Would it be a ridiculous mess of hyperbole to call Avengers: Age of Ultron the best superhero movie ever made? Or is raising the bar exactly what was expected in following up 2012’s The Avengers, which changed everything that seemed possible for these sorts of blockbuster films?
Is the sequel better than the original? Yes. Director Joss Whedon topped himself with this one in just about every way imaginable. The script is impressively tight, considering how many storylines and character notes are being juggled. There are moments in this movie that probably shouldn’t work, that would sound extraneous if described to you out of context. Yet nothing seems unnecessary. Everyone gets a chance to shine, giving each character depth while propelling the story forward.
Much like the Avengers comic books, the so-called secondary characters receive most of the focus here because Iron Man, Captain America and Thor have their own movies. (Though Iron Man/Tony Stark is very much a central figure in this story.) If you’re a fan of the Hulk, Black Widow or Hawkeye, this is the only place you’ll get to see their stories. (Well, that’s not entirely true for Scarlett Johansson’s Widow, since she was a key player in last year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier.) We’re also introduced to three new players in Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson), Quicksilver and Vision (Paul Bettany).
Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Black Widow have what could be the most pleasantly surprising storyline, the development of which the multiple trailers for the film have hinted at. It’s unexpected, yet makes sense from a character standpoint, as Whedon’s always wonderful dialogue explains. Their arc results in a couple of laughs and what are probably the most poignant moments of the movie.
But it’s Hawkeye — friggin’ Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) — whose reveal is the most compelling. He might seem like the inferior member of the team, since he has a bow and arrow (albeit really cool arrows) compared to suits of armor, indestructible shields and mythic hammers. (And Renner gets a great line about that toward the story’s climax.) However, it’s the seemingly least powerful Avenger (though Black Widow should really be in the same category) who turns out to have the most to lose and the most to fight for, as we find out when the pounding action and drama takes a breather. If Hawkeye was largely overlooked in the first Avengers film, Age of Ultron more than makes up for that.
Whedon had a lot of help in making this movie work, of course. The special effects wizards — and there were a ton of them from a variety of visual effects companies, making for walls of names in the closing credits — did an exceptional job in bringing the title villain to life (almost eerie life, considering Ultron is a robot), creating a giant Iron Man (and spectacular ensuing battle), and making the Hulk more expressive and real than he’s ever been on screen.
The cast is completely comfortable playing these iconic heroes, making the superhuman seem human. That’s largely because Whedon’s writing and direction gives the actors an opportunity to do so. But Marvel creating a universe of multiple films has allowed Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Johansson, Ruffalo and Renner to make these superheroes their own, adding layers to their characters.
One reason why the actors have likely become so comfortable playing these roles is that they’re established now. There’s no introduction necessary, no yielding to an audience still trying to acclimate to comic book superheroes and the fantastical stories that come with them. The actors can just build on their characters now. And as a writer, Whedon doesn’t have to set the stage for his narrative either. Age of Ultron doesn’t waste any time getting right to the action with an opening sequence that would probably be a final set piece in most films.
Whedon might actually move a bit too fast in the movie’s first act. The concept of Ultron is quickly presented, along with the central dilemma and conflict it creates. Stark believes he can fix anything and is smart enough to create what he sees as the ultimate solution — especially with his science bro, Bruce Banner, working alongside him. The fact that we’re already familiar with Stark’s hubris helps grease the tracks for the introduction of this malevolent artificial intelligence. Yes, the story has to keep rolling, saving the character moments for the heroes later on, but the jumps from Ultron as sentient program to aggressive predator to sinister villain progress very quickly.
If Whedon does have one weakness as a director, it’s with the action scenes. At times, the fights are a bit incoherent, relying on quick cuts and camera movements to cover up dizzying CGI. Part of that is surely because the action is supposed to be superhuman, often soaring through the air, like what you’d see on a double-page spread in a comic book. So it’s really not fair to compare Whedon’s fight scenes to what you’d see in John Wick, The Raid or even Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Yet the final battle, in particular, may have been a bit more resonant with someone better at shooting action — even CGI-fueled action.
OK, there’s one other area in which Age of Ultron arguably comes up short. The mid-credits scene is a fun reveal, but maybe kind of a letdown. More of a letdown is the fact that there’s no post-credits scene. But Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has been upfront about that throughout promotion for the film. So if you were expecting to see Black Panther, Captain Marvel or Spider-Man, that doesn’t happen. (But stay through the credits anyway to show some respect to the thousands of people who made the spectacle that entertained you.)
So I’m not a complete pushover for this film, even though it’s the superhero movie I could only dream of during my comic book-reading childhood and adolescence (all right — adulthood too). These are the Avengers I grew up with, brought to life on the big screen, without any qualifiers or apologies to the audience for telling stories and using characters that once might have seemed silly. We’ve obviously moved far past that as moviegoers and a culture. As Stark says to Banner, “We’re mad scientists, monsters. You gotta own it.”
Avengers: Age of Ultron totally owns what it is. It’s a triumph of geek culture and cinematic spectacle. And the best part is that Marvel isn’t done yet. Anticipating how the studio tops this one only adds to the excitement.