Review: Avengers: Age Of Ultron Merges Comic Book And Movie Masterfully
"You want to protect the world, but you don't want it to change."
- Worth The Time?Depends on who you are, really.
- Things LovedThe comic book feel was absolutely spot-on; the continuity and sheer ingenious universe-building of Marvel and Whedon really shines here; the humour was on point for the most part; the new characters were interesting and presented some of the best moments of the film; the pace was breakneck and frenetic; it felt like paradise to the comic book hardcore, honestly there is too much to love here.
- Things HatedThis movie demands you to not treat it like a traditional movie, which is something many cannot reconcile; it is still ultimately a series for fans of the comic books; some inconsistencies do exist within the plot.
- RecommendationAvengers: Age of Ultron will more than likely be the standout comic book movie release of the year, and in a year when the likes of Star Wars are getting releases, it might well stand strong for a long time as the best movie of the year. But this depends entirely on your investment in comic books. If light-hearted but intricately woven stories are not your thing, perhaps this isn't your cup of tea. But if it is, then you will never feel more fulfilled than after watching this movie.
- Title: Avengers: Age of Ultron
- Genre: Geekasm
- Director: Joss Whedon
- Producer: Kevin Feige
- Story: Joss Whedon
- Studio: Marvel / Disney
- Running Time: 141 minutes
- Age Restriction: PG-13
- Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Don Cheadle, Samuel L Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, Anthony Mackie, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård
Movies are a lot like medicine, in that there is an accepted practice that has been used for a very long time and it takes someone very gifted to truly work miracles with what they get. Like medicine, movies are healthy for us in good moderation. Like medicine, we feel better after watching a movie and will recommend it to others looking for a pick-me-up. Like medicine, movies have long stagnated in terms of structure and are in need of a modern shake-up.
This is where Marvel comes in, with Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. To call it a movie would be to tell a third of the story. To call it a comic book movie would be two thirds there. But ultimately what Avengers: Age of Ultron is, is something that transcends both of those and manages to become something else entirely. Something that, admittedly, requires lots of investment on your part in order to truly appreciate.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is the next chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which now counts the following under its ever-growing pool of established stories: The Incredible Hulk; Iron Mans 1, 2 and 3; Captain Americas 1 and 2; Thors 1 and 2; Guardians of the Galaxy; Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Daredevil and finally, Agent Carter. Also in the pipeline are Ant Man, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, The Inhumans, and more movie sequels to the above-mentioned, including, importantly, Thor 3, Captain America 3 and Guardians of the Galaxy 2. The reason I need to recount all of these is because it’s important to establish just how large this growing universe has become. We’ll get back to this later.
In Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Avengers are called in once more to put an end once and for all to Hydra’s plans, and recover Loki’s lost sceptre from the first Avengers movie. Having achieved that right at the beginning of the movie, the Avengers decide it’s time to have a good ol’ party to celebrate, and then go their separate ways.
But the party ends sourly thanks to Tony Stark’s latest creation, after the genius / billionaire / playboy / philanthropist together with Bruce Banner, discover a powerful stone within the sceptre and try to create the Ultron A.I. using its power. According to Stark, the stone has a brain and can therefore be assimilated into current technology to create a peacekeeping force of super-suits that will bring about “peace in our time”. Instead, Ultron quite hilariously spends a few minutes on the internet and decides humanity isn’t worth saving, and instead decides to bring about an extinction-level event so that life can begin anew, and kill anyone who opposes his version of peace. Most notably, the Avengers.
That’s the basic, spoiler-free version of the story, and that is where we’ll leave it in terms of whether you’re still deciding to watch the movie. The short answer is: If you thus far haven’t really been into the MCU movies, you’re likely not going to be that into this one either. If you’re a fan, you’ve likely already watched it more than once.
If you’re on the fence, Ultron ought to persuade you to give this movie a watch. Voiced by James Spader, the maniacal villain spouts memorable lines throughout the film and gives viewers a sense of reality and perspective, almost forcing you to think of it from his side to the point that you start rooting for him, against your better judgement. Beyond that, there is also a bunch of thrilling new character introductions, including Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Vision. The latter in particular brings the movie’s aaahhh moment, whilst all of them contribute adequately to the larger universe as much as this single storyline.
