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This.

I spent like 5 hours yesterday writing about this movie. Did two complete drafts of the review as my first go around felt unsatisfying and overly focused on the reception of Age of Ultron as opposed to being about the movie itself. I was much happier with my second, 4000-word review and I will do my best to make this third attempt as good, but if it feels a bit half-hearted just know that it’s because of the heartbreak of losing 5 hours of work and not because the movie sucked. Age of Ultron did not suck.

To me, Age of Ultron is the biggest movie of 2015. And I don’t just mean the most exciting or something. It is a massive, massive movie. Plenty going on, many characters, and so on. But yeah, it’s also the one I was most excited for (sorry Star Wars, but I’ve been hurt before). Some have said you don’t need to see the other Marvel Cinematic Universe movies to follow this, but I think you really do. At this point, you either like what these guys are doing and you’re okay with the superhero monolith… or you’re not. In many ways, Joss Whedon relies on our familiarity and our investment to navigate an incredibly tangled web of characterizations, sub-plots, and even missing pieces cut from what was once a three hour long movie.

The two hour movie that remains is fast, relentless, and full of amazing moments. Because the concept of giant, shared universe superhero team-ups is now familiar as well, Age of Ultron quickly acknowledges our affection for that before moving on to something else. This is a movie about how things change, and how we are often the architects of the pain those changes bring. It’s easy for an identifiable theme to get lost in the shuffle of a movie this big, but every character gets a subplot and arc of their own which will lead them into their continued solo adventures.

If there are weaknesses in Age of Ultron, they are likely the result of cuts. You still have to lay this at the feet of Whedon, since as director he’s the most directly responsible. At the same time, you can forgive hard sacrifices that get made for a movie as impossible as Age of Ultron to even exist. So for the most part, an avowed fan like me can overlook some rough patches (but I’m still going to discuss them with you). This is a movie that knows what you want to see and is more than happy to give that to you and then some. The hype machine being what it is, some people are always going to be satisfied or ambivalent and I suggest to you that Age of Ultron deserves better. It could never be as surprising and novel as The Avengers was three years ago, but its highs are just as high and it never hits the low points (mostly in the first twenty minutes) of its predecessor. It’s entirely a success.

THERE ARE NO STRINGS, BUT PLENTY OF SPOILERS

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Look, the gang is back together!

Age of Ultron begins about three years after the Battle of New York with the Avengers attacking the last bastion of Hydra power in the world. Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kleschmann) has been trying to create “enhanced” soldiers and has managed to get partway there. He’s using Loki’s sceptre which means stopping him will finally put the Chitauri, Loki’s invasion, and Hydra in the world’s rear-view. However, Strucker has been successful with two volunteers from the fictional country of Sokovia. The Maximoff twins Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) have powers to challenge most of the Avengers.  The Strucker battle is Whedon’s way of acknowledging the virtuoso superhero battle sequence he invented in The Avengers. There’s a similar interweaving shot of all the heroes having mini-team ups and using their powers/wit for cool moments. This is a clever thing to do at the beginning of the film because it’s like saying “yes, I know you want this but we did this and today I’m going to show you something new”.

As per usual, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) is the most vulnerable to his own ego. Wanda uses her ability to show people what they fear most to give him a vision of another alien invasion where everybody dies except Stark, with the clear message being that he could have saved them. Stark is always creating his own monsters and this time around, his need to be in control and to protect people from things that could happen leads him to creating the worst one yet. This follows from his journey throughout the films. Above all else, he doesn’t want New York to ever happen again and will do anything to prevent it.

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Yeesh.

Using Loki’s sceptre, Tony and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) try to create an artificial intelligence to improve Stark’s “Iron Legion” drones. We see these things in Sokovia basically acting as a peacekeeping force. A new AI to run them would mean that Stark has finally achieved his goals of providing peace and giving his friends a break from having to fight the costly wars that superheroes fight. The creation is called Ultron (James Spader) and unfortunately for everybody, he has a mind of his own. Tony, naturally, wants to do this before anyone can stop him.

While the Avengers are partying (a truly awesome scene), Ultron is born. His first act is to eliminate Jarvis (Paul Bettany), his symbolic brother. Then, Ultron confronts the Avengers and makes his presence known. Much like in The Avengers, the villain is out and in the open very quickly and the threat he poses evolves and takes shape over time.

