A curious thing happened to me after I watched the most anticipated film release of 2015(other than Star Wars of course.) Normally after the viewing of any MCU production, I am awash in a sea of glowing smiles. Ever since the first Avengers film in 2012, Marvel’s cinematic output has been escalating in quality and overall excellence. However, after this viewing, I’m met with a rather odd mixture of emotions. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this film on every level. The action is intense, the character interactions are razor sharp and the plot is at its most propulsive. This movie on paper is absolutely a slam dunk. The curious thing being that the more I distance myself from it, the more I see some plot holes that need to be addressed.
The technical aspects are all top notch. Joss Whedon manages to use his skills in wrangling a huge team of disparate characters to great effect. Though some of the magic of seeing The Avengers together for the first time on screen is lost here. It is more than made up for by introducing a few crucial keys to the puzzle going forward into Phase Three. The best being the introduction of Marvel’s most intriguing and electric villain, Ultron(next to Loki at least). Though his motivations and ultimate goals are standard comic book fare, James Spader infuses his character with equal parts sympathy and fierce villainy. His actions may be viewed on the surface as cartoonishly evil, but his reasons for wanting to sanitize the world of humanity are born of his desire actually to do well. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions and that saying has never been more apt in describing any fictional character. He’s the first antagonist since Loki you feel poses an actual threat to the heroes he’s facing off against.
Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, while not as leaned upon as I would have hoped, provide interesting foils for the Avengers as well. Their introduction into the film is rather quick, but they leave a lasting impact on the team. In the comics, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff are mutants that are more or less spun out of the X-Men universe. However, due to a bunch of political red tape, they’re never actually referred to as mutants. In Age of Ultron, they are the results of genetic testing from the research used in obtaining Loki’s spear from the first film. Ultron recruits them to tear apart the Avengers as a team so his plans for global dominance can continue unabated. Scarlet Witch “hexes” each member of the team, placing nightmarish hallucinations within their mind with the end goal being to riddle the team with infighting and doubt of their actual place as saviors of humanity. It’s an interesting plot device for sure, but the effects these visions have on them isn’t honestly fully explored, and as such doesn’t quite have the impact the filmmakers would like.
One thing that does have a major impact on the film and the entire universe at large is the Introduction of the weirdest character yet Into the MCU, The Vision. Up until this point, Marvel has been straddling a fine line between grounded reality and over the top sensationalism. Now they’ve firmly placed all their chips in the latter as The Vision is fully embraced and faithfully adapted from his comic counterpart without much explanation. In the past, the unwillingness to explore a major character’s backstory would be a sign of a studio not having much faith in the character they developed… Here, Marvel Studios places full trust that the audience will accept this larger than life character as he is without the need for an exhaustive origin story. Ultron is constantly upgrading his hardware throughout the film. The Vision was to be the ultimate version of the Ultron Android meant to be pitted against the Avengers. However, without spoiling plot points, he is intercepted by the team and when he is finally given life he understands that life is beautiful and is the most altruistic member of all of the Avengers. He does not desire to follow in Ultron’s footsteps and instead vows to fight for good without the need to sacrifice innocent lives. His powers are never fully explained, but his importance in the grander scheme of Marvels overarching narrative is touched upon here. It proves that they are willing to go to really cosmic and strange places with their films.
Another thing that really stuck with me is that the characters who don’t already have dedicated stand-alone franchises are given more room to shine than the heavy hitters. The biggest example of this being the quantum leap of importance and likeability the character of Hawkeye makes. In the first film, Jeremy Renner was reduced to a zombie-like drone at Loki’s beck and call, only allowed to join in on the fun at the beginning of that films 3rd act. In Age of Ultron, he’s given the most fleshed out character arc and in many ways acts as the most down to earth and human team member. He represents the emotional core of the Avengers. After the team is quite easily defeated in their second go around with the titular villain, its Hawkeyes life outside of the Avengers that reminds them why they do what they do and what it is they are ultimately fighting for. In a roster made up of gods and super soldiers, his is a man who ends up bolstering the team by its bootstraps in an effort to rally back before time runs out. He serves as a reminder that though life is filled with out of this world personalities, his very human soul is what ultimately saves the day. Truthfully there’s plenty to gush about with this film. Everyone associated with its production deserves a standing ovation for putting out a film that is seemingly on par with the first film and higher above a lot of the standalone films before it. However, there are a few things that keep it from being a true masterpiece of transcendent cinema. They range from minor nitpicks to head scratching blunders that make you wonder what happened behind the scenes.
