(Minor Spoilers Below)
After the worldwide phenomenon that was The Avengers, the inevitable sequel already had the odds stacked against it. How could anything, no matter how big, manage to top the magic and originality of the original? While Avengers: Age of Ultron may not surpass its predecessor, it certainly matches it in terms of character, action, and excitement, and delivers on almost every ounce of promise that was shown in the trailers.
Age of Ultron isn’t necessarily bigger than what has come before, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing in this case. In a similar way to the first one, Age of Ultron takes a more character focused approach to its plot and goes to great lengths to spotlight each and every character in the large ensemble cast. In that way, it feels slightly more personal than the original, as the heroes’ are forced to confront their deepest fears.
Even more so than Avengers, Age of Ultron gives everyone a fair share of screen time, and manages to deepen the characterization of the cast even further than we’ve ever seen before. Unsurprisingly, the whole cast is amazing, and their wonderful banter and dialogue plays so well that it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a movie instead of just enjoying the company of some old friends.
This is where Joss Whedon’s direction shines the brightest, as his script, which does becomes a bit cumbersome near the end, still takes the time to develop and enrich each and every character as much as it can in its two-and-a-half hour run time.
Robert Downey Jr. has never been better as Tony Stark, as Age of Ultron gives him some of his most compelling material and conflict for the character yet. Chris Evans is predictably great as well, and his effortless performances make you think that he could easily play Captain American in his sleep at this point.
There are even some seeds planted between Tony and Steve that begin to set the stage for their eventual conflict in Captain America: Civil War, coming next year. While these moments are subtle, they do a great job at showing how the relationship between these two could collapse under the right circumstances.
Mark Ruffalo also has some of his best material here, as Bruce Banner is forced to face the monster within himself more than ever before. There are even some compelling moments between him and Natasha Romanoff as they find solace in each others’ greatest fears. However, the romantic angle to their relationship feels like it came out of the left field, and while they dynamic worked, there wasn’t enough set-up for it to feel entirely earned.
The newcomers to the team, the super powered twins Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, also fare surprisingly well for their limited amount of screen time. They’re not developed deeply, but their motivations are convincing enough to make them worthwhile in an already crowded cast. Even the Vision, who doesn’t show up until the final act, makes an immediate impression, and will be a very cool character to see evolve in future movies.
The real surprise from the cast, however, is Jeremy Renner’s performance as Hawkeye. If you were disappointed in how he was portrayed in the original film, then his role in Age of Ultron will more than make up for it. Hawkeye is the real heart of the team this time around, and probably receives the most developed backstory out of the whole bunch and outright steals the show in a couple of key scenes.
At this point, it’s no secret that one of Marvel’s most glaring weaknesses in their movies has been the often underdeveloped villains, but thankfully, Ultron stands out as one of the better villains we’ve seen so far. James Spader gleefully embraces the absurdities of the character, and he brilliantly conveys both a charming childlike naivety alongside frequent psychotic outbursts in a way only he can.
Ultron is immediately menacing, and his sick sense of humor and quick temper make him as volatile as they come. Unfortunately, I felt like the climax of the film didn’t do the character the kind of justice I was hoping for. The climax as a whole feels unfortunately similar to the first movie, and places Ultron on the sidelines while his expendable and mostly forgettable robotic drones confront the Avengers.
It’s still an exciting climax, thanks to Whedon’s superb directing and scene development, but it’s not as impressive as it could’ve been and comes off as a bit too hectic and familiar for its own good. The plot as a whole is also a bit dense, and has so much going on at any given time that it occasionally stumbles over itself.
There are some great bits of backstory for each of the major characters, but once again, Age of Ultron is an action movie driven by character and not by a cohesive plot. That’s not to say Whedon’s script is bad, it actually does an impressive job of making so many different threads seem at least somewhat fluid, but it feels a bit labored as it nears the end.
The biggest reason for this is because there is an extreme amount of set-up for future Marvel movies that feels more like filler material than anything else. It just distracts the audience from the actual plot, and while it’s interesting in its own way, it could’ve easily been cut to support a more streamlined narrative.
Some of the set-up actually does work though, specifically a brief tease towards the end of the movie that gives us a first look at what the future of the Avengers team might look like. It’s a brief moment, but one that has a strong impact because it was unexpected and not overdone. If the movie had used the same approach for its other set-ups, it could’ve made a good movie even better.
Age of Ultron is an admirable follow up that gives its characters a great backdrop to play in and even better material to work with. It’s both a gripping character drama and bombastic action piece, and even though it doesn’t top the first movie, the fact that it comes close at all is a testament to just how good it is.
Avengers: Age of Ultron isn’t the game-changer that The Avengers was, but I don’t think that it has to be. This movie can be best described as simply more Avengers; more banter, more action, and more gleefully comic book fueled excitement.. This is popcorn entertainment in one of its purest forms, and should definitely not be missed in the theater.