WARNING: SPOILERS MAY FOLLOW - LEAVE NOW IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW ANYTHING AT ALL.
There is a line in A:AOU that sums up not only the story, but also the movie, Phase 2 of the MCU and most importantly Joss Whedon's stewardship of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When Tony Stark advises this is the "end of the path he set us on", he's not kidding.
While I am not going to flat out spoil the movie, as I am mindful it is not due for release for another week Stateside, I am going in depth with this review on some points you may not wish to read.
Fair Warning given, please don't read further if you're at all like me and want to see the movie with little access to trailers or information.
Still with me?
No really, please don't read on if you're at all one of the "spoiler spetznaz".
Now... we can begin.
The Age Of Ultron's opening benefits from us already knowing the characters, and forgoes exposition in favour of out and out action. We join our heroes mid-mission facing an old foe and some new ones.
The teamwork of the Avengers is on display here really for the first time as a "proper unit", Cap has graduated to the natural leader of the team with Hawkeye seemingly rising up the ranks both in terms of story and the team itself.
We also begin to see the payoff for the seeds sown in the first Avengers movie between Black Widow and Bruce Banner/The Hulk who are their own mini-team. The "Lullaby" concept is well thought out and feeds into Norton's iteration well, replacing Betty Ross with Natasha.
It's not much of a spoiler to say that we meet the newest powered members of the MCU early and that their impact is major. Wanda and Pietro are a real threat to the team and before half the running time is gone they have successfully destabilized the team better than Loki ever could.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson arguably has the hardest job in the MCU, when the "dual Quicksilver" situation was announced, he was the one expected to be the better, with Evan Peters gaining ridicule just from photos of his look. Then the movie came out and his "Peter" was not only a highlight but something that raised the bar for "new characters" in the genre. Aaron does a good job in this movie of creating his own take on Pietro, less quirky than the X-Version but bristling with the swagger of the comic version, he's likeable and he nails the sense of devotion to his sister.
Elizabeth Olsen gives Wanda the "unearthly" quality she needs, you can see she looks at the world VERY differently and some seemingly random decisions she makes pay off quickly with the birth of Ultron.
One dynamic that remains great is Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Rufallo as "The Science Bro's" and you see that played out to it's natural and horrifying conclusion. Banner is repeatedly talked into doing what Tony wants against his better judgement. This is the first inkling that Tony could be seen as a villain in Civil War, even if what he feels he is doing is "right". Banner on the other hand is distracted enough to go along, mainly by his burgeoning romance with Natasha.
Some of the best stuff in the film is between them, having real life relationship fears, doubts and issues in the backdrop of the chaos of the Avengers. It's not "Buffy love" for sure, and you really do want them to get it together some how, even if it means we lose them from the team. Perhaps the most "old school" Cap moment of the movie is his pep talk to Banner about it, Steve sees Banner as a good guy first, same as Natasha does, it contrasts well with later in the movie where you see the real aftermath of a Hulkout and the self-loathing Banner clearly has for losing control.
Tony on the other hand has, in many ways "left the team" and feels he is doing the world a favour by returning every now and then. He has taken his idea from Iron Man 3 on and now the Iron Legion and War Machine seem to be the guys taking most of the work. Pepper is conspicuous by her absence, perhaps he's gone too far again. In action he's still the wisecracking Stark we know and love but he seems to have receded within the team, happy to let Cap and Barton take the field commander roles
Probably the main scene everyone has already seen is the party and this serves not only as Ultron's introduction and to immediately set up real tension within the team, but also to reintroduce us to some old friends and perhaps them to new faces/potential teammates. Don Cheadle is his usual fun self in this.
Stark has again gone over the other's head and they're pissed, notably Thor who feels they now have to "do it all again" when he was ready to go home, he has a feeling about a wider game afoot even before Wanda's head games and arguably this is Thor's only "great" point in the movie. He spends much of the run time away from the team trying to piece together the "wider puzzle".
Indeed of our team, the guys we have spent the most time with already seeing their development step to the back, with Cap and Thor in particular having relatively little to do character wise this time around. You will be pleased to know that the now traditional running joke involving Thor continues, albeit in a different form this time round.
Once the genie is out the bottle and Ultron is in play an alliance quickly forms between he and the twins and we see James Spader's Ultron in his true glory.
