Bursting right out the gate with the best opening that audiences had seen from a Marvel Cinematic Universe film so far, Age of Ultron seemed like it would all-too-easily crush expectations. In an incredible one-shot action sequence that improved on the first film’s finale, Joss Whedon set out to accomplish more.
And, in a way, he delivered more. A lot more. Too much ‘more’.
Despite clocking in at almost two-and-a-half hours long, the film doesn’t juggle all its subplots without dropping some weight. As a result, Age of Ultron is an almost-great film that feels padded with side-stories too thin to invest in but too prominent to ignore.
At the time, the unimpressed reckoned these superfluous strands were just lazy set-ups for future Marvel films (and that may have been the plan). Funnily enough, though, the moments that hold Age of Ultron back don’t play that heavily into the MCU and the film’s actual foreshadowing of future events is one of its most underrated strengths.
Tony Stark accidentally created death-bot Ultron partly due to his radical views on world peace and partly because he went behind the other Avengers’ backs. The dude doesn’t want to hear the word ‘No’ when he thinks he’s right – which is all the time. This action and the consequential arguments plant the seeds for what eventuates in Captain America: Civil War, and it’s great to re-witness this after the fact.
Everything related to Black Panther was also necessary to the story. Going much further than Bruce Banner mispronouncing Wakanda, vibranium plays a pivotal part in Ultron’s plan. The introduction of Andy Serkis as superb dirtbag Ulysses Klaue was just as fitting, allowing him to soak up his precious few minutes like a used toilet sponge.
“Oh wow,” many thought. “Black Panther might actually be a thing.” Ultron ripping off Klaue’s arm pretty much confirmed it.
He’s a solid villain, Ultron. After absorbing the entire internet in a split second, he concludes that humans are rubbish and need to go. (And who can blame him, really?) His motives may not be radically different from Skynet’s or any other robo-Hilter antagonist out there, but by having Ultron analyse Tony Stark first, it gives that trope a personality and some smart-arse zingers. He is Stark’s fears and hatred personified, which made James Spader a winning casting choice.
It’s fitting that this monster is a literal creation of Stark, given he’s been fighting metaphorical monsters he proverbially created in Iron Man 1, 2, & 3. Though it was completely his fault in those last three films, it’s only half his fault in this one. The rest of the blame goes to Scarlet Witch.
This is where things get too ‘more’.
Having only seen them in a stinger, super twins Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver make their first proper appearance in the MCU. Unfortunately, they’re either on the sideline or as a side-arm to someone more important. Their powers are on full display, but their stories and personalities aren’t. Their anger towards The Avengers – well, mainly Stark – is expressed through some very blunt dialogue that brushes aside some heavy history as if it were dust.
It makes them feel disposable. It’s telling when Quicksilver’s moment of self-sacrifice was less of an emotional hit and more of a scriptwriter’s self-congratulations for writing a twist we didn’t see coming. Compare that to Coulson’s death, a character we grew to know with ample time, and it becomes pretty clear why Quicksilver’s doesn’t land.
The Natasha-Banner relationship also felt underwritten. It’s introduced as if the film’s already halfway through the relationship with Hawkeye’s wife and even Captain Dateless America calling it out as if the audience missed something. The film goes for romantic tension, but by suppressing the will-they-won’t-they angle, it doesn’t completely work.
Even Vision’s reveal comes off feeling a bit bland. It all hinges on the AI gobbledy-gook that Stark and Banner shoot off, essentially finding 34 different ways of saying “Hack into the mainframe.” With more time to develop Vision’s existence, the film wouldn’t have relied so heavily on block-stacking dialogue.
Fortunately, Paul Bettany’s performance smoothed a lot of this over, striking a compelling mix of wisdom and innocence.
Whedon’s writing has always been better with characters than stories and his strength still shows in this area. One of the film’s best moments sees them simply enjoying each other’s company with Thor and Stark childishly arguing over who has the better girlfriend while the pride Rhodey holds in his War Machine story is – big call coming – the funniest damn thing I’ve seen in the whole MCU.
Running gags thread in nicely to tighten the team’s camaraderie, namely the Thor Hammer Challenge and the constant mocking of Captain America’s PG-rated potty mouth. The film’s “mewling quim” line also appears in the form of a stealthy joke about doing butt stuff (watch that Ultron train chase sequence again).
For all seven of you Hawkeye fans, this is the closest you’ll get to a solo film. While there’s plenty in Age of Ultron that’s either undercooked or over-boiled, he’s done just right. Realising he’s the weakest hitter on the team, Hawkeye carries a blue-collar attitude that makes him a relatable underdog that treasures a very simple, ordinary life.
His arc comes to a solid finish in the film’s climax – which is an absolute banger. The emphasis on evacuation, the magnitude of the situation, and the clarity of the combat combine for a fantastic showdown. And like the first Avengers, this event’s collateral isn’t ignored.
The quiet exchange between Vision and Ultron screws a classy cap on an otherwise overstuffed bottle. One is too spiteful of the human race (“You’re unbelievably naïve”) while the other is probably too kind (“Well, I was born yesterday”).
Regardless of the finish, there’s no getting around the ‘too much more’ factor in Age of Ultron. It’s a warning sign for Infinity War, which promises to bring more ‘more’ than we’ve ever had before. How could that film possibly avoid the things that hold Age of Ultron back?
Well, for one, the subplots that bloat the experience never had a clear establishment in previous MCU films – the twins, the Vision, the Natasha-Banner romance. They had to start from the ground up, only to wilt halfway through. With Infinity War, however, it appears the only things that need explanation are the children of Thanos.
Also, the Russo brothers are tackling the big one. They knew how to strike the balance perfectly in Captain America: Civil War. More on why that film gave me tingles in a few weeks.
Previous MCU films revisited: