It misses the bar of classic movie greatness but Avengers: Age of Ultron is one of the most exciting and entertaining Marvel entries.
Following the events of The Avengers, Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Age of Ultron finds the titular heroes on a campaign to apprehend Hydra loyalists and secure alien technologies (that have fallen into the wrong hands). The crusade brings Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Hulk, Thor, and Hawkeye to the doorstep of Baron Strucker - a Hydra officer who has been experimenting on Loki's scepter in the hopes of harnessing its power.
In their assault on Strucker's Sokovian compound, The Avengers encounter a pair of "enhanced" enemies, Pietro (Quicksilver) and Wanda (Scarlet Witch) Maximoff - as well as scientific data that, paired with Tony Stark's advances in artificial intelligence, has the potential to protect Earth from the growing threat of alien invasion. However, in his effort to protect the world from future war, Stark creates his worst nightmare instead: Ultron, a destructive A.I. force hell-bent on playing god - and seeking revenge on his creator.
In spite of a solo-outing for Ant-Man, Joss Whedon's Age of Ultron essentially closes the door on the Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase Two storyline, while opening a few windows to Phase Three. The latest Avengers team-up delivers everything that fans have come to expect from Marvel films: globe-trotting adventure, CGI battles, future shared universe setup, comic book easter eggs, concise character drama, and a Stan Lee cameo. As a result, the movie is a must-see for anyone, young and old, that has been following along with Marvel's interconnected movie storyline. Though it is bigger, with refined special effects, a new central villain, and some enticing Phase Three "Civil War" groundwork, Age of Ultron will be less accessible for viewers who aren't well-versed in the ongoing plot - and, much like its predecessor, gets bogged down in the balancing act of developing returning heroes, introducing new ones, and crafting a memorable central baddie.
Still, the core storyline successfully builds on the films, and the subsequent individual struggles, that have come before - supplying each avenging hero with their own obstacles (physical, intellectual, or emotional) to overcome. To that end, the addition of Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and her power to manipulate minds, galvanizes The Avengers into deeper and darker self-evaluation - revealing conflicting ideologies within the team. It's a slightly more subtle and earnest approach to inter-Avengers conflict, where fear and insecurity drive disagreement - instead of the misunderstandings ("This is beyond you, metal man. Loki will face Asgardian justice.") and superhero machismo ("You're not the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over you.") depicted in the first team-up movie.
The majority of the cast, especially the actors who have been given solo films, are par-for-the-course in their roles (Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor) - offering a mix of amusing one-liners, sincere personal drama, and badass superhero moments. That said, the most affecting scenes come from characters and cast members that have not headlined a Marvel solo movie. Building-off the ongoing thread of Bruce Banner's struggle to keep "the other guy" in check, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) provides a surprisingly effective mirror for Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to reflect on her own troubled past - as well as ponder who she wants to become.
Nevertheless, the biggest surprise of the film is previously sidelined Avenger, Clint Barton (Hawkeye) - who enjoys the most nuanced and relatable role in Age of Ultron. Whereas Barton was a mindless drone in The Avengers, he becomes a powerful cipher for the moviegoing audience this round: a normal guy standing shoulder-to-shoulder with gods and enhanced super soldiers, risking everything, to protect innocent lives. The effect is made even stronger by Jeremy Renner's work in the role - breathing more life and humanity into Hawkeye (as well as the entire team) than ever before.
Newcomers Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) are rewarding anti-hero choices - and both performers are solid in their roles. In spite of a well-received depiction of Quicksilver (Evan Peters) in X-Men: Days of Future Past, Taylor-Johnson's Quicksilver is differentiated enough to ensure his storyline and super powers are fresh - even if certain aspects are still very familiar. Olsen is a promising addition to the MCU, injecting colorful flair to Age of Ultron's action scenes; yet, just as the larger film hints at more exciting events down the line, a lot of viewers may be more interested in what Scarlet Witch's inclusion will mean going forward - rather than relishing in this (brief) debut appearance.
That said, while "The Twins" are intriguing to watch, their backstory, as well as the origin of their powers, are glossed over - and, worst of all, their connection to Ultron is paper thin. The lack of narrative cohesion and believable world-building is symptomatic of an ongoing problem in Marvel movies (read: the villains), and Age of Ultron fails to escape the same pitfalls.
After all the buildup to Ultron, the James Spader-voiced murderous A.I. is only a slight improvement upon prior evildoers that Avenger team members have faced (while his smashable CGI Ultron army is, similarly, only a slight improvement over the punchable horde of CGI Chitauri invaders). To Whedon's credit, Ultron receives more development than his predecessors, in addition to some genuinely witty banter, but the sentient robot still gets short-shrift when compared to screen time of the film's six-plus heroes. Like Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, Ultron is more plot device than defined character, used to pull the Avengers is new directions and challenge them in unique ways, rather than present an enduring villain on his own.
It misses the bar of classic movie greatness but Avengers: Age of Ultron is one of the most exciting and entertaining Marvel entries so far - with some of the franchise's best visuals. Like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, certain environments and effects appear green screened/CGI and Whedon is still fighting against TV-level techniques in the director's chair, but the filmmaker successfully ups the ante in visual spectacle - producing bigger and more sophisticated action set-pieces, not to mention another impressive spinning team shot (this time in slow-motion). For that reason, it's worth seeing Whedon's latest film in premium formats - 3D and IMAX 3D where possible.
Despite a few narrative hiccups and clumsy sequences, The Avengers: Age of Ultron is solid popcorn entertainment and best experienced on the big screen. Long-running trappings of shared movie universe storytelling remain, and the novelty of seeing iconic comic book characters together onscreen isn't as impressive as it was in The Avengers. Nonetheless, Age of Ultron offers an abundance of entertaining moments, clever banter, and eye-popping visuals to satisfy superhero lovers and causal filmgoers, alike. Again, it's not as groundbreaking at The Avengers (read our review), or as impactful as Captain America: The Winter Soldier (read our review), but Age of Ultron is a solid penultimate entry in Phase Two - one that also lays the groundwork for some intriguing (and much-needed) changeups in Phase Three.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron runs 141 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments. Now playing in 2D, 3D, and 3D IMAX theaters.
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For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant editors check back soon for our The Avengers: Age of Ultron episode of the SR Underground podcast.
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