Ask any fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe about the Avengers and you’ll no doubt get an earful in regards to how great the initial 2012 film was. Ask them about the 2015 sequel, Age of Ultron, and you’ll probably get a more restrained, oft-times highly critical lecture on what is easily the MCU’s most divisive movie to date. Opening in early 2015 to great reviews and a solid box office turnout, the years following it’s release have seen a rise in scathing criticism towards the movie. Even director Joss Whedon has distanced himself from it, expressing regret and disappointment with how it turned out.
But does it really deserve the stick it regularly gets from fans of the MCU? As we count down the days until Avengers: Infinity War, now seems as good a time as ever to reassess and reappraise what is arguably one of Marvel Studios’ most underrated films.
In this writer’s opinion, Age of Ultron is a better Avengers film then Avengers Assemble. That’s not to say Assemble is inferior – the 2012 film is as close as you get to a perfect superhero blockbuster and absolutely deserves its place in the god-tier of comic book flicks. But whereas that entry in the franchise made the seemingly impossible possible in pulling together various strands from several films into one narrative, Age of Ultron offers a more complex and involving story beyond that film’s simple origin tale.
Where Ultron shines first and foremost is its use of both the established characters and the newer ones. By now, audiences have seen each of the main heroes in their own solo movies, but Ultron builds on what we already know about them and uses the central narrative of the story to explore each hero further.
The character that benefits most from this is Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). As we saw in Iron Man 3 (2013), Tony is suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his near-death experience during the Battle of New York. When Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) infects him with an illusion of his teammates dead at the hands of a greater enemy at the start of the film, it’s a catalyst for events to come, with Tony’s attempts to create an A.I. to safe guard the earth from future threats resulting in the creation of the villainous Ultron. Whereas Iron Man 3 played fast and loose with Tony’s PTSD only when the story demanded it, here it is given some depth and used to drive the story, as opposed to simply being utilised as and when the plot demands a sudden obstacle for the hero.
Every character gets an important moment, no matter how subtle. Scarlet Witch’s mind-games tell us more about the characters in mere moments as opposed to time-wasting dialogue – Thor’s fear that he has abandoned Asgard, Captain America’s sense of loss and isolation as a result of his reawakening in another time and Black Widow’s mysterious and bloody former life as an assassin. Each moment is small, but says so much! Even newcomers Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are afforded more in the way of development then other superhero villains, from their tragic backstory in war-torn Sokovia and vendetta against Tony Stark to their subsequent redemption in the wake of Ultron’s apocalyptic masterplan.
Whereas the first film somewhat sidelined characters like Hawkeye and Thor, here every character takes centre stage (including the new additions to the roster). Hawkeye in particular has a great character arc. How can a man with just a bow and arrow measure up to Super-Soldiers, Gods and Hulks? What can he bring to the team? This idea of inadequacy is epitomised with his injury early on in the first battle against Hydra, the reveal of his secret family life, and the later speech he gives to Scarlet Witch in the heat of battle about what it means to be an Avenger. Suffice to say, Jeremy Renner owns it, delivering some great one-liners and getting a fair slice of the action and drama then he was afforded in Avengers Assemble. The wearying scene of him carrying Quicksilver’s body onto the Helicarrier is tiny, but Renner imbues the moment with wonderful understated pathos that ensures wet eyes everytime.
Beyond just the character arcs, Age of Ultron takes every successful element from it’s predecessor up a notch, resulting in a funnier and more emotionally complex blockbuster – the unlikely but sweet relationship between Natasha and Bruce, the distrust and disjoin between the team following Ultron’s birth that pervades throughout the rest of the movie, the red-herrings of Hawkeye’s death leading up to Quicksilver’s emotional self-sacrifice and the beginning of the Scarlet Witch/Vision relationship to name but a few choice sections. Likewise, Joss Whedon’s trademark wit is ever-present, punctuating tense moments and ensuring plenty of genuinely funny character beats throughout – the Hulkbuster scene in particular is the perfect combination of action, tension and humour, whilst the earlier party scenes again add plenty of neat character beats and hilarious moments. Even the Vision’s introduction delivers a moment so perfect and funny that we’d have to rate it up there with the Hulk/Loki smash scene from Assemble.
Some accuse the film of being overstuffed, but Ultron is nothing of the sort – the main plot remains the prime focus throughout, whilst wider MCU references like the first mention of Wakanda, the introduction of Ulysses Klaw (Andy Serkis), the explanation of the Infinity Stones and the seeds of Civil War are mere window dressing, enriching the experience but never distracting from the core narrative.
Above all, it is simply a better action movie. Avengers Assemble opens with a slightly underwhelming and flimsy chase sequence. Age of Ultron opens with an earth-shattering battle in the snow featuring all of the Avengers in unison against Hydra’s forces. As opening remarks go, it’s a doozy. From then on in, all of the major battle sequences follow suit, upping the ante from the first movie, delivering expertly choreographed and inventive fight scenes that feel like they’ve been ripped straight out of a two-page comic spread. Joss Whedon’s direction is far more confident and kinetic then it was in the first film, the director clearly more assured of how these character dynamics and action sequences work best together onscreen.
A richer experience then Avengers Assemble, Age of Ultron is exactly what an Avengers sequel should be – it develops the characters further in ways we may not have expected, it builds on the successes of the original film whilst course-correcting the elements that perhaps weren’t as successful (*cough* Hawkeye! *cough*), it introduces plenty of new character and elements to the canon without distracting from the main plot, and it goes to some darker places that the original movie didn’t, resulting in a more emotional and tension-soaked cinematic experience. Frankly, it’s continued drubbing from fans is unwarranted, especially when it delivers a good mix of inspired new ideas whilst equally building on what made the first film such a joy.
Let’s see Avengers: Infinity War top this one!