Joss Whedon's 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' Ages Well
Joss Whedon defied expectations with his ambitiously muted, psychological approach to Avengers: Age of Ultron but despite his best intentions and genuinely interesting vision, this would be his only effort with Marvel Studios. It was a good effort.
The Avengers (Whedon, 2012) was massively successful. It combined characters and concepts from four other film series into one crossover event, cinematically approximating the shared universe of Marvel Comics. In doing so, Marvel Studios created a new, oft-imitated model for blockbuster films. The success immediately emboldened the studio. Their planned 2013 films, Iron Man 3 (Black, 2013) and Thor: The Dark World (Taylor, 2013), received budget increases, and ABC debuted Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, the first Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) television series.
The following year was an even bigger year for the studio. They took big narrative risks with Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo Brothers, 2014), a grounded, serious political thriller, and Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014), a colourful, comedic space fantasy. Both were extremely well-received and financially successful. As 2015 began, ABC debuted Agent Carter, a television spin-off of Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011), and Netflix began their series of mature, MCU-set series with the well-received Daredevil. Marvel Studios was riding high.
On 28 October 2014, in the midst of all of this success and with the last two films in the MCU's "Phase 2" (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Whedon, 2015 and Ant-Man, Reed, 2015) due out in 2015, Marvel Studios boldly staked a claim on the future. In a star-studded press conference, they announced the release dates of their entire nine-film "Phase 3" slate. Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange were due to release in 2016; Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther were due to release in 2017; Avengers: Infinity War - Part 1, Captain Marvel and Inhumans were due to release in 2018. Fnally, Avengers: Infinity War - Part 2 was due to release in 2019. The scale of this announcement was unprecedented. Studios often reserve release dates as a signal to other studios to stay away, but this was release dates and film titles (implying certain plot points) for the next five years!
It was risky, since troubled films are typically dropped quietly or altered significantly early in production, and the general public is none the wiser. Any changes to the schedule now would be very public. But Marvel was demonstrating great confidence, and things did change: dates were shifted, titles were altered, two films were added to the slate and one, Inhumans, was downgraded to a poorly-received television miniseries.
This was the landscape into which Avengers: Age of Ultron was released. The Avengers launched a period of success and expansion for Marvel Studios, and expectations for its sequel could not have been higher. Unfortunately, Avengers: Age of Ultron just misses the mark. When expectations are this high and a film falls short, it tends to be ravaged by critics and audiences. And yet, writer/director Joss Whedon went into the sequel with the best intentions, and a genuinely interesting vision for how to follow-up his influential hit. The film is not as terrible as contemporary reactions and reviews made it out to be, but it's also not as good as the first film. It will always have a reputation as a disappointment, the most significant in Marvel's mostly stellar post-Avengers track record, but it's worth a re-examination.
Whedon had clear ideas of how to challenge the individual Avengers, and the team as a whole, in his second film. The first film of a superhero series is typically an origin story, detailing how a superhero first acquires and deals with their powers. The Avengers was the origin story for the team itself. It details how the team is brought together, how each Avenger finds a sense of belonging with each other and improve each other. Typically the second film of a superhero series temporarily disrupts the status quo, often by the hero losing or giving up their powers, in order to more deeply examine the nature of the hero and their heroism.
Avengers: Age of Ultron approaches that type of story for the team. Whedon wanted the film to be smaller-scale, more character-driven. At its core, the film is about each Avenger facing their deepest regrets and fears, and questioning their faith in the team that united them. This was an intriguing approach for the sequel, and I believe the right one. Unfortunately, with so many characters to juggle some are developed better than others. Also, external issues prevented Whedon from fully committing to tearing the team apart, even temporarily. So, the final product became a bit muddled or uneven.
This is a film that is about "The Avengers" as a team and an idea, narratively and thematically. Unlike the first film, which gradually assembles the team, they are together for this entire film. But things quickly become divided along ideological lines. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) envisions the team running indefinitely, reacting to global threats as they arise for as long as possible. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), on the other hand, does not want to be a superhero forever, and he tries to proactively eliminate the need for the Avengers, to end their mission. He invents Ultron (James Spader), an artificial intelligence designed to protect the world in place of the Avengers.
But Ultron takes the mission too far, attempting to eliminate the Avengers as an obsolete obstacle, then to protect the Earth by wiping out its biggest threat: humanity. And so the film becomes a referendum on the idea of the Avengers. Is the team necessary? Are they Earth's best defence? Will they ever stop? Do they cause more harm than good? Can they clean up their own mess with minimal civilian casualties?
