If you heard the sound of cash registers ringing, or saw dumptrucks full of money being driven in the direction of Marvel HQ, that’s because this weekend saw the U.S. release of “Avengers: Age Of Ultron.” Sure, the superhero sequel came in $20 million dollars south of its predecessor (reportedly in part because of the distractions from a big sports weekend), but with $187 million in three days, it still ranks as the second-biggest opening in history, and with another $450 million earned abroad and counting, the movie’s sure to end up as one of the top-grossing movies of all time.
But is it any good? Our review responded with a resounding “I dunno, kind of?” and reactions in general so far have been more mixed than the widely-praised first “Avengers” — some find it a more interesting and strange film, some see it on about the same level, and some find it an “Iron Man 2”-level disappointment.
In Playlist Towers, we’ve avoided any Hulkbuster-style brawls by mostly being on the same page: finding it a pretty entertaining blockbuster, but one with more serious flaws than Joss Whedon’s first superhero epic. Now that the film is out, and most of you have had the chance to see it, we’ve gone in depth on the picture and examined its best, worst, and weirdest elements. Take a look below, and let us know your thoughts in the comments — beware, obviously, of spoilers.
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It’s Actually About Something
Sure, “Age Of Ultron” is a mega-budget example of corporate synergy, the eleventh movie in a mega-franchise, and it probably exists mostly to sell toys. But in Joss Whedon’s hands, it’s at least about something, with much more thematic heft to it than your average Marvel movie, “The Avengers” included. The title villain is created to save the world, as a dark mirror of our heroes, but he judges humanity to be lacking, and decides the only way to save the world is by wiping it clean of people. It’s a decided step up from ‘Loki wants to rule the Earth,’ and allows Whedon and his cast to discuss the nature of heroism without the film feeling too didactic. “It’s not just about beating Ultron,” says Cap at one point, “it’s about whether he’s right,” and having established our heroes, only to question whether or not they’re just propping up the status quo, is the kind of bold move that actually justifies the dense continuity of these films. The film’s also surprisingly rigorous with its metaphors about the ‘bad guys’ — whether it’s Ultron or the twins (or even Ultron being undone by his own creation, The Vision), everyone the heroes square off against are created by their own actions, a neat simile for the creation of insurgents and terrorists by U.S. intervention abroad, but without being as heavy-handed as “The Dark Knight” or “Daredevil” when they dealt with a similar subject.
A Welcome Post-”Man Of Steel” Emphasis On Protecting Civilians
One of the things that rival superhero flick “Man Of Steel” came in for the most criticism, and rightly so, was its near-complete disregard for the consequences of the orgy of destruction in the film’s third act (or indeed, in earlier action sequences) — for a character who’s famously been a selfless saviour, Superman thought nothing of throwing his adversaries through buildings in heavily populated areas, and very little about saving any of the people caught in the crossfire. “The Avengers” had taken a rather more responsible approach, and it double-downs on that here, with the film being a very pointed response to the lack of regard for human life in Zack Snyder’s movie. The film doesn’t skimp on destruction, but from the first scene, places a huge emphasis on having its heroes protect civilians, with that often being their first priority, even in the face of their own safety (see Quicksilver’s death). It’s almost to the point where it over-states the case, but just keeps the right side, and generally proves a welcome reminder of what heroes are actually supposed to do.
The Monster Motif
Stuff like thematic depth and running motifs get smashed into tiny little inconsequential factors when it comes to the basis of a $280-million-dollar superhero blockbuster. But, gotta give credit where credit’s due, (and besides, a little thematic depth goes a long way in these things, so we’re damn well going to celebrate that). One of the most compelling motifs in “Age of Ultron” is the monster motif, extending far beyond the obvious Bruce Banner/Hulk dilemma, and adding dimension to both Black Widow and Tony Stark. Natasha and Bruce bond over this idea that each is a monster in their own way (after she delivers what’s one of the more genuinely heartfelt monologues in the film), while Tony’s whole (pretty skewed) concept of how best to protect the world throws the question of how monstrous he is under heavy scrutiny. Then there’s that moment when Ultron calls them all monsters. He’s kinda right, right? Therein lies the intrigue. Whedon peppers the screenplay with continuous references and, by cleverly utilizing the most interesting of all Scarlet Witch’s powers, is able to attribute the motif according to each Avenger, making the layers that much more engrossing.
