“Everyone creates the thing they dread.”
Tony Stark, you big jerk! You’ve doomed us all! The ego-driven industrialist has finally screwed up big-time with his latest invention, Ultron. The artificial intelligence, which should have been an agent of global protection, immediately deduces that the best way to accomplish his mission is with the extinction of humanity.
Age of Ultron, the eleventh film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, takes practically every character from the first (or sixth, depending on how you look at it) film, as well as secondaries introduced in other MCU films, and even a healthy handful of fresh faces, and sics the killer robots on them. The plot is pretty straightforward, so the focus can be kept on the personal stories of the seemingly endless supply of heroes, and presenting plenty of opportunities for them to creatively kick robo-butt, as well as to prove to themselves if they truly deserve to be Avengers. Newcomers like the Maximoff Twins (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen) and Ultron (James Spader) shine the brightest, for they get the most complete arcs, with beginnings, middles, and endings/sequel hooks. Returning champions like Iron Man, Captain America, and The Incredible Hulk, on the other hand, don’t get enough opportunity to grow emotionally, and Black Widow starts strong before getting pigeonholed into the all-too-familiar damsel-in-distress role, a stupefying move on the part of writer-director Joss Whedon, whose past work has made a point of avoiding such pitfalls. Then, The Mighty Thor basically walks out of the film for at least fifteen minutes to embark on a quest of great significance… Which presumably wound up on the cutting room floor, since much of his vision is regrettably unaddressed. Fortunately, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, the lone Avenger who truly drew the short straw last time around, gets the best arc in the entire movie, complete with a motivational speech at a critical moment that would make Captain America proud.
The movie has a lot to juggle, which is ultimately the problem. While it would let down the fans, as well as the fundamental premise of the film, to ditch some of the roster, the film ultimately suffers from simply having too much on its plate. As a result, several themes and sub-plots that are set-up or implied are left hanging, or worse, saved for later films. The main victim in this case is Tony Stark, whose entire development is flat, all to be saved for 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. While that film will eventually redeem Stark’s characterization (if not necessarily his character) from this film, there is a lack of empathy, ownership, and responsibility from Tony to Ultron. He created him, he is like his father, but that interesting dynamic, which is certainly there, in subtext and parental overtones throughout, deserves to be expounded upon in a meaningful way to elevate Ultron from a stock Marvel villain to a truly remarkable figure.
It’s the same syndrome which plagued Iron Man 2; back then, we were already being stoked for The Avengers, so the film cut all of the interesting parts of Mickey Rourke’s character to fuel the next movie at the expense of itself. In Age of Ultron, Thor’s quest and the relationship between Stark and Ultron have been cut to make room for scenes of Stark and Captain America shooting the breeze. They’re great scenes (particularly the wood-chopping scene) which build anticipation for the next film, but they ultimately bring down this one.
“Every time someone tries to stop a war before it starts, innocent people die. Every time.”
The saddest part about the almost-ness of AoU is that what’s on the screen is absolutely gorgeous: the action scenes are bigger and more fully realized than anything that came before, chock-full of clever jokes and witty banter. AoU follows-up on the themes and characters of the Phase 2 films in meaningful ways, and it’s still a really fun ride with incredible special effects (though some CGI in the opening sequence looks a little rough). It’s just missing the soul of the MCU’s better chapters, and comes across too much like a manufactured product, rather than an artistic expression. It was a line that earlier movies were able to avoid crossing, but, surely due to its epic scope, Age of Ultron winds up on the wrong side of the divide. It’s good, but only rarely great, and is more concerned with building hype for future movies than it is with providing a meaningful experience itself. As such, it might be the movie we wanted, but not the one we truly deserve.