Apart from that, returning characters include pretty much everyone from the previous movies (besides of course Guardians of the Galaxy), barring a few exceptions. Characters who weren’t given as much screen time in the previous films were allowed much more this time around, and gave a stronger showing as a result. The world is also that much bigger this time around, leaving the dreary New York setting and going international; a much better version of “saving the world” all things considered. The acting is on point, the sound and visuals are about as good as you can find on a big screen, and everything blends well together to form a spectacle of a blockbuster movie.
Ultimately, this is going to be one of those movies that you’ll have to watch before you can decide whether or not you’ve wasted your time. A large part of it will depend on your investment in the MCU, but it can still be enjoyed as a single movie; just don’t expect the same sort of experience. It would also do you well to not treat Avengers: Age of Ultron like a movie, but rather like a celebration of movies and comic books. If you do that, you should have a splendid time of watching it. And hey if not, get the Blu-Ray from a friend later.
Super Mega Ultra Spoiler Alert
From here on out, it gets spoilerific so please, watch the movie first and then come back. This is for those folks who either don’t care about spoilers, or want to discuss the critical aspects of the movie. This is the Movie Critique section of this review. Cool?
Avengers: Age of Ultron breaks a lot of core movie-making tenets and it does so deliberately and unashamedly. There is most certainly a first, second and third act. But a lot of what is contained within does not necessarily pay off later, or follow on from previous set-ups. Don’t get me wrong, of set-ups and pay-offs there are plenty, but Avengers: Age of Ultron treats itself less like a single standalone entity but rather one part of a larger whole, meaning that some set-ups are not meant to pay-off just yet, and some pay-offs were set up in something else previously. It’s an organic and highly ambitious world that, for the most part, pays off with the right amount of personal
To run through each and every example would take quite a while (and likely not make for the most interesting read) so instead let’s just touch on a few of the more contentious areas of the movie’s critiques thus far. Starting with…
The pacing and interconnectedness
Avengers: Age of Ultron is a movie that moves very fast with its story. You can tell that a lot of the story was cut up in the interests of time (and in fact, Joss Whedon himself revealed the Blu-Ray release will feature a three-plus-hour extended version) so the result is a movie that moves at breakneck pace and forces you to keep up. There is no quiet moment when you can sneak in a toilet break, in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Instead, the movie trusts that you have been invested in the MCU enough to know what is going on, more or less. We’ll come back to criticisms of this.
But for example, consider the beginning sequence which played out like the pages of a comic book throughout, culminating in the slow-motion shot of the entire team together, as if mirroring a splash panel of a comic book, it was truly beautiful. That sequence followed directly from the episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D that set up the conflict and ended with, “It’s time to call in the Avengers.” The episode had set up Sokovia, Strucker, and “the twins” as part of story. Much later in the movie, Nick Fury is seen to have reclaimed a Helicarrier but it is never explained within the context of the film, but in the follow-up episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D it is resolved.
Similarly, in other areas of the film, Black Widow is seen to experience flashbacks of a murderous training academy for assassins… which you might recognise from Agent Carter. Peggy herself makes an appearance during Captain America’s ‘greatest fear’ sequence, much to my personal delight. Thor meanwhile experiences a vision of things elsewhere as part of his ‘greatest fear’ which causes him to journey to an Infinity Well and seek answers (admittedly something that could have been explained better within the context of the story).
So much is going on in this movie that you can’t help but sit back and feel impressed at just how marvelously, if you’ll excuse the pun, Joss Whedon has not just moulded so many stories together, but how effortless he made it all look given licensing restrictions and pressure from executives. We see threads that came in from previous movies such as Iron Man 3, The Winter Soldier and the Marvel TV series, and threads that will eventually lead to future movies such as Thor 3, Captain America: Civil War and more. And we finally got a solid explanation of how Loki was able to mind-control people with his special sceptre — now you understand what The Other was referring to during that scene in the first film, when he said that Loki had been given a great power. Suddenly it makes sense: Loki was gifted the Mind Stone by Thanos, and has since lost it. When that clicks, like so many others in this film, you can only sit back and appreciate what you’ve just watched.
There is another point to be made about the interconnectedness regarding Black Widow and the Hulk, but we’ll come back to that. Let’s first talk about the movie’s main baddy.
Ultron is a metaphor for movie-making in today’s world
As a fan of Boston Legal, it was enough for me just to have seen James Spader playing the role of Ultron, and he certainly did it to a tee. Not quite so pure-evil and calculating as the comic book version of Ultron, in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Spader’s version is somewhat more grounded in narcissism, psychopathy and tragedy. He was born to a world he did not understand with his only imperative being “peace in our time” and anything else he learned, he learned from humanity. But more to the point of what Ultron is, he’s a parody of the movie-making world as it is today.
Remember my opening paragraph? Movies are getting stale. After sequelitis wasn’t good enough, we got movies based on books and even holidays, and now we are getting the eighties remade. Only Marvel has managed to stand out with movies that guarantee a decent time at the least, over and above the folks who just can’t be entertained despite Hollywood’s best efforts. But the thing that Marvel does well is that it understands its audience and respects them. And it understands that comic books break a lot of movie paradigms. Thus, it seems only right that comic book movies should try things differently, weaving stories together like connective tissue and breaking from the traditions we are so used to.
One clever way it does this is through Ultron. He is not a traditional villain; he was designed for an ultimately benevolent purpose, and the conflict came in when he realised that the ways currently existing were not something he agreed with. Ultron says to the Avengers, “You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change.” Doesn’t that sound as if he’s addressing Hollywood? As if he’s saying to the movie-making world, “This is the MCU, this is how we do it.” In that sense, you can’t help but gape when watching him work his magic on-screen, as Ultron attempts to justify his actions through not just memorable monologues but also pushing more and more for perfection; evolving. All this from a few moments on the internet.
And that is where the brilliance of Vision’s character comes in. He is the evolution. He is the best of Ultron, without the corrupted power and misguided thinking. He encompasses a very human form of passion and naivety in his weird android brain. You don’t need to explicitly be told in the movie, what it is he does, what his powers are, or even his motivations. As he puts it, “I am.” And that’s all you need to know about him because what he is, is better than Ultron and the Avengers. He is worthy. And in this case, he is the MCU’s greatest representation. Cape and all.
Similarly, I regard Avengers: Age of Ultron as something more than a traditional movie and more like a transitional piece of art. It flagrantly pokes fun at itself throughout the film, and it picks up and drops plot points throughout because it knows it doesn’t need to resolve those plot points now. It can do it in a later film, or has already done it in a prior film. In this regard, the MCU transcends traditional movies. It is a metaverse, just like the comic books we know and love.
Nobody disliked Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers for being the connecting tissue between the other two stories, and in this same respect I feel that one day we are all going to look back at Avengers: Age of Ultron, after the Civil War, after Ragnarok, after the Infinity War, and we are going to be staggered at just how well this movie tied everything together.
There is of course one problem with this…
Consumers of media are woefully inept at paying attention
It’s an unfortunate fact that most media consumed by the masses does not get stored in the memory banks of people who just want to see two things punch each other. People watch Game of Thrones without ever remembering the names of anyone who isn’t a Lannister, Stark or Targaryen. And like that, many folks will watch this film and forget everything that happens within it, or not remember what happened previously, choosing only to remember the clever one-liners rather than the engaging and thought-provoking dialogues. Is this the movie’s fault? Arguably, no.
We often criticise movies for dumbing themselves down and going heavy on the exposition, explaining things too much and sacrificing precious screen time (see: Christopher Nolan). Avengers: Age of Ultron forgoes all of that unnecessary exposition and just goes on with it, operating immediately on the assumption that you’ve watched previous MCU films. You saw the Avengers struggle to learn to work as a team before, and so you understand why they are united in Avengers: Age of Ultron. You saw Tony Stark want out of the Avengers, so you get why he wants to create Ultron in the first place. It’s confusing to then see people turn around and say, “Marvel can’t expect us to keep track of everything,” and sure, you’d be justified in holding that opinion if you treated the MCU as simple standalone movies. Oh don’t get me wrong, they were, once. No longer.
Now you actually have to pay attention and if you can’t, that’s fine too. There’s still decent enough entertainment to be found. But if you do invest yourself in this, then the reward is quite stimulating, doubly so if you’re someone who grew up reading these comics and now get to see them play out before your eyes.