Whedon informs each character's reaction to these philosophical questions by dredging up their deepest regrets and fears. Tony worries that he's not doing enough to protect the Earth, so he creates Ultron. Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) worries that he will suddenly lose control, become the Hulk and hurt people in a rampage. Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) secretly has a family, a deep connection to the world outside the team. These Avengers all have a vested interest in leaving or ending the team at some point. Steve, who was frozen in ice for 70 years following the Second World War, has no life outside of the team, and worries he will never find real connection in the world. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) worries that he has abandoned his world, Asgard, to live on Earth, but his life has been a never-ending series of battles.
Finally, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) was brutally trained in Russia to become the perfect assassin, and she hopes to redeem herself through the team. These Avengers all have a strong interest in continuing the team indefinitely. In the first act of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the team works together perfectly. By the second act, the team is shaken by regrets and difficult questions. In the third act, they come together to prove the worth and effectiveness of the team by defeating Ultron.
As best I can tell these are Whedon's overarching intentions for the film, and he mostly succeeds. He only misses the mark in a few key areas, weakening the film enough to make it a disappointment. For example, Thor's arc is cut down to near incoherence. Natasha's arc seems largely intact, but it was mishandled enough to cause fan backlash against her depiction in the film. With two of the six Avenger arcs misfiring, the second act becomes uneven. By the third act, motivations have become unclear, robbing the climax of much of its intended impact.
Also, Whedon never fully commits to the logical step of tearing the team apart, even briefly. Their psyches and faith in the team are all tested, but never broken, making the climactic united front less meaningful than it could have been. The Avengers cannot come back together when they never really came apart. This speaks to the difficulties of planning and announcing a shared universe so far ahead, which Whedon had no control over. One year after the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Marvel released Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016), in which the Avengers did break up. Civil War feels like the culmination of all that came before, much like The Avengers. That left Avengers: Age of Ultron feeling far less essential than an Avengers film should feel.
Finally, Whedon made the bold decision to craft a film unlike its predecessor, thematically, tonally and visually. Seeing the Avengers struggle with their deepest internal conflicts and existential concerns is just not as rousing as watching them come together in the first place. So already audiences wanting more of the same needed to adjust their expectations. But beyond that, Whedon mutes the colour palette, gives the visuals a bit more grit, and unlocks the camera to create more casual, less deliberate compositions. The Avengers was a classical blockbuster of the highest order, with bright colours, very deliberate compositions, and consciously showy moments of bravura heroism. Avengers: Age of Ultron intentionally strips down and mutes all of those tendencies, making it look and feel more like Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
That film also deliberately pushed back on the Marvel Studios house style that The Avengers had established. Whedon wanted to create a big superhero blockbuster that looked and felt more like his small-budget, independent version of Much Ado About Nothing (2012). This was bold, especially considering that the $365 million budgeted Avengers: Age of Ultron is the second most expensive film ever made to date. The muted style likely contributed to the more muted response from audiences upon its release.
Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch and Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow (IMDB)
However, as I said before, Avengers: Age of Ultron is not as bad as people once thought. Joss Whedon, who aimed to make a huge, quintessential blockbuster with the first film, made the equally deliberate choice to push back against those tropes with this film. The results, though more uneven and mildly less entertaining, are incredibly interesting and endlessly watchable.
The film begins with Loki's scepter, used by the villain of The Avengers to mind-control some characters. Hydra, a villainous organization, have been studying it and other artefacts from the climax of the previous film. Among other things, the chief Hydra scientist, Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), has used the power of the scepter to give enhanced abilities to the Maximoff twins. Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) now has super speed, and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) has a form of telepathy and telekinesis. Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch first appeared in X-Men #4 (March 1964) as members of Magneto's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. They soon leave Magneto and, when most of the original Avengers take leaves of absence from the team in Avengers #16 (May 1965), they join along with another former villain, Hawkeye.
This complicated the film rights for Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, as their origin in X-Men comics and membership in the Avengers meant that both Fox and Marvel Studios owned the film rights to the characters. I discuss the duelling Quicksilvers in my article on X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014), but this film was Marvel staking their claim on him. I like that the characters begin Avengers: Age of Ultron as villains before they join the Avengers, true to comics. After the scepter, the film cuts to Pietro and Wanda, huddled in a Hydra base in the fictional country Sokovia as it comes under attack from the Avengers, who have been raiding Hydra safe-houses looking for the scepter.
