This article contains spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron and the wider MCU.
After the commercial and critical success of The Avengers, it seemed Joss Whedon could do no wrong. The writer-director was quickly snapped up by Marvel to serve as a creative consultant on their entire Phase Two slate, as well as being put in charge of the follow-up to one of the biggest films of all time. And when Avengers: Age of Ultron was announced at 2013’s San Diego Comic-Con, the room went nuts at the thought of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes taking on one of their iconic comic book nemeses.
When it finally hit screens in 2015, though, Age of Ultron didn’t quite get the rapturous reception that had greeted the first movie. It was by no means a dud – the film grossed a whopping $1.4 billion worldwide – but something wasn’t quite the same. That feeling was compounded by a bizarre press tour, during which Whedon vented his frustrations with the film and with Marvel before walking away from the franchise altogether.
“I was so beaten down by the process,” he later reflected. “Some of that was conflicting with Marvel, which is inevitable. A lot of it was about my own work, and I was also exhausted. It was not the right way to be, because I am very proud of [the film]. The things about it that are wrong frustrate me enormously… But I also got to make an absurdly personal movie that talked about how I felt about humanity.”
It’s hard not to sympathize with Whedon. Age of Ultron is not a terrible movie by any stretch, but it is a bit of a mess. An ambitious techno-thriller straight out of the Frankenstein school of cautionary tales, the film centers around a world-threatening metallic monster born out of Tony Stark’s unchecked hubris (a personality trait that’s been threatening to derail Robert Downey Jr.’s hero ever since 2008’s Iron Man).
On paper, it’s a great concept for the Avengers’ second adventure. But it’s also bogged down with the introduction of several key new characters and more universe-building than any other MCU installment – tasked with setting up much of Phase Three and laying the groundwork for Thanos’ upcoming Infinity quest.
Marvel’s seed-sowing requirements aren’t entirely responsible for Age of Ultron’s shortcomings, though. Ultron himself (voiced brilliantly by James Spader) starts out as a genuinely creepy personification of the fears around artificial intelligence, with a frighteningly warped take on his creator’s dream of “peace in our time.” He’s an angry son looking to usurp his father (the early “I had strings but now I’m free…” speech is a chilling highlight), and also a warning about where technological innovation mixed with human arrogance could lead us.
An interesting foil, then. But for all Ultron’s rage-fueled outbursts, quirky humor, and philosophical musings, there’s ultimately not all that much to him other than a “must kill all humans” masterplan. The overstuffed second and third acts don’t really allow him to deliver on his early promise, rendering him a disappointingly bland big bad by the film’s end.
Another thing that really stands out on repeat viewings is just how much of the film feels strikingly familiar. From the opening chase sequence to the mid-movie squabbles to the epic Battle of Sokovia, Ultron hits many of the same beats as Avengers. Swap in Ultron’s murder-bots for the alien Chitauri and add in a couple more characters to the camera-swirling “hero shot” and you’ve basically got the same finale. There is one key difference, though – despite (or maybe because of) its efforts to raise the dramatic stakes, Age of Ultron frequently lacks the outright sense of fun that its predecessor had in spades.
Still, let’s not be too down on Ultron… Yes, the film’s got its fair share of flaws – we haven’t even mentioned the turgid mid-section that includes a momentum-sapping stop-off at Hawkeye’s farmhouse, some intriguing but ultimately fruitless mind games courtesy of Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Thor’s gratuitously topless sojourn to a magic rockpool. But there’s still loads to enjoy in this supergroup sequel, including some brilliantly staged action sequences – many of which look like they’ve leaped straight off the pages of a comic – and interesting character beats. The core Avengers expand on the chemistry they showed in the first movie, while the script once again spoils them all with an abundance of inspired one-liners.
In fact, there’s so much going on here that orchestrating it all must have been no mean feat. No wonder Whedon was knackered.
Standout scene: Perhaps not an obvious one, but the “cradle robbing” scene – in which Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Captain America mount an action-packed heist across the streets of Seoul to retrieve the Mind Stone and the gestating Vision – is a fantastic set piece. Jeremy Renner (who, thankfully, gets much more to do here than in The Avengers) and Scarlett Johansson are both in top form, but Chris Evans steals the show: racing across freeways, dodging flipping cars, and going mano-a-mano with Ultron on top of a moving truck. Not just a riveting action sequence in its own right, the scene is key to the film’s pacing, too – it really gives the film its momentum back after the messy, exposition-heavy second act.
Best quip: As you’d expect from a Whedon script, there are more than a few zingers to choose from. But, once again, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) steals it with his deadpan assessment of Ultron’s fast-growing omniscience: “The guy’s multiplying faster than a Catholic rabbit.”
First appearances: Lots of new faces here, the three main ones being the “enhanced” Maximoff twins – Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver (“He’s fast and she’s weird,” as Maria Hill so eloquently sums up) – and Paul Bettany’s Vision, a powerful JARVIS/Mind Stone mash-up in a synthetic human body.
