The time has come once again for Marvel’s major players to assemble in the summer’s major event film, and Avengers: Age of Ultron certainly succeeds at being different from its predecessor. Unlike the previous ten films that comprise the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Age of Ultron doesn’t overly concern itself with adding too much to the overarching universe-wide narrative, instead opting to tell something of a one-off tale that has the potential, on its own, to ripple through the forthcoming films rather than be affected by what we’ve seen before.
Unlike the first Avengers film, which culminated as a payoff from the first five Marvel Studios films, Age of Ultron instead focuses on catching us up on what the major players of the MCU are up to, and reinforces the idea behind why these disparate characters work so well when combined together. In a very self-aware and reflexive moment near the end of the film, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye even directly mentions the relative absurdity of the situation at hand, but that’s also a strength of the overall work: acknowledgement, that’s quickly followed by an embracing of all of the established rules of the shared universe thus far, and using what we know in a cumulative, yet surprisingly standalone tale that gives audiences what they want so much: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, together again, to save us.
Age of Ultron begins with a spectacular action scene, showing the team assaulting a Hydra base controlled by Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (played by Thomas Kretschmann). Before too long, the assembled team is introduced to the threat of Ultron: the brainchild of Tony Stark’s grand idea for a world with unprecedented protection, combined with a questionable alien artifact that produces an artificial intelligence that perverts Stark’s idea, exuding disgust with the way humanity has asserted itself on Earth. Ultron’s origins are at the center of the conflict within the team, since Stark and Bruce Banner proceed with creating him without consulting the other Avengers, calling their entire sense of unit cohesion into question. Also introduced are Wanda and Pietro Maximoff — aka Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver — who have a very personal grudge against Stark, making their association with Ultron easy for them to initiate and accept…at least for a while.
Ultron himself, played by James Spader, is where many of the film’s inherent strengths and weaknesses lie. He’s undoubtedly one of the better villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far, but the film rather quickly rushes through the concept of his ire toward humanity, and before audiences are given time to fully process exactly what he wants and how he perceives his place in the world, he is literally crashing the Avengers’ party. Still, Spader speaks writer/director Joss Whedon’s dialogue with a unique, passionate, and yet subdued forcefulness that makes his character a transfixing presence throughout the entire film.
Once again proving his mastery of ensemble, Age of Ultron is brimming with characters both new and established, but Whedon’s writing and pacing never seem to make it feel like too many characters are around and given service. The sheer amount of personalities means that at least one was going to get the short end of the stick, though, just as Hawkeye got in the first Avengers film. That character this time around seems to be Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver, but it’s a small gripe due to the great character work present here. Besides new characters like Scarlet Witch and Paul Bettany’s wonderful Vision, we probably learn most about Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, which is perfectly appropriate given the fact that he doesn’t have his own active solo franchise for the time being. Also given a great deal of revelatory service is Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, more than making up for the little more than cursory appearance he had in the 2012 film, and giving a satisfying spotlight to the Avenger that had the smallest amount of development in the first team-up film.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is a solid addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and will likely reverberate through the films to come in a series of positive ways. It’s not the home run that the first Avengers film was, but that’s because it wasn’t trying to be: it deftly aims to be something different. Not an Iron Man 3.5, or a Captain America 2.5. Age of Ultron wants to be Avengers, act two. For my money, that difference is what makes it a solid and enjoyable next step that gives us just the slightest glimpse at the future of this ever-expanding universe, while standing alone as a solid step forward for Marvel’s premiere team of super heroes.
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