Taking a cursory glance at today’s cinematic landscape it would appear that Marvel, or more accurately Disney, rule the world. Since 2008’s Iron Man the Marvel Cinematic Universe has built itself up into a box-office behemoth with huge cultural influence. I have never quite got the superhero hype, however. A long-time lover of ‘proper’ cinema and arthouse flicks, in recent years I have fought against this tendency to be a ‘film snob’. My Marvel Diary is a challenge to myself to watch all 23 MCU films, perhaps proving my prejudices correct, or perhaps turning me into a lifelong fan of all things superhero.
Release Date: 23rd April 2015
MCU Phase: Two
Director: Joss Whedon
Writers: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Elisabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Paul Bettany, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders
May contain spoilers.
Avengers: Age of Ultron left me the most confused I have been about whether I liked a film in quite some time. I actively disliked the opening scenes, and most of the film’s flaws are exposed in the first half an hour. I think the main issue is that this is not the film I wanted Joss Whedon to make, and wastes a lot of the potential given to the film by Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Once I accepted that I was watching a different film from the one I think should have been made, I quite enjoyed it. It is certainly a weaker film than The Avengers, but is much more worth a watch than efforts like The Incredible Hulk and Thor: The Dark World.
I’ll get my rant out of the way first. The action sequence that opens this film frustrated me more than anything else in the MCU so far. It has all our heroes together again, fighting as a jocular, harmonious team to take down the bad guys. The action is so fast and immediate that we see all the Avengers in a CGI-heavy blur without build-up or fanfare. It blows the opportunity to introduce them individually, and with anticipation. We start the film mid-battle with no tension or emotional hook to begin with. A scene like this should bring the house down later on in the film; instead it opens it in quite a dull way. On top of that, the ‘banter’ between the team that propelled The Avengers now feels forced and unfunny. What is happening?
Furthermore, why are they all together anyway? They separated at the end of The Avengers, and we know they’ve been pretty busy separately since then because of the solo sequels. The Winter Soldier, Iron Man 3, and Thor: The Dark World left their leads in intriguing, very different places than we find them now. Captain America was setting off to find Bucky Barnes, choosing his own mission as a soldier for the first time. Tony Stark had semi-renounced Iron Man to look after himself and Pepper. Thor was back on Earth having refused the throne in Asgard partly because he loved Jane Foster and Earth so much. In Age of Ultron: Bucky is never mentioned in the film, the Iron Man suits are back and bigger than ever, Cap has returned to battling Hydra despite choosing not to before, and Thor isn’t even sure where Jane is and doesn’t seem too bothered about her or Earth.
We learn that The Avengers re-assembled, with a cool HQ, to semi-replace S.H.I.E.L.D. after it crumbled in The Winter Soldier, with the primary aim of Thor retrieving the staff Loki used in The Avengers for Asgard. Most irksome about all this for me is the missed opportunity of getting the heroes together again on screen. The quick exposition that plugs the gap between the last solo films and now could, perhaps should, have been a film in its own right. The strength of The Winter Soldier and Iron Man 3, plus where The Dark World left us, meant it would have been more than just ‘getting the band back together’, but still would have scratched that itch. Cap turning his back on his personal quest for Bucky to lead a S.H.I.E.L.D. replacement team – interesting. Thor realising he is duty-bound to Asgard still and must protect it by retrieving the staff – interesting. Tony wrestling with his demons when needing to become Iron Man in battle again – interesting. Whether a S.H.I.E.L.D. replacement is even needed – interesting. The first half of Phase Two worked really hard to put the MCU in a fascinating place before Age of Ultron, but it seems that Joss Whedon just wanted to make a straightforward ‘Avengers 2’.
With that out the way, I’m pleased to report that there were things I liked about Age of Ultron. I loved the party scene that follows that action-heavy opening, giving us more of that easy camaraderie that made The Avengers such a success. Building on that, I think this film does a good job of developing the inter-team relationships. The Bruce-Natasha romance feels believable and grounded in their shared tragedy. The friendship between Tony and Bruce I like, too, with the devastation the Hulk causes getting some proper treatment. The ideological clash but deep-lying respect between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark is nicely built on further, driving home the idea that one wants to be a straightforward hero, helping people when they’re in need, and the other wants to create riskier, more forward-thinking ways of stopping evil. I also very much enjoyed the unexpected but welcome little bromance I sensed between Cap and Thor, which I hope to see more of later on.
In general I liked the new characters. Vision gives us something quite different, something distinctly inhuman but exceedingly powerful, in the team. The Maximoffs produce some good action scenes, especially Quicksilver, who’s death is well-handled even if he was the most obviously dispensable of the team with little-to-no character work done on him. The Stark weapons killing their parents was a nice touch, as well, showing that Tony can never fully escape his past. Wanda unveiling the greatest fear of each Avenger was exciting, too, adding more depth to the characters, just like the reveal of Hawkeye’s secret family. I like the role of him as ordinary guy, but the ‘wife and kids at home’ stuff felt a bit hackneyed. And the fear reveals only worked properly about half of the time, with Tony Stark’s feeling the most telling and natural. Like a lot of the film, the sprinkling of extra layers to each character felt a little formulaic and forced this time around.
The ending, with a new-look team assembled and Cap and Black Widow at the head, I really liked. It adds a bittersweet note to Steve Rogers, underlining his need to keep on fighting and nothing else, and reaffirms the sweet friendship between the two of them. I like the prospect of seeing more of Falcon and War Machine in the future, with them being such likeable characters. It is a finale that delivers one of those great moments the MCU is capable of, making you believe in the power of heroes and invest in these people. There are a few of those notes peppered into the film’s final battle, which I also broadly enjoyed.
