A movie as big as Avengers: Age of Ultron can’t be adequately recapped in a single, puny post! This first post in a 3-part series will look at why I think Age of Ultron is better than the first Avengers. The second post will discuss why Avengers is still the king. And in the last post, I’ll rank Avengers: Age of Ultron alongside the rest of the MCU films.
It goes without saying that the following will be infested with spoilers.
These are in no particular order. Let’s get to it.
1. That First Act
Age of Ultron’s first act is just about perfect. I love how it starts in media res (e.g. in the middle of things), with the Avengers already assembled. The Avengers have been systematically shutting down Hydra bases, and now they’ve come to the last one. It’s a neat way of indicating that they have been assembling for some time, outside the bounds of the movies, and in that way, the world feels more real and lived-in. And it’s a rather symbolic closing of the door on old antagonists. This movie is about new and greater threats.
Hydra never has a chance. When asked about stopping the attack, one of Hydra’s bosses even says, somewhat incredulously: “It’s the Avengers.” The scene firmly reestablishes that the Avengers are truly Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. The team has grown stronger and tighter since the end of the first Avengers film. It’s almost unfathomable how any force could stand against them. Story-wise, the bar has been set pretty damn high for Ultron.
As a spectacle, this scene fires on all cylinders. Each character gets their chance to shine, though in my opinion Captain America takes the cake with that motorcycle throw (more on the general awesomeness of Captain America later).
After the dust settles, