When the Avengers manage to take down the final forces of Hydra and finally regain possession of Loki's weird scepter from the last movie, all seems well, but almost immediately a new threat emerges: Ultron, an A.I. created by the Avengers but that will now try to take them down. Will they manage to defeat him? ... Well of course they do. This is superheroes, silly. If you want something else go watch The Wire. Or Deadwood. Or Babylon 5. Or Marvel's own Daredevil Season 1. All right, bad example.
I will start out saying that I did enjoy this movie about as much as I did the first one as a pure movie going experience. There was a full house, a rarity these days when I go see a movie, and everyone was engrossed and had a lot of fun, from a pure cinema experience absolutely great. Too bad it was combined with a movie that left me cold. The action in this movie, while flawless, really can't compare to the raw impact and tension of The Winter Soldier, be it in the air or hand-to-hand, nor with the visual spectacle that was Iron Man 3, the last one with all the robot suits punching each other. Like the first movie, this one suffers from Buffy syndrome, fitting, considering that director Joss Whedon was the creator of that show. By that I mean that everything feels fake and too choreographed. It lacks the satisfying visceral nature of The Winter Soldier or, more recently, the excellent Daredevil show. Not because it's not bloody, Winter Soldier wasn't bloody either, but it felt more real, less choreographed, less like a dance or a performance. It probably can't be helped in such an CGI heavy film but what made these other two Marvel properties stand out was the absolute absence of shaky cam while Whedon can't seem to hold the camera still passed that really cool opening scene that, like the famous oner in Avengers, does everything in one frame (of course not really, thanks to CGI, but it at least held the shot).
Still, the set pieces and powers are interesting enough to keep you entertained, though after a run time of 150 minutes it started to suffer from Man of Steel syndrome as well: too many prolonged fight scenes within a too short amount of time. Still, if action is what you came for, you could find way worse movies and at least it was more varied than the first one.
But action was never what would have made this movie fall down. Even without their excellent fight scenes, Winter Soldier and Daredevil were still great movies in their own right, an awesome, if gutless, spy thriller and a noir detective story worthy of David Simon (praised be he). It is on the character and story side of things where this movie truly disappointed me.
This is hard to phrase without spoiling anything, but needless to say that Age of Ultron fails to have anything that can be even remotely be called a satisfying dramatic element. For a moment it seems like Ultron will test the Avengers, both in combat and psychologically, metaphorically. For a moment it seemed like the creation of Ultron by Tony Stark, a fact that was all about the pre-release material so I have no quarrels about saying this, would lead to the Avengers breaking apart, having a family argument. This, again without spoiling anything, is not where this is going. Like the first movie with Loki's scepter-of-the-vague-powers there is an outside force responsible for all the doubt and internal conflict facing the Avengers. None of the Avengers are ever really at fault and what is there with Tony is brushed aside and never really followed up on, with most of the movie spent on the Ultron problem at hand. There is also the motivation of the Maximoff twins that is brought up once that might have (and should have) led to a direct conflict with one of the Avengers but is dropped before the third act. Maybe now, as you are reading this, you say they wanna save all of these for the sequel. But that is simply not how you write a story and you will most definitely not get any sympathy from me. Make the movie you are making right now as good as you can make it at this point and do not hold back anything for the sequel or any other part of your little cinematic universe. As a writer, director, producer, whatever, your main duty is to the film, not the franchise. As it stands, this is a gutless movie why way too little death, way too much humor and way too little moral dilemma considering the subject matter and the other great "2" movies in the superhero genre.
As I said, the story doesn't really give you much. All that was brought up in the trailers with the famous Pinocchio line "There are no strings on me" is dropped once Ultron goes into, well, full Skynet mode, which is short hand for every single f-ed up A.I. ever. Like Loki before him, what started out as an interesting and sympathetic idea, quickly devolved into yet another final boss for the Avengers too beat, which is fine if there had been some substance to him in any shape or form. The only thing that salvages the character in the end is a truly magnificent and fun portrayal by veteran actor James Spader, he of Blacklist and Boston Legal, who manages to make a one dimensional evil robot as entertaining as possible, even without making him memorable.
I wouldn't go so far as to call anything that happens to any of the characters a character arc, because that would actually mean dealing with important issues. As it stands, Tony Stark has the closest to one, which is trying to make the world a safer place. But like I already mentioned, this too feels cut short, because they are saving the fallout of this for the upcoming Civil War movie, with none of the Avengers, or anyone, actually holding a long term grudge against him for the things he messed up, nor are there consequences for him.
Cap is once again the guy out of time that asks himself what his place in the world is and finds out that it is to be with the Avengers. Hurrah. Thor is there. Yeah. The Maximoff twins are there and really lack motivation for anything, but they are harmless enough. Clint Barton suffers from Han Solo syndrome, in that he doesn't develop but we do learn something new about him, which is nice.
The highlight of the movie, if you can call it that, are Black Widow and Hulk, who have the closest to a self contained story here, with them trying to figure out what the bond that has developed between them actually means. It was good and somewhat sad to see it play out. Had the movie had more of these elements, I would probably not be as harsh as I am right now.
Given enough words I could probably go more into detail, but let's end on the fat that this is, wards and all, a Marvel Studios movie, and on top of that a Joss Whedon project post-Firefly (which broke him) meaning it will look like it has substance when in fact it only has it on the surface and the longer you thing about it, it will mean less and less, saving more for later, which will then have less of an impact as it would have now. Marvel has averted this only three times: Iron Man 3, Winter Soldier, and Daredevil, three excellent projects that actually meant something. And regardless of all of these points, the fact that most of my article was just an explanation what did and didn't work about the movie as vaguely as possible, the fact that it's anywhere between a 5 and a 6 out of 10, does not mean it is bad. I still give it thumbs up, it's enjoyable, it's more Avengers, it's a fun ride. But I will not try to convince myself that it is in any way or shape meaningful. I will not try to convince myself that it is one of the greatest movie eveeeeerrrrr like some people always hail new superhero movies. It just does not add up in comparison to some of the greats of the medium nor it's own genre. But that's okay. It's enjoyable popcorn entertainment that didn't want me to hunt down the Death Note for some... personal business. It's an okay movie. And sometimes that's okay.