This review is spoiler-free. The closest we get to a spoiler is hinting at something in the last act, but we don’t tell you what it is. However, we wanted to give you that information up front, so you can decide whether to read on…
Three years ago, the first Avengers movie smashed everything from audience expectations to box office records as it brought the first phase of the Marvel cinematic universe to an unprecedented, near-faultless conclusion. We gave it an undisputed five stars. More than that, we loved it. We still do. It’s the ultimate expression of its genre: a superhero team-up movie that gives you everything you want and then a little bit more. At the time the credits rolled, it seemed unthinkable that a follow-up would ever come close to matching it.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that the sequel doesn’t really hit the same highs. If you loved the labyrinthine plot and succession of cameos that was X-Men: Days Of Future Past, then this feels like the Marvel cinematic universe version of that. But if you loved the ensemble storytelling and emotional focus of the first Avengers movie, you won’t really find that again here.
Oh, it has its moments. An introductory action sequence that gives you an Avengers team working in harmony to dispense swift and precise justice. A villain at least as entertaining (if not as developed) as Loki. More guest stars than you can shake an Infinity Stone at. There’s a moment with Thor’s hammer that rivals anything from the first film, and the party scene you’ve already glimpsed in the trailer? Brilliant. How can you not enjoy those characters just hanging out together?
The little interactions stick in your memory, and there are loads of them to enjoy. The film gets so much mileage out of just having the characters on screen together. It’s not, by any stretch, a film that you won’t have fun with. But it’s also a film that feels hard to love, especially when the intervening films have, with the possible exception of Thor: The Dark World, been as strong as Marvel Studios has ever produced.
The problem is that structurally and thematically, Avengers: Age Of Ultron is a bit of a mess. It pulls in several directions and never quite finds the time to develop its interesting ideas into stories. Just as you’re gearing up for the final showdown, the film lurches sideways to concentrate on a plot thread that barely existed for the first two thirds of the film. With such a huge cast, not everyone manages to get their own arc, and the ones that are there don’t all find a proper conclusion.
The ‘big three’ Avengers feel particularly under-serviced. Thor and Captain America are essentially there to be the muscle, while Stark’s big moments get handed to someone else as we head into the final strait. Maybe it’s fair that The Hulk, the Black Widow and Hawkeye – the characters who don’t have solo franchises – get the most time spent on them in this movie. But when you think about how The Avengers had a tight arc for everyone who appeared, it’s hard to praise a follow-up that lavishes attention on one half of the cast at the expense of the others.
Probably the biggest disservice is done to Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, though. Much trailed, much hyped, tipped as future Avengers – they fall, sadly, really quite flat. Whedon tries his best to find a take on them that allows for a little depth, but there simply isn’t room to develop them as the plot bounces around the globe for a succession of identikit action sequences where the Avengers chase a thing and then get the thing (or not).
Too often, you might find yourself watching a fight and wondering when it’s going to end so that the story can progress. In his genre television, Whedon used to be the master of fistfight-as-metaphor, where it was as if every punch told us something about the character that threw it. But in this film, the fights are empty. The jeopardy isn’t there and the stakes barely exist. It’s notable that the action utterly comes alive during the rescue scenes, where the Avengers try to protect a more vulnerable public from the collateral damage their fights are causing. I’ll take one well-executed rescue over a hundred inventively-slain robots any day.
A lot of the problems with the film can be a result of its intention to please all of its masters. The elements that work best are, not coincidentally, those where Whedon’s influence is most visible. Ultron’s dialogue has considerably more personality than you’d expect of a killer AI, and that makes him more fun than his CGI visuals maybe suggest. Storytelling conventions are set up then undercut, reminding you that this is a Whedon who understands his genre and finds ways to make cliché work for him. Now and again you get a glimpse of the genius who made the first film – but they’re soon once again buried beneath a weight of expectation and obligation.
What harms the film most are the sequences which seem to exist only to trail the MCU’s wider direction. Characters, names and trinkets placed on the mantelpiece so that they can turn up in future films. References to references. The first Avengers film was the end of something, but this one has been made into a stepping stone.
It’s hard not to bring to mind Iron Man 2 (although it’s a better film than that), in that it’s a sequel which copies the motions of the first, but can’t fake the swagger of the original. It has the same elements in the mix, but they don’t thrill like before. Even the mid-credits teaser, which at the end of The Avengers had fans punching the air in excitement, might only raise half a grin here.
It could be that this is the film we’ve been demanding. If we praise the MCU’s connectivity, if we reprise the best moments over and over in gif form, if we beg to see more characters, more costumes, more infinity stones… should we be surprised if we get a film that puts that stuff first? One of Marvel’s legendary editors, Mark Gruenwald, used to say you should give the audience what they want, not what they think they want. After seeing Avengers: Age Of Ultron, it’s hard not to feel like Marvel Studios could’ve used some of his wisdom. It’s a fun film, and like all Marvel cinematic universe films it’s never less than passable – but it’s sitting in the shadow of a predecessor that was always so much more than just okay.
We’ve opened up a post for spoiler-filled discussion of the film here.
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