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Plenty of awesome fun moments like this in the movie.

Ultron is a great villain. Spader infuses him with pathos and humanity, in spite of his robotic form. It might have been fair to expect a cold, logical “robovillain” given what he looks like but Ultron is basically a maniac that is obsessed with the Avengers, has too much of Tony’s dark side in him, and who is similarly obsessed with an iterative pursuit of perfection. The way he changes bodies is a dark reflection of Tony’s evolving Iron Man suits. His grandiose plans for forcing the world to evolve or die comes from thinking he knows what’s best for everyone, something else he shares with Tony. Though his motives change, the fundamentals are always about the Avengers, who he sees as hypocrites unable to use their powers to really embrace change. Ultron is all about change, whether people like it or not. That said, he’s got layers and is not entirely unsympathetic. He cares about the Maximoffs, even if he’s not sure why and even if it sometimes seems like he just wants an audience. He also has a point about the Avengers representing the preservation of the status quo, in spite of their great powers and the technological wonders at their disposal. In some ways, Ultron and this film in general are a criticism of that and an addressing of a question no one else is really asking: what are superheroes exactly?

Along the way, another of the film’s themes (which I think will be touched on more in Phase 3) is the impact on the world. Instead of being at the center of one destroyed city (and barely, as they contained New York fairly well), the Avengers are, thanks to Ultron, at the center of three destroyed cities. All of which because one of their founders created a monster. This will have reaching consequences, though Age of Ultron focuses on the internal rather than external results.

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The anti-shwarma scene.

When they go after Ultron, the Avengers aren’t ready for the destruction Wanda Maximoff can unleash on them. She disables Natasha/Black Widow (Scarlett Johannssen) by making her see her past, where she was raised in an all-girl assassination finishing school much like the one featured in Agent Peggy Carter. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) sees a future for Asgard where destruction and death reign because of something he can’t quite put together. Cap (Chris Evans) sees the truth about himself, that settling down for the quiet life is no longer possible or even desirable. He gets everything he wants and it’s empty. These are great sequences, by the way, as Whedon is famous for doing symbolism-laden creepy dream sequences better than anyone. Thor’s dream, though, is different in the sense that it’s a vision of something to come, something that drives a lot of the changes that Age of Ultron explores.

Though Wanda really fucks everyone up, it’s Hulk that is the most dangerous. With Hulk fully unleashed and Natasha unable to use the “Lullaby” procedure to calm him down, he attacks an African city and forces Stark to use the “Veronica” protocol that they developed together. This ends up being the code name for the Hulkbuster suit. Though it’s a cool sequence, as superheroes fighting each other usually are, the two of them unleash untold devastation on the city. People definitely die, and they definitely learn to fear the superheroes they worshipped after New York. When the dust finally settles, the unravelling of this team we love has begun.

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Hulk is my favorite. Biased.

Which brings me to one of the problems I mentioned in the preamble. One of the things Age of Ultron does is establish clear roles for all the main heroes right before it starts ripping them apart permanently. One of Natasha’s roles is to work with Bruce/The Hulk in order to prevent “Code Green” situations from spiralling out of control. This follows both logically and organically from their scenes in The Avengers and on paper, I really like the idea of these two developing a deep bond and mutual attraction. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure at least one scene was cut from the final film that probably would have really helped smooth out the execution of the romance. The problem is really down to how forced and awkward (in a bad way) that most of their scenes feel. The “Lullaby” is great and so is their flirtation at the party, where Natasha explains why she likes him. There are other good bits, like when he tries to talk her out of running away with him after Ultron kicks all their asses. But mostly, the dialogue and direction reduce Natasha to simpering and cooing and it’s just fucking weird. I’m glad they finally cleared up whatever it was going on with Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) but I do think the romance in this film doesn’t fully work. It does seem better justified and more functional when I think about the scenes individually, though, so a rewatch may help.

