Avengers Age of Ultron A Comprehensive Review Of the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Avengers: Age of Deconstruction
Okay. Kind of late to the game for a review of a movie almost a month old, so instead, I’ll give an overview of Marvel’s Avengers Age of Ultron. Still with a score, and a few mild spoilers (you’ve been warned). So, where were we? Ah, yes. Marvel’s Second Phase in its Cinematic Universe so beautifully deconstructs everything its first phase set up. Let’s consider each deconstruction one-by-one. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in Iron Man 3 has shut down the Iron Man program, but there are hints of furthering tinkering to be done. Thor: The Dark World saw the Asgardian throne secretly taken over by Loki, with Odin and Frigga supplanted. Guardians of the Galaxy showcased The Collector’s collection of artifacts left in shambles. The Infinity Stones he was collecting now lost. And Captain America: The Winter Soldier saw the dismantling of S.H.I.E.L.D., revealing the government agency to be a front for the terrorist group Hydra.
Avengers Age of Ultron continues the trend. The opening action sequence, set in the snowy forests of the fictional Eastern European country Sokovia, is a visual roll call of sorts. We’re reintroduced to the Avengers, each member executing offensive (or defensive) maneuvers to gain the advantage over Hydra soldiers and vehicles. Captain America, Black Widow, Iron Man, Thor, Hawkeye, and the Hulk are more than enough for any army of Hydra’s best soldiers and all of their advanced weaponry. All exposition of this roll call plays out as a well-choreographed action scene. But it’s a Joss Whedon film, so expect sly quips to make up most of the dialogue as our heroes make their way through the battlefield.
Avengers Age of Ultron’s story picks up where Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s mid-credit sequence left off. The villain Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, at his Hydra lab in Sokovia had proclaimed the “age of miracles” had begun while scientists examined a magical, Asgardian scepter belonging to Loki, adopted brother to Thor (adopted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe). The manifested “miracles” referred to are two prisoners which the scepter was able to draw out strange abilities. Twins. Brother and sister. One with superhuman speed, the other with telekinetic powers.
Yes! The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has almost become as complicated as its comic book universe. It’s only missing asterisks after dialogue, where footnoted at the bottom of the screen are the points in the MCU being referenced. While some have complained about this (specifically for Avengers Age of Ultron) I reveled in it. I grew up Marvel. I first came across Avengers, Spider-Man, X-Men, and other titles when I was a little kid in the early 80s, looking over my older brother’s shoulder with wide-eyed curiosity at the paneled drawings representing individual scenes and showcasing cool characters. And though, throughout the years, stories have been retconned or altogether dropped because of a new wave of writers, Marvel’s comic book universe had a very tight continuity. Captain America would reference Spider-Man issues of yesteryear. The Hulk would reference Daredevil or X-Men storylines. And there would be asterisks as indicators footnoting issues, storylines, and year that particular dialogue is referencing.
What made the first Avengers movie the best that Marvel had to offer in its cinematic universe is that it was able to eliminate a great deal of exposition. Five films had come before it. There was very little need to introduce the heroes all over again. The story at hand could be jumped into with little to no explanation. All dialogue served the present story or placed hints at the larger story at hand, a hidden hand behind the events.
This second Avengers mashup doesn’t deviate from that formula, and that’s where a lot of gripes have come up about the film. Marvel’s ‘Second Phase’ of films are a little more complex than its first phase, as they are not merely origin stories for the audience to get familiar with the characters. Guardians of the Galaxy might be an exception of that rule, but something in me likes to believe Guardians was a Phase Three film that snuck into Phase Two. Regardless, Phase Two is the second act of a larger story, and second acts are always more complex. In the Age of Ultron’s defense, it is Part 10 of an ongoing series. Who walks into the middle of a series and says, “Why won’t they explain anything to me? How did we get here?”
Yes, humanity. How did we get here?
But, in a comic book movie, who cares? There’s ‘splosions about. And we’re quickly keyed in on why they’re ‘splosions and what the Avengers are doing here in fictional Eastern Europeland. There’s a scepter to be found. On top of that, we got a gray-haired speedster named Pietro, and his dark-red haired sister, who can manipulate minds and project energy, named Wanda. These two are the first wave of ‘miracles’. The Maximoff twins. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, as we comic book geeks know them as, and played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen respectively.