The thing that bothers me most over everything else is the almost shoehorned nature of the budding romance between Black Widow and The Hulk. The seeds were definitely planted in the first Avengers film, so if you paid deeper attention to the movie, it’s not completely out of left field. That being said, Black Widows involvement in previous MCU films and other characters on the Avengers roster makes you wonder how truly connected some of these plot threads are. In the first Avengers film, she is shown to have deep affection for Hawkeye before she really crosses paths with Bruce Banner. I’m not saying that was a missed plot point, but the way Whedon builds their relationship in the first film makes you wonder why he didn’t capitalize on their deep history together. Also, the relationship between Cap and Widow that was very heavily leaned on in last year’s Winter Soldier feels like a muted afterthought. They spend much of that particular film on the run together, getting to know one another and building a much deeper connection that started in The Avengers. I can see that Whedon is trying to pair a couple of lost souls like Banner and Widow, who view themselves as monsters on opposite ends of the spectrum. It just has too much of a tacked on feeling to add really any depth or weight to the proceedings. As a result of her constantly shifting relationship priorities, it feels as if Black Widow is reduced to a character who is defined by the men she is partnered with, as opposed to a fully formed and fleshed out character. This is made doubly troubling because up until now she’s really one of the only strong female protagonists the MCU has offered up. It sets a dangerous precedent for gender equality that I hope Marvel Studios can course correct before it becomes a huge problem down the line.
Another thing that strikes me as odd, which may be more of a nerdy nitpick, is that the character of Tony Stark doesn’t feel as evolved as a character who’s now been through 5 films should be. His journey from the very first Iron Man film all the way to this latest adventure, while impactful, feels disjointed from film to film. This is made most evident in the timeline between Iron Man 3 and Age of Ultron. At the end of IM3, Stark learns that his suits are nothing more than extensions of his brilliant mind. That he is in fact Iron Man, it’s not about the reliance on tech or the army of suits but he that is the hero. IM3 ends with the glorious fireworks display of all the drone suits exploding, and the removal of the shrapnel in his chest signaling that his journey from playboy to hero is complete. Age of Ultron starts mid-battle (literally), and it would seem that Stark is once again leaning on an army of drones to help get the job done in surrounding cities. It’s not enough to derail any serious foundation set by previous films, but it’s just something that I noticed that seemed like a bit of a backslide for the sake of setting up future conflict. It’s a little character beat that seems counter intuitive to where we last left Tony in his own story.
One more seriously egregious plot line that feels extremely tacked on is Thor’s quest to better understand the vision he experienced at the hands of Scarlet Witch’s hex. His character, in general, feels the shortest changed in the whole movie. He has a few superb one liners early on, but right in the middle of the second act he disappears. Then he is brought back briefly to go swimming in some cave like a pool to gain knowledge about what is was that he saw while under her spell. To the initiated fans of every film preceding this one and the comic book source material, this is nothing more than obvious foreshadowing of future Marvel films to come. To the actual story and plot of this film, it’s an extraneous bit of storytelling that doesn’t advance the story in this movie any further and kind of grinds the movie to a complete halt.
To sum it all up, Avengers: Age of Ultron lives up to the standards that Marvel Studios has created for itself. It’s a film packed to the rafters with the kind of smart, intelligent blockbuster action that we all crave. It’s a rousing adventure from start to finish with real stakes that put our heroes in grave danger. You could almost make the claim that this is the Avengers equivalent to Empire Strikes Back. Yes, it’s the darker and sourer middle chapter that does a lot of setup for future installments. At its core though, it’s still a fun movie for everyone to enjoy and rally behind no matter what your ties to this world are. It’s not a perfect film, and it certainly doesn’t have the magic of that first Avengers film, but that’s not necessarily a slight against it. In fact, it’s the imperfections that make this a movie that stands toe to toe with the best in summer blockbuster entertainment. Marvel has finally made a movie that goes full force in embracing the outlandish sensationalism that the best comics have offered to their readers. While it’s not their best film to date, this sets a very exciting trend for the rest of their cinematic slate. We truly live in the golden age of superhero cinema.