The film then cuts to a long, continuous shot of the Avengers battling Hydra forces in the snowy forest around the Hydra base. The shot is an intentional homage to one of the stand-out shots from The Avengers, a long continuous shot flowing from one Avenger to the next in a large action set-piece. It culminates with a slowed-down shot of all six heroes, triumphantly leaping in profile. The message of the shot is clear: the Avengers and everything you love about them are back. The continuous shot was the most difficult to complete in the entire first film, and Avengers: Age of Ultron serves it up in the second minute, indicating that the series has upped its game.
Also returning are all of the hallmarks of The Avengers: the team banters over their comm-links as they fight, they start a funny running gag of Steve's old-fashioned distaste for swearing, the Hulk is featured prominently, and the action is wonderfully clear. The team immediately operates as a well-oiled machine, something that did not occur until the very end of The Avengers. In fact, they are better than before. They each use upgraded technology, courtesy of Tony, and Natasha is able to calm the Hulk down, reverting him back to Bruce Banner when the battle is over. Tony also looks after civilians through his Iron Legion, a team of automated robots. It all displays promises of the Avengers team that formed a few years earlier, now operating at their peak.
Pietro races into the woods, and his distracting presence causes Clint to be shot. Otherwise, the raid is a success: the Hydra forces surrender, Strucker is captured, and Tony discovers their hidden lab containing Loki's scepter. But Wanda sneaks up behind him and telepathically gives Tony a vision of his worst fears (Whedon refers to these visions as "dreams" to avoid confusion with the character Vision). In Tony's dream, he's on a rock in space, looking over the dead or dying Avengers. As Steve dies, he asks why Tony did not do more to stop these events, and Tony sees an army invading Earth through a portal like the climax of The Avengers. When the dream ends and Tony grabs Loki's scepter, his mind is made up: the Earth will be attacked again, and he must proactively protect it.
This concept not only informs Tony's actions in the rest of this film, but in every MCU appearance from here until Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers, 2018). Everything Tony Stark does is informed by his absolute certainty that the Earth will come under attack from space again and it's ill-prepared. Tony's character arc is the crowning storytelling achievement of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and this film begins the second half of that arc. Tony Stark begins as a selfish arms-dealer who becomes a self-interested hero, then the Avengers push him to be more selfless. Following his experiences in the last film, he suffered post-traumatic stress. Now he channels that panic and restlessness into proactiveness, regardless of the cost.
With their objective achieved, the Avengers return to Avengers Tower, formally Stark Tower, in the middle of Manhattan. There they are greeted by Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), formerly of SHIELD, and Dr. Helen Cho (Claudia Kim), a geneticist who heals Clint with her synthetic skin. Tony examines the scepter with his automated assistant, JARVIS (voiced by Paul Bettany), and discovers an advanced artificial intelligence inside. Tony convinces Bruce to help him use the scepter to complete one of his long-gestating ideas: Ultron. He imagines Ultron as an artificial intelligence that can monitor and protect the Earth from threats, removing the need for the Avengers. If it worked, Tony could rest easy knowing that the planet is safe. With two days until their big victory party, after which Thor will return the scepter to Asgard, Tony insists on completing the project in secret rather than debating with the team.
Given these rash steps, it's easy to understand why Whedon refers to Tony as the true villain of the film. What follows is a montage of Tony and Bruce, the internet-dubbed "Science Bros," trying and failing to create a viable Ultron from the scepter. As the party begins, they leave it to JARVIS to keep trying. As soon as they leave, Ultron activates. Voiced by James Spader with his smooth, menacing monotone, Ultron is immediately confused by his purpose. He understands that he's meant to bring peace at any cost, and his perusal of the Avengers files associate the Avengers with war and violence. His confusion leads to hostility and, despite JARVIS attempting to calm him, Ultron lashes out. He lashes out at JARVIS, then uploads himself into an Iron Legion robot.
Meanwhile, the Avengers victory party is not only a standout sequence in the film, but it's one of the greatest sequences in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It simply consists of the Avengers and a few of their closest friends hanging out, telling stories, flirting, having a good time. The MCU has always been about the heroes, and the filmmakers have crafted deep, likable characters over multiple films. But rarely, if ever, do the films slow down enough to allow these well-established characters, played by some of the most talented, charismatic actors of the moment, to just hang out. It's a revelation. Many have remarked, only half-joking, that they would pay to watch an entire film of these characters just sitting around, chatting. A Richard Linklater Avengers film, if you will.
Highlights of the party are numerous. James "Rhodey" Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) fails to impress Tony and Thor with a story of one of his exploits, but amazes civilian partygoers with the same story. Thor gives some of Steve's Second World War veteran friends Asgardian liquor, resulting in one, played by Stan Lee, having to be carried out. Tony and Thor try to one-up each other, bragging about their girlfriends. Natasha flirts with Bruce. Sam Wilson/Falcon, Steve's best friend, fails to convince Steve to find a new home in Brooklyn and start a life outside the team. But best of all, as the party winds down the Avengers try to lift Mjolnir, Thor's hammer, which can only be wielded by one who is "worthy." Tony fails, even with Rhodey's help. Clint fails. Bruce fails. Steve moves it slightly, briefly worrying Thor, but then fails to lift it (or does he?). The sequence delightfully culminates the first section of the Avengers: Age of Ultron, devoted to demonstrating the easy comfort of the team before their faith in themselves, and the Avengers, is shaken.
That next section begins when Ultron crashes the party, babbling about the Avengers failing to do what is necessary to complete their mission. He attacks with the Iron Legion, steals Loki's scepter, and escapes through the internet to the Hydra base in Sokovia. There, Ultron makes new bodies for himself, and recruits Pietro and Wanda to help him tear the Avengers apart. The twins are the victims of a Sokovian civil war, and were nearly killed by weapons manufactured by Stark Enterprises. They are ready and willing to make Tony pay.
Ultron is one of the Avengers' longest-running and most interesting villains. He first appears in Avengers #54 (July 1968), and his backstory is gradually revealed over the next several issues. He was created by Hank Pym/Ant-Man, an Avenger, but his intelligence quickly grew out of control. He came to hate his "father" and the Avengers, setting out to destroy the team at all costs. When defeated, he uploads his consciousness into new bodies making him a frequent and challenging villain. He also represents the hubris of the Avengers, as they are constantly trying to defeat a villain created by them.
Whedon's unconventional approach to Ultron, perfectly captured by Spader's performance, is to make him emotional, psychologically-distressed and, in effect, very human. Artificial intelligence in film is typically more like HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968) or the T-800 in The Terminator (Cameron, 1984). Ultron is a more of a vibrant character than those classic characters, but also more chilling. When he resolves to destroy humanity it feels more like a cataclysmic tantrum than a logical calculation. Spader also nicely conveys the same snarky, cold wit of Robert Downey Jr, allowing Ultron to mirror his "father." Spader and Downey appeared in several '80s films together, most notably Less Than Zero (Kanievska, 1987), so Spader knows Downey's rhythms. Spader's Ultron is witty, thoughtful, sarcastic and highly intelligent, making him possibly the most "Whedonesque" character ever.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Avengers blame Tony for unilaterally activating an advanced artificial intelligence designed to replace to team. In another unconventional choice, and nice character beat, Tony bursts into laughter at the sheer magnitude of his failure before defending himself. He makes it clear that he does not want to be an Avenger forever, and that the Earth needs better defences, whether it be Ultron or something else. He actually says that this is the "endgame" of the team, unwittingly foreshadowing the fourth Avengers film. Steve, on the other hand, wants to combat to threats as they arise, and to do so as a team. The team puts aside their differences and track Ultron to Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), an arms dealer in Africa who peddles a highly rare metal: vibranium. This is part of some subtle advance-planning for Black Panther (Coogler, 2018). The Avengers attack Ultron and the twins there, but Ultron escapes. Wanda, however, attacks the team one-by-one with dreams.
Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark / Iron Man (IMDB)
Steve dreams of meeting his wartime crush, Peggy (Hayley Atwell), after the war, a date he missed by plunging into the Arctic Ice for seventy years. It represents the life he could have had in his own time, before awakening years in the future, cursed to only be a soldier. Natasha dreams of her strict assassin training in Russia, including murder and a very particular medical procedure. It reminds her that she was made to be a cold-blooded assassin, nothing more. Thor dreams of a dark, hedonistic Asgard right before his power overloads and destroys it. He feels regret for leaving Asgard, and abandoning his duties there, but also fear that he could destroy his home. After spending most of The Avengers brainwashed by Loki, Clint is prepared and avoids Wanda's dreams. Despite this, Wanda manages to finish her telepathic assault by going after Bruce. His dream leaves him transformed into the most out-of-control Hulk yet depicted on screen, and he rampages into a nearby city. With the rest of the team incapacitated from the dreams, Tony rushes in to stop the Hulk.
The ensuing "Hulkbuster" sequence is an excellent set-piece. Since the last film, Tony and Bruce collaborated on a satellite with technology that can be launched to stop the Hulk in the event of a rampage. The satellite is named "Veronica," a sly Archie Comics-inspired counterpoint to Bruce Banner love interest, Betty. Metal panels first contain the Hulk as a fifteen-foot suit of Hulkbuster armour encases Tony's Iron Man suit. Hulk escapes containment and Tony brings the fight to him. The action is inventive and funny. At one point Tony's mechanical arm starts pounding Hulk in the head like a jackhammer while Tony repeats "Go to sleep, go to sleep…" Tony uses a broken elevator as a mace and smacks Hulk hard enough to loosen a tooth, but then apologizes when it's clear this simply made the Hulk more angry.
