‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ Review: Marvel’s Latest Is Both Exciting and Exhausting
I don’t get to go to as many midnight showings as I’d like to anymore, but Avengers: Age of Ultron was one movie I cleared my schedule to go see. More so than any other collection of blockbusters in recent years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has given off a sense of genuine gravity and stakes, which isn’t always easy in a world where (let’s be real) the good guys always win. While victory is often assured, total victory is never certain, as the individual members of the Avengers have lost friends and family in their individual films, and have even suffered losses in the movies they’ve shared together (sure, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. resurrected Coulson after the first Avengers, but it’s not like they know that. I mean, well…Nick Fury does, but I digress).
So I went into Avengers: Age of Ultron with an interest in seeing how Marvel’s approach to the standard superhero movie has/hasn’t changed over the years. And what I came away with was a twofold conclusion: evolving means bigger action, bigger explosions, and more elaborate setpieces; but it also means more introspection among the characters. Marvel is essentially deconstructing the modern superhero movie with Age of Ultron, exploring what makes a hero, and how the road to Hell is often paved with good intentions.
The story is exactly what it appears to be on the surface from all the trailers: after raiding a Hydra base for Loki’s scepter, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) gets the idea — from a horrible vision implanted in his head by Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) — to create an artificial intelligence that will allow the Avengers to essentially retire. Through this A.I., Tony will be able to forge a team of independent peacekeepers to prevent another alien invasion like the one that nearly wrecked New York in the first movie. Enter Ultron (James Spader), the terrifying A.I. gone rogue, who decides to enact his own twisted interpretation of Tony’s vision by destroying the world in order to jump start the next evolution. This causes all sorts of friction between the team, and much of the movie plays out with the Avengers struggling to reassemble the fragments of their tentative family.
Some segments work better than others, naturally: a vision quest subplot with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) feels protracted and unnecessary, while the romance between Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is something that’s probably going to divide the fanbase. But the ongoing enmity between Tony and Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is a highlight of the film, as their back-and-forth lays the groundwork for Captain America: Civil War. I also appreciated the added development for Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who feels more integral to the ensemble in this movie than he ever did in the first. Also, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and The Scarlet Witch, twins who’ve been genetically enhanced by Hydra, make for a wonderful addition here, more so than I expected. While their accents are a bit patchy, the bond between these two characters is among the most subtly poignant in the film, and both characters get a handful of individual moments that make them independently memorable as well. In a movie as stuffed with characters and cameos as this (and there are a LOT), it’s pretty amazing that the film was able to fit in as many new, well-rounded characters as they did, especially since their inclusion didn’t come at the expense of added development for the characters we already know.
With that said, the movie is long. While it’s one minute shorter than 2012’s The Avengers, director Joss Whedon crams a lot into the 141 minute runtime. And this results in a bit of a double-edge sword. The movie is undoubtedly exciting, producing some of the most intense, nail-biting setpieces in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far. But the downside is in the sheer volume of action setpieces. We can hardly go ten or fifteen minutes without another big demolition derby, to such an extent that I finally see what some movie critics have been saying about summer blockbusters for years: the constant destruction of one city after another just gets downright exhausting after a while. It isn’t that the action isn’t good — it’s outstanding, particularly the Hulk vs. Iron Man fight, which is everything the trailers suggested and more — but that the action is so frequent and excessive that the destruction begins to lose its dramatic weight. The big saving grace here is that Spader’s Ultron is such an outstanding villain that the constant action sequences truly do feel necessary in a way that few blockbusters have ever been able to get away with these days.
Spader plays Ultron as a self-loathing machine, unhinged by the limits of his creator’s vision, and aimed towards ascending about his station. However, Ultron is also a sarcastic sort, quipping wise with the best of them, showing that Tony Stark influence he’s so ashamed to admit. It’s that similarity between creator and creation that provides the overarching struggle with its emotional core. As one character states in the film, Tony and Ultron have one thing in common, that they seem unable to recognize the difference between saving the world and destroying it. Ultron represents a real threat to the Avengers, the kind that seems almost insurmountable. It’s that pressure and anxiety that Ultron inspires that is the film’s biggest asset. He’s a towering villain, and every single action the heroes take towards stopping him feels absolutely vital, so while the setpieces might ultimately get to be a bit much, it feels like they really do need to be there for the sake of the film’s story and pacing. And it helps that the setpieces themselves are so damn exciting. Without spoiling anything, this movie is wall-to-wall CHAOS, and delivers some of the most spectacular visuals and fist-pumping/stand-up-and-cheer moments of the MCU. Seeing this with a midnight crowd probably helped, but this was still an exhilarating moviegoing experience either way, from the cameos to both the action and emotional climaxes.
Of course, part of this movie suffers from feeling mostly like an advertisement for Avengers: Infinity War, since this is a whole hell of a lot of setup for Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But I still feel the film does just enough to avoid coming across like a glorified commercial for movies that are 1-3 years away. Maybe it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but I did feel like it built on the sturdy foundation of The Avengers, giving us more insight into who these characters are, and how they work (or don’t work) as a team. As the capstone of Phase 2 of the MCU, I thought this was great, even if I’m not sure how well it’s going to age. I plan on seeing it again soon, and maybe my opinion will change once I’m separated from the context of a midnight audience and the uncertainty of not knowing what’s going to happen. But even without those contexts, this was a fun movie. If you’re on the fence, I’d definitely recommend checking it out.