Over in Sokovia, the Avengers raid a Hydra outpost led by Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), who’s been experimenting on twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) with the aid of Loki’s scepter. Upon infiltrating the outpost, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) retrieves the scepter.
Back home, Stark and Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) discover artificial intelligence within the scepter’s gem and use it to complete Stark’s “Ultron” defense program. However, the program goes awry when the sentient Ultron (James Spader) believes he must eliminate all humanity in order to save the world.
So the summer blockbuster season is officially here, and what better way to kick it off than with the box office behemoth that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
Yep, Mickey’s gonna be making it rain dolla bills all over Minnie this weekend.
The first Avengers wasn’t a revolutionary film or anything. It’s pretty much a greatest hits package of your favorite Marvel characters, albeit a fun greatest hits package that brought all the elements of Marvel’s Phase One to a head. Where it changed the game was in the amount of dump trucks needed to park all the cash the House of Mouse made, and more importantly, it turned every other studio into the whiny little brat that sees one of his friends got a toy shared cinematic universe and now he wants one too.
Not surprisingly, the hype stirred up from the first film raised the bar even higher for writer/director Joss Whedon to deliver a hit with the sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron. An even more monumental task is laid on him in that he has to start concluding all that’s been built up throughout Phase Two, and now start setting up for Phase Three. All the franchise building, story threads, characters, climaxes and fight scenes upon fight scenes popping up onscreen is enough to have your head spin like a manic top.
It’s an overstuffed, all you can eat CGI buffet, that can get a bit uneven at times, but like its predecessor, it delivers the goods when it has to.
Of course, when your film has to handle six returning central protagonists, not to mention returning appearances from supporting characters throughout the previous standalone films, then the introduction of three new characters, and the creation and setup of the main villain, overcrowding is inevitable. It’s just this franchise’s cross to bear much like it’s been for Fox’s X-Men series. At times, the pacing is rushed, most notably in Ultron’s creation and quick transformation into the villain (I’m assuming the extended cut to be added with the film’s eventual Blu-ray/DVD release will develop that better), a few scenes feel more like obligatory set ups for the Phase Three films instead of serving any connection to this film’s story (Thor’s visit to Dr. Selvig), and there’s a romantic subplot between Bruce Banner and Black Widow that has wedged-in written all over it.
That said, despite its missteps, this is far from a bad film. In fact, it should be considered a success that Whedon and producer Kevin Feige – or, hell anyone – could make such a crowded film even watchable, let alone entertaining. It’s hard not to get caught up in the grand spectacle on display here, even though the film’s better moments come when Whedon’s witty banter and humor get a chance to breathe a little when things aren’t getting so busy (such as a party scene where the other Avengers compete over who’s “worthy” enough to lift Thor’s hammer).
All six primary actors are back in action, literally from the opening shot that kicks things off with a bang, and by now have been given enough screen time throughout the franchise to make their respective characters their own (Hemsworth, in particular, has a knack for comedy that he should really tap into more in other films). One area of improvement that’s worth mentioning is the attention given to Hawkeye, who was really a throwaway character in the first film, and I probably wouldn’t be saying that if he wasn’t portrayed by a two-time Oscar nominee. Renner gets much more to do this time around, and the few scenes he has with his family provide some minor but nice insight into his personal life.
The newer faces are a mixed bag. It’s great to see Paul Bettany, who’s been involved in these films since the first Iron Man as the voice of J.A.R.V.I.S., get a more substantial role as Vision (who has a sight gag involving Thor’s hammer that’s an effective payoff from the earlier scene mentioned above). Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, on the other hand, don’t get much to do and are really nothing more than afterthoughts. But in future films, who knows? I said the same thing about Hawkeye once.
Also, a company worth billions throwing $250 million into this film and they can’t afford a decent Russian accent coach for Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen?
As for the film’s villain, though it suffers from a rushed origin, James Spader does give Ultron a perfectly droll menace that livens up the exchange it has with the Avengers, especially its creator Tony Stark. Many might find it surprising by just how much humor plays into Ultron (given who its creator is, it clearly makes sense), but Spader has such a distinct delivery that allows the humor to be both funny and terrifying at the same time.
Overstuffed to the point it could cause the head of anyone not a sweaty comic nerd to explode, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a bloated, CGI-driven, action spectacle that doesn’t quite have the focus of its predecessor or some of the better offerings out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But despite juggling too much for its own good, the familiar faces are a welcome sight, the action is entertaining and James Spader makes for a worthy new foe. It’s not perfect, but it picks up where the MCU left off and keeps it chugging along in a satisfying manner.
I give Avengers: Age of Ultron a B (★★★).