Hydra is put down. Strucker is apprehended, and Tony Stark (contractually obligated to leave the safety of his Iron Man suit so that we can see actor Robert Downey, Jr. mingle about) retrieves Loki’s scepter from within Hydra’s main bunker. Wanda Maximoff, however, is lurking in the shadows, fiending to use her powers. Her brother, Pietro, using his speed, has joined the fight outside against the Avengers. Tony becomes Wanda’s first victim, and the first round of deconstruction begins. Tony sees the world undone, in shambles. His teammates sprawled out, piled on top of the dead and innocent. They’re bloodied, beaten, and close to death themselves. With his last breaths, Tony listens to Captain America blame him for the world’s state. The helping hand extended by the Avengers, according to Tony’s hallucination, becomes destructive.
Awakened from his fatalistic providence, coincidentally, by Captain America, Tony returns to his Iron Man suit, and the Avengers regroup back in New York. Here we learn that Tony’s vision isn’t just the workings of Wanda and her powers. It’s been on his mind since the first Avengers. He was suffering from the traumatic stress still in Iron Man 3, his worries about protecting the things he loves. It isn’t exactly told to us, it’s something the audience should keep in mind. It all adds up to what Tony is working on. S.H.I.E.L.D. is no more, and the Avengers, as ‘super’ as their members can be, can’t be everywhere at once. Tony Stark, with the help of Bruce Banner, has been creating a peacekeeping program. It’s called Ultron, a self-aware, self-teaching, artificial intelligence…which are never a good thing in any story.
With the help of Loki’s magical scepter, Tony jumpstarts his “Ultron” global defense program. Banner doesn’t believe it’s a good idea, and it does actually backfire. Ultron becomes sentient. And what happens when computers become sentient? They never wonder, “How does a hamburger taste?” They always go straight to complete eradication of the human race. Because, as Ultron sees it, that’s the best way to keep the planet safe. Hey…Ultron’s got a point.
With that said, this is Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. It does not run parallel to its comic book universe. It only takes certain cues from it, and even within those cues, it takes liberties. Leave your comic book egos at the door. Ultron is not the cold-hearted robot you know from the comic book. He’s Tony Stark’s ideologies and ego made physical and gone unchecked. And, of course, Hank Pym (Ant Man) has nothing to do with creating Ultron. But Ultron, played as cold as possible by James Spader, retains the “father” hatred toward his creator.
Ultron makes his appearance at the opportune moment. The Avengers team, joined by Rhodey/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), and Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), is settling down after a party and engaged in trying to lift Thor’s hammer Mjolnir. It’s all about worthiness, and even though Captain America gives the best effort (with Thor’s reaction played wonderfully by Chris Hemsworth) Ultron traipses in and gives a reason why no one is worthy to lift the magical weapon. Despite being heroes, Ultron reminds them “You’re all killers.” These three words build upon Tony’s earlier vision, and the scene erupts into two fights. First there’s the fight with Ultron, and then there’s the argument afterward as the team questions Tony Stark’s motives with building such a thing. The idea of safety and keeping the world safe is looped throughout the film, reworded, but always in the form of an argument. And as Marvel is doing, the arguments themselves are foreshadows of things to come in its long, multi-titled, cinematic comic book universe.
The remainder of the film not only forwards Age of Ultron’s narrative, but it also pushes future titles in the MCU. At times it’s obvious, but it’s always a delightful, nerdgasm experience. Ultron flees his fight with the Avengers. He recruits the Maximoff twins, fanning the flames of their hatred for Tony Stark, as it was Stark weaponry that killed their parents. In his quest to create a supreme body for himself, as well as create robotic underlings, Ultron goes to a South African shipyard and seeks out the fictional metal vibranium from an arms dealer named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). While an entertaining scene to showcase Ultron’s mercilessness (hacking off Ulysses’ hand) this is all a setup for the world of Black Panther, the African superhero who will debut in the forthcoming Captain America: Civil War, and have his own movie in 2017.