Speaking of roles, though, they were serious when they said they were going to make it up to Hawkeye this time around. Not only is he confirmed as basically the soul of humility and groundedness for the team, he also plays a mentor/rival role with the Maximoffs that helps elevate their later roles in the film way beyond how much they’re actually present and how much they actually do. There’s also that Barton’s big spy secret is that he’s a family man who likes doing home improvement when he’s not saving the world. That is a clever twist on expectations for this character, and it works really well in the film as a way to bring everybody back down to what’s important, what they can never have but must protect, and where to go from here. The one issue is that they really, really telegraph that he’s going to die only to pull a bait-and-switch with Pietro. It’s a good moment for both characters, and the movie really stays with it and with the notion that Barton is an old soldier watching another kid die while he keeps on going. He also gets a great wind-up speech for Wanda, whose primary arc is overcoming self-doubt after she is duped by Ultron.

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Hawkeye also gets some pretty funny lines and moments.

The Twins are a good addition to the film. They drive a lot of the uneasy feeling the world is starting to have about superheroes, and they also help sell that not everyone believes the Avengers are a good thing. The Sokovians chant “Avengers go home” when the Iron Legion tries to keep them from getting harmed during the Strucker fight. But this also leads to the other major problem with the cuts they made to this movie. The Maximoffs’ motive is clearly about Tony Stark, and by extension what the Avengers represent to them: a dangerous and unwanted presence in their lives with disastrous consequences for regular people. And this will lead us to reasonably expect some kind of resolution or catharsis beyond “well, we have the same enemy”. Ultron’s desire to destroy the world is what makes Wanda and Pietro turn on him, but they should still have a moment with Stark to bring that subplot to a satisfying conclusion. Instead, they just “join up” after helping Cap save a bunch of people on a train (one of the best scenes in the film, by the way). I’m certain a scene like this was written and shot, and it really hurts the Maximoffs for it not to be in the film. Because of this, Wanda joining Cap’s “new” Avengers team at the end is thinly justified.

One of the things I loved about this movie, and that the Maximoffs are a key part of, is how it acknowledges that superheroes shouldn’t just save people in the abstract by fighting bad guys with super powers. Rather than emulating the roles of police or soldiers only, they can also be EMTs and firefighters and rescue workers. In a midway scene where Cap directs Wanda and Pietro to help him save some people after Ultron wrecks a train, we see this illustrated beautifully. I would have been happy with this, as I was with the efforts the Avengers made in the previous movie to evacuate the battlefield in New York. Age of Ultron, however, goes way way past this one scene and dedicates a huge portion of its big action climax to having the heroes evacuate, protect, and rescue the ordinary people of Sokovia that Ultron wants to sacrifice in his mad crusade.

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Though her powers are never fully defined, there’s no doubt that Wanda is one of the most powerful people in the MCU.

While everyone else on the team tries to figure out what to do next during their respite on Barton’s farm, Thor has an itch he needs to scratch. His vision really shook him up, so he takes a bit of a detour from the main plot of the film and tracks down Selvig (Stellan Skaarsgard) to help him get some answers. This part of the film is a bit awkward in terms of how its placed, how brief and obligatory it feels as an introduction to “what’s coming”, but ultimately it serves as a long-awaited acknowledgement about the Infinity Gems and the threat they pose to all the worlds. Thor’s story is principally the one that most profoundly connects to future adventures, which means he doesn’t get a lot of traction in Age of Ultron. That said, his discovery does lead to another of my favorite scenes in the movie.

Ultron’s perfect body needs time to percolate, but the Avengers aren’t about to let him get away with that shit. They go after him and Cap gets a great mano-y-mano fight with him on top of a truck. The body then becomes the housing for a new A.I. which Tony doubles down to create. While he and Cap come to blows over it, Thor shows up at the last moment and energizes the body which has been loaded up partially with Jarvis’s mind. The result is The Vision (Paul Bettany), an entirely new being that Thor immediately trusts because he can wield the hammer. This is cool because it takes a running joke about the hammer and makes it a great character moment where Vision is clearly and humorously confirmed as a good guy and a worthy bearer for the Mind Stone, an Infinity Gem from Loki’s sceptre which he basically wears on his head. Vision is now one of the most ridiculously comic book characters in the MCU and while I would have liked more of him than we got, he has two very memorable moments. One is after smacking Thor, he apologizes and they’re standing there and then he manifests a cape. Best reason for a superhero to have a cape. The other is the quiet ending he has with Ultron.

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He looks amazing on screen, by the way.