Beyond the fun, Whedon is conscious of not glorifying the destructiveness of the fight, something that had become far too common in recent blockbusters. Tony tries to get people out of harm's way, or take the Hulk away from the city. He finally wins by scanning a half-constructed skyscraper to ensure it is abandoned, instantly purchasing the building, and then slamming Hulk from the top to the bottom. When the dust clears, Hulk is dazed and the terror of the nearby crowds is enough to get through to him even in his enraged, monstrous state. There is widespread destruction, but Tony seeks to minimize it. This all serves as a reminder of Bruce's worst fear, that he can become a rampaging, out-of-control version of the Hulk and kill a lot of people.
Following the dreams and the Hulkbuster sequence, Avengers: Age of Ultron transitions into Whedon's most unconventional choice: a detour to Clint's secret family and farmhouse home. Clint is considered the weakest of the original Avengers, both in terms of powers and character development. This was exacerbated when he was brainwashed and sidelined for much of The Avengers. Whedon highlights Clint's character with this sequence, positioning the least powerful, most grounded, most human member of the Avengers as the heart of the team. Clint reveals that during his time as a SHIELD operative, and now Avenger, he made sure to keep his wife, Laura (Linda Cardellini), and two kids off-the-grid and secret. This is both for their protection and to give him a safe haven away from superheroics. Clint is the only Avenger with a deep connection to the world outside the team. It does not help the states of mind of the other Avengers, as this level of normalcy is something that none of them believe that they can have.
The farmhouse sequence allows the characters to process their dreams. Whedon fully commits to this odd diversion from the action, but he's only partly successful. Uncomfortable, Thor immediately leaves to seek out answers about his dream. Steve follows him outside, then turns back toward the farmhouse door. The shot, from inside the warm, idyllic house looking out as Steve hesitates then stays outside, is a direct lift from the classic shot in The Searchers (Ford, 1956). John Wayne's character in that film, like Steve, feels that his violent ways prevent him from belonging in, or deserving, the happy home life. The life in his dream can never become reality, and Steve accepts his life as only a soldier, nothing more. Tony questions Steve's fast recovery from the dream, and they renew their debate about the nature of the team. The debate is left unresolved until Captain America: Civil War.
And then Bruce and Natasha talk. Bruce, having just experienced his worst nightmare, feels that he does not belong on the team or even among people. He's an actual monster. Natasha's dream of her training also made her feel unworthy of the team, and she pleads with Bruce to run away together. Bruce rejects her, claiming that he can never give Natasha any kind of normal life, like Clint and his family. In response, Natasha tells the story of her graduation from assassin training. Natasha and her fellow female assassins were surgically sterilized to make them more effective killers, removing the one element that could potentially matter more than a mission. So, Natasha can never have a normal family life either. She considers herself a monster too. Whedon intended Natasha to consider herself a monster because her brutal training, of which the sterilization was a traumatic part, made her a killer, a murderer, nothing else. However, the writing and editing of the scene makes it sound as if Natasha's inability to have children makes her a monster.
This was the interpretation by many filmgoers, and Whedon was roundly criticized. Regardless of Whedon's intentions the scene was clumsily written, although it was beautifully acted by Johansson (who was pregnant at the time, ironically). One of the themes of Avengers: Age of Ultron is inability of most Avengers to lead a normal life, a life outside of the team. Tony longs for it, while Steve, Bruce and Natasha come to accept they will never have it. Clint's idyllic home life demonstrates what they cannot or will not possess.
A "normal" life outside the Avengers does not necessarily mean marriage and kids, but Natasha's speech is juxtaposed with Clint's old-fashioned, heteronormative family, suggesting that these are the values of the film. Whedon's intentions no longer matter when so many viewers took the scene the wrong way. This was a mistake. It's further compounded by the poor handling of Natasha in the rest of the film. She's later captured by Ultron, becoming an uncharacteristic damsel in distress. Those scenes were written to work around Johansson's pregnancy, but they further diminish her character. The fact is that Whedon, traditionally known for strong female characters in his work, fumbled this one.
He arguably fumbles Thor even more by reducing his second-act scenes to incoherence. Thor seeks out his old friend Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) to help him locate an unexplained mystical pool that will allow him to re-experience his dream. Thor dreams again and sees the Infinity Stones, but none of it makes much sense. Upon release, Whedon was very vocal about Marvel Studios challenging some of his unconventional choices. In particular, the dream sequences, Clint's farm, and Thor's mystical pool were questioned by Marvel executives. Whedon was forced to choose, and he salvaged the first two by cutting most of the pool.
As a result, Thor's story became unsatisfying nonsense. And thus, with Steve and Tony's philosophical debate about the nature of the team unresolved, Natasha's character totally mishandled, and Thor's arc rendered incoherent, Whedon's experiment in pausing a large-scale blockbuster film to delve into the shaken psyches of his heroes ends up mostly missing the mark. The film returns to the typical action and superheroics in its final section, but with considerably less dramatic momentum and much less clear character motivations than Whedon intended. The third act action is impressive, but the film never fully recovers from its uneven second act.
Paul Bettany as Jarvis / Vision (Amazon)
Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) arrives at Clint's farm to rally the troops. Meanwhile, Ultron has been busy. He uses the vibranium he acquired from Klaue, and Dr. Cho's synthetic tissue generator to build a perfect new android in Cho's lab, located in Seoul, South Korea. Just like Tony attempted to make his successor with Ultron, Ultron creates his own successor. He breaks open Loki's scepter to reveal the yellow Mind Infinity Stone inside. Thus, the Mind Stone is the source of Pietro and Wanda's powers, and Ultron's artificial intelligence. Ultron embeds the gem in his android's forehead, and begins to upload his consciousness. As he does so, Wanda reads the android's mind and sees Ultron's plan: to wipe out life on Earth by dropping an enormous rock from the atmosphere, like the asteroid that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Pietro and Wanda realize that they are on the wrong side and, when the Avengers arrive, they decide to help. What follows is a fun car chase through Seoul that results in Clint acquiring Ultron's android before Ultron fully uploads his consciousness, Natasha being captured by Ultron, and Pietro and Wanda helping Steve.
Back at Avengers Tower, Tony discovers that JARVIS has been secretly battling Ultron online, preventing him from accessing dangerous information. When Clint arrives with the android, Tony has another crazy idea. He and Bruce upload the JARVIS A.I. into it, hoping to balance out Ultron's A.I. and create the benevolent artificial intelligence that Tony originally intended. This decision is a bit of a logic leap, considering Tony just created Ultron with cataclysmic results and this android is Ultron's design. It demonstrates that Tony has learned nothing from this experience, which is not satisfying. Steve and the twins arrive to stop Tony's mad science, and there is a stand-off until Thor arrives and powers up the android with his lightning. Thor's half-baked experience in the mystical pool apparently convinced him that the Infinity Stones are at the centre of everything, and that they must have the Mind Stone on their side. How could Thor know that the android will side with them? What does it have to do with his dream? A lot of character motivations in this sequence fail to make logical sense, but none of that matters once the android, Vision (Paul Bettany), is activated.
I still can't believe that Vision, such a geeky, niche character from the comics, was adapted to the big screen. In an early Ultron story, Avengers #57 (October 1968), Ultron creates an even more advanced android than himself, Vision, to destroy the Avengers. Vision quickly realizes that the Avengers are a force for good, and joins the team, becoming one of their most perennial members. His stories tended to focus on him using cold logic in conflicts while also attempting to be more human, much like Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994).
From his debut, however, his attitude has drawn comparisons to Spock from Star Trek (1966-1969). In the film, Whedon makes the smart choice for Vision to be the product of many disparate elements and characters, rather than a creation of Ultron alone. Ultron designed his body and uploaded much of his personality, but Vision is also powered by the Mind Stone. The rest of his personality is JARVIS, which has loyally assisted Tony since the beginning of the MCU. Bruce helps Tony upload JARVIS, and Thor's lightning brings Vision to life. Also, the fact that Paul Bettany, the voice of JARVIS in four previous films, physically plays the role is the cherry on top.
The motivations behind Vision's creation are very muddled in this film, but I'm thrilled that the character was included. Vision's demeanour is also fascinatingly ambiguous. As the Avengers interrogate him, he makes it clear that he's not on any side, but only on the "side of life." This aligns him with the Avengers in their mission to stop Ultron, but Vision's detached attitude is striking. Ultron acts emotional and human in the film, while Vision has the expected level of logical detachment for a cinematic robot. The Avengers are unsure if they can trust Vision until he casually picks up Mjolnir to hand it to Thor. It's a perfect moment, slyly set up by the party sequence, and it puts the team at ease.
The Avengers track Ultron to Sokovia, the site of the Hydra base from the beginning of the film, and Steve frames the climactic battle as a chance to prove whether Ultron was right or wrong about the Avengers' obsolescence. Ultron has rigged a nearby village to rocket higher and higher into the atmosphere until he triggers a plunge back to the Earth, creating an extinction-level event. Tony considers destroying it in the air, but that would kill the hundreds of villagers trapped on it and Steve refuses. Meanwhile, the Avengers fight the hordes of Ultron's robots in the village, needing to destroy every one to ensure Ultron's consciousness does not survive. Ultimately, Nick Fury arrives with a deus ex helicarrier, and he helps ferry the villagers to safety so the floating village can be destroyed before impact.
James Spader as Ultron (Amazon)
There is a lot to like about this final battle. The action is exciting and well-shot. Whedon makes full use of the new characters' powers, Pietro's speed, Wanda's telekinesis, Vision's flight and energy attacks, making the fighting very dynamic. Clint takes Wanda under his wing and points out that they are on a floating city fighting robots and that he has a bow and arrow, in a great example of lampshading some of the ridiculousness. Thor has a very funny moment of bombastic posturing to Ultron that turns out to be just a distraction while Vision attacks him. The action culminates in a stunning sequence around Ultron's trigger mechanism, when the Avengers fight back to back to keep Ultron from dropping the city.
It begins with a big circular camera move displaying heroes fighting in every corner of the screen, then cuts to fantastic individual shots of action that seem torn right from comic book panels. Ultimately, Ultron is attacked with the combination of Iron Man's repulsor beam, Vision's Mind Stone beam and Thor's lightning, then smashed by Hulk for good measure. It's a thrill to see the expanded team fight together in this way, just as much as it was at the end of The Avengers. But this one extremely showy sequence serves only as a reminder of the many such sequences that made up the perfect climax to The Avengers.
The Avengers end battle was a masterclass in blockbuster finales. The action was bright and clear, the characters' motivations were well-defined, and those motivations underscored every moment. The Avengers climax also had a clear three-act structure, a beginning, middle and end, that made it consistently compelling. Each moment led smoothly to the next, raising the stakes for the characters and keeping viewers invested. It stood head and shoulders above other visual effects extravaganzas of the time. With that in mind, the climax to Avengers: Age of Ultron feels conventional, very average. The plans and motivations are not as clear, and the action feels less rooted in the character's arcs, making it less involving. The action also does not progress as clearly, so it eventually feels like an overlong, robot-smashing slog. It's not a bad climax by any means, but it just feels more generic and anonymous than the first film.
In the end, Clint leaves his ferry to save one more Sokovian child. The final Ultron robot steals the Avengers' ship, and tries to mow Clint and the child down with bullets. Whedon took a lot of joy in implying that Clint would die in the film, but Pietro is the major death, dying to save Clint. Whedon wanted Pietro's death to represent young soldiers being killed for the mistakes of the older generation, the consequences of war. The character's death offers some weight to the climax, while also neatly solving the Fox/Disney dispute over Quicksilver. Tony and Thor destroy the city once the people are safe. Finally, Vision and the last Ultron robot share a nice conversation about the inevitable doom of humanity, but their beauty while they last, before Vision kills Ultron for good.
After, a new Avengers headquarters in built in upstate New York. Everyone has renewed faith in the team's mission, and that faith frees every member to go where they feel most comfortable, even off the team. Hulk is first to leave, taking the Avengers ship from Sokovia to places unknown. Thor leaves to search for the Infinity Stones, and whoever is behind their sudden emergence. Clint retires to be with his family, which inspires Tony to do the same. Steve, on the other hand, convinced that he will never have a life outside of being a soldier, recommits to the Avengers. He and Natasha lead the new team, consisting of Wanda, Vision, War Machine and Falcon. With the team gathered, Steve says exactly half of the classic "Avengers Assemble!" line from the comics before the credits roll, an expert troll from Joss Whedon. This also represents the first major roster change of the cinematic Avengers, a regular occurrence in the comics since Wanda and Pietro joined the team in Avengers #16 (May 1965).
One final note of imperfection in Avengers: Age of Ultron is the score. One of the biggest missed opportunities in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was the lack of musical unity between the films. Not only have 13 different composers worked on the 23 (to date) MCU films, but they have often ignored the established themes and musical signatures from previous films in favour of writing new pieces. As a result, there are very few strong, memorable themes in the MCU. The YouTube channel Every Frame a Painting created a popular video about this in 2016.
