The Avengers: Age of Ultron may be the first of Marvel's "Cinematic Universe" to bend under future obligations.
Age of Ultron is nearly impossible not to appreciate in the moment. It's big, sprawling, excellently choreographed, human where it needs to be. It leverages its role as the 11th film in Marvel's host of interconnected stories confidently, the way that fastidious fans would want. It doesn't spend a lot of time re-familiarizing you with the characters that live and work here, instead getting right down to the story at hand.
Opening with the Avengers as they hunt for the last vestiges of Hydra in a post-Captain America: The Winter Soldier world, Age of Ultron immediately places thoughts of the future heavy on the mind of its leads. After a vision of a dark future where the Avengers just aren't enough to protect humanity, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) convinces Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to help him build "a suit of armor" for the world. This armor is Ultron, an artificial intelligence network designed to guard the Earth where the Avengers might fail. Of course, things go wrong, and the team must work beyond their own internal conflicts and personal demons to save the world again.
Black Widow gets some much needed time in the light
There's an emphasis throughout the film on those personal demons, both past and present. Tony's creation of Ultron is both a demonstration of the dangers of his hubris and a justification of his behavior, and watching other characters wrestle with that and with him is a driving force in the film, and likely set up for more drama down the road. And visions of several characters' pasts and worst fears about the world and themselves does a lot of heavy lifting for character development.
Despite what so many flashbacks and interpersonal conflicts might lead you to believe, Age of Ultron is the most spartan Marvel release yet with regards to character and world-building. Casual interaction between characters reminds you who these people are, and, for newcomers, sketches out just enough about their personalities and histories to keep up.
In a genre obsessed with origin stories and constant reminders of every character's past, Age of Ultron doesn't dwell very often compared to its peers. And when it does, it's sharp and expedient in developing characters who haven't gotten much time in the light, something particularly important with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and, to a lesser extent Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).
It helps that Age of Ultron has an ensemble cast that feels comfortable. For the two hours and change of Ultron's run time, there's no Chris Evans, no Scarlett Johansson, no Chris Hemsworth or Mark Ruffalo — there's just Steve Rogers/Captain America, Natasha Romanov/Black Widow, etc. And even that's not quite correct. Far more often than not, these characters are their names, not their superhero identities.
Not everyone gets as much time to shine, however. The need to establish the road to the future of the Marvel cinematic universe also forces a crowded cast, including several new characters that don't always get their due. Ultron is the titular big bad but he frequently feels relegated to a background plot thread, a particular shame given how much personality James Spader forces through. He gives Downey Jr. some legitimate competition for scenery-chewing, but his development and his plans for the Avengers are given short shrift. Other characters that have seemed important, based on the greater cinematic narrative, are made redundant in Age of Ultron with very little fanfare. Elizabeth Olson's Scarlet Witch shines, but Aaron Taylor-Johnson isn't given much to do as her brother Quicksilver.
None of this is that big a surprise, I suppose — we're almost a dozen films into Marvel's universe now, and with so many characters not everybody will have their moment. But I was taken aback at how Whedon's sense of comedic timing sometimes stumbles.
His expected jokes and gags are well-represented in Age of Ultron from the first five minutes of the movie onward. Several got a chuckle out of me, but there were a few really leaden shots that were more distracting than anything, one of which particularly scraped at my affection for Tony — generally one of the more likable characters in the universe.
The film struggles to balance the characters people like right now with the places they're going, and the same could easily be said about the plot. Despite Age of Ultron's smart expediency with regards to its characterization and world-building, I was constantly struck by how overcomplicated everyone's actions were. There was always a second motivation where one made more than enough sense, where a character randomly had a thing they had to do in a location that didn't really fit with the rest of the narrative. It was only by viewing Age of Ultron in its greater place in Marvel's cinematic universe that these pieces sat more neatly together.
Ultron made me miss the comparative simplicity of Winter Soldier
In this way, Age of Ultron is a functional engine to move a lot of pieces forward for already announced films like Captain America: Civil War and The Avengers: Infinity War, but they make Age of Ultron a worse stand-alone production. As the film contorts itself into more and more awkward positions to cement Concepts That Will Be Important Later, it occasionally feels like a parody of superhero story plotting. There are very few straight lines, and everything seems primed to tie into something else. It made me miss the comparative narrative simplicity of, say, Winter Soldier, not an overly simple movie itself.
Those criticisms keep Age of Ultron from eclipsing the best Marvel has had to offer, movies that balanced their need to serve their own, self-contained narratives while building on Marvel's universe. But as the Avengers jump and smash their way through spectacularly choreographed action scenes one after the next — deftly avoiding the muddled confusion of explosions and blurred bodies that define so many other summer action films — it's not hard to enjoy Age of Ultron anyway. It still has the strong background and foundation laid by its predecessors, the interconnected world Marvel has established. And as the story violently twists and turns, the characters Marvel has spent so much time building hold it all together.