It can’t be easy being the follow-up to the biggest superhero movie ever.
There’s a lot of weight on the shoulders of whoever is in charge of a movie like Avengers: Age of Ultron — in this case, Joss Whedon once again — to craft a movie that is even more enjoyable than the first, while fulfilling even more desires from audience and studio alike, while also stepping things up a notch.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is certainly a much bigger film and it absolutely tries its best to cover as much ground as possible, but even a talent greater than Whedon’s couldn’t handle the breathtaking amount of crap Marvel decided to pack into this film.
Acting more as a patchwork for the studio’s upcoming slate, Age of Ultron, while mostly worth its weight in spectacle and zingers, is overflowing with characters and nods to the point where there is almost no satisfying story arc in the film.
After completing some heroic housekeeping from the events of The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Avengers may have finally caught a break from protecting the world. Tony Stark, now in possession of Loki’s sceptor, finds an opportunity to use his new tech to jumpstart an artificial intelligence peacekeeping program that Bruce Banner and himself have been working on — Ultron. But as these things always go, Ultron immediately sees the best route to saving humanity as destroying it. With Ultron allying himself with two scorned superhuman twins in his plan to destroy the world, it’s up to the Avengers to stick together as a team and overcome their inner turmoil to best this new threat.
As mentioned earlier, Age of Ultron is big and blockbuster-y in some satisfying ways. There are several ambitious set pieces in the film, with the whole picture peppered with memorable one-liners and exchanges. Excusing some seriously messy camerawork in areas, the fight between Iron Man and the Hulk and the finale atop a rising city are among the best moments the movie — and maybe all Marvel movies — has to offer.
With hindsight, part of the reason early Marvel films like Iron Man work so well is that they keep a core of four to five characters and develop from there. Steadily growing ever since, we reach the point of Avengers: Age of Ultron, which has almost 20 characters battling for screentime. The result is that almost no one in the film gets ample time to shine.
I realize this is an Avengers movie, and that characters are supposed to share the screen for the shared experience, but even the multiple storylines feel maddeningly shallow or sometimes not at all worth it. When the pieces feel wrong, the whole picture starts to suffer.
Really, in the realm of characters getting their due, only Hawkeye has been afforded some actual growth, probably as a “mea culpa” for his role in the first movie. His addition to the film seems to be the exception to the rule when it comes to the characters not getting their due.
Iron Man has perhaps the most un-met potential among the returning players, with Whedon toying with the idea that Stark is still not terribly popular around the world and that his actions, past and present, keep coming back to haunt everyone. But that’s quickly dropped in accordance with the action quota, while reasoning behind him being his same old self after the transformative end of Iron Man 3 is not even touched on.
Captain America is mostly kept to nice character beats in the absence of an actual arc (nice character beats being more than he was afforded the first time around), while Thor gets the honored duty of heading the film’s choppy, shoehorned side story that presumably leads up to many upcoming Marvel movies — it just has basically nothing to do with this one.
Bruce Banner and Black Widow here are stuck in an even worse shoehorned element: a forced love story. One that’s not believable beyond the reasoning of “well… we need something for the girl of the movie to do and we didn’t bother with the Hulk this time. Problem solved.” Keep an eye out for the third wheel in their romance scene: the conveniently eye-catching can of Gillette shaving cream.
The twins, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, are intriguing and feel like they should hold more importance but are another casualty of an overstuffed movie, getting shoved out of the picture in their own debut.
Also not getting their moment in the sun are Ultron and The Vision. The Vision is a cool new element to the team, and has a couple standout moments, but this is just his introduction in a movie that already had enough going on. Ultron, meanwhile, is hard to dislike because of James Spader’s menacing charisma, but again isn’t afforded the proper time to become one of Marvel’s few multidimensional villains.
And that’s not even touching on Nick Fury, War Machine and Maria Hill, who are in this movie for… some reason…, Baron Strucker, and our South African arms dealer, Ulysses Klaw, who essentially appears to preview a movie than is more than three years away.
Avengers: Age of Ultron isn’t one of the stronger Marvel movies, even among Phase 2, but it’s still not necessarily bad. The film’s positives still make it worth catching on the big screen. I can honestly say I had fun watching a lot of it.
Still, it’s an odd occurrence when a movie so stuffed with stuff feels so empty. Ultimately, that’s what makes Ultron great promotional material instead of a great movie.