Avengers: Age of Ultron is the fourth “part 2” in the MCU, and so far The Winter Soldier has been the only “part 2” that was well liked. The Winter Soldier showed an amazing solution to the previously outlined “shared universe problem”: sequels don’t really have to be sequels. They can be used to advance the shared universe in important ways. They can be more than just an encore to their predecessor.
Age of Ultron is such a return to Whedon’s sensibility of tongue-in-cheek dialogue and self references, you would think that The Avengers just happened. Unfortunately, that means this movie disregards the tonal and thematic progress of the last four movies. The first Avengers worked so well because it had a stronger identity than the movies that came before it, but with strong showings from Guardians of the Galaxy and The Winter Soldier, the tone of this movie now feels more like an outlier than a trendsetter. While the first Avengers movie did almost nothing to further the characters or common story, this movie has to move mountains. Nearly every hero has a full movie’s worth of character development crammed in here, making it feel like there are half a dozen main characters when the first Avengers felt without any main characters.
This movie also had to expand the universe with a plausible introduction of three characters with big comic legacies: Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and Vision. The inclusion of Quicksilver was complicated by the fact that the character previously appeared in an X-men movie, and was simultaneously the same and not the same person, (it’s too complicated to explain here, just think of them as Sean Connery and Roger Moore), and feels like more effort was paid to differentiating the character than developing him. Scarlet Witch was made interesting mostly through her enigmatic powers, but the real oddity is Vision. He is an android made from synthetic tissue and vibranium atoms, he has an Infinity Stone embedded in his head and a mind that is an adaptation of JARVIS, he can fly, shoot energy blasts, and manipulate his density to the point where he can phase through matter. Vision is classically “comic book weird” and a perfect example of what we can expect to walk through the door opened by Guardians of the Galaxy. The handling of Black Widow here was not as well executed, this time making her a love interest for Banner/Hulk, since she seems to have a distinct relationship with both entities. She was previously teased as a love interest for Cap, then Hawkeye before him, then Stark before him, destined to be a free floating love interest for whoever the current filmmakers want to pair her with. I had similar problems with the handling of Cap here, as they ignore his progressive arc of distrusting authority and instead create a tangential internal conflict about being unable to live “without a war”. If the point is that Roger’s has a compulsion to fight for what he thinks is right, I don’t think it was necessary to make it since that was evident even when he was a 98 lb weakling. Stark, however seems to have been done justice here, creating the villain of the movie, Ultron, as a way of combating the anxiety of future unknown and having it backfire on him spectacularly.
It is worth noting that this movie has no external threat. There is no invading alien or secret society here. Ultron is created when Tony attempts to combine the dormant consciousness of the Mind Stone with a peacekeeping AI he designed in order to create “a suit of armor around the world”. Tony has noble intentions, but without good judgement perhaps due to poor mental health, he carelessly leaps into creating this AI that immediately sees humanity as the biggest threat to itself and decides to kill all humans as a means of protection. Ultron constructs swarms of robots to control, but his consciousness seems to exist either separate from them, or spread across all of them, making him a unique villain. Conceptually, Ultron is a poetic character; since he is the result of the combination of each Avenger’s efforts and exists only as a result of their collaboration (Stark and Banner developed Ultron together with resources the Avengers acquired as a team), he represents the very worst possible outcome of these remarkable individuals pooling their powers. He is the result of the Avengers’ existence. Conversely, Vision is the best possible outcome of the exact same circumstance, being full of virtue instead of contempt. Practically, Ultron is an odd duck, possessing a staggering amount of personality for a computer program, and varying between a threatening villainous rumble and a smug, sarcastic humor stolen from Chandler from friends. The odd humor from Ultron scrambles our emerging perception of him and makes him feel less threatening. It is exhilarating to see when a thousand or so ultron bots show up in the end, but without a substantial threat from the villain, it only really works on a superficial level.
Perhaps Avengers: Age of Ultron wasn’t given enough time to be properly developed. There is a pretty solid foundation here, but the structure that was built on it feels haphazard. Not enough attention was paid to making the story work, and instead focus was shifted to appeasing the fanbase, from the inclusion of Iron Man’s truly awesome Hulkbuster armor to the metatextual jokes about Hawkeye’s uselessness on the team. The story even indulges in classic foreshadowing tropes that heavy handedly signal Hawkeye’s coming death to play up the subversion in the end when another character sacrifices themselves so he can live. If the first Avengers movie was recess, this movie is finals week. In addition to telling a good individual story, this movie has to lay the tracks for several new story directions through character development and plot, introduce some monumentally odd characters, and be bigger, better, and more fun than the last one. The Avengers was constructed for a single, simple purpose: excitement. As much as that movie had stacked against it, Age of Ultron has even more. Sadly, this movie could not stand the weight of all those mandates and expectations. 3/5
Coming up next: Ant-Man (2015)