Hawkeye Gets To Shine
If anyone was surplus to requirements in the first movie, it was Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, who spent most of the film brainwashed, and never had much of an interior life even when he was brought back to the team. Given that he’s a bow-and-arrow-wielding character, he was always going to be the subject of jokes about his usefulness, but the sequel manages to turn the drawback into an asset, making Renner arguably the MVP of the movie, and certainly its heart and soul. With the revelation that Clint Barton has a wife (an excellent Linda Cardellini) and family squirrelled away on a secret farmhouse, Renner becomes the blue-collar working man of the Avengers line-up, the one whose existence as a normal guy keeps them in touch with their humanity, who’s wondering about home renovations in the midst of battle. Renner blossoms now that he actually has something to play, and Whedon actually makes us care for him. Furthermore, he’s allowed to be funny, with his frustrated, muttered expression of his desire to kill Quicksilver earning the single biggest laugh in the movie. Using the character’s vulnerability as an asset might have just turned him into a fan favorite rather than a spare wheel.
Would these movies be making this much ridiculous bank if they weren’t funny? Yeah, yeah, Hulk chomping on a robot and a city getting cracked in half is the real eye-candy, but the humor goes a long way, and someone who gets a good share of the gags this time is Thor. The most comic-bookish of all Avengers (literally the opposite of down-to-earth), a character who is neither Viking nor alien, yet somehow both, should be the most out of touch and awkwardly un-funny dude of all. The fact that Whedon and Hemsworth play with this very notion is what makes him the funniest of the bunch, and efficiently grounds the character to a level we can relate to. Whether he’s politely not getting War Machine’s story, competing with Tony on who’s got the better girlfriend, or explaining why his hammer needs to be so terribly well-balanced, Thor is one chilled out Asgardian prince.
Killing Off Quicksilver
Joss Whedon has become famous among fans for a willingness to kill off beloved characters — “Buffy” and “Angel” were positively littered with corpses of central characters, and many still haven’t gotten over the brutal killing-off of Wash in “Serenity.” He lived up to form with Agent Coulson in “The Avengers,” and kills off an even bigger character here, gunning down Quicksilver. You can, and should, argue that it’s not as effective as it could be because the character’s relatively starved for screen time (especially having only been introduced a couple of hours earlier), but it’s still hugely important: killing off a super-powered character for the first time raises the stakes for everyone else, making it clear for both this movie and for future ones that an iron suit or magic hammer doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to live. It’s also done in a very smart way: emphasizing Hawkeye’s vulnerability and showing his own life makes it seem like he’s doomed, right up to the moment where he goes to rescue a child in the street. But it’s Quicksilver that takes the bullet, which pays off their somewhat tempestuous relationship in the movie, and redeeming Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character’s dickishness, and initially villainous nature. Let’s just hope that it sticks this time.
Hulk & Black Widow’s Relationship
Aside from Captain America and Peggy Carter, these movies haven’t been particularly strong on romance, so it’s gratifying that one of the most successful aspects of “Age Of Ultron” comes from a love story, and a somewhat unexpected one, between Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk. Their early flirtations at the party are sweetly awkward, and the chemistry between the two performers is a palpable one — not just in a they-clearly-want-to-get-it-on way, but in a soulmates-kind of way. Two troubled, wounded souls finding solace in each other. Like the best romances, it’s a tragedy, too: for all their fantasies of running off together, there’s part of both that knows it won’t work, and Banner eventually leaves in a jet to parts unknown to keep her safe (only after “I adore you,” maybe the most swoonsome Marvel moment to date). There’s undoubtedly more to come, but whatever it is, it’ll build on the satisfying foundations established here, and it helps bring some variety that stops the movie from just being a punch-fest.
Ultron Is A Fun Villain, For The Most Part
All in all, villains have been one of the weaker elements of the Marvel movies to date: Loki aside, they’ve usually either been interchangeable corporate types (Jeff Bridges, Guy Pearce), or interchangeable alien types (Malekith, Ronan The Accuser). Ultron isn’t perfect (see below), but befitting a movie with his name in the title, he’s certainly in the upper tier of bad guys in the mega-franchise. In part, it’s that he actually has an interesting motivation (like all the best villains, he’s the hero in his story), in part, it’s that he’s actually a complex, conflicted figure, an almost childlike robot who feels real pain at being betrayed by the Twins, for instance. And in large part, it’s thanks to James Spader, his laconic, instantly recognizable tone is a perfect fit for the robotic antagonist, lending him wit, menace and pathos while being a perfect match for Whedon’s dialogue (something that isn’t necessarily the case for everyone here). We’re still waiting for a Marvel villain as good as Heath Ledger’s Joker or Terence Stamp’s Zod, but Ultron’ll do for now.
