So it’s finally here. After all these (three) years and Marvel’s most forgettable (IM3, Thor 2) and best (GotG, TWS) films we’ve arrived at the latest massive franchise crossover destined to siphon children’s pocket money the world over. Joss Whedon, returning to the world of blockbuster filmmaking from his famous Much Ado About Nothing adaptation, has crafted his grandest, most ambitious and apparently final Marvel opus, and while it’s in many ways a step up from its predecessor I can’t help but feel a little underwhelmed.
Age of Ultron is the story of the roughly three-week age of Ultron, a global peacekeeping AI project built by Tony Stark, who having never seen Terminator forgot AI’s exist only to enslave or kill mankind and assumed his world-controlling supercomputer would be all sunshine and rainbows. Shockingly, Ultron decides to kill mankind and it’s up to the Avengers to track down and defeat him. His given motivation is something about helping mankind evolve and meteors but it feels like half his scenes were left on the cutting room floor (the film was pared down almost an hour before release) and for all his pseudo-philosophical monologuing he rarely feels more than Generic AI Supervillain #4325.
The remaining cast fare a lot better though. Stark, as always, takes front and centre to mope about creating a monster and Downey Jr does a fine job selling his character’s distress, but the film spends most of its character moments developing its less popular Avengers. Hawkeye gets some genuinely heartwarming scenes with his wife and kids, and a (fairly believable) romance blossoms between Black Widow and Hulk, though the former suddenly announcing she’s sterile is one of the most tonally incongruent things I’ve seen since I spliced five minutes of A Serbian Film into Spirited Away.
We’re also introduced to the two new Avenger siblings Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver (sadly not the Ultimate versions), played with the finest Russian accents since The Hunt For Red October by Elizabeth Olsen and Kick-Ass, respectively. They hail from the generic Eastern European nation of Madeupia, a country populated exclusively by screaming refugees and which we’re never properly introduced to in a way that suggests Whedon was wading knee-deep in film by the end of editing. Quicksilver is fun, though less so than his X-Men counterpart, and Scarlet Witch’s powers are seemingly random depending on the plot, which puts a damper on the drama when we don’t quite understand the stakes.
On a technical level this film far exceeds its predecessor. Whedon’s direction has vastly improved from the televisual style of the first film, and he’s developed a fondness for snazzy tracking shots, one of which kicks the movie off in spectacular fashion through an equally improved action setpiece. It’s much more even overall as well, keeping its excitement and pace throughout whereas the first film took an hour to really take off, and this time the potential end of the world actually feels like a threat. For all that works here though, something feels missing. The first Avengers felt like the culmination of all that preceded it, the climax of its story. But Age of Ultron just feels like a stepping stone to Avengers 3 (teased in the credits), an episode of something bigger. This makes it much less dramatic and memorable (as well as lacking individual moments as memorable as say, Hulk smashing Loki), and as a result it’s a less satisfying experience. It’s still worth seeing, don’t get me wrong, but it’s no Avengers 1, and the seams of this universe plan are showing.