It seems like only yesterday that Iron Man 3 kicked off Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and today it comes to a close with Avengers: Age of Ultron. I’m going to structure this review differently than I typically do. I want to get into spoilers and talk about each of the characters, the plot, the shockers, but I also don’t want to spoil it for people who didn’t wait 2.5 hours in line tonight to see a 2.5 hour movie.
Therefore, in this first section I am going to give you the absolute bare bones if you want to read a review before you head off to the theater this weekend like the rest of THE WORLD is doing. Should you be worried about Chapter 11 in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe? NO. Let’s cover any other general questions quickly so you may be on your merry way and I’ll even give you my rating:
1. This is as good, if not better than The Avengers.
2. Ultron is the most formidable villain yet in the MCU.
3. This film makes past films better and lays the groundwork for much of Phase 3.
4. There are no good places to run to the bathroom.
5. There IS NO POST-CREDITS SEQUENCE; just the mid-credits.
6. The Avengers each have a distinct arc in the midst of world-threatening chaos.
7. The team at the end of the film is VERY different from at the beginning both in composition and purpose.
8. This is the beginning of the transition from original cast to next.
9. Joss Whedon’s writing and themes throughout his career shine through much more in this film than the first.
10. Few characters have a happy ending, but the audience will be screaming (literally) as we gleefully turn the page into Phase 3.
9.50/10 STOP READING NOW TO AVOID ANY MORE DETAILS!
Ok, last warning. If you don’t want to know any more than I divulged before, get thee off the page, because so much happens in this film that I don’t even know where to begin. This film from opening to close is moving non-stop, from action sequences to brilliant character moments that deepen each of the Avengers and their supporting cast and lay the groundwork for several films in Phase 3 and point the way with no ifs, ands or buts to a showdown with Thanos wielding the Infinity Gauntlet.
I have almost universal praise for the film, but where I have problems, they’re not really this film’s fault. The advertising gave away way too much. You’ve seen virtually the entire Hulkbuster fight if you’ve watched the trailers. Many of the other big fights are ruined by Michael Bay having saturated audiences with robot-fighting fatigue. They’re brilliantly choreographed and show a team that has worked together now for a long time and knows each other’s moves, but the ghost of Transformers lingers in your head whether you want it to or not. That’s a shame because, despite what you may have heard, this is Ultron’s movie and he is the sole villain and biggest threat any MCU movie has had. My only other critique would be that the film feels rushed. There’s so much to do and so little time (2.5 hours flies by) to do it in that I find myself almost wishing there was an extended edition to come. Marvel’s never done that with their MCU films, so I wouldn’t hold my breath, but I bet you there are mounds of deleted scenes that may or may not ever see the light of day. So how fared our heroes (and villains)?
In terms of finishing the work of Phase 2, perhaps the film’s biggest triumph is that it has, along with the “All Hail the King” short film, largely fixed the irrelevancy of Iron Man 3. It remains, by far, the worst of the 11 films to-date, but I can’t say it doesn’t matter any longer. Tony’s Iron Legion is integral to the evolution that leads to Ultron’s creation, and his character arc from the beginning of that film to the end of this one lead me to easily see Tony Stark setting into motion the events that will cause Civil War. In continually trying to fix the sins of his past, Tony is only causing more and more chaos and heartbreak because his central arrogance has not changed a whit. The really sad thing is that he knows it, and it’s eating him alive. I’m not sure if Robert Downey Jr. is going to stay in the MCU past Captain America: Civil War, but if he is, I think it’s going to be as Tony Stark not Iron Man. While Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth still look ageless, Tony very much looks RDJ’s age in this film, and I think that was a conscious choice.
