As Avengers 2 begins, Earth’s mightiest heroes are a united force, one dealing with the aftermath of the events of the first picture. Specifically, the scepter that Loki used against the team is missing - so Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) track down the group that stole it: Hydra, the evil nemesis of SHIELD. The attack succeeds, but Hydra used the scepter to give powers to two twins, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who proceed to sow dissension in the team! And then Tony Stark uses the scepter to create Ultron, an AI robot that chooses to destroy humanity instead of serving as a global protector. Oops!
I’m in the mood to cut right to it, so I will: Avengers 2 is full of nice elements that don’t always mesh together so well, producing a sum that is less than its constituent parts. To some extent, this is because this movie has so many more moving parts, creating more opportunities for it to fall a little flat. The more fundamental flaw here, I think, is that the characters and story are filled with too many unknowns.
That last point is kind of a big deal. Audiences understand what a punch does, what nukes are, and that a bullet to the head usually means death. In Age of Ultron, however, we never understand the capabilities or nature of the main antagonist, Wanda has MacGuffin powers and a mid-story turn that isn't quite built up properly, the action sequences don’t hit so hard because we don't know what anyone's abilities or limitations are, and there's a diminished sense that our heroes can really get (physically) hurt.
Many viewers had problems with the moment in The Avengers when Captain America gets shot. It's a good idea and a great fight sequence - but Steve Rogers is shot by an alien weapon, and there's no blood. He's just knocked down and a bit winded. However, Cap is exactly as durable to, say, gunfire as Hawkeye and Black Widow. If the bad guys can't really hurt him, that deflates the stakes of a scene, and thus (possibly) the tension of the whole film. Ultimately, Avengers 1 is so entertaining that you just go with it... Yet that sort of "do these guys even get hurt" flaw appears far more often in A2 - and it stands out more.
It's a bit weird to complain about tA:AoU. The script isn't anywhere close to bad, the cast is full of capable actors, it's all backed by a solid score and great special effects... But when you love ten out of twelve tracks on every album by your favorite artist, you do start to ask a lot of questions when you feel "meh" about their latest release. The impulse to understand why this was a less enjoyable and satisfying experience has pushed me to try to puzzle out why that's the case, so expect spoilers from here on out.
Elizabeth Olsen is a damn good actress (her work in Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene blows her contemporaries away), yet Wanda Maximoff’s powers are completely unknowable. They do whatever a scene needs, which is not the best choice considering that she also needed a little more screen time to properly support the way her priorities change so passionately. Don’t give her unexplained anything powers and also not really, really build up to the emotional switch that she makes. Sure, the stakes are clear to her (and us), yet she sides with people she has good reason to hate. Pietro may have the same problem, but he has less of an impact on the drama and the narrative, so it matters a bit less in his case...
Ultron is very well-performed by James Spader, but still feels thin for a major character. He's not, it seems, truly meant to be a mystery to us. And, since he's a sentient machine built partly by Tony Stark and partly from some alien technology, there's no reason not to give him so much background that we have a greater sense for who and what this villain is. How exactly did it all go wrong? What are Ultron's powers? He hates his creator - which is handled well - but we should get more of a sense of the "why" behind it all.
If it's because of the alien technology aspect, then that alien technology should run amok, confounding and threatening our non-alien heroes in a non-robot-fight way. If instead, it comes down to a few specific sentences Tony said, that's pretty weak from a plot and character perspective - and should be bolstered by other material or those sentences should be played up to a greater degree.
The above complaints dovetail nicely into issues with aspects that feel too much like those in Avengers 1. It's a little repetitive that we have three distinct threats, some of which need more to do or should have more dramatic power. In Avengers 1, it was Loki, the giant flying beasts, and the Chitauri soldiers. In Avengers 2, it's Ultron, the Twins, and Ultron's battlebots. I like the idea that this team faces major global threats, but the tension is greater when you have a better understanding of the players.
So both films have an army of interchangeable bad guys who serve as cannon fodder - Chitauri and Ultron's battlebots, respectively - and who don't provide much angst or catharsis for the protagonists; Cap backhands a robot, as if he were that strong or it were that poorly built. Wanda is undercooked for the reasons I stated before, but at least she's new and isn't the "big bad." Ultron, meanwhile, does not have the benefit that Loki got: development in a prior Marvel film installment. Nor does he commit brutal murders as soon as he steps onto the stage. Instead, Ultron arrives 30-40 minutes into the proceedings, doesn't do anything to make viewers scared of him, and is so totally unfathomable that he doesn't trigger our fear of the unknown...
At the film's end, there's a 360-degree panning camera shot of the heroes. It's not a bad idea, and I do appreciate that it's used differently here, as it's during a fight and not while the team is getting ready to kick ass. But it's still repetitive of the prior movie. And there are so many people on screen in that moment that it feels too busy and cluttered. The shot simply stands out, feeling showy rather than as a cool moment couched in the visual language of cinema. Even the "team shot" at the start of Ultron felt a little forced...
That familiar sense struck me as a little disharmonious in smaller moments, as well. And I'm not just referring to the fact that the team fights amongst themselves again - that might be a fine ongoing theme or motif. I liked the inclusion of SHIELD's Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). They're used quite well and are great characters to include... But the attack in the helicarrier's command room also appeared in the prior film. Hill and Fury do somewhat different things this time out, so why did Whedon make them relive an action beat so closely?....
And, as if the viewer didn't have enough to pay attention to, we get Paul Bettany moving from voice acting as Iron Man's personal AI, Jarvis, to physically acting as The Vision. His introduction is already problematic - coming in the film's last 30 minutes and full of ambiguity - but no one on either side of the screen understands what Vision is, what he wants, or what he can do. His body was going to be Ultron's indestructible new form, right? I thought he was going to be impossible to destroy, I had no idea that he might fly, or turn incorporeal (well, I did, but I read comics as a teen).
Vision is meant to be a wild card, and so I find it hard to decide whether the role is undercooked or not. The stuff with the hammer makes no sense (he's an AI, I don't think he has a soul to be judged), though it is funny, and at least his holding Mjolnir is properly built up as shorthand for "he's on the side of the angels."
And, in addition to being such an unknown, Vision is only one of the many forces brought to bear by the writer-director. Stellan Skarsgard returns as Thor's friend Erik Selvig, if briefly. Anthony Mackie reprises his Captain America: The Winter Soldier (which I still haven't seen) role of Sam Wilson, the Falcon - for less than four minutes, and his last appearance feels quite unnatural. Idris Elba appears for a cameo as Heimdall, who appeared in the two Thor movies. Hayley Atwell shows up for a minute in the role she portrayed in both of Captain America's movies as well as ABC's Agent Carter series. And also, let's not forget about the fine Don Cheadle, who does nice work as Sam Rhodes, aka War Machine.
While most of these returning characters are used well, and while I don't mind actors appearing to add a slight amount of support work, that's a whole hell of a lot of people to include in a story. I cannot help but think that the amount of time writing these side-roles in could have instead been used to add more depth to any of the major roles, especially the villains.
Please note that this all excludes the discussion about the "infinity gems," which all the Thanos (Josh Brolin) business has been about - or the possibility that Vision appears because the writer had to find a use for one of those gems. Much of Vision's material may exist for no other reason than to build up to the next blockbuster - which not only contributes to an environment where too many aspects aren't developed sufficiently, but which feels awkward because it distracts from the overall narrative.
At some point, you've shoehorned so many elements in that you've forgotten about the foot - or the shoe that the foot is supposed to fit inside.
It's good that all of the protagonists get more to do here, particularly Ruffalo, Renner, Hemsworth, and Johansson. Any of them would merit more time in the picture, but Renner and Ruffalo benefit the most, providing a lot of fun for the storyline and the audience. I'm most happy for the extra time given to Ruffalo, but that's probably because he's my favorite actor in this cast. However, I'm also glad that Hawkeye got much more depth, and it was displayed to the audience cleverly and coolly. Thor strikes a middle ground - he's handled nicely here, but you feel like he needs one or two extra scenes, regardless.
This sets up her arc better than their non-CGI scenes together.
It's much more of a mixed bag when it comes to Johansson. Marvel/Disney really must give Scarlett more screen time if they're gonna fill her role with self-hatred. The amount of invective she threw her own way - at being made into a murderer, at being sterile - would only be worth it if Black Widow starts getting a much larger chunk of the storyline pie. Or, saints be praised, her own movies; y'know, female characters can be compelling, too...
I don't know whether it's good or bad, but I do think that it was an easy choice to hook Black Widow up with a fellow protagonist. It’s cheap in that, hey, she's a woman and she's very attractive, so she has to a love life, right? It's even more cheap in the sense that Natasha now seems to want out of her profession – but just from a rush on a man, not anything else. Her tortured past is seeded heavily, but it doesn’t feel like part of what’s making her feel drawn to Banner, which diminishes it as an effective building up of the role. In my experience, women have their own goals, just like men do....
The effects were almost uniformly great. The action was very well executed, with a nice variety to what the different actors are doing; I already liked Chris Evans, but Cap throwing a motorcycle with one hand was wonderful. Similarly, I appreciate the use of SHIELD and Hydra – although I think that Hydra’s plot that’s supposed to be related to Ultron somehow goes nowhere, which is odd - and the international backdrop to all the action is a good touch. It’s just a shame that so much of the action – whenever the characters aren't fighting each other, actually – feels like “things hitting things” for a really long time. Since so many of the players are seemingly-invincible, it undercuts the impact of parts of those sequences.
By and large the humor is quite good, with nice exchanges and witty banter... but the writing flaws exist in conceptual elements, too. It must be noted that the movie swings so wildly between making the characters active or reactive that it undermines a bit of the satisfaction that could be drawn from this story. Heroes need to overcome things with big emotional stakes! Comedy can distract from a lot of writerly flaws, but "how does this sequence of events create a cinematically-satisfying story and arcs for the roles" are seldom flaws that can be fixed compensated for thusly.
Whedon did a pretty good job, just not a great one. It's harsh to judge one film on the basis of another, yet Avengers 1 and Avengers 2 flow into each other so neatly that it's an apt comparison. Age of Ultron will entertain, but it won't do so as well as the prior entry did, and it will likely stay in your mind for a shorter time as well. Some of that is down to unexplained aspects, too many things being thrown into the story, and the lack of truly-satisfying arcs. If this just is a slightly weaker part of a great series, then this picture will be remembered quite nicely - but if Marvel's crazy-ass film franchise loses steam from here on, this will likely be the movie that receives the blame for it. And that would be partly accurate, and partly unfair.