In some ways, I think I may be both the worst and the best possible person to review the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, largely because I’ve seen all the films but I don’t know much about the comics on which they are based. As a result, I can judge each film solely by what is on screen but, at the same time, I know that there are a lot of references that go straight over my head. For instance, when we saw Avengers: Age of Ultron earlier tonight, I had to get my boyfriend to explain to me why certain members of the audience got so excited when Iron Man mentioned an African country called Wakanda. But what’s important is that I would have still enjoyed Age of Ultron even if I had never known why Wakanda was important. The MCU has, so far, managed to maintain a balance between keeping the Marvel fans happy while also remaining accessible to viewers like me. The MCU has created its own separate reality, one that even someone like me can feel comfortable exploring and reviewing.
However, before I get around to giving you my feelings on Age of Ultron, let’s be honest about something.
There are a lot of critics out there who have been waiting for a chance to attack the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Some of them have disliked the MCU since the very first Iron Man film. They have been lone voices in the wilderness, arguing that the entire franchise is overrated and, in some cases, creatively destructive. Much like the Old Testament prophets, they continue to warn of the future while other filmgoers ignore the pillar of fire forming over the nearest theater. And then there are other critics who have praised previous MCU efforts but have never really been comfortable about it. These are the critics who resent having to write positively about a mere genre film. These are the critics who still haven’t gotten over just how good Guardians of the Galaxy truly was. They have been waiting for an MCU misfire so that they can do their penance for suggesting that Robert Downey, Jr. deserved Oscar consideration for Iron Man 3.
These critics are going to watch The Avengers: Age of Ultron and they are going to pounce. They are going to point out that Age of Ultron puts too much emphasis on action over nuance and, as impressive as the CGI may be, it’s impossible to deny that Age of Ultron almost robotically follows the classic action movie formula. They’ll point out that none of The Avengers really develop as characters over the course of the film. Depending on how they’ve felt about the MCU up to this point, some of them will point out that Age of Ultron feels a bit like a step backwards. It doesn’t have the political subtext of Iron Man 3 or Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It lacks the satiric edge of Guardians of the Galaxy. And, ultimately, it’s just not as much fun as the first Avengers film.
And they won’t necessarily be wrong. I mean, let’s be honest. I write this as someone who has enjoyed (and, in some cases, loved) the previous MCU films. Avengers: Age of Ultron is not going to be remembered as one of the best of the MCU films. This is a flawed film that never reaches the heights of the original Avengers. All of the criticisms listed above are perfectly valid.
But, with all that in mind, I still enjoyed Avengers: Age of Ultron and I happily recommend it without a bit of hesitation.
Age of Ultron opens with the Avengers attacking a HYDRA base and we quickly discover that the Avengers are exactly the same as we remembered them. Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) is cocky, self-destructive, and torn by guilt over his past as a weapons manufacturer. Captain America (Chris Evans) is earnest and idealistic. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is … well, he’s a God. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is scared of what he becomes when he transforms into the Hulk. Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) is still shooting arrows and feeling out-of-place. Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) is still flirty, enigmatic, and apparently in love with Bruce Banner.
One of the reoccurring themes of the MCU is that whenever Iron Man tries to make the world a better place, he instead ends up nearly destroying it. His latest attempt leads him to create Ultron (voiced quite chillingly by James Spader), a robot who has Tony’s personality and who has decided that the only way to bring about “peace in our time” is to destroy all of humanity. Ultron’s motives are as close as this film gets to any sort of thematic subtext. Ultron stands in for every ideology that would take away a person’s individual freedom in the name of the greater good. Age of Ultron doesn’t explore this subtext as much as I would have liked it to but, at the same time, I appreciated that it was at least there. That’s more than you can say for a film like Man of Steel.
Ultron is not the only new character to show up. Andy Serkis has a small role as a character that will undoubtedly be a villain in a future MCU film. After voicing JARVIS in several films, Paul Bettany finally gets to actually appear onscreen. I can’t talk too much about his character without spoiling the film but Bettany makes good use of his limited screen time.
And then there’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen. Previously, they played lovers in Godzilla. In Age of Ultron, they play siblings who just seem like lovers. Taylor-Johnson is Pietro, who can move at super speeds. Elizabeth Olsen is Wanda, whose powers are a bit less defined but mostly seem to consist of being able to do whatever the script needs her to do at the time. (As the film explains it, “He’s fast, she’s strange.”) In the past, I’ve had mixed feeling about Taylor-Johnson. I thought he was brilliant in Nowhere Boy and Anna Karenina but, in other films, I found him to be excessively mannered and a little dull. But, in the role of Pietro, Taylor-Johnson really shines, achieving a good balance of arrogance and vulnerability. As for Elizabeth Olsen, she is perfectly cast as the angry but sensitive Wanda. At the very least, Age of Ultron better serves both of them than they were served by Godzilla.
(Add to that, Wanda and I share similar tastes in fashion, which will make it easy for me to dress up as her for Halloween.)
Director Joss Whedon does a good job with the film’s many battle scenes, especially the final one. And, as someone who hated the mindless destruction of Man of Steel, I appreciated that, as characters, the Avengers spent as much time trying to protect innocent bystanders as they did battling Ultron and his henchrobots. At the same time, it was hard not to feel that the film’s emphasis on action did sacrifice some of the character moments that have made other MCU films so memorable. Early on in the film, there’s a great scene where the Avengers simply hang out at a party. They dance, they dink, they laugh, and eventually, they all take turns attempting to pick up Thor’s hammer. It’s a fun scene because it brings these heroes back down to Earth and, for a few minutes, we get to relate to them in the way that we would relate to our best friends. Age of Ultron could have used more scenes like that.
That said, the cast of Age of Ultron provides enough old fashioned movie star charisma that they overcome the script’s shallow characterization. In many ways, it’s like one of the old Frank Sinatra rat pack movies, where you forgive a lot because you enjoy hanging out with the cast. They’re just fun to watch. Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, and Mark Ruffalo; at this point they are so identified with these characters that the actors and their roles might as well be interchangeable.
(And, at this point, if it were revealed the Robert Downey, Jr. owned a suit of armor, would you really be surprised?)
Ultimately, Age of Ultron feels a lot like one of the less acclaimed James Bond films. It’s flawed, it’s imperfect, but fans of the franchise will find a lot to enjoy. Much as you wouldn’t introduce someone to James Bond by showing him Moonraker, you probably wouldn’t want to introduce someone to the MCU by showing him or her Age of Ultron. If, somehow, you’ve managed to exist without ever seeing any other MCU films, then Age of Ultron will leave you confused and wondering what the big deal is. But, if you’re already a fan of the franchise, you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.
And, flaws and all, you’ll walk out of the theater looking forward to the next installment.