Though Tony is the driving force behind the creation of Ultron, he’s not the sole parent. Mark Ruffalo, returning as Bruce Banner/The Hulk continues the “bromance” of like-minded “mad scientists” that the first film initiated. I think a better title for this film actually would have been Avengers: Gods and Monsters. Each of the heroes faces that duality and no one more visibly than Banner who not only helps create a monster as dangerous as his greener half, but thanks to some mind control from Scarlet Witch, is revealed to the world as a near-unstoppable force of destruction. Banner now, despite a surprising (but very well-reasoned) romance with Black Widow, firmly believes that there is nowhere on Earth where he is not a lethal threat to innocents and the movie leaves him heading toward self-imposed exile. The rights to a solo Hulk movie are currently in litigation with Universal Studios so an obvious segue to a Planet Hulk adaptation are less likely than a dramatic return at some point during the Infinity War.
Anyone who is familiar with Joss Whedon’s TV series (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse) knows that nothing good ever happens in a relationship. So the mismatched, but fitting pair of the most casually violent and reluctantly violent Avengers is a great place to explore a different side of the Widow than we’ve seen in previous films. Where before she’s been confident and invulnerable, here she is very vulnerable and through flashbacks we get glimpses at the Red Room where she was trained and some of the horrific things done to her and by her that flesh out the demons that drive her. While I would love for a Black Widow solo film or a Netflix series to fully explore her journey, let’s be honest Netflix can’t afford ScarJo, and the Widow – even more so than Cap – is the glue that holds these ensemble movies together. In that respect she’s indispensable, and that’s cemented by the fact that at the end of the movie, she and Steve Rogers are the only original Avengers still on the team. She’s already confirmed for Captain America: Civil War. In the comics, she sides with Tony, but this Black Widow I can’t ever see taking sides against Cap. Johansson continues to build one of the best female action characters of all-time and I think Ellen Ripley of Alien(s) fame is her only competition left for #1.
Thor’s arc in this film is slight compared to some of his teammates, but I don’t think that will be considered the case in retrospect. Thor’s job in this film, aside from providing some of the best comedic moments (despite being darker, this is a more consistently funny film than The Avengers and the running gag about everyone else trying to pick up Mjolnr leads to one of the movie’s biggest surprises), Thor’s character arc is to very clearly lay out for casual audience members the four Infinity Stones we know to be in play, emphasize their danger to the previously unaware Avengers and to set out to play detective as to exactly who (Thanos) is trying to bring them together. Thor: Ragnarok is said to pick up right where his arc leaves off in this film, which makes me wonder if we’ll be seeing Thanos in Thor 3 bringing about “the end of all things” (Ragnarok’s literal translation).
With every film, Chris Evans (who thankfully is now talking like he would like to play the character longer) gives Captain America more and more of the gravitas and character that make him the rock of the Marvel Universe. In this film, he’s a very comfortable field general and while he’s feels at home finally in the 21st Century (mostly), his moral compass is still very at odds with how some of his teammates (particularly Stark) see the world. The cracks between Cap and Iron Man are already pronounced, despite their very sweet scene at the end (which I imagine was written before Cap 3 went from being “Serpent Society” to “Civil War” with RDJ being involved). We get to see Sam Wilson lifted to full Avengers status and he’s been chasing leads on Bucky, so we know the manhunt for The Winter Soldier will also be a huge part of Civil War. I found it interesting that one-on-one, Ultron fought Cap more than he did Iron Man. Cap also has picked up a magnetized glove so he doesn’t have to keep prying his daggone shield out of everywhere, and the shield is a favorite combo nexus for all the Avengers. They find some very creative ways to make that “frisbee” (as Ultron calls it) a formidable weapon in team combat.
Jeremy Renner was very vocal about how little he had to do in the first Avengers film and his character really did get shafted. For awhile, it looked like he wouldn’t return as Clint Barton, but Whedon more than made up for slighting him. If anything, Barton is the point of view character. He gets some fantastic action scenes, is single-handedly responsible for bringing Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch into the fold and even provides his own home (Hawkeye’s got a wife and three kids!!!) as a safe haven when things get too hot. Renner is clearly done with the MCU and before the classic Whedon shocker death, I thought they were going to kill his character. While Hulk, Thor and Iron Man will most likely return to the team, I think Hawkeye is done in the MCU until perhaps they pass the mantle to Kate Bishop down the line somewhere.
