*Warning – this review may contain spoilers for earlier films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.*
Marvel’s superhero team-up event is back for round two and comes out of the gate fighting. A strong opening action set piece joins all of the team mid-action fighting established villains Hydra; clearly Joss Whedon knows what we’re all here for. The scene’s quick fire succession of quips and arse-kicking sets the pace of the film. This movie is fast, sometimes too fast, performing a cinematic sleight of hand to make sure we don’t question too much while we enjoy the thrill ride.
The biggest question for me was – how did we get to here?
Iron Man 3 saw Tony Stark destroy all of his Iron Man suits, but here he is battling Hydra with his buddies. Captain America: The Winter Soldier saw S.H.I.E.L.D. ripped apart by Hydra and no longer trusted by the American public. Marvel’s TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. sees S.H.I.E.L.D.’s work continue undercover as a necessity, with S.H.I.E.L.D. agents essentially becoming outlaws.
Clearly, some sort of time jump has occurred and I can understand the filmmakers not wanting to spend costly narrative time assembling the Avengers all over again, but a little explanation wouldn’t have gone amiss. After all, Stark tower now has a gigantic ‘A’ on the side and is serving as a very visible Avengers HQ, which doesn’t really follow neatly from the subterfuge of The Winter Soldier. It feels as if a lot of the more interesting developments of earlier franchise instalments have been cast aside.
It’s understandable that a few details need to be streamlined for the sake of expediency. The Avengers’ biggest selling point is also its biggest threat – there are a lot of superheroes in it. That’s a lot of characters to give time to, a lot of franchise properties that come with their own fans and expectations. Each hero needs screen time, a hero moment, a fully developed character, a progression from their last appearance and a plotline outside of the action. Add to that the weight of some villains and new faces, returning secondary characters and all of the various plot ‘beats’ to hit to provide an action movie experience as well as plant the seeds for future installments and you have a lot to shoehorn in. As you can guess, this leads to some rushed story developments, and the occasional exposition dump, particularly when it comes to the twins who suffer the most from the film’s lack of breathing space.
That’s not to say that the film doesn’t deliver. It’s a superhero movie and on that front it gets the job done. The action is exhilarating with great fight choreography and special effects. There’s a lot of fun to be had here. When the script isn’t weighed down by back-story it provides a lot of laughs and for the most part presents us with three dimensional, flawed characters with differing opinions and viewpoints.
Tony Stark continues his streak as the Avengers’ own Peter Venkman, winding up Captain America in particular and possibly laying some groundwork for the upcoming Captain America: Civil War. Creating Ultron in his quest to perfect artificial intelligence, Stark unleashes a monster upon the world that proves to be a formidable opponent for the team.
Black Widow softens and gives up some information about her mysterious past. I have mixed feelings about her character’s use in the film and I may need a follow up post to explore the intricacies of the issues at play. With all of Joss Whedon’s recent talk about sexism elsewhere in the industry, I was surprised to see Black Widow relegated to the roles of love interest (thereby becoming a character defined by her relationship to a man) and a hostage (unable to free herself and instead having to wait for the men to locate and rescue her). Black Widow is a tough and secretive character, it is a logical progression to grant her a softer side, it’s just unfortunate that that needs to cloud her status and agency within the film. The superhero genre is a boy’s club and as one of the few prominent female characters in the MCU, Black Widow carries the burden of representation.
Hulk broods, pines and repeats his usual “Hulk smash, Banner feel bad” refrain. There’s a sense that Hulk’s smashing will have wider ramifications for the MCU going forwards, but two movies in, Ruffalo’s Banner already feels like he’s stuck on repeat.
After drawing the short straw in Avengers Assemble, Hawkeye gets some much needed character work. He’s the only Avengers team member not to have appeared in any MCU films outside of the Avengers, and we know little about him. Gaining a background humanizes Hawkeye and raises the stakes for him. In the final act, Renner gets a great speech about being the guy with no superpowers and his vulnerability enables us to respect his courage. The film is quick to play on our affection for the character though and is a bit heavy handed in toying with our expectations of what will happen to him now that he has something to lose.
I’ve saved the beefcakes for last in my character round-ups as they actually have the least going on in terms of subplots. Captain America argues with Tony a lot and Thor takes a bath. It’s appropriate for these two characters to take a bit of a back seat as they’ve had the room to grow in their own headlining franchises. Cap’s work here serves to lay the groundwork for his upcoming movie and Thor’s bath time discovery sets him up for the mission that will inevitably continue in Thor: Ragnarok and clearly plants the seeds for Avengers: Infinity War.
As for the new faces –
Ultron serves as a menacing villain and one who presents a more tangible threat than whatever it was Loki was trying to achieve in Assemble.
Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver have a lot to accomplish in a short space of time, with an arc that feels a little rushed and contorted but is improved by their believable emotional bond. Elizabeth Olsen in particular delivers a raw emotional performance that makes her character stand out as an exciting addition to the MCU.
The Vision is introduced in a messy scramble of a scene. His character is a hard sell. He is one of the most fantastical additions to the Earth-based Marvel adventures in origin and appearance (he’s kind of like a bright red Kryten) but Paul Bettany’s charm and presence make him likeable.
The film ends with some potential new Avengers in training, which could be interesting (and necessary) heading into Phase Three. There are also some characters hinting at goodbyes (a few of the actors’ contracts will be up for renegotiation soon) so a period of change is on the horizon. This is reportedly Joss Whedon’s last movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After having a key role in developing many of Marvel’s recent outputs it will be interesting to see what impact his departure will have. I’d be happy to see a bit of a change in tone in order to keep things fresh.
Overall, Age of Ultron is a great adventure and a fantastic episode in Marvel’s grand superhero soap opera. Marvel Studios is at the top of it’s game for slick, shiny action set pieces with jaw dropping stunts and special effects. The non-stop pace of the film is exhilarating, jumping from one action sequence to the next and taking in a number of international locations along the way but this relentless speed means that the script suffers from a lack of breathing room. Some of the character introductions and plotlines lack subtlety and sometimes the sheer number of players onscreen can make scenes feel jumbled. There’s so much to fit into the film’s running time that the strain is often evident. I rarely feel that a film could benefit from being longer, but in this case I’d be willing to bet that the film’s extended cut for home release will be a smoother, more coherent version.
In its final act the film benefits from a greater emphasis on saving lives amidst the fighting, a concern that seemed lacking in Avengers Assemble‘s Battle of New York. There are also hints of a more empathetic appreciation of the consequences of city crushing superhero smackdowns. My betting is that Captain America: Civil War will see a rising level of animosity towards superheroes and the collateral damage of their heroics.
About the Author:
Evan Wilkinson is a Community Filmmaker based in Brighton. As well as producing videos and community film projects, Evan teaches workshops in filmmaking, script development and animation. For more information please visit: http://evanwilkinson.co.uk