It is worth noting, however, that these grin-inducing moments are the safety-net for an Avengers film. By its nature of bringing together characters you know and love from previous films, you are guaranteed at least a bit of this charm. That is not so much down to the skill of the film as the quality of past MCU entries. Admittedly, without any good dialogue or charisma, these moments would fall flat, as they do at the film’s beginning. So that come the end of the film these moments succeed is evidence Whedon was doing something right. Is it enough to just tick the basic and same boxes The Avengers did, though? Shouldn’t an Avengers film feel special?
Ultron himself I have a bit of a problem with, too. Artificial Intelligence as a topic always has the potential to be fascinating, but Blade Runner this is not. Before you can really register that Tony Stark and Bruce Banner want to create an a AI known as Ultron, the thing has come alive, assumed a robotic form, and declared that he wishes to destroy the Earth. I have seen potentially intriguing villains turned into simple world domination types before, but never this quickly. Also frustrating is the ‘motivation’ behind Ultron’s plans. Tony Stark created him to help keep the peace, but Ultron seems to think that ‘real peace’ means killing everyone on Earth. There’s very little logic to it; it’s just a way of giving us a new CGI baddie hell-bent on destruction.
This ‘you need to kill to create peace’ theme has been coming up a lot in the MCU, and this feels like one step too far. It repeats a similar idea but with less logic and nuance than before. Loki and Hydra had interesting ideological motives behind their villainy, but any attempt to give such thing to Ultron feels half-arsed and forced.
This issue of villain-repetition is a good example of Age of Ultron’s status as a crucial turning point for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We are now near the end of Phase Two, with next film Ant-Man the last before the final wave of films in the MCU’s record-breaking Infinity Saga. When beginning My Marvel Diary I brought some cynicism with me, largely fearing bland repletion and forced world-building would blight the MCU. I have so far been pleasantly surprised by a general lack of both things and am, on average, pro-Marvel at the moment. Age of Ultron, however, exhibits several of the qualities I expected to dislike in these films. This is not entirely Joss Whedon’s fault, instead exposing some inherent weaknesses within the MCU masterplan.
Age of Ultron would most certainly work better if being made as a direct sequel to The Avengers. The Winter Soldier and Iron Man 3 took the MCU in an exciting new direction, but perhaps made an Avengers sequel harder to get right. Maybe the MCU would have been better off without Age of Ultron altogether, but that would not have satisfied audiences or the Marvel money purse. The problem the studio gives themselves with universe storytelling is having to make tentpole films like this which work for people who both have and haven’t seen all the previous films. For someone who’s only seen The Avengers, Age of Ultron might work well, but for someone watching the whole thing like me, it too readily ignores the solo sequels.
We see this issue again in the film explaining to us the power of the infinity stones, which we already know if we have seen Guardians of the Galaxy. The infinity stone just ‘being in the metal’ and then being integral to Ultron’s plot feels contrived, and perhaps the whole film’s approach was skewed by the need to set up Infinity War. With the stone and the post-credits reveal of Thanos watching over, I’m getting a little sick of it all. Each film is in danger of starting to feel unimportant, acting as filler to bait you for the big one. Admittedly this is exacerbated by my position of knowing that Infinity War is coming, but all their stories needing to fit together is a problem for Marvel.
On that note – what do they do when they make a mistake? In this film the frankly terribly-written Jane Foster is not present, and there is not even a mention of the fact that Loki is apparently King of Asgard come the end of The Dark World. The latter was a stupid decision int the first place, but does that mean you can just ignore it? The giant jigsaw storytelling that is the MCU’s USP is also its vulnerability. Make one mistake, and it effects the quality of everything else.
There’s a whole list of franchise-related bones to pick that this film raises. It has another crumbling city ending. The action has lots of MCU tropes in it, like the big moment when our heroes kill the bad guy, only for him to get back up again so you can have five ‘big moments’. The world-building is starting to get in the way a little, with a largely pointless detour in this film coming off the back of a reference to Wakanda. It reaffirms Hawkeye’s role as an agent; so why was he conspicuously absent for all of The Winter Soldier, a film specifically about S.H.I.E.L.D. agents? The MCU is trying to have its cake and eat it here. To get focused individual films with so many characters in play means plot holes and neglecting some people; so one film gains while another suffers.
With Age of Ultron exhibiting its own weaknesses, and the pitfalls of the wider MCU, it is a timely reminder that each Marvel film needs to earn its right to exist. I am at a point in My Marvel Diary where a lack of invention, forced box-ticking, and filler filmmaking is going to begin grating a lot more. It is therefore time for Marvel to up its game in the run-up to Infinity War. We’ve got four new heroes to be introduced before then, plus Captain America: Civil War which seems right up my street, and a Thor film I’m told finally gets it right. My hopes are high, then, for Phase Three, but Age of Ultron shows the MCU has its limitations.
A short one, but a big one. Thanos, having seen Ultron’s failed attempts to destroy the Earth, reaches for a big gold glove. Whilst doing so he declares, in excellent baddie voice, ‘I’ll do it myself’. On the glove there’s space for some gems, some jewels, some stones. There’s a hell of a battle coming.
Where it Ranks
There’s a lot of things I didn’t like about Age of Ultron, not all of which are directly the fault of the film itself. There’s also a lot I did enjoy, but again, some of these are profiting off the strengths of other MCU films, not creating new ones. All in all, however, the film steadily got me more and more on board as it went on. By the end I had accepted that this was not the film I wanted to see, but it was an enjoyable one nevertheless.
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- The Avengers
- Iron Man 3
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Iron Man
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- Avengers: Age of Ultron
- Iron Man 2
- Thor: The Dark World
- The Incredible Hulk