Avengers: Age of Ultron (May 1 , 2015)
If you’re playing music, turn down the volume. Steady your breathing. Can you hear it? That’s the sound of Ultron breaking box office records like he breaks buildings in the superhero sequel. It’s already racked up $200 million overseas and it poises to shatter the original film’s 2012 domestic opening weekend record (that was $207 million alone, by the way). So its safe to say this film – a bigger, badder, and explod-ier Avengers – is in the red almost immediately regardless of its merits as a film.
Director Joss Whedon more than earned the trust of both worldwide audiences and Marvel Studios when he knocked The Avengers out of the park. They locked him down for three years to work on their Phase 2 films and write/direct Age of Ultron. With introductions out of the way, he dives in immediately to the team (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye) in action, raiding a Hydra base of Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann). There they meet the superpowered Maximoff twins (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen) and gain the knowledge that sets Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) on the path to creating Ultron.
He immediately leaps into the story and action, juggling the massive ensemble with grace. Everyone gets a moment, even if only one. It is quintessential Whedonesque (a term coined by his fandom to describe his unique material). He is a genius storyteller with wit to match. He’s brilliant because he understands he must make a very different film than the original while doubling-down on the elements that The Avengers put into place. There are handicaps to such an enormous undertaking even Whedon can’t overcome.
One such handicap was his determination to fit more in a shorter time. He furiously cut the film to get it shorter than the original (and it is, by 1 minute). It helps and it doesn’t. One thing it gets right is its title character. Villains have never been Marvel’s strong suit but James Spader mo-caps the fuck out Ultron. He is great and plays Ultron as a snarky teenager far too smart and powerful for his own good (with genocidal tendencies). The technology is simply amazing and the emotion that comes through quite real.
This isn’t The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather Part II, or The Dark Knight of sequels, but it is a very worthy follow-up to the original, with significantly darker content coated in a Disney sheen not unlike our ostentatious new friend Vision (Paul Bettany who previously voiced Iron Man’s JARVIS A.I.). His addition is late in the game but he more than makes his mark as a sentient android who decides humanity maybe has one or two redeeming factors.
Our heroes are ably played with Whedon paying special attention to those who haven’t had a spotlight recently. Downey, Jr. remains at the core of the Marvel machine as Iron Man, an unexpected romance between Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) emerges, and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, infamously shafted in the original to the disappointment of many including the actor, gets arguably the juiciest role in the film. Captain America and Thor, with solo films coming in 2016 and 2017, more or less play their characters statically with little variation.
For me , the Hulk and Black Widow romance felt more forced than natural. Because the movie is so stuffed that information needs to be parceled on iPads to the characters and the audience simultaneously, it kind of just starts. I would have liked maybe some build-up instead of Widow going 0-to-60 on Banner’s ass (sadly, that is not a scene in the movie).
I unexpectedly enjoyed the addition of the Maximoff twins – Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. Their announcement made me feel they were be out of place along side our heavy hitters but they more than earn their place. The only downside is that they didn’t have more to do. Again, time. Something tells me the DVD and Blu-ray will have a plethora of deleted scenes. An extended edition with an alternate ending is already planned.
Last but not least, my boy Hawkeye got to do stuff! It’s not a hue spoiler but for those who don’t know – SPOILER – in this film we meet Hawkeye’s pregnant wife (played by Bloodline stand-out Linda Cardellini) and two kids on his getaway farm. It’s crazy what adding kids will do to enrich a character. Indeed, Hawkeye’s role on the Avengers is examined and later gives us this gem of a line “We’re fighting an army of robots . . . and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense.” But because of Renner and Whedon’s writing, you buy it as an audience member and suddenly, the archer has become the heart of the team. (UPDATE: According to Thursday night’s #AskElMayimbe Q&A, Hawkeye will play an equally pivotal role in next year’s Captain America: Civil War. Good time to be a Renner fan)
Speaking of seeds, many are planted and foreshadowed and foreplanted* etc. Although the seeds for the two-part sequel Infinity War were quite awkward, particularly Thor’s truncated Act 2 trip to take what amounts to a magic bath that somehow lets him remember a dream. Yeah, it sounds even dumber when its in a sentence. Thankfully it’s pretty much bare essentials to get Thor the information that the Avengers need to know to get us to the next movie.
The downsides of a defined brand like Marvel is defined flaws and a defined flaw of the MCU has always been shoehorning story elements at the expense of narrative (i.e. Iron Man 2). Age of Ultron doesn’t escape it and no film will (even the first Iron Man couldn’t make it through the credits) but the fact is, Joss Whedon made a film with the name Ultron in the title, not only a global blockbuster on everybody’s minds, but made it well. It’s a monumental achievement to assemble the Avengers and he did it twice. Age of Ultron is the equivalent of Whedon dropping the mic.
July 17, 2015 – Ant-Man
May 6, 2016 – Captain America: Civil War
November 4, 2016 – Doctor Strange
May 5, 2017 – Guardians of the Galaxy 2
July 28, 2017 – Spider-Man: The New Avenger
November 3, 2017 – Thor: Ragnarok
May 4, 2018 – Avengers: Infinity War – Part 1
July 6, 2018 – Black Panther
November 2, 2018 – Captain Marvel
May 3, 2019 – Avengers: Infinity War – Part 2
July 12, 2019 – Inhumans
*Author is aware this is not actually a word