Anyone hoping to read an objective, unbiased, spoiler- free review of ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ should look elsewhere. This subject is too personal to tackle with a clean palette. I became a slave of the Marvel Universe when I first discovered Marvel back in 1979 at the impressionable age of 3. I have remained an avid reader my entire life and few things have made me happier than seeing the Marvel Cinematic Universe be embraced by audiences around the world. I vividly recall my own childhood when being an open fan of Marvel Comics resulted in total social alienation. Thankfully in the 21st century, there are now millions of people who recognize the Marvel Universe for what it is, modern mythology with a rich tapestry of heroic tales permanently stuck in the 2nd Act that will continue, like any good soap opera, as long as audiences wish it to do so. In the interest of clarity, when I discuss the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I am referring only to those movies shepherded by Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige who first began construction of this shared universe in 2008 with ‘Iron Man’. Fox has licensed the X-Men and the Fantastic Four and until recently Sony had total control over Spider-Man. Those movies are not a piece of the shared universe that ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ is a part of, a universe that I literally traveled thousands of miles to experience in that a wedding will prevent me from seeing the movie on the opening weekend in the US. Ordinarily I would rage about movies being released in the UK a week before the US but this time it worked in my favor. While it might sound irrational and recklessly self-indulgent to travel to London to see people in tights punching each other, as a total Marvel Zombie, it would have been even less rational for me not to see the movie as soon as possible. So here I am in Merrie Olde England, with two screenings under my belt and I’m ready to share my thoughts on Joss Whedon’s ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’, the 11th entry in a pop culture phenomenon known as the MCU.
I don’t mean this in any sexual way, but ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ is porn for nerds. If you’re a fan of Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America and their colorful friends, this movie features countless character beats, dramatic entrances and action set pieces that will send chills up and down your neck and spine. From his time in television (‘Firefly’, ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’) Joss Whedon is now an expert at juggling large casts, but this movie puts even Whedon’s skills to the test with a story that not only features the six Avengers we already know and love but also many new additions to the roster, the usual faces from SHIELD, and of course the villain of the piece, Ultron. Giving each character their own voice is Whedon’s greatest accomplishment with Thor finally emerging as the comedy gold mine comic readers know him to be when written properly. With the addition of the Vision, Scarlet Witch, & Quicksilver as well as cameos by War Machine and Falcon who **major spoiler alert** also join the team at the finale, the MCU is starting to resemble the dynamic cast of Homer’s ‘The Iliad’. This is a living breathing alternate universe with a variety of growing conflicts and agendas perfectly setting the stage for the Civil War and Infinity War story lines coming our way over the next few years.
One consistent complaint I have of the MCU is its lack of compelling villains outside of Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki, but James Spader and Marvel’s SFX dept have given us the best new comic book villain in years. As the ‘son’ of Tony Stark, Spader does a brilliant job of copying Stark’s mannerisms and ideas in effect becoming a twisted nightmare version of Stark. James Spader and Robert Downey, Jr. go way back to the 80s with movies like ‘Tuff Turf’ and ‘Less Than Zero’ and their chemistry is one of the strongest ingredients of the story. In an excellent bit of foreshadowing, newcomer Scarlet Witch (played by the unimaginably beautiful Elizabeth Olsen) is the first to point out how much Iron Man and Ultron have in common teasing the type of the villain Iron Man could become in ‘Captain America: Civil War’.
The big question is whether or not ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ succeeds as a movie in its own right or is it merely big budget fan service for geeks like myself. I look at the MCU the same way I look at James Bond movies where I cherish certain villains, the Bond girls, famous stunts, & the opening credit sequences while never pretending or arguing that the Bond franchise is important cinema. No movie by Marvel is a great leap forward for the language of cinema but judging the MCU by that criteria doesn’t make any sense. The more important question is if ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ succeeds at what it tries to accomplish. I would argue, for the most part, yes. Like its predecessor ‘The Avengers’, the first half of this movie is kind of a mess. I was genuinely worried at times that Marvel had dropped the ball. There are plenty of great scenes and beats, but it is not until Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver turn on Ultron and join the Avengers that the film really finds its stride. The last half of the movie is just exhilarating to watch and had me squirming in my seat to resist roaring in enthusiasm. We see Iron Man and War Machine flying side by side in battle. We see the Vision harnessing the power of an infinity stone and casually handing Thor his hammer to prove he can be trusted. The teamwork between the heroes has reached another level, the scale of the action is astonishing, and for fans of the comics seeing nine classic Avengers characters stand in a circle surrounded on all sides by foes is the kind of moment that makes my trip to London completely worth it. The peak is seeing the strongest Avengers, Thor, Iron Man and Vision frying Ultron in unison before Hulk moves in for the big finish. This is the Marvel every reader wants to see on the screen.
In perhaps the best scene of the movie, Hawkeye gives Scarlet Witch some tough love when she is struggling to rise to the challenge of facing Ultron and his army. I’m paraphrasing here but Hawkeye essentially says, “We’re on a flying city, fighting an army of robots, and I have a bow and arrow, none of this makes sense.’ The audience howled in approval. The film’s tone and sense of light-hearted fun is perfectly consistent making the few poignant scenes of the movie all the more powerful. Some parts of the movie were too much for the kids in the crowd to handle and I watched an entire row of people evacuate when some children began freaking out. For my part I will be returning to see this epic of superhero insanity many more times. The movie closes with the status quo totally turned on its head and Captain America and Black Widow rebuilding the roster of the Avengers from scratch. Marvel is not content to play it safe and just like in the comics, the illusion of change and forward momentum will keep us coming back for more. Warner Bros and DC have so much ground to make up at this point that the rivalry between these two superhero movie continuities is not even fair. This movie makes the trailer to ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ all the more pitiful by comparison. Part of the joy of reading comics is the friendly rivalry between Marvel and DC, a competition that leads to innovation amongst all the writers and artists. I can only hope something like that emerges in comic book movies in the future. For now, however, I’m a very satisfied fan and I think most Marvel freaks will have an equally enjoyable experience with ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’. Speaking as a past, present and future fan of this modern mythology, make mine Marvel.
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Some of my favorite screenshots from the movie: