Avengers: Age of Ultron improves on its predecessor in many ways, and if the first installment worked for you, so too will the second. Expect a bunch-a-punches, stabby banter, good hair, the works. If that is what you want, then that’s what you’ll receive, and you will enjoy it.
The problem is that Ultron, the titular antagonist, is not as dangerous or threatening as he should be. He starts half-baked and stays that way, pursuing rather cockamamie schemes.
If you were an omniscient, omnipresent, immortal robot with access to all digitized knowledge and the ability to endlessly replicate yourself on digital networks and in physical space-time, how would you take over the world? Take a moment and dream up a scheme or two. Maybe you as Ultron would launch nukes the world over, or crash electrical grids, or control the internet, or fill all grocery checkout lanes with your clones, or block access to HBO on a Sunday night. This Ultron does none of those things. Instead he opts for self-improvement, and to copy Loki’s unsuccessful ideas: sew discord within the Avengers, weaponize The Hulk, and attack with a drone army. Perhaps a lack of creativity befits a robot like Ultron, but it does not benefit a movie like Age of Ultron.
Why does an underwhelming villain matter? Superheroes are secretly the least interesting characters in superhero stories. Villains are the true animating forces in these films. They are conflict personified. Superheroes become interesting when called to perform heroically by the machinations of great villains.
Ultron as delivered in this film is not a great villain. He hardly qualifies as a good one. He could and should have been great. Instead, he is a mildly threatening robot, petulant and silly, more Nolan/Bane than Cameron/Terminator.
What of the heroes this time around?
- Black Widow is a martial artist, love interest, bartender, BFF, and shield-retriever. Gone are her fun espionage scenes, where she really had opportunity to shine.
- Hawkeye is bland, so the film attempts to punch him up a bit by showing us a more of his backstory. This grinds the story to a halt and causes Thor to fly away, but we get more Hawkeye. If you are into him, or exposition about series continuity, you might find his farmhouse scenes enjoyable.
- Captain America steals the show in many ways. He gives a couple of nifty speeches. He fights Ultron one-on-one. He executes some cool combination attacks with Thor. He tosses his motorcycle into a truck full of enemies with his knees. Cap’s shield techniques are more developed and effective than Ultron.
- Thor steps on a kid’s Legos and refers to parties as “revels.” His ego is fragile and depends on his being the only one manly enough to handle his hammer. His best move comes when he decides to flee Hawkeye’s domestic-life backstory. If he were a real hero, he would take the audience with him. Also: that hair.
- Iron Man / Tony Stark remains a charming megalomaniac. This time he wants to build a suit of armor around the entire Earth, creating Ultron in the process with the help of push-over fellow genius Bruce Banner. Smart people acting with little or no foresight can lead to terrible tech. We see this theme play out in the real world all the time. Witness Microsoft’s ability to deduce a person’s age from a photograph.
- The Hulk is now a Beast that can be put to sleep by a Beauty, namely Black Widow. His pants expand when he turns green. They should just tear away, leaving Hulk completely nude like Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen. Alas, we live in a prudish world. Beyond that glaring flaw, Hulk’s speed and sheer destructive force are always entertaining. In fact, the best fight in the film involves him and another hero. This is also a problem, though, because it reduces Ultron’s already underwhelming role.
The new characters are promising. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch might appear in the story via some questionable plot wrangling, but they entertain. Scarlet Witch can poot forth a little ectoplasm and send people into somewhat pedestrian psychedelic trips. She can also shield and destroy with a sweep of her magic jazz hands. Quicksilver is quick. No surprise there. He also is played by Kick-Ass himself, Mr. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who steps up to the big league here but, true to his iconography, still gets his ass kicked. He also vaguely resembles the younger Boston Marathon bomber. Coincidence? Vision is perhaps the coolest hero in the film, but he enters late and fails to use all of his powers. Perhaps we’ll see him more fully flowered in the next installment. We might even see him deflower Scarlet Witch, if future films hew closely to the comics.
In the final assessment, Avengers: Age of Ultron might sag just a bit in the middle, and its main antagonist is an exercise in wasted potential, but it’s a fun improvement over its predecessor in many ways. If you like this sort of film, and if the first Avengers worked for you, then this second installment will certainly deliver. You will especially enjoy the whole-team fight sequences. Just expect more punchlines with the punches. Ultron, like his Age, is a bit sillier than you might have predicted.