As mo-cap/voice performances go it's one of the best yet, Ultron has all the personality, twisted humor and madness you expect both from the comic and from, in this case, being a "child" of Tony Stark. We also meet a future villain in Ulysses Klaw and in his few minutes Andy Serkis shows not only is he a great bad guy for this genre but that Klaw himself is going to be strong enough to make the Black Panther movie work. Our first major spoiler is below...
Here we see much of the trailer and report promised goodies, cameos and development but don't expect everything you've either seen or read. There are several bits missing that casting and trailers have shown, notably no Tom Hiddleston as Loki and no "Woman In The Water". While this doesn't ruin the film it does betray that perhaps major cuts have been made by the studio and we're not seeing Whedon's cut, more on this later. Idris Elba IS there and there is a big clue that he might not be in Ragnarok or the MCU any longer. Hayley Attwell too is there but it's actually a pointless and very disappointing cameo, clearly filmed before Agent Carter "hit big".
Witch successfully "gets into the head" of the team, including Banner who rampages as the Hulk indiscriminately for the first time since his own movie and we get to meet "Veronica". You know what I am talking about of course and this is a pretty epic battle sequence that delivers not only on destruction but in successfully building the paranoia factor for Civil War. We know Banner's not at fault, the Avengers know but all of them also know the world won't care.
This leads to the nicest "surprise" in the MCU yet, where we find that Nick Fury doesn't hold a monopoly on secrets. Admittedly I called this several weeks ago when casting was updated but even then it's great to actually see something "good" in the MCU for a change but even that is tempered by a horrible revelation that really informs on another character.
Spoiler Ahoy... skip if you don't want to know, but I have to comment on it for the review.
We find that safe houses are not always SHIELD bases and that one of our Avengers has a "double life" that the others (bar one of course) are not aware of.
We also find that "graduation" from the Red Room had a horrible life changing cost for Natasha, in one sentence her whole arc makes a LOT more sense and adds a real tragic edge to her character, and why she can see in Banner someone she can relate to and love.
This is perhaps the most important sequence of the film as it gives time to build up to Civil War. Of course there is Steve and Tony's log cutting from the trailers, there is tension but no enmity yet, you know it's not THAT far below the surface however.
We also see Thor realizing he has to "ditch the team" to find answers and Banner realising he is always going to end up having to leave the group and the one woman who is ever going to love and accept him.
This is the best acted segment in the movie bar none and shows why they went for great actors rather than "big names". Renner gives Hawkeye a real character, something we never thought we'd get from the first movie and it shows why he as an Oscar nominated actor was chosen. Ruffalo and ScarJo likewise are top drawer, while Natasha's story in the first movie to Loki was a ruse, this isn't and it's a brutal reminder that there is evil in the MCU in governments and man, not just in supervillains.
It's soon time for us to head back into battle though and we see Ultron's endgame, as do the twins. Ultron has what he needs to create his final form and a thrilling chase scene of the type we are now used to ensues before another Banner/Stark moment.
Honestly, I felt RDJ a bit of a passenger in the film this time out until this part but this is where we see how little the team actually trust him now but how right Stark ultimately is. This more than anything signals Civil War is coming.
It's not a spoiler to say this is the introduction for the Vision and he is all we'd hoped for in terms of plot development and performance. You thought Paul Bettany's voice was perfect for J.A.R.V.I.S? It's nailed on for the Vision, it's almost like this was planned for him in 2008 with the first Iron Man. Of all the new characters, he is the best served perhaps but also the most exciting, we see all his powers, from phasing to flight and of course the gem... it's pretty obvious really isn't it?
We then hurtle towards Ultron's final plan back in the twins home of Sokovia and our team, with it's newest recruits face a truly global killing situation.
The Chitauri was a force they could fight, now they have to fight Ultron and his endless replicas AND gravity/physics.
Renner is again excellent here, particularly with his "recruitment speech" to Wanda, you can imgine him giving the same speech to Natasha years earlier as "his other call" and if RDJ/Cap ever do step aside then Barton shows he could be a more than able leader and more importantly, a crucial ally when Civil War kicks in.
This battle is the payoff to several years of building the MCU with no less than 9 Avengers in play.
This is what the comic team was all about, not just the "All Star Team" we got in the first movie but a true squad of different heroes working together, fighting, saving civilians and finding strength in numbers.
