Avengers: Age of Ultron is probably the most anticipated Marvel movie since the original Avengers. With the first Avengers movie I’ll admit to having walked in with cautious excitement at whether or not they had pulled it off. This time in a post-Avengers world it seemed a safe bet this was going to be a good movie. But how good? Better than the first? Hmm… I’ll come back to that question at the end.
Now normally I try review products in a relative vacuum, but with Marvel movies? Let’s be honest, if you’re reading this review you’ve very likely already seen the original Avengers and you’re probably wondering how it stacks up. So I’m going to try something different and not shy away from using the original for context. Consider this a casual review, a discussion between fellow fans.
So there’s something that Age of Ultron has that is going to be a big plus for comic book readers: it feels like an Avengers story. A couple of times over the years I’ve said that the original Avengers movie was more of an Ultimates movie than Avengers. Ultimates being the recent re-imagining of the Avengers in a modern context and with a more mature tone. By drawing that comparison I meant how the original movie had an almost militaristic tone to it at times and the Avengers themselves felt very much like an extension of SHIELD. This time that’s gone. The Avengers are living and working out of Avengers tower and right from the first scene, despite splitting up last time, it’s implied that the team have been working together since sometime after the conclusion of Winter Soldier. Basically, they feel more like the Avengers from the comics, in that they joke with each other and have a team dynamic that feels natural and something formed over time. I suppose in a way this time they’re friends, rather than just allies. The only downside to this is you lose a little bit of the wow-factor that was present in the original. The first time around we saw Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Black Widow, Nick Fury, and Bruce Banner all stood in the same room aboard a SHIELD helicarrier, we’re all used to that idea now but at the time that was incredible. I vividly remember being sat in the cinema and just being amazed by the fact this movie even existed. No matter how good Age of Ultron gets it never quite reaches the spectacle caused by bringing these players together for the first time. But that’s entirely unavoidable and what we gain from that loss is a team dynamic already formed from the get-go.
All the Avengers are given moments to shine and Hawkeye, who was shafted in the original, is especially given plenty of attention. Speaking of Hawkeye, in the original I found him disappointingly generic compared to the sarcastic and jokey comic book Hawkeye. He’s not quite Fraction and Aja’s Hawkguy here, but he’s got a lot more personality and he’s no longer just any other SHIELD soldier. He feels like a proper member of the team and finally fits in.
Unfortunately, the addition of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch don’t add anything to this dynamic. With a stereotypical and weak backstory, the duo feel like an afterthought. Now, I’m a big Scarlet Witch fan and seeing her on screen was fun but… she felt awfully out of character. Quicksilver is perhaps in character in the context that he’s a surly grump but I didn’t feel like there was anything else to him. The movie would have been just as good without the two of them in it. And considering that you have to wonder if they should have just left them out altogether. Although I will admit it was nice to see another female character kicking ass. With word that the original cut of the movie was over three hours, compared to the two hours and twenty-ish minutes we get in the cinema, I do wonder if the twins were a victim of editing and we’ll get a better look at them once the blu-ray arrives.
Meanwhile Ultron is fantastic. James Spader brings a ton of personality to the character with his thoughtful gravely voice. Ultron has a real presence in every scene. He feels dangerous and unnerving. Is he a better villain than Loki was? That’s debatable, but he’s certainly different and I think that’s a very good thing. Because of his physical presence it also means he gets to take on the Avengers directly, unlike Loki who mostly led from the back. The only odd thing about Ultron is that the movie can’t seem to decide on what his relationship to the Avengers should be. There are some quick references to him having a sort of father/son or Geppetto/Pinocchio dynamic with Iron Man yet that’s only lightly mentioned and never explored. Again I’m left wondering if that’s something that was left on the cutting room floor.
Although the second half of the film is fantastically tense, the first half is a bit uneven. It’s not bad per se, but I was left feeling that what was to come was a little too obvious. Even having avoided all trailers, teasers and information leaks, the direction of the plot never feels surprising. It’s entertaining to watch certainly, but I was never left wondering what could possibly happen next because it felt like the plot was moving in a very conventional direction. This is not a movie full of twists and turns, instead it’s a series of very well directed action set pieces placed between relaxed character moments, scenes that remind us why these characters have endured for well over fifty years of incarnations.
Age of Ultron continues the trend of setting up the Avengers as heroes who are out to protect people, not just punch the bad guy. Like the original, there are plenty of scenes that are about saving lives, even if it puts that character in a dangerous position to do so. I appreciate it as it cuts right to what these characters are supposed to be: super heroes. It gives the action scenes some heart beyond just being big CG spectacles.
One thing of note I do want to mention is that there are very clear hints at what’s to come. We know all of the phase 3 Marvel movies are planned and in Age of Ultron you can tell they’re laying groundwork for these future movies. There was a vague impression of this in the original Avengers but it’s only with the recent movies like Guardians of the Galaxy where you can tell Marvel know precisely what each movie is leading to in the grand scheme of things. Furthermore as well as looking forward, Age of Ultron also looks back. There are plenty of nods to earlier movies, all of which are reminders that this far in there’s now a lot of continuity to these movies. Although it’s easy to think of this as “Avengers 2” it’s more like “Marvel 11” for better or worse.
Oh, don’t bother seeing the movie in 3D. Although I remember thinking Thor The Dark World benefitted from 3D, Age of Ultron doesn’t. The 3D here felt very much like an afterthought. I know it’s hip to hate on 3D but for the record I’m normally pretty positive about it! Here I was pretty disappointed though. If you have a choice, save your money and go 2D.
Overall the movie is a great balance of action, humour and character moments, which is review-speak for: it’s like the first Avengers. It’s what you’re expecting. If you loved the original Avengers then you can relax, this is a great movie. If you’re expecting to be blown away and the bar raised again, then maybe dial back your expectations. Age of Ultron is the lesser of the two movies. If only for the predictable plot and the disappointing use of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, who introduce a weak link that just wasn’t present the first time. But that said, it’s easily as good as the average Marvel Studios movie.