Elsewhere, we meet genius geneticist Helen Cho (Claudia Kim), arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, who’ll go on to play a bigger role in Black Panther), and Hawkeye’s hidden family – including wife Laura (Linda Cardellini), who “totally supports [his] avenging.” Tony Stark gets a new digital assistant in the form of FRIDAY (voiced by Better Call Saul’s Kerry Condon), who takes over from JARVIS. Finally, we get a brief glimpse of the mysterious Madame B (Julie Delpy), who oversees Romanoff’s training as a Russian assassin – could we be seeing more of her in the upcoming Black Widow solo movie? We sure hope so.
So long, farewell: “You didn’t see that coming?” Well, Quicksilver’s sacrifice is signposted a mile off – Whedon loves a dramatic death, and Taylor-Johnson is the least developed of the core cast (not to mention the then-tricky clash with Fox’s X-Men character rights) – so it wasn’t exactly a huge surprise. His offing does free up Olsen’s Scarlet Witch to become a future Avenger, though, so it’s not in vain. It’s the end of the road for Thomas Kretschmann’s Baron von Strucker, too – HYDRA’s “number-one thug” is murdered by Ultron while in NATO custody – while Ultron himself is finally wiped out by Vision.
It’s all connected: As previously mentioned, Age of Ultron carries the weight of setting up Phase Three on its shoulders and it contains a ton of plot threads that will be followed up in future MCU installments – as well as a couple of throwbacks to previous movies…
• This is the first film where the Avengers are made aware of the Infinity Stones (although the audience was already introduced to the concept thanks to The Collector’s explanation in Guardians of the Galaxy). Thor’s vision shows the four gems we’ve already encountered (the Space, Mind, Reality and Power stones) with what looks like the shape of a golden gauntlet behind them. An extended version of Thor’s trip to the Norn cave on the Blu-ray names them as “The Infinite Six”. “The Mind Stone is the fourth Infinity Stone to show up in the last few years,” Thor explains to his teammates. “Someone has been playing intricate games and made pawns of us.” Yep, we all know who that is.
• Ultron raids Klaue’s stash of Vibranium, which he stole from Wakanda “at great personal cost.” During the attack, Ultron cuts off Klaue’s arm in a fit of rage when the arms dealer points out his similarities to his creator, Tony Stark. Klaue’s misdeeds and history with the Wakandans will be further explored in Black Panther, by which time he’s developed an explosive prosthesis to replace his severed limb.
• The “Hulkbuster” armor (aka Veronica) that Tony uses to fight the mind-controlled Hulk in Johannesburg is next seen in Avengers: Infinity War – Banner himself uses the armor to join the climactic battle in Wakanda after the Hulk refuses to come out and play.
• With Bruce Banner facing repercussions over his destructive episode in Johannesburg, the end of the film sees Hulk flying off in a Quinjet and cutting his comms with the Avengers. His destination is revealed in Thor: Ragnarok, where he’s taken up residence on the trash planet of Sakaar.
• “The sun’s getting real low…” Black Widow’s unique method of calming down the Hulk is hilariously (and unsuccessfully) reappropriated by Thor in Ragnarok. Later, a recording of Natasha on the Quinjet finally gets Bruce to turn human again.
• The climactic, carnage-heavy Battle of Sokovia is ultimately responsible for The Sokovia Accords – the MCU’s version of the comics’ Superhuman Registration Act – which threatens Stark and Cap’s friendship in Captain America: Civil War. It also gives rise to that film’s villain, Zemo – a Sokovian military man who swears revenge against the Avengers after his family is killed in the chaos.
• “That up there, that’s the endgame,” says Stark, referring to the alien threat revealed by the Chitauri invasion in the first Avengers movie and justifying his creation of Ultron. “How were you guys planning on beating that?”
“Together,” says Cap.
“Then we’ll do that together, too.”
This scene has retrospectively become a nice bit of foreshadowing for the events of Infinity War and the title of its follow-up. A happy accident or all part of the grand plan? You decide…
• “I’ve done the whole mind control thing – not a fan.” Hawkeye is the only member of the six core Avengers who isn’t manipulated by Scarlet Witch, managing to subdue her with a modified arrow. This is a cheeky nod to the first Avengers movie, where he spends much of the film under the influence of Loki’s Mind Stone-powered spear.
• The film finishes with a brand new Avengers line-up – Captain America, Black Widow, War Machine, Falcon, Scarlet Witch, and Vision – who we’ll see in action in the opening scenes of Captain America: Civil War. They’ve also moved into a brand new facility in upstate New York, which is soon to be infiltrated by Ant-Man…
Credit check: “I’ll do it myself…” Only one short sting here (fair, given that the film itself acts as one giant setup for future MCU movies), as Thanos (Josh Brolin) decides to take matters into his own hands and slips on the golden Infinity Gauntlet.
What are your thoughts on Avengers: Age of Ultron? Have we missed your favorite moment or reference? Let us know in the comments below…