As the saying goes: the problem with reaching the top is that the only place left to go is down. Turns out that’s not entirely true. With The Avengers, writer-director Joss Whedon smashed all predictions of impossibility like a jade-jowled rage monster when he produced a film that was not only a critical hit, but the 3rd highest grossing film of all time. It doesn’t get more “top” than that, which if the old adage was to believed, would imply a filmmaking trajectory that was scheduled for a nosedive. Leave it to the odds-defying Whedon to find a third option.
Instead of straight down, Whedon jukes sort-of sideways, producing a sequel in Avengers: Age of Ultron that may be a continuation and escalation of the work that came before, but boasts remarkably different DNA to its predecessor. All of which seriously muddies the waters when it comes to somehow answering the inevitable question of which of the two films is better. So spoiler warning: this will be a very long review.
Despite my massive love for it, I will be the first to admit that Avengers was not a perfect film. It has some crumbly narrative flaws, but all of those were patched over by its amazing ripped-off-the-comic-book-splash-page action highs, and tirelessly infectious sense of fun. It’s hard to dissect slight missteps when you’re boasting a grin so wide it threatens to bifurcate your skull.
Age of Ultron on the other hand does not boast the same intensity of fist-in-the-air hell-yeah moments – there is no ragdolling of puny gods here, after all – but it is overall a more consistently better engineered film. And it’s all thanks to the little things. Although Whedon still adheres to the Law of Sequels by making everything exponentially bigger, it’s the smaller, more personal character work that truly shines here. In a blustery big budget spectacle of gods and monsters wrestling for the most celestial of stakes, it’s the mortal humanity of it all that actually drives this colossal venture.
A venture that kicks off with an ambitious, single-take in-battle roll call that already dwarfs nearly everything done in the first film in terms of technical flair and logistics, as Captain America aka Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Iron Man aka Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow aka Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye aka Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) and of course Hulk aka Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) assault an Eastern European HYDRA base last seen in the post-credits stinger at the end of the first film. The team want Loki’s powerful sceptre back – the same scepter that the villainous Baron Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) has used to create the super-powered twins of Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). After a brief ass-kicking and mind-bending by the twins (“He’s fast, she’s weird,” Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill succinctly describes them), the Avengers recover the sceptre and take it back to Avengers Tower where Tony and Bruce promptly start poking it, because SCIENCE!
What Tony unearths though is what he believes to be his – and the world’s – unexpected salvation. Since the alien invasion of New York, Tony has been gripped with a crippling angst (see: Iron Man 3) that the Avengers are simply not a match for what’s out there. Out of this over-protective fear is born the need to build “a suit of armor around the world” and he wants to do it with Ultron, a global peacekeeping AI of unprecedented potential thanks to the mysterious power of the sceptre. But within nano-seconds of becoming self-aware, Ultron determines that with humanity’s naturally destructive ways the only way to save it is to end it, and populate Earth with something better. Oh and he also becomes a snarky bastard.
Deliciously voiced and mo-capped by James Spader, Ultron is simply a hoot. In typical Whedon style, the filmmaker has decided to take the coldly homicidal robot from the comics and humanize him, and the result is Spader’s distinctly quirky mannerisms combined with his “father” Tony Stark’s rapid-fire quipping wrapped around a metal frame of mind-numbing destruction. And it’s amazing. Recruiting the Maximoff twins to his side, Ultron quickly proceeds to wallop the team like never before and sets his world-ending plans in motion. And it’s here that Age of Ultron really takes a diverging tack on its evolutionary path.
If Avengers was about assembling the team, Age of Ultron is about what happens when they’re disassembled, when their morale borders on the subterranean. How do these mighty beings of hubris face the reality of their fragility and shortcomings? It’s serious, dramatically heavy stuff, and in the case of a bittersweet blossoming romance between Natasha and Bruce – she’s fractured by her dark past and he’s riddled with guilt and fear of the monster inside – it’s utterly heartbreaking. And also so perfectly natural due to the fact that Whedon simply gets these characters, all of them. Whether they’re exposing their inner selves to each other or having a banterrific house party, he has an unquestionable grasp of their dynamics and individual personalities. Which probably explains why Hawkeye is the vitally beating heart of this whole affair.
Resigned to merely being a point-and-shoot zombie for most of the previous film, here Whedon makes up for that oversight by developing Hawkeye like few other characters in this sprawling cast. As the most ordinary member of the team, he often has the most extraordinary of contributions, including what is possibly the most honestly funny line in the entire franchise. Oh yes, there are funny lines. This is a Joss Whedon movie after all.
While Age of Ultron may not boast the type of non-stop comical sight gags of the first film, Whedon is on masterful form when it comes to his trademark dialogue. Barbs, zingers, one-liners and whatever else you call these rambunctious witticisms fly thick and fast, making sure that no matter how dark things get – and they reach some Eskom levels of darkness at times – a laugh is never too far away. And it’s that delicate balance of tone and character that makes Age of Ultron work so well so consistently.
That and the batshit insane action, of course. Whedon ups the stakes in every possible way, both dramatically and technically, for the film’s many blow-out action beats, the highlight of which is the much anticipated Hulk vs Hulkbuster armour fight that tears up downtown Jozi and will leave many a geek agog with its awesomeness. Once again Whedon juggles his very game cast like a Cirque Du’Soleil performer, giving them all their own individual moments of fisticuff brilliance but also putting together numerous poster-worthy team-up moments that should keep a giant smile plastered on the faces of the most hardened comic junkies. And then there’s Paul Bettany’s Vision, who I will rather leave for you to discover on your own, only saying that he is weird, enigmatic and wholly wonderful.
If Age of Ultron does have any “major” flaws though, it’s that it wears its greater cinematic universe building just a smidge too openly. This is not a deal-breaker by any stretch, nor is it unexpected given what we know of Marvel’s Phase 3 plans, but it feels like a lot less elegant an implementation than it could have been.
Easily spotted setups for future movies aside though, what Whedon and co have created here is possibly the most comic book-ish of comic book movies. I made the same statement about the first film, but the difference is that then it was a matter of perfectly translating the tropes and inside jokes from page to screen. Now it’s that juxtaposition of operatic character drama, overlapping plots and wacky spectacle that results from the unfettered imagination usually only found in a stack of comic books.
So back to the ultimate question though: which movie is better? Personally, I feel that Avengers and Age of Ultron are such different films, that I’m hesitant to pick. Pushed for an answer though, I would have to say the first film edges Age of Ultron by a nose just for its gleefully fun execution, but I have a feeling that my opinion will be flip-flopping several times throughout the next few rewatches. Either way, as it’s confirmed that he will not be returning for the final Avengers installment, this is definitely still one hell of a high-note to end the Age of Whedon at Marvel.
PS: While Age of Ultron is very cameo-friendly, make sure you keep a special eye and ear out for Andy Serkis and his incredible accent as Ulysses Klaw. Just trust me on this one.
Last Updated: April 23, 2015