I’m pretty divided on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I enjoyed “Iron Man” when it came out in 2008, but felt no desire to see any of the other films until I saw the trailer for “Iron Man 3”, which I thought looked entertaining, so I watched all the other films before seeing that. Since then I’ve seen most of them at release. I really disliked “The Incredible Hulk”, “Iron Man 2”, “Thor”, “Thor: The Dark World” mildly liked “The Avengers”, quite liked “Captain America: The First Avenger”, “Iron Man 3”, and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, and genuinely liked “Guardians of the Galaxy”, and “Ant-Man (although that came out after the film I’m about to review here). My main issue with the series is that the films often, to me, feel like extremely high-budget episodes of a repetitive TV show. They set aside large amounts of time to set up future instalments, they all conform to a house style of humour and story (how many of them end in near-identical pursuits of a MacGuffin?), and rarely progress character or story in significant ways. I do generally enjoy the movies (particularly the performances, as most of the films have quite strong casts), but don’t find much in there to engage with. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” tried to do some things different, which I admire, but overall had a case of “middle film/episode” so bad that I really did feel I just witnessed the most high-budget filler of my life.
What did I like? I loved the attempt at deepening the Hulk and Black Widow’s relationship (messy as it was), the Hawkeye family sequence (even though it killed the pacing), and the party sequence in the first act. When these characters are given space to interact with each other in any form other than violence the films are greatly enjoyable, and it plays well to director Joss Whedon’s strengths.
The set-up of the villain, Ultron, was interesting enough in implying Iron Man and the Hulk would be conflicted over it, but he very quickly devolved in yet another Marvel quipster with vague motivations and an army of identical henchmen (literally this time!) to provide fodder for the endless fight scenes. I’m all for a good quip, but when nearly every single principal character in a film speaks the same way, it’s hard to really connect with any. It’s frustrating because scenes like the party have the characters display individual traits and interact well as a group of different people with different feelings about each other, but they routinely seem to break character to deliver a timely quip, and Ultron is the absolute worst for this.
The plot is a series of scenes dotting around the globe for fights, set-up for future movies (including an amusingly blatant one for Thor), and an enjoyable interlude at Hawkeye’s house. The ending setpiece kind of falls apart in my eyes, in placing such huge emphasis on evacuating citizens that the pacing really starts to creak. I gather this is a response to the criticism WB/DC’s “Man of Steel” faced (I have complicated thoughts on that film but overall greatly enjoyed it; much more my style than the Marvel films, but that’s largely my personal taste) for citizen casualties. I find that kind of cheap though. The Marvel films cheapen violence by creating identical nameless bad guys justifiable to slaughter (brutish aliens, duplicate robots, ice demons, literal Nazis, etc.); is it really a bad thing “Man of Steel” slightly did away with the bloodlessness of this genre and showed the devastating effects a bunch of god-like superheroes fighting in a city would actually have? The first Avengers film had scenes where some of the heroes helped citizens get to safety, but they had a whole team and five previous films for the heroes to establish themselves; “Man of Steel” was about Superman finding his footing and learning to do his job well, and he had to do it alone – plus, the next film in that series directly deals with the fallout of the fact many citizens perished. The many scenes in the climax of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” where heroes escorted citizens every step of the way to planes to safety felt over-the-top to me – the fact you don’t see a bundle of corpses in every Marvel film doesn’t change the fact that every building collapse was likely full of people. I think heroes being heroic and saving ordinary people is obviously good and makes sense, but beating us over the head with it in presumably a response to a competitor franchise felt cheap to me.
“Avengers: Age of Ultron” spares no expense, but fails to come together as a satisfying movie. It’s overstuffed, poorly paced, and has a weak villain, but does have a very strong cast, a few genuinely delightful scenes, and plenty of witty dialogue. For fans of the characters, the film will be more than enough, but for those looking for a satisfying, coherent film experience in its own right, there might be issues.
I give it two Infinity Stones, and yet another helicarrier.