Neophytes and nerds of all stripes will find plenty to like in Marvel’s latest blockbuster.
AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
THE GOOD: Previously underused characters get more screen time. Lays groundwork for other cinematic developments.
THE BAD: Plot holes and source material deviations.
RATING: A A A A
There are at least four mindsets through which you can watch Avengers: Age of Ultron. I’m going to try to review the film through all of them here.
1. The Neophtye: This is the sort of movie-goer who has no knowledge of the Marvel comic book source material and who is simply going to the film because it’s certain to be the big special effects blockbuster of the summer. This category may also apply to the dutiful spouse being dragged along by their nerdy partner (see: my wife).
As big event movies go, Age of Ultron is better than most. There are the requisite apocalyptic set pieces, complete with city-level destruction, but more than that there are actual performances to enjoy.
Anyone who has seen any of the recent Marvel movies knows what I’m talking about. There’s the inimitable Robert Downey Jr. hamming it up as the smarmy billionaire philanthropist playboy Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man. There’s Mark Ruffalo perfecting the mild-mannered and understated Bruce Banner, which is the ideal counterpoint to his raging Hulk monster alter-ego.
There’s also James Spader. We don’t actually see him on screen, but his creepy voice and motion capture performance convincingly bring the villainous robot Ultron to life. And there’s Chris Hemsworth, hunking things up as the Asgardian thunder god Thor (my wife’s favourite). The cast is huge and loaded with stars, and they play their roles well. More on that shortly.
Ultron serves as the big bad in this outing. Still dealing with the trauma of an alien invasion in the first movie, Stark enjoins Banner to help him build his “suit of armour around the world,” an artificial intelligence capable of repelling extra-terrestrial threats that can fill in for the more-or-less human and therefore-prone-to-death Avengers.
It goes sideways, of course, and the AI takes physical form in one of Stark’s damaged Iron Man suits. Before we know it, Ultron has constructed an army of slavebots and conscripted Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, a pair of “enhanced” twins with super powers from the Eastern European nation of Sokovia, for his quest to eradicate mankind.
The action scenes are generally great, from the introductory storming of a Sokovian castle to the mid-movie mega-fight between the Hulk and Iron Man in his beefy Hulkbuster armour, to the finale in Sokovia again, which by now has become a flying weapon in the hands of Ultron.
Anyone who likes big summer blockbusters is sure to eat up the fast pace, witty dialogue and fantastic special effects. There are an awful lot of characters and sub-plots to keep track of, though, so this probably isn’t a good entry point for the Marvel movie newbie. Bring a nerd with you to narrate.
2. The Comics Purist: On the other hand, Age of Ultron is a nightmare for anyone who likes their comic book movies to closely follow the source material. By this point and this many Marvel movies (this is the 11th), it’s hard to believe there are any such individuals left, surely not after Iron Man 3 mangled the Mandarin.
Still, there are sins committed. Firstly, the film’s title has no resemblance whatsoever to the 2013 10-issue comic series, save for the main villain himself. In the “Age of Ultron” comics, the world has already been conquered by the mad robot. Cue the time travel, alien races and Wolverine and… yeah, it’s obvious none of this has anything to do with the movie.
The film also deviates significantly with Ultron’s origin. The killer robot isn’t created by Stark and Banner in the comics, but rather by Henry Pym, who we won’t meet for the first time until the Ant-Man movie later this summer. Maybe the plot of that film will somehow retroactively insert Pym into this origin story, but it’s off for now. And I do recognize that getting upset over this is minor compared to the fact that Pym was one of the founding comic-book Avengers in the first place.
This isn’t heart-breaking stuff, so far. The most egregious deviation, at least in my books, comes in the fleshing out of Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye. In the film, he’s revealed to be an every-day family man who worries about remodelling his kitchen. In the comics, he’s a wise-cracking lone wolf who can’t seem to get his life together, let alone maintain a relationship.
I actually really like how Age of Ultron develops the non-marquee Avengers. Jeremy Renner finally has something interesting to do with Hawkeye, and he is indeed established as the human heart among a team of “gods,” as his wife puts it. Banner and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow also both get a good chunk of screen time to explore back story and a romance. I’d very much like to see solo movies with any or all of these characters.
