One of the wonderful idiosyncrasies of the US culture is to find a direct ratio between profitability and artistic merit. This very same phenomenon led many to reflexively call Avatar a great work of art once it became the all time box office champ. Its the same impulse that leads to remembering the original Avengers as a great feature. The original Avengers was indeed a good film, but it’s virtues were in its likeability. It is the ultimate exemplar of the Marvel film.
I bring this up because the tone of the reviews for Age of Ultron held up the Avengers as an insurmountable feat. Certainly the “can they pull this off” vibe that suffused the build up to the Avengers cannot be repeated. Audiences came into Age of Ultron with expectations this time.
Age of Ultron bests its predecessor in nearly every regard. The scope of the feature is enormous. More action, more effects, more stars, a bigger, louder climax. The film introduces three new Avengers, two new villains, and a half dozen supporting characters all while squeezing in actors from all over the Marvel diaspora. This is an incredible feat for director Joss Whedon who somehow weaves this massive spectacle into a cohesive undertaking. Not since the disaster films of the seventies has a production needed to juggle so many stars against big budget special effects. Even then those actors while of good pedigree were past their primes. Whedon has three actors leading their own mega-hit franchises. Each of these franchises are at least two films deep at this point and forming their own voices, pulling away from the standard Marvel template. Yet Whedon’s still able to bind this all together. In short, for your consideration, the director of the year Joss Whedon.
There is one sacrifice at this point. There’s now just too much mythology in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to hand hold the neophytes. Given that these films are in constant rotation on premium and basic cable maybe cultural saturation can be assumed? Crucially though the dialog is stuffed with humor, and is drawn from the characters and situations established in the film. As such while a newcomer probably won’t be able to keep up with everything, they should be able to coast on the energy of the picture.
Age of Ultron is the Marvel Cinematic Universe in miniature in that it contains nearly as much plotting as all the other films put together. The narrative leaps it takes to see Iron Man battle the Hulk, or the lengthy set up to reveal Vision (this film’s “Harry Lime”) could populate multiple movies of their own. But the payoffs are worth the diversions. The Hulk vs Iron Man smackdown is fan service of the highest caliber.
Is the plot worth recounting? While tracking down Loki’s sphere, the Avengers meet and quickly defeat Baron Von Strucker. When Tony Stark discovers Strucker’s work with artificial intelligence he and Bruce Banner use it to build a perfect peace keeping android. And then things blow up.
Age of Ultron is as much about breaking apart the initial Avengers team as the actors reach the ends of their contracts and will probably command much more money if resigned for subsequent features. The new Avengers team certainly looks interesting on paper, more diverse in terms of gender and race, though that bar wasn’t very high. The question remains whether audiences will flock to the next installment if it doesn’t feature Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, or Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, or limits them to cameos.
A disclaimer must be put at the end of every superhero film that kills off hero and villain alike. Death is hardly permanent in these movies. If the Batman movies never around to reviving the fallen villains it was only due to losing public interest partway through each series. Marvel is especially egregious. The character who’s death drove the final act of the first Avengers film is alive and well now two seasons into his own show on ABC (with a third on the way). All of the “deaths” in Ultron should be taken with a grain of salt.