The second confrontation between Ultron and the Avengers furthers the deconstruction and lays the groundwork for future storylines. Before Ultron can escape, he and the twins encounter the Avengers, and through the course of the fray, Wanda (Scarlet Witch) uses her powers to allow other members to have their haunting visions. Knowing where the bigger story is headed (which can also be read as spending way too much time on comicbookmovie.com) I would say Thor’s is the most important. Like Stark, he’s plagued with a vision of failure that will see his home world of Asgard in disarray. Wanting to know more of his vision leads Thor into a part of the movie that is a little divisive among viewers, and though I too have my critique (we’ll get there in a moment) I thought Thor’s side adventure was kind of cool.
The other Avengers’ visions have their own controversy attached to them as well. Many people believed Captain America’s vision should have been more focused on his failures with his friend Bucky, and his becoming the villainous Winter Soldier. But I interpret the lack of being haunted by Bucky as Cap having accepted the atrocities of war. He’s a soldier. He understands war and all its ugliness, and that in and of itself is the problem. He wants something else. A normal life. So he’s haunted by something that should invoke calm: a serene setting of an army, formal gathering. Peggy Carter, the young woman he longed to have a date with is there and pulls him into a slow dance. The woman he missed an opportunity with because war left him frozen for 70 years. From the first Avengers movie, to Cap’s second film, he’s been referred to as a man out of time. This gives his vision a sort of ominous feeling. It’s ghostly, an image of the past. Does this foreshadow Steve Rogers’ run as Captain America coming to an end, most likely in death? At the party scene Steve talks about settling down, but his home (Brooklyn) is so expensive, he doesn’t know if he’d be able to. Again, he’s shut out of something resembling normalcy, a home. There’s a running gag throughout the film when Cap tells Iron Man to watch his language when Tony Stark blurts out an expletive during a fight. Cap is belittled the rest of the film for doing so. But his remark to watch the language and keep it clean is about keeping all things clean, as rough as war can get.
Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) revelation has been the most controversial, and caused a wave of outrage on social media. We get a glimpse at where she was trained, first appearing as a dance school with eerie recital music playing in the background. Black Widow walks through her vision, which is more a memory. Visions of her at a younger age play out, training and learning to kill without remorse. The ‘graduation’ of her program is only hinted at, but not revealed as to what she went through to finish the program. She later recounts this in a private moment with Bruce Banner as they try and define their mutual attraction and feelings for one another. The controversy? SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! For her graduation she was made sterile, allowing her to focus on being a killer and negating any chance of being distracted by getting pregnant…like what happened to Beatrix Kiddo (The Bride) in Kill Bill.
Why is this controversial? Well, Black Widow makes a statement that refers whereby she refers to herself as a monster because of this. I personally believed she meant being turned into a killing machine, with nothing else to do on the planet but kill, which made her a monster. Other people believed that writer and director Joss Whedon, the world’s most hip male feminist, was saying that a woman that can’t make babies is a monster.
Hawkeye is able to sidestep Scarlet Witch’s mind control, making a quip that references his character’s state through the first Avengers movie. Though we don’t get to experience what the Hulk is seeing when Scarlet Witch’s powers take control of him, we do get yet another foreshadow of a possible plotline in the forthcoming Captain America: Civil War. It’s hero against hero in a knockdown, drag out fight between the raging Hulk and Tony Stark, armored up in the grand Hulk Buster armor. The curious note is that Banner helped Stark design the armor, dubbed “Veronica”. Not sure if the name solidifies a nod toward Archie Comics, considering the Hulk (as Banner) has a girlfriend named Betty. If so, points for Joss Whedon for being unnecessarily clever!
Though the Hulk’s rampage is stopped by Tony Stark and the Hulk Buster armor, with Ultron nowhere around, only the Avengers can be blamed for the city’s destruction and wounded. This results in a worldwide backlash, and Tony’s foreboding vision comes more into reality’s focus. The team goes into hiding at Hawkeye’s farmhouse, where we get to meet his secret family.