The Best Scenes Are The Quiet Ones
As with the first movie, “Age Of Ultron” is a superpowered blockbuster where the most memorable scenes aren’t the wham-bang action sequences, but the scenes where our heroes get to shoot the shit together. From the early party sequence, which is enough fun that we’d have watched a whole movie of it, to the mid-film hideout at Hawkeye’s house, so much of the pleasure of the “Avengers” movies continues to be just watching these characters, most of whom are able to carry their own movies, interact together. You couldn’t ask for a better person to be in charge than Whedon on this aspect: he knows these characters like the back of his hand, and knows the right combination to put them in to wring out the right mix of drama and laughs, from Don Cheadle’s attempt at bragging stories to fit in, to Thor’s inappropriate consoling of the Hulk. If “Infinity War Pt. 1” turns out to be a feature-length version of the shawarma scene from the first film, it might actually be for the best.
Not to go all screenwriter-nerdy, but the use of Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer, is one of the most elegant pieces of blockbuster writing we’ve seen in years, and a prime example of what Whedon brings to these films, and why he’ll be sorely missed. Initially, its appearance at the party scene, as the Avengers drunkenly compete to be proven “worthy” by lifting it, seems just like a fun bit, an entertaining diversion. But actually, it’s a cunningly hidden set-up, which pays off when The Vision is introduced. As a part-creation of Ultron, they’re understandably mistrustful of him, until he casually passes Thor his hammer. It’s a great callback, a way of instantly making clear his essential worthiness in a way that would have been very tricky otherwise, and also a funny gag, sold in a perfect throwaway manner by the actors and the way the scene is blocked.
Though he’s been considerably softened in this one, Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk remains one of the most interesting players on the team. This time around, thanks to improved motion capture and to the consultation of cast member Andy Serkis, we get to see the torment painted in various shades on Hulk’s expressions, especially when he goes berserk in Jo’burg after Wanda messes with his mind. Amidst the plethora of characters and arcs that cross over and into each other in this movie, Hulk’s arc is perhaps the most poignant. He’s got that endearing romantic connection with Black Widow which is impossible not to root for, and thanks to Ruffalo’s performance and how brilliantly the character’s action scenes are rendered, his major dilemma (i.e. that he will accidentally hurt innocent people around him) feels more real, and resonates wider, than anything else. The final shot of him flying off grid is one of Hulk’s mightiest moments, made all the more powerful by its deafening silence.
There Are Too Many Damn Characters
We’d argue that the biggest problem of the movie is that there are simply too many characters at play for most of them to have a satisfying presence in the film. Even in the first one, with a reduced cast list, some of them got the short shrift (Hawkeye, namely), but here, we don’t just have the pre-existing Avengers, we have a new big bad to introduce (plus Hydra underling Wolfgang von Strucker, and Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue, the latter of whom is presumably setting up “Black Panther”), three new Avengers (two of whom are initially villains), support staff like Nick Fury, Maria Hill and Erik Selvig, and a brace of cameos both in dream sequences and in the real world. In some cases, it works nicely — Don Cheadle’s appearances are about perfect: a good gag early on, then lending a hand in the final action sequence. But aside from Hawkeye, Black Widow and Hulk, few of the other characters feel like their arcs are fully drawn: Tony Stark’s daddy issues with Ultron fall away in the second half, Captain America only really exists to serve as the team’s conscience, and Thor — well, we’ll get to Thor in a minute. The twins are pretty much just sketched out, the Vision’s introduced too late in the game to make an impact, and everyone else pretty much makes token appearances. And with “Doctor Strange,” “Black Panther,” “Captain Marvel,” “Inhumans,” “Ant-Man” and more set to join the universe before “Infinity War,” the company are going to have to start killing off characters just to make room, or risk a film as overcrowded as this one.
The Hulkbuster Sequence
Fans have been excited about the “Hulkbuster” sequence, which sees Tony Stark donning giant armor (nicknamed ‘Veronica’) to take down a Scarlet Witch-enraged Hulk in a city-wide brawl, since the first trailers for the film arrived. The result, however, was a little bit underwhelming. There are narrative reasons for it to exist in theory, sure: Hulk needs to go mental to give him additional reason to abandon Black Widow at the end, and to send the Avengers into hiding and turn the public against them. But neither one really pays off (Hulk’s fully in control during the final sequence, and we don’t see much in the way of public anger against the heroes in the attack’s aftermath), and it ends up feeling like a reprise of the Hulk-out in the first movie, which happened at exactly the same point, and proved to be rather more effective. We might forgive it if the scene was more inventive, but there isn’t a whole lot here that we haven’t seen elsewhere in these movies.