Alan Silvestri's main theme from The Avengers was the best piece of score in the films up to this point, but he did not return for Avengers: Age of Ultron. Instead, Brian Tyler, assisted by Danny Elfman, created a new, much more generic Avengers score for this film that occasionally quotes Silvestri. This was a mistake, one that Marvel corrected by bringing Silvestri back for the next two Avengers films and heavily featuring the Avengers theme in the promotion for those films. As a result, the Avengers theme is widely identifiable by people in 2019, and Avengers: Age of Ultron feels odd for its absence.
And so, Avengers: Age of Ultron is not a perfect film. It is, however, an above-average blockbuster, ambitious in its own way. Writer-director Joss Whedon attempted to craft a psychologically complex sequel to the first film, one that questioned the nature of his heroes and their team. He wanted the team to be divided not by a contrived villainous plot, but by philosophical and ideological differences. Unfortunately, the film fell short of his ambitions. Compromises led to Thor's character arc being cut down and Whedon also mishandled Natasha's arc.
This unevenness spread across the second half of the film, resulting in unclear motivations and an unsatisfying climax. Despite all of this, the film remains a strong effort. Its biggest misfortune is that it followed, and was directly compared to, The Avengers, a perfect, classical, paradigm-shifting blockbuster. Avengers: Age of Ultron could not measure up, it was a victim of high expectations. Given Marvel Studios' increasingly strong reputation, the slight but high-profile disappointment was blown out of proportion by critics and fans.
Part of this narrative of disappointment can be blamed on Whedon himself, who aired his frustrations with production during the promotional tour. A couple of years later, with the benefit of hindsight, Whedon expressed regret at how he handled the press. He was burned out from years of working on not only The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, but also consulting on every other Marvel Studios film in that time period. He felt beaten down by the gruelling work and from conflicts with Marvel, and felt that he needed a clean break. At the time, though, he expressed his frustrations by publicly discussing those conflicts and his misgivings about the imperfect film that he had made. It was refreshing to hear a filmmaker speak so candidly about his concerns, but it hurt perceptions of the film.
Whedon has not returned to Marvel Studios since. The reaction was not helped by the fact that audiences were already looking ahead to 2019, giving this film far less weight and importance. In fact, Kevin Feige, the President of Marvel Studios, has since claimed that the big Phase 3 Announcement hurt Avengers: Age of Ultron more than it helped. Why should audiences care about Avengers 2 when Avengers 3 and 4 are already on the way? Marvel Studios learned their lesson, and have been much more secretive about future projects ever since.
Avengers: Age of Ultron was certainly not a failure at the box office but, once again, falling short of high expectations marked it as a disappointment. In North America, it earned an impressive $459 million, but that was a 30% drop in ticket sales from The Avengers. It performed much better worldwide, however, exceeding the first film outside of North America and earning over $1.4 billion worldwide. It was the presumptive winner of the 2015 summer box office, but it was beaten by the surprising success of Jurassic World (Trevorrow, 2015), further diminishing its achievements. In retrospect, the film is quite good and quite ambitious. Particularly after seeing Avengers: Endgame, which brings the characters arcs that began in this film to satisfying conclusions, Avengers: Age of Ultron looks better and better as time goes on.
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Stan Lee Cameo Corner:
As mentioned earlier, Stan is a war veteran friend of Steve Rogers at the party. He gets drunk on Asgardian ale and says one of his signature catchphrases ("Excelsior") as he's carried out. That is 23 cameos in 36 films.
In the mid-credits, Thanos (Josh Brolin) dons his Infinity gauntlet and resigns to collect the Infinity Stones himself. This comes after Loki's failure to acquire the Tesseract for him in The Avengers and Ronan failure to acquire the Power Stone in Guardians of the Galaxy. Thanos first appeared in the mid-credits scene of The Avengers, and this establishes that he will definitely be the villain of the next Avengers film.
• Andy Serkis returns as Ulysses Klaue in Black Panther (Coogler, 2018)
• Linda Cardellini returns as Laura Barton in Avengers: Endgame (Russo Brothers, 2019)
• Late in the film, after losing Jarvis, Tony replaces his suit's voice response with a new version named Friday, voiced by Kerry Condon. Condon voices Tony's suit for his future appearances.
Marvel Cinematic Universe Viewing Order:
Avengers: Age of Ultron culminates everything that came before, so the eleventh MCU film takes the eleventh viewing spot:
- Iron Man
- Iron Man 2
- The Incredible Hulk
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- The Avengers
- Iron Man 3
- Thor: The Dark World
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- Avengers: Age of Ultron
Next Time: The MCU introduces a smaller-scale palette cleanser in between huge event films with the delightful Ant-Man.