We’re 1700 words into this review so if you’re still with us, I don’t feel guilty laying out the biggest shock of the movie which is the death of Quicksilver. After spending the whole film making Hawkeye look like he was going to get a tragic end, the shortest stint on the team goes to Pietro, who sacrifices himself to save Barton and a child. Both Fox and Marvel have the rights to Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch for legal reasons I refuse to explain again, but X-Men Days of Future Past kind of made it impossible for Marvel to top what Evan Peters did with this character. In fact, in every way I was thinking throughout the film that Pietro was going to be a sore thumb, when the brilliantly made the decision to stick with the stronger character of the twins and use Pietro’s death as a part of Scarlet Witch’s origin story as an MCU Avenger.
Speaking of Maximoffs, Wanda was fantastic. The Scarlet Witch is probably the most powerful mutant in the Marvel Universe, but in the MCU the Maximoff twins are dissidents who gained their powers through experimentation done by Hydra using the power of one of the Infinity Stones. She’s a fascinating character and one that can be an anchor of this new Avengers line-up for the next decade. Her fascination with the Vision, her mental instability (given even more weight with Pietro’s death) and the jaw-dropping breadth of her power is all briefly touched upon, and I’m glad we’ll be seeing her in Captain America: Civil War. The very reason that the Maximoff twins hate the Avengers and Tony Stark in particular is so simple and so brilliantly tragic that you don’t really blame them for initially siding against the Avengers. More than that, it adds another dimension and another face to the sins of Stark’s past, something that I’m sure will get more exploration in Cap 3 (who IS going to side with Tony?).
Another classic Avenger making his debut (well, in this incarnation) in Age of Ultron is The Vision. Created by Ultron as his “perfect body” the Vision is stolen by the Avengers and JARVIS finally gets a face and a body as his consciousness is uploaded into the form, and the hybrid is a new person altogether. The android is immediately powerful on a level with Thor and takes his spot on the team as the heavy-hitter (as does Rhodey with War Machine keeping an Iron Man on the squad). Vision is the one who eventually finishes Ultron and the decision to make the classic design stone on his forehead the “truth” Infinity Stone was as much as a stroke of genius as the moment when he proves himself worthy to wield Thor’s hammer. I hope we see the Vision and the Scarlet Witch’s classic arc fleshed out in films to come.
It could be argued that Nick Fury’s presence in the film is not really even necessary or a Deus Ex Machina that solves the unsolvable dilemma Ultron places the Avengers in too neatly. I prefer to see it as the beginning of the rebirth of SHIELD. Nick has clearly walked through the fire since we last saw him and when he shows up with the classic helicarrier and Cap tells Pietro that is SHIELD as it should be, I think we’re seeing the beginning of it rising from the ashes.
So I saved Ultron for last, and I feel like I’ve talked about him through his conflict with each of the heroes to an extent, but not enough praise can be heaped on James Spader for giving this robot a personality that is distinct, yet clearly Tony’s id gone to the furthest reaches of its darkest potential. One thing that got a little lost in all of the things that had to be done with this film was how hard to kill and how slippery Ultron is, but I think it’ll be easy enough to bring him back for another go if they so choose. Ultron is the Avengers’ most haunting villain so he certainly warrants another go-round in the future.
The future of the MCU – Phase 3 – is clearly laid out in this film. Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers: Infinity War, Captain America: Civil War and Black Panther were all set-up to pick up from this film. The new Avengers team, for those who complained it was all white dudes, is a very diverse group: Captain America, Black Widow, War Machine, Falcon, The Vision and The Scarlet Witch make for a very potent and interesting mix. We talked a little yesterday about how this film will be compared in retrospect to Iron Man 2 and all that film set up, but this does so much more, so well that when your biggest complaint is that you want more of it, you know Joss Whedon has delivered another gift to geeks and the newly-converted alike. The MCU through 11 films may be the most consistently excellent film franchise in film history (we’ll see how I feel about that after Ant-Man) and Avengers: Age of Ultron gets Summer 2015 off to a roaring start.