It's not a spoiler to say someone dies because Joss Whedon already told us that. Everyone has their bets on who that is, and he does a GREAT job of building tension, you genuinely don't know who it's going to be and it is SO well built that it could be almost anyone (who doesn't have another movie announced of course), I won't be the d-bag who puts it even in a spoiler here, but I wasn't surprised by the choice but disappointed by how it was handled post battle.
We know the world isn't destroyed or there'd be no more movies so it's clear that Ultron ultimately fails and we end up with an almost tragic death scene for him. He's the last one, he's on the run and it has the feel of a dog being put down cos it bit it's master, rather than out of spite.
The team all have to make their choices and not all of them are going to remain Avengers, some out of necessity, some out of feeling "they have done their part" and some because they just can't.
As promised we have a "new Avengers" team by the end of the movie. While not the most "inspiring lineup" you know that a certain webcrawler is gonna fit right in there along with Dr. Strange, Black Panther and Captain Marvel.
The credits... Joss wasn't lying, don't waste your time sitting till the end...nada, zip and for the first time I actually felt the "stinger" was pointless. No Spidey folks... guess you gotta go see Ant-Man for that (which makes a lot of sense from Marvel's perspective) or Black Panther/Dr. Stange.
So we come to the end, how do I sum up the movie. It was a great MCU film, it had 85% if what I'd hoped for in it. But it isn't the "awesome jaw-dropper" we'd all expected.
This seems very deliberate on the part of Marvel to try and cool the expectations for Phase 3.
No studio can keep hitting home runs and at many points I got the feeling something had been cut. Indeed the original running time was said to be closer to 3 hours so a lot of footage has probably been trimmed and I strongly doubt we are seeing Whedon's true movie here but Marvel's cut. The additonal stuff may show up on DVD/Blu or it may be that he got "Favreaued or Wrighted" on the way out.
The most likely reason is that with the keys to the kingdom now in the hands of the Russos, Marvel had to edit things to allow them to introduce the new characters rather than be bound by something Whedon set up.
The line I mentioned at the start applies to Joss Whedon just as much here as the characters, he brought us on the Avengers path and it's the end of that particular path for him and us.
Phase 3 is going to be based on lesser known properties and Spidey and while I don't doubt Marvel will continue it's fine run, it's better to get rid of this "Marvel can do no wrong" attitude the fans have and do it now, cos otherwise the Russo's and anyone else involved in Phase 3 have little room to maneuver and be creative in the way Joss and the other directors so far have been able to.
This isn't a perfect movie, I get the feeling Joss may have directed one but like with the seemingly ruthless Edgar Wright decision, Marvel have a more definite plan than putting out 95% on Rotten Tomato films every time.
Marvel do seem to be developing an annoying habit of not using popular villains correctly if they're not Loki and I'm not spoiling to say Von Strucker in particular gets the "Trevor" in this movie, not that he's humorous or a buffoon, just not what was really hoped for and a let down to what could have been. Unless of course it's all gonna play out on TV with Agent's of Shield but even then it's a waste of a great potential character.
Some stuff just "isn't explained well" like why Tony is back with the team, apart from a deflective "Pepper has a company to run" which could be seen as relationship trouble and of course Nick Fury... We know we've got to watch AoS but it was tied in SO much better last time around with The Winter Soldier, it's set up perfectly for US viewers but for those seeing the film in overseas markets earlier, it's a massive plot hole as the show doesn't "officially" air till several weeks after the US.
Likewise, a LOT of stuff is left out that we were "promised", I'm never a fan of trailing something that is not then shown as it is like a bait and switch.
This is the opening popcorn flick of the year in a year crammed with them, it'll make it's billion quickly.
To the fans it's all about Spidey now anyway to an extent. To Disney, they know Star Wars is top priority this year and that the fans will forgive any shortcomings in this film due to the Spidey deal and that it delivers the spectacle if not the real home run they hoped for.
It's not a card they can play again, but they've earned this one with 7 years of top quality movies, after all it'd be very easy to jump the shark and become victims of their own success.
My title is about right, we probably deserve a better movie or the full cut perhaps, but we needed to slow this expectation juggernaut on Marvel down or risk killing the golden goose and they needed to set the stage for new characters (and cheaper actors of course) going forward.
This movie succeeds on both those levels...for the first time I really believe that Daredevil could be in the next one, or Spidey and that Cap and Iron Man and Thor don't have to be there. Arguably that's more important than having another "perfect movie" on Rotten Tomatoes.