Still, Hawkeye’s deviation feels like too much of a departure from the comic books. Barton has always been the oddball human among super-powered aliens, androids and gods, but he’s never been a family man. The crux of his character is that he’s a sarcastic guy who never seems to catch a break. The movie version has no traces of that.*
Beyond that, there isn’t really much to tick off hard-core comics nerds. The twins are mutants in the comic books, but with Fox owning the rights to the X-Men and all things mutant, we knew going in that Wanda and Pietro – the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, respectively – would be referred to as something different out of necessity. They’re “enhanced” beings for now, perhaps to become mutants should Marvel Studios ever regain those rights.
And besides, the Iron Man-Hulk fight should be enough to make any hard-core comics fan squeal with delight.
(*It’s been suggested that Hawkeye has a family in the Ultimates line of comics. Whether or not this is canon depends on if you consider the Ultimates to be canon, which I don’t.)
3. The Joss Whedon Fan: With so many stories of how Marvel maintains an iron fist (see what I did there) over its Cinematic Universe, it’s a wonder that any of the involved directors’ personalities get to shine through.
Joss Whedon somehow manages to make his mark, to the delight of his fans, despite all the apocalyptic carnage and constant onslaught of new characters.
It mostly comes through in the trademark snappy dialogue. Case in point: Iron Man busts into a room full of Hydra bad guys and tells them they’re going to have to have a talk about their evil activities. He takes them out with stun missiles and quips, “Good chat!” Just before the scene cuts, one of the downed baddies moans, “No it wasn’t…”
Another of Whedon’s copyrighted tricks is the wise-cracking villain. Sure, they might be Satan incarnate, but that doesn’t mean they can’t bust out a good joke or two. That includes Ultron. Stark asks: “What’s the vibranium for?” Ultron replies: “I’m glad you asked that, because I wanted to take this time to explain my evil plan…” before blasting him.
Funny? Yes. A deviation from the comic source, where Ultron doesn’t have a humourous circuit in his metallic body? Absolutely. But it’s Whedon, so it’s good.
There’s quite a bit of this stuff, from start to finish. There’s even a callback to the first Avengers movie, with a certain character sucker-punching a certain other character.
4. The Marvel Fan: I’d ascribe myself to this category. I’m something of a comics purist, but I’m also allowing for the many liberties Marvel is taking with its movies simply because they’re bringing the characters and worlds I grew up with and loved to life.
Moreover, Marvel is also changing movies and television as a whole by doing something that has never been done before: the unification of all its products into a single, cohesive world. The first Avengers movie had repercussions on the Daredevil Netflix show, while this past week’s episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. leads directly into Age of Ultron, which itself sets up a bunch of future movies.
Case in point: one of the film’s big fights takes place in the African nation of Wakanda, which comics fans know is the kingdom ruled by T’Challa, otherwise known as the Black Panther. We know the Black Panther movie is slated for 2018. Meanwhile, a certain alien bad guy also shows up in Age of Ultron after the credits, further teasing the big showdown coming in the next two Avengers films, scheduled for 2018 and 2019.
If you’re a fan of episodic storytelling, which comic books have been doing for more than a century, this is fascinating to watch unfold. Age of Ultron has many plot holes – as in, didn’t Tony Stark retire from super-heroing at the end of Iron Man 3, and what the hell is with Thor’s dip in the dream pool in this movie anyway? – but they’re forgivable if you can appreciate the bigger picture.
It must be a logistical nightmare to maintain forward momentum in a continually evolving movie and television universe, especially when so many disparate contracts and egos are involved. In that light, it’s a marvel – no pun intended – that the individual entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe don’t have more holes.
Avengers: Age of Ultron isn’t the best Marvel movie – the first Iron Man still holds that distinction – nor is it the most fun; its predecessor likely takes that title. But it is an effective centrepiece of the company’s universe, which I’m deeply invested in, that is going to keep things moving for years to come.
I’m certainly hooked and I can’t wait for what’s next.