This is where Thor leaves us. And this is where the audience becomes divided in his departure. He seeks Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) on the meaning of the apocalyptic future he saw in his hallucination. The two of them travel to a cave with a mystical pool of water. Thor’s visions are expanded, and for the first time, our heroes become aware of the greater threat that’s been in the background. While we as the audience, over the last few Marvel films, have been keyed in on things like the Infinity Stones, and the Mad Titan named Thanos, all the heroes (with the exception of those featured in Guardians of the Galaxy) are completely unaware of his presence, and the strings he’s trying to pull to obtain these mystical stones. We also get clues as to what items we’ve already seen throughout the MCU are powered by the stones. We’re keyed in that Loki’s staff is powered by the Mind Stone.
Many people argued that the scene seemed a little random, and threw off the movie’s pacing. Others said it was filmed awkward. I too had a gripe. I wished it was a little longer, but I actually loved the whole Thor side adventure. Being a comic book nerd, I’m use to a sudden jerk in pacing of a story to set up another down the line. And I liked the added character development for Thor. He’s always seen as a warrior, and also a little aloof, considering he’s out of his cultural element on Earth. But here we get to observe Thor as a researcher, an investigator. Here we see him using his head instead of his muscle, and I thought it was a good change of pace for his character. And I was finally relieved that we as the audience weren’t just getting nods and winks at the larger story. So were the heroes, and finally the story could steer itself in the direction of the greater threat that is Thanos. The scene and its revelations was kind of a palette cleanser for me. All the small clues added up to something for more than just the perceptive audience.
One really rattling plot point (in a good way) in Age of Ultron is that Tony himself doesn’t appear to learn his lesson from Ultron’s creation. His obsession with keeping the world safe has him bump heads with Captain America while they’re hiding out on Hawkeye’s homestead. Civil War looms. A battle of principles and perspective are on the horizon. But before the team loses focus, mystical, magical mentor Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shows up to lend some words of wisdom. Mainly, stop the sentient robot that’s planning on destroying all of humanity. I understand with all their personal problems how that could be missed.
Despite having a vast array of characters this far into the film, another makes an appearance: The Vision (Paul Bettany), or J.A.R.V.I.S. in the flesh. Come to life with the Mind Gem, with a body intended for Ultron, The Vision represents Tony’s conscience and humanity. The Yin to Ultron’s Yang. Again, writer/director Joss Whedon (most likely following Marvel’s outline for their larger story) introduces the dynamic of opposing sides, continuing to push the ‘Civil War’ aspect that Phase Three might open with, if it takes its cues from the comic book storyline of the same name. The Vision come to life through the Mind Gem, and aided by a returning Thor, is also a hint of future events in the MCU. With this added team member, the Avengers set out to stop Ultron’s Extension Level Event. And the Maximoff twins, Wanda and Pietro, must also reconcile their hatred for Tony Stark and choose a side between Ultron’s perfect world and a world imperfect world with super heroes at the ready.
Age of Ultron, with all of its carefully planted seeds setting up future MCU titles, can be seen as a bridge. But that isn’t a bad thing. Everything is handled adequately in its run time of 141 minutes. The comic book nerd in me wishes they would treat the Avengers movies as double-sized issues. Make ‘em 240 minutes long, even the next two films, Avengers: Infinity Wars Part 1 and 2. If we can watch hobbits walking for damn-near 4 hours straight, than we can jolly well do the same for super heroes tearing up the screen and going through their super soap opera drama.
But limited in time as Age of Ultron is, it’s still two and half hours. All the characters that creep into this Avengers mashup are well handled. I’m sure people will call for more development for the characters they love, but they appear at their appropriate time and are fleshed out enough to serve the story. The deconstruction goes up to the final scene, as Captain America commands a new team, and old members go their separate ways.
In a mid-credits scene, Thanos makes an appearance. Expressing his dissatisfaction with his pawns, he dons a powerless Infinity Gauntlet (where the collected stones will reside) and vows to personally retrieve the gems himself.
Avengers: Age of Ultron 9.5/10. Even with a few bumps, it’s holding up an amazing cinematic universe. Just remember, it’s a part, not a whole, and it’s not a conclusion. And it’s not afraid to be what it is.
Even with a few bumps, it’s holding up an amazing cinematic universe. Just remember, it’s a part, not a whole, and it’s not a conclusion. And it’s not afraid to be what it is.