Speaking of retreads: the final action sequence. Sure, the floating city gimmick is new (though again speaks to the studio’s inability to end a movie without something flying, and then falling — see their last two movies as well), but the scene, which is seemingly endless, is mostly very similar to the one that closed out “The Avengers.” In fact, it’s less good: the clear sense of geography from the Battle of New York has gone, the multiple Ultrons end up feeling like generic foot soldiers in the same way that the Chitauri did (without the space-dragon things for variety), and Quicksilver’s death aside, the stakes don’t feel as life-and-death. There’s no moment as strong and desperate as the one where it takes everything to down one space-dragon, only to see dozens more pour out of the portal. It’s not a bad action sequence as such, but it’s just much, much less memorable than the last one in the first movie (or indeed, the first one in this film).
Overly Quippy Script
Joss Whedon made his name on smart, quippy, pop-culture dialogue that pricked both expectations and the tropes of the genres that he’s been working on, and one of the many benefits of the first “Avengers” movie was that it was genuinely and frequently funny, as much as any big comedy that year. “Age Of Ultron” doubles-down on the gags, but as with the action, it’s somehow less effective the second time around. There’s no big joke as effective as Hulk punching out Thor, or going to town on Loki (the aforementioned Hawkeye/Quicksilver joke comes closest), and though there’s plenty of laughs in the film, it feels like for every one that lands, there are two or three that come across like empty quipping, a joke to fill time rather than one coming organically from character or situation. Ultron, in particular, (for all his strengths) feels like a victim to that: referring to his “evil plan,” for instance, is so separated from his motivation elsewhere that it brings the scene in question to a crashing halt.
There’s A Villain On The Internet!
We liked Ultron on the whole, but along with the quippiness, there are still a number of issues with him. In part, he simply isn’t that scary: despite his looming height and physical threat, his many easily destroyed duplicates lessen the character, rather than building him up: volume alone doesn’t make for a memorable villain, especially as the first movie already went to that well. Futhermore, a bad guy escaping by existing on the internet raises unfortunate parallels with last year’s “Transcendence,” among other AI-themed movies, and for a film that can be plotted relatively neatly, the idea of Jarvis preventing him from obtaining nuclear launch codes is a rather wooly and contrived one. It’s not the end of the world, but it still shows that Marvel hasn’t nailed the bad guy issue yet.
Thor Doesn’t Have Much To Do
So Thor showed up in all the fights of course, and got a few funny lines (see above). But when it came down to the “inner battle” thing, that was one of the sequel’s most impressive themes elsewhere, he got a pretty short shrift. His Scarlet Witch-induced vision, in fact, meant he basically had to leave the film for a while, blasting off into the sky while the others got to hang out in Hawkeye’s house. And we are never told what actually happened to him there, nor really what it was that was so important, nor whether it was actually resolved or whether it was some sort of Phase 3 business inelegantly inserted as a teaser for the next Thor standalone film. You could say there’s a good reason to curtail the screentime of a hero who has his own franchise, in order to make some room for the new guys, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that Thor’s function was unclear in the grander scheme of things here, something you can’t say of fellow stand-alone heroes Iron Man or Captain America. Previously, with Loki being the villain, Thor felt integral to the A-plot, (and perhaps if they’d found a space for Loki again as Whedon had initially hoped, that would have helped) but instead he just got shunted to the side. So much so that, though as boomingly and charismatically played by Chris Hemsworth as ever, Thor was kind of overshadowed by his own hammer this time out. Whedon admits in the recent Empire podcast that “Thor is the hardest guy to integrate,” and that the cave sequence was a tangent forced on him by the studio: he was given an ultimatum to “give us the cave or we’ll take out the farm [sequence]… that’s where it got really unpleasant.”
The Female Characters Are Largely Underdrawn
Let’s be clear, we’re fairly sure Joss Whedon himself is on the side of the angels (and not the ones clad in Victoria’s Secret underwear) in the ongoing struggle over the representation of women in film. In fact, his calling out of the “70’s-era sexism” of that first “Jurassic World” clip was just …yes.. And he has done great things with Black Widow, who has all possible disadvantages in having no actual superpowers and no movie of her own to develop her character, and yet is such a compelling part of the team now that we’ll even overlook the fact that technically ‘Ultron’ sees her kidnapped and then rescued by her boyfriend. But we can’t really overlook the sketchiness of the other female characters. Maria Hill, again, gets supremely little to do or say, in fact in ‘Ultron’ it feels like her greatest function is making us like the actual Avengers a bit more because they invite her to their fun little hang-out. Dr Helen Cho, played by Claudia Kim, gets a nanosecond of exposition delivery and a quick hint that she fancies Thor before getting scepter-hypnotised. And so the new news here, in this regard, should be Scarlet Witch, but as we talk about more below, she is much more a plot element, with her brain-melding powers than she is a real character in her own right. And it’s a funny bit when Tony and Thor are one-upping each other’s (pointedly not-appearing) girlfriends, but it does highlight that none of the women ever have any real interactions with each other (and that they’re kind of treated like trophies). So we’re not sure if it’s Whedon’s fault, or the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s fault, or the actual universe in which we live, but it’s interesting to note that for all it tries to empower in its women, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” does not even pass the Bechdel test (not the be-all and end-all of movie feminism, but a useful indicator).
