.
The comparisons between the two are inevitable; yet, they are justifiable only as far as we let them go. Still, that original team-up did the (seemingly) impossible: creating a threat big enough to justify so many disparate elements coming together, yet using humor and great characterization to make it all gel together. More of the same would be misguided, and given that the same writer/director, Joss Whedon, was behind the wheel, why would he want to “re-do” what he had already done? So, we get to Avengers: Age of Ultron, and we see a film that works, despite several missteps. Why does it work? Mostly, because it earnestly reflects some deep (and even more resonant, as of late) themes while still peeling back the layers of who our heroes are and how realistic it is that we can expect them to work together.
Here, we open the film with the Avengers storming a HYDRA-fortified base in the nation of Sokovia. The leader there, Baron Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), is hiding more than just Loki’s scepter from the first film; a twin Sokovian sister and brother (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) sit ready for the attack, awaiting their chance to finally confront Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) for what his weapons did to their family. The Avengers leave there with the scepter, but Stark leaves there with a troubling vision of what could come without a better grasp on the extent of defending the world. With the reluctant help of Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), he develops from studying the scepter an A.I. program that can be everywhere that the team cannot and keep the peace worldwide: Ultron. That power created is done so quickly and left unchecked; with the entirety of human knowledge and history within its databank, Ultron sees the only solution for peace is to slip past the “strings” that confine him and bring about the eradication of mankind. The first target is the Avengers themselves, as they exist only as a result of mayhem and can be said to be the source of it as well in their own way. Using the twins as his pawns, Ultron crafts multiple ways to manipulate and divide the team from the inside-out. Not only do the Avengers have to find a way to defeat Ultron; they have to learn how to work together again, despite their differences.
The pieces of the puzzle that make up this movie are more complicated than the first go-round. We already knew Loki in the first film, so he came on the scene, ready to charm us all over again. Ultron, eccentrically voiced by James Spader, must be delivered to us from the ground up, and even though he chases an improved version of himself throughout the film that emotes better with each iteration, he isn’t human. That’s the point of it all, I know, but it creates a distance with the antagonist that is only shrank by the great work of Spader. You hang on every word he says in the film; that’s a largely unacknowledged accomplishment of this film, to say the least. The themes of information and technology being used against us didn’t ring as true as it does now in 2018, but in my rewatch, I watched the film in a whole new light.
The team is tested psychologically amidst the changing relationships they have with one another, which allows the film to go in interesting directions. Do all of those directions pay off? Absolutely not; there are several creative choices that I disagree with strongly here, but I respect the creative vision that Whedon was allowed to even go there at all. I began this review with the topic of sequels because when you follow up one of the biggest films of all time, you are bound to fail in the eyes of many, no matter what you do. I feel that is the case with this movie. If Whedon had delivered more of the same, he would have been torn apart for that. Taking the liberties he did with certain things and drawing connections between characters in unexpected (and, frankly, offensive) ways is brave, even if it isn’t entirely enjoyable. There are many moments where the film takes a bit of time to breathe, the best example that succeeds completely is the “hammer” scene in Avengers Tower. Not far behind that are the sequences on the farm, which do a ton towards making everything they are doing worth it. The problem is that there is a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to carrying this plot that has something to say beyond just telling a story. The film is stuffed with subplots, and I get what Whedon was going for. It’s just that not all of them payoff by film’s end, and it does impact the “enjoyability” factor of the film overall.
As a result, the film feels overly long, even though it literally zips us along on a story all over the globe. We visit a majority of continents by film’s end, and you really get the idea that the Avengers are truly Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, rather than just America’s. A scene that was heavily billed in the ads for the film was a titanic battle between the Hulk and Iron Man’s Hulkbuster armor. It takes place in Africa, and I have to say, I thought it was a great action set-piece. The scenes before that give us our first real mentions of Wakanda and introduce us to Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) from Black Panther. It’s subtle world-building, and I much prefer that approach, especially seeing as the payoff for that specifically comes much, much later down the line.
Promotional materials let audiences know that we would be seeing the screen debut of one of the Avenger’s longest-running members, the android, Vision. Originally in the comics, he was created by the original Ant-Man, Hank Pym, who is yet to be introduced up to this point. So, we know that character’s origins are different. He is played by Paul Bettany, and while I won’t delve into how he is created (I want to leave some surprises), he is at the center of most every favorite moment I have of this film. Following this film, he remains one of my favorite characters in all of the MCU. I can’t overstate just how awesome it is to see him brought to life, and he is just one of many characters I never dreamed I would see in a film. Here, he shines.
Content-wise, the themes here are darker, as is the color-pallette. I don’t think Whedon was concerned with selling toys in the slightest, even though the film was plastered on party decorations and kid’s backpacks galore. The PG-13 flavor is extended here; believe-it-or-not, the first word we get out of our heroes in this film is profanity, and it is played as a running joke throughout. The topic of sterilization is an actual plot point, so, yeah…that might come up from a wondering kid after watching. Allusions to God are throughout, as Ultron and Vision both evoke dialogue that brings up the notions of a creator and creation. Biblical stories are brought up as well in the film, such as Noah. I could see some interesting conversations springing from this film, especially as we grapple with matters of faith in a digital world. The themes of monstrousness and evolutionary change factor as well, so as I’ve said, there is a lot to digest here.
Overall, I enjoy this film, but it never carries the full excitement and joy that was laced throughout the original Avengers film. Could it have? Who can say, for certain? I respect Whedon for not attempting a retread, but not all of his risks pay off. Seeing gambles like that in a film of this budget is interesting to see, as many films of this ilk are beaten into mediocrity by committee. The best thing that can be said about this film it’s a complicated equation: it adds new layers to our heroes, subtracts from their comradery with one another, multiplies the team’s numbers by film’s end, and divides them from each other, setting the stage for Captain America: Civil War and Thor: Ragnarok, as well as Thanos’ arrival to come. It’s got its missteps, but I am entertained by the film, even if I don’t revisit it as often as its predecessor. I’m hoping that the third Avengers film brings this film’s scale and lofty ideas amidst the overall more enjoyable tone of the first film, but at this point as the end-credits show, regardless of how it all shakes out, Thanos is coming; I venture to say that we won’t soon forget all that he brings.