Some might call it pandering, but is it really pandering when you’re offering solid fan service and rewarding the people who showed faith in your product for decades? You decide.
Some common criticisms
Perhaps the biggest controversy of the movie’s release has been Black Widow and Hulk’s romance arc. I’ll be honest, I didn’t have a problem with it. You certainly could see it building from the first Avengers film, and it pays off beautifully here. Tragically as well, since neither hero can realistically have a normal life. And that’s what makes the whole thing so powerful and moving. Here are two heroes without powers; one is slave to his alter-ego, who is the most powerful of them all, the other is a human who trades punches with gods, and yet both of them suffer from a very human, and very disempowering failing. Is it really so unthinkable that Black Widow being infertile could affect her as much as it did? Especially in a moment of weakness like that? The MCU has in the past shown characters to have human weaknesses, for example Tony Stark’s PTSD in Iron Man 3. There is no actual problem here, having two more characters show real and human weaknesses. If anything, it’s grounding.
Another criticism was the way the Avengers always got on with each other. I’m not sure if these folks were watching the same movie, because the Avengers absolutely experienced conflict. They argued and disagreed with each other, even trading blows when they had to, and yes, they came together in the end but let’s not forget that they had just shown themselves to be dangerous with the entire world watching. People kept expecting Civil War, and why when it’s coming soon? Perhaps the problem here is that people expect it, so they are impatient for it.
Meanwhile, criticisms of previous movies were that “saving the world” typically implied New York, and nobody knew why Hawkeye was even around in the first Avengers movie. This time around, both of those are addressed splendidly while also addressing another criticism I have for these movies, that being the over-reliance (much like Wolverine with the X-Men) on Tony Stark. It is always Tony’s inventions that cause problems, or Tony’s clever dialogue that people laugh at. This time around, not only did the movie go worldwide from South Africa to South Korea, even setting the final act in Eastern Europe, but the star of the show, if one could be named as such, was undoubtedly Hawkeye.
Jeremy Renner’s standout performance was delivered as a result of the greater focus on him this time around, with the revelation of his hidden family and his consistent delivery of solid, memorable dialogue. No matter who I ask, the favourite line from the movie amongst everyone is, “The city’s flying, we’re fighting evil robots, and I have a bow and arrow! None of this makes any sense!” It was a magnificent performance to watch.
Finally, if you are ever in two minds about this, know that no movie has ever done fan service like Avengers: Age of Ultron. And if you don’t believe me, take a look at these:
Is Avengers: Age of Ultron perfect? No, of course not. And in fact, there are some plot points that either go entirely unexplained or operate on viewers just not realising, for example the dark-skinned woman in the trailers never showing up, or Tony Stark suddenly not just building but operating his own suits again. Following from that, many fans questioned why the Avengers would come together for the Avengers movies but were absent during Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and importantly, Thor: The Dark World — the latter in which the entire known universe was at risk of destruction due to The Convergence. This one has some validity, however as the comic book loves to state, the Avengers come together during the darkest of hours, and then go away once the danger has passed. This is possibly why everyone departed at the end of the film with the option of returning remaining open. Those who were left alive anyway.
Does Avengers: Age of Ultron pander to its audience? Absolutely, it does. I’d argue that I’d rather have a movie that is “for the fans” over something that was created just to feed off the hype of a license, amirite Green Lantern, X-Men 3, Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man movies? With Marvel and Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron you are at least guaranteed a wild ride of comic book action, complete with a fair amount of universe-building, delicately weaving the strings for many stories to come.
It’s easy now to look back at the first Avengers with rose-tinted spectacles, forgetting all of the criticisms that were once held against the film; teething issues, you might say. It’s easy to forget that, because now that the Avengers movie is so otherworldly popular, its flaws just don’t matter to anyone who cares about this franchise. Meanwhile, Avengers: Age of Ultron manages the mammoth task of not just improving on its predecessor but also building a universe that circumvents the mutants and other licenses Marvel cannot touch — or do comic book fans forget that mutants play a massive role in Civil War? — while simultaneously introducing a fitting story of its own in between all of that. It is expertly done, assuming you are able to appreciate the underlying framework that is being laid down. And if you can’t, that’s fine too. Come back in a few years and let’s see how you feel about this one.