Scarlet Witch Is A Missed Opportunity
“He’s fast, she’s weird” is how Hill describes the Maximoff twins in layman terms, but Scarlet Witch’s arc could be a lot weirder, which is disappointing. She’s crazy powerful, more so than Ultron in many ways (“we can hurt them, but you will tear them apart…”), and she’s got among the most interesting combination of super powers out of the whole lot, but at one point she’s sidelined and then turned extra cheesy by the end (that whole “this is what it feels like” line felt really tacky, not to mention the “it’s my job” eye-roller). It feels like there’s so much more potential to her as a character, but she kinda got ruined by being forced into being a hero. When we first see her using her powers, Whedon adds a deliberately creepy vibe to her, but this completely dissolves by the end due to poor characterization. The potential for a powerful and complex female character was there, which bodes well for future outings, but here for a variety of reasons it was just dropped by the end. And Elizabeth Olsen, who is a talented actress, feels both underused and slightly overwhelmed by all the bluster around her.
The Twins’ Accents
The rather sketched-in nature of the twins’ characters is not helped hugely by both of them slightly struggling with the swallowed vowels of Eastern European accents that wander around a bit but mostly hover somewhere near a standard-issue movie-generic Rahssian. Of course, the old “but they’re from the fictional country of Sokovia and that’s totally what a Sokovian accent sounds like” protest covers a multitude of sins, but still it was a shame it didn’t sound more natural and fluent. As it is, it somewhat contributed to the thinness of their roles, and if Quicksilver at least gets a hero’s send off, Scarlet Witch is already more of a plot device than personality, and the last thing her character needed was another distancing element.
The Film Can Feel Choppy, Particularly In The Action Sequences
With plenty of material left on the cutting room floor, and a seemingly contentious post-production process, it’s not hugely surprising that “Age Of Ultron” feels kind of choppy in places. There are a couple of odd crossing-the-line moments in places, but the worst comes in some of the action sequences. The raid on Strucker’s base is mostly solid (even if it’s a little heavy on the CGI-faux-tracking-shot), but elsewhere — particularly in the Seoul sequence — the solid sense of geography and purpose that defined the Battle of New York is often absent, and the action doesn’t flow as organically as before. It’s clear from Whedon’s interviews that he was exhausted by the process of making the movie, and it sometimes shows in the film’s set pieces.
Early buzz from the geek crowd suggested that the Vision, Paul Bettany’s purple-skinned android, the Infinity Stone-powered bastard son of Ultron and J.A.R.V.I.S, was one of the film’s highlights. It’s nice to see Bettany get a proper showcase, his aforementioned Mjolnir-moment is a crowd-pleaser, and the character projects a kind of serenity that we’d love to have seen from cinematic Superman, but otherwise, frankly, we were underwhelmed. Is it because he’s introduced so late in the story, and doesn’t get much room to breath before he’s put into action? Is it because he disappears for a large chunk of the final action sequence? Is it because his powers are ill-defined, and seem to amount mostly to “he can also punch really well?” Or is it because we’re not as familiar with the comics character as some seem to be? Either way, by the time he shows up, he’s one more element in a movie that’s already overstuffed, and feels like he could essentially be lifted right out without damaging the whole.
Yet More 9/11 Imagery
It feels like we talk about this every time we write about a superhero movie, but can we please, please, please, please, please call a moratorium on the 9/11 imagery in the genre? Once or twice it might have been something interesting, but fourteen years and umpteen superhero pics later, we’re still seeing skyscrapers imploding and passers-by covered in their dust (as in the conclusion of the Hulkbuster sequence here), and it somehow feels like filmmakers are using it as a short-cut to importance, rather than as a reason to say anything interesting about superheroes, 9/11 or whatever. At this point, it just feels like bad taste.
Anything else you feel we haven’t covered? Let us know your thoughts on the movie, your favorite elements and personal bugbears, in the comments below. — Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang, Nik Grozdanovic