One of the interesting things about the way the battle with Ultron unfolds is that the Avengers are pretty up to it, especially when he loses the support of Wanda. Ultron by himself is not much of a physical threat to the team. Their ability to take away his allies, his dreams, etc reinforces his hate for them and drives him deeper into his megalomania and desperation. In the end, he kills Pietro with a gun. I love this because it has the feel of the sleazy villains in 80’s beat-em-up movies, where when finally faced with the hero they pull a knife or a gun as a last ditch attempt to press an advantage. Despite all his posturing, Ultron is exactly this kind of character. That said, he still creates a situation where the Avengers have to really overcome the impossible in order to survive and save the people put in harm’s way by their collective actions. By their very existence.

And that’s why it’s so appropriate that the bulk of the climax is the team saving people. Yes, they save people in the abstract by stopping Ultron, but I mean in a tangible and visceral sense. They catch cars, they protect kids, they make sure civilians are loaded successfully onto the SHIELD (?) dropships that land on Sokovia (now a floating chunk of city and landscape). Though Ultron throws waves of his robot clones at them, this is all less about whether they can defeat waves of goons and more about what they are as the Avengers. Like Cap says, it’s about proving to the world that they aren’t what Ultron thinks they are. Much like in The Avengers where the stakes in fighting Loki were both a sense of “can these people actually band together?” and a personal level for Stark, Age of Ultron ratchets up the dramatic tension by challenging the concept of superheroes on a very visible level. The joy of The Avengers was seeing what these superheroes could accomplish if they put aside their differences and worked together. The joy of Age of Ultron is different. It’s about proving once and for all that superheroes aren’t just unstable bombs waiting to go off, and that they can be more than the sum of their crimes, mistakes, and capabilities.

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Cap’s arc is about accepting himself as a leader and warrior, and no longer seeing himself as just a soldier or symbol. The way the others treat him perfectly works with this.

Though the Avengers do save the day, it’s not without peril or cost. People say that because the MCU is mapped out for the next five years, some of the stakes are lowered by the fact that we know these main characters can’t really die. I think that’s a jaded perspective based on the unfortunate and wrong-headed equating of death with danger/cost. The stakes are about who these people are, internally, and as a group. Can they emerge the same people, the same team, that the audience has grown to love?

The answer is an inevitable no. It might be kind of sad, seeing the team mostly come apart and go their separate ways to be replaced by a new roster of heroes. But it’s also kind of triumphant. This movie takes Man of Steel heavily to task by virtue of focusing on a bigger picture for what superheroes are and could be, and of course by taking responsibility for the kinds of things superpowered people are capable of. This movie also takes the MCU to task for its poor record of diversity. The new Avengers are a very diverse team, with a new direction. Without Stark, without SHIELD, and (sadly) without Banner, Cap can finally lead a team that might be able to live up to its potential. Since we know that the next threat the Avengers face together will be external (Thanos is coming!), it makes sense that Phase 3 will explore what the dissolution of the old team means in a new world that might not like superheroes as much as it did. I have said that the theme of Age of Ultron is that things change. The ending is a brilliant note for that theme, though I would have liked a little more of the global impact and implications of the Ultron incident.

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Sassy, smarmy Mr. Ultron. 

I’m impressed by how much this movie says about itself while also being basically a nonstop action blockbuster that is nearly constantly funny or entertaining or both. I shouldn’t be, maybe, since Whedon is also well known for his sense of self-awareness and his ability to undercut the silly and the melodramatic with a well-placed bit of joking or irreverence. Age of Ultron is a triumph not because it’s a perfectly balanced, paced, or executed film… but because of all the little things that it gets so wonderfully right. For how it, and all the MCU movies really, reward you for sticking it out and caring about the stories and characters and how it all builds into something that isn’t just relevant in its own context, but really does speak to things beyond that while also being fun and witty.

This is Joss Whedon’s last MCU movie for probably the foreseeable future, but I really hope he keeps contributing and shepherding the scripts and characterizations that he has had such a big hand in shaping thus far. He doesn’t always make it all work, but the most important feature of the MCU, and the secret to its success has always been character and when it comes to character, the guy is a master. That he can make the biggest movie in the universe still a movie about character is a thing that I think goes a long way toward justifying and rewarding the beloved status that the MCU and its heroes enjoy.

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