The press tour for Avengers: Age of Ultron has been notable for many reasons, some relevant to the film, some not. Amid the social-media-ready tempests like actors putting their foots in their mouths and interviewers asking inappropriate questions has been the unmistakable sense in every Joss Whedon interview that the writer/director was completely broken by this film. Whedon sounds like a man who's just come back from war. If you've ever had a conversation with someone who's given off a weary, "I am so over this" vibe when discussing their job, you have a good sense of how Whedon is coming off. It feels like a combination of exhaustion from the work and exasperation from dealing with the politics of studio filmmaking.
After seeing Age of Ultron, I totally get it.
In terms of scope and complexity, this is by far the biggest Marvel movie attempted, and in many respects, the biggest tentpole movie attempted. Just to use Michael Bay's Transformers films as a contrast, as big and sprawling and exhausting as they are, as much post-production as they require, the stories are pretty straightforward and they have a much cleaner throughline. You have a human hero, his girlfriend, a wacky sidekick, good robot, bad robot, and usually two or three prestige actors in small "payday roles." And the easy part is, there's little obligation to flesh them out equally.
An Avengers film is a different beast, as it requires balancing the egos of three heroes with their own film series, a further three who've been core members of the team - all of whom generally should be given some equal weight. Add to that a main villain, two additional antagonists AND a number of cameos from other supporting heroes... and you have a character roster designed to drive any writer nuts as he crafts a story that not only gives them each some face time, but also makes them integral to the story. The worst thing would be for the audience to leave feeling like, "I don't think the Hulk really needed to be in this one."
Adding to the complexity is that with most of these characters establish - some of them WELL established - there's less freedom to bend their characterizations to serve the story. Do this sort of thing wrong and you'll be sniffed out as a fraud. Oh, and you have to do it while topping already gargantuan expectiations that this'll be more spectacular than the first film.
How does Whedon manage? For the most part, he gets his lasso around this beast.
The core story - and I'm gonna drop a lot of big spoilers ahead, so be warned - springs from a Tony Stark artificial intelligence project gone awry. Ultron was supposed to be a project to keep the world safe, but due to a combination of poor programing on Tony's part and (I think, this is a bit muddy) some interaction with the gem in Loki's staff Ultron breaks free of his programming, commanders several robot bodies after building himself an imposing new form, and sets out to end war... by ending humanity.
By his side are twins who've gone through Hydra experimentation and emerged with powers. Scarlet Witch has vaguish magical powers and the ability to mess with people's minds to draw out their biggest fears. Quicksilver is superfast, though a secondary power of his seems to be to use his superspeed in less interesting ways than his X-Men: Days of Future Past counterpart last summer.
That's the A-story. Branching out from all of this comes all the various character threads. Many of these draw from what we've seen in the intervening films, such as the collapse of SHIELD in The Winter Soldier. At times, the transition is less smooth. The end of Iron Man 3 implies that Tony has hung it up and is done. Two years later, he's fighting with the Avengers as if it's business as usual.
Tony's whole arc in this is a bit jittery. Even ignoring the end of Iron Man 3, his Ultron project is exposited in a somewhat clunky fashion. We learn about it almost literally seconds before its corrupted, which feels like a slight miscalculation in pacing. It's as if Pandora opening her box was preceded only moments earlier by "Here. Take this box. But don't open it. It's bad."
Even though Tony's mistake is the event that puts everything into motion, it feels like his character is less featured in this film. Near the end of the film's second act, the plot requires Tony to virtually repeat his earlier mistake. This sparks a brief fight with Captain America and a few of the others. It's a point where we have a very, very surface-level understanding of the motivations involved.
Then at the end of the film, Tony ends up driving off into the sunset, leaving superheroing behind. There's just enough for us to connect the dots, but it's not totally satisfying in its own way.
More than any entry so far, this feels not just like a Marvel comic but one of those big summer crossover issues that's just overstuffed with characters and incidents. This is like a House of M or Secret Invasion miniseries, where it's fair game for every character to show up. As with those sprawling storylines, there are moments where one gets the impression that the less-explained moments of the epic get fleshed out in individual tie-in issues.
A good example of this is Thor's storyline, which sends him off on a brief tangent that plays out like an under-explained vision quest. This is one subplot that was more obviously trimmed to the bare bones. When Thor shows up to suddenly move a major chunk of the story forward and bring along a great deal of exposition about the Infinity Stones, it's hard not to imagine an editor's caption "*See more about Thor's vision quest in THOR #239!"
Captain America also gets short-shrift in the drama department. It's fortunate that this is a script from someone like Whedon, who's able to get a lot of character moments wedged into idle banter within the interactions. He and Tony have some verbal sparing, some playful, some not. The main conflict between them feels like a warm-up for the next film, though. Chris Evans makes the most of what he's got, but Cap isn't driving the plot like he did last time.
The good news is that everyone gets screentime and at least one or two great moments that are uniquely theirs. An early highlight is a party in the Avengers Tower filled with cameos and these large personalities bouncing off of each other. It's here where Whedon reminds us he's the master of the set-up and payoff as more than one seemingly-extraneous bit of fun here turns out to be a seed planted for bigger moments later in the film.
(One of them - it's the moment involving Thor's hammer - had its payoff come about in a slightly unexpected way. SPOILERS. The party scene underlines that only someone worthy can lift Thor's hammer. What follows is a display of egos as Tony, Banner and eventually Cap try to pick it up. Cap gets it to budge. Slightly. I assumed this was set-up for a third-act bit where Cap would need to wield the hammer. Instead, it's paid off in a different way. Following the introduction of a new character, the team debates if they should trust this new arrival. That matter is handily settled when this person easily wields the hammer. Perfect instance of "show, not tell." "How do we know we can trust this guy?" "Well, he's able to lift the thing that only really, really good people can handle.")
It's a very full movie, but fortunately it hits more than it misses. The opening set-piece is a lot of fun despite some so-so CGI and the promised clash of Hulk versus Iron Man in his Hulkbuster armor might be my favorite action sequence in the film. It's the perfect blend of tension, comedy and violence.
That sequence also ends up introducing something that is initially refreshing - the notion of the heroes actively trying to minimize human casualties. MAN OF STEEL really got hit for this, with a vehemence that seems out of proportion considering the first AVENGERS barely raised an eyebrow without doing much more to show the heroes going out of their way. And don't even get me started on the total cop-out of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY's "We've evacuated the city" as some kind of quick-fix to make the third-act ending battle more acceptable.
(I almost literally heard Rob Lowe's character from THANK YOU FOR SMOKING in my head during that scene. "It's an easy fix. One line of dialogue...")
The Hulkbuster sequence deals with this by having Tony's armor seek out a building with no people inside. There's also a sequence involving a runaway train where shielding the civilians is a priority. But by the time we get to the final action orgy, there's something very... I hesitate to say... "corny" about the film's insistance on aggressively reassuring us the civilians are taken care of. It called to mind how Saturday morning cartoons adhered to violence restrictions by always making sure that when bad guy planes were shot down, every single one of them was shown deploying their parachutes and apparently surviving.
Don't get me wrong. The goal is laudable, but I wish Whedon had found a way to moderate it just a little bit. more. A nice touch is that we get the impression that the lives lost in that battle haunt Banner.
As the end approached, the comparisons with crossover maxi-series again came to mind, as the finale plays less like the end of a story and more like a launching pad for several new series. Tony going off on his own works, but probably had more material supporting it in longer cuts, and the showcase of who remains in the team for the next film is done pretty well.
AGAIN MORE SPOILERS
But Hulk's fate is maddeningly open-ended. The last we see of him, he's on a quinplane that's flying off into nowhere. He even apparently cuts off communication with Black Widow of his own accord and allows the jet to fly off into the unknown. It's a weird way to set up that loose thread, made even more discordant by a follow-up scene where Nick Fury says they're sure the plane crashed, but they can't find it. His almost nonchalant "He'll turn up" is a weird note to leave that scene on. It might have played better for me if Fury said it like he was trying to be blase about it, but deep down was concerned they might never find him.
Obviously he'll turn up, but the film doesn't seem to know how it wants to play the emotion of him being missing in action. On the other hand, these movies have seemingly killed so many characters who later came back fine, perhaps Whedon's muting of the character reactions is in reaction to the criticism of these fakeouts.
Hawkeye's departure makes a little more sense and I generally like how he's used in this. Fans who were pushing for a Black Widow/Hawkeye relationship are probably going to be thrown for a loop after seeing he's been married long enough to have two young kids. A neat consequence of this is it forces the viewer to revisit the supposed sexual tension between Natasha and Barton in the first film. It's kind of nice to see them showing a functional male/female relationship that doesn't necessarily end in paying off sexual tension.
Pairing her with Banner is one of the film's surprising choices. We're not shown much about this flirtation, which amounts to little more than a tease. Though has anyone noticed that when it comes to dynamics with each of the other characters, Black Widow might be the most fleshed out? Black Widow/Thor might be the only under-explored dynamic in her relationships. Tony is close behind, with only Iron Man/Hawkeye being a total tabula rosa. Cap really hasn't been given a great deal of interaction with Banner or Thor - two characters who are mostly distant from at least half the ensemble.
It can't have been easy to craft this story in a way that allowed character to shine as much as action and plot. After one viewing, I feel like Ultron was enjoyable, but not quite as good as the first film. However, it's easily the most ambitious and even though it's not immune to the "now our moment of synergy to promote future projects" that's marred several of the films, it feels less intrusive here. The ending tag probably would have been more effective if GOTG had managed to establish Thanos beyond being "Evil Dude who sits on a throne a lot."
Still, I'd put it in the upper 25% of Marvel films. I'm a bit afraid that this movie will pull an Independence Day on me and somehow plummeted massively in enjoyment on a second viewing. For now, this has me eager for next year's Captain America: Civil War. That's being directed by the Russo Brothers, who'll follow that up with Avengers: Infinity War Parts I and II. I shudder a bit to think what a more massive Marvel movie than this will look like. If just one of these movies exhausted Whedon so much, have a few hugs ready for the Russos come 2018.