Marvel Studios was riding high after The Avengers’ billion-dollar box office success. Fans couldn’t wait for what came next, but despite the return of writer/director Joss Whedon, the sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron, failed to live up to the expectations of many fans. Folks accused it of being overstuffed, overlong, and too reliant on jokes. The sad truth is that these criticisms are fair; Avengers: Age of Ultron is a flawed film. The sadder truth may be that fans seem to only remember the flaws and forget the things Age of Ultron did right.
Fans were surprised when Marvel announced the Avengers would battle Ultron in the sequel rather than Thanos, the villain teased in the previous film’s post-credits scene. That was the first example of Age of Ultron not being what was hoped for. Excitement remained high throughout the three-year wait for the sequel, but when the film opened, there was
Unfortunately, Age of Ultron had the unenviable position of being the bridge between Phases Two and Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Laying down the track for Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, and Avengers: Infinity War bloated the film with subplots that had little or nothing to do with the story Whedon and company were trying to tell. Whedon committed some of his own sins in the film, of course. The quantity-over-quality approach to the film’s humor seems to betray a lack of confidence, and the Black Widow-Hulk subplot, while not without some merit, hits several awkward notes.
The Avengers did a tremendous job of making the first assembling of the Avengers an epic affair. Instead of that, Avengers: Age of Ultron offers the chance to see the team as a cohesive unit as they eradicate Hydra, something that’s rare in the tentpole-centric structure of superhero cinematic universes. Through the party scene at Avengers Towers, it also offers the chance to see the camaraderie that exists between them, even without their superhero personas, prior to the dramatic unraveling that takes place following Ultron’s arrival. There aren’t many opportunities for Steve Rogers and Bruce Banner to chat about their respective love lives elsewhere in the MCU.
These are the kinds of moments that are present in the best Marvel Comics, but that
The Avengers was fun and heroic and inspiring in all of the right ways. Age of Ultron adds depth by forcing the heroes to take opposing positions and to make hard choices. That conflict between Cap and Tony is really about what the goal of the Avengers is supposed to be. Are they here, as Tony envisions it, to change the world, or as Steve seems to think, to protect the status quo? Will they be doing this indefinitely, or do they have an endgame? That’s an easy call for Steve, who has always put the mission and the greater good first, but Tony made a promise to Pepper, and now he’s not sure he can follow through. The ensuing discussion allows the characters to reveal themselves in significantly different ways from when they were rallying around each other in the first film.
And perhaps most stunning is the way the film embraces its superhero origins. There’s a moment early in the film with the Avengers charging forward together as a team that is about as close to recreating a modern comic book splash page as has ever been accomplished on the big screen while the Avengers’ final battle with Ultron’s drone army in Sokovia looks like one of George Perez’s two-page spreads brought to life. Fans are quick to praise Captain America: The Winter Soldier for tightly shot action scenes and its grounded spy-thriller story, and that’s great if you’re into spy thrillers, but if you’re into superheroes, Age of Ultron is the most superheroic movie that Marvel Studios has made so far.
It gives us the kind of moments that only a superhero story can provide. An Asgardian god channels lightning to breathe life into a technological homunculus. On a floating city, a powerful witch holds back a horde of androids. Titans clash as the Hulk and the Hulkbuster trade blows. And this is all in the same movie! These are moments that embrace the epic, mythological storytelling that is inherent to the superhero genre, rather than borrowing the language of another genre, and Marvel hasn’t embodied the genre so fully since.
Looking back, Age of Ultron feels like a turning point for Marvel. In Phase Three, Marvel leaned into The Winter Soldier’s genre-blending approach -- Civil War essentially tried to scale up the feel of The Winter Soldier. Guardians of the Galaxy is about cosmic rogues, and Ant-Man is as much a family comedy as it is a superhero movie. Thor: Ragnarok, with its heavy Kirby influence, is the next best thing, but even it leans on epic fantasy and traditional sci-fi tropes, while Avengers: Infinity War was about subverting the genre instead of embracing it.
Avengers: Age of Ultron was the last time Marvel’s films embraced pure superheroism. There’s no denying that the result was messy, but it also had moments that no other Marvel movie can match. It’s the closest Marvel has come yet to showing the Avengers operating together as Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. For whatever flaws the film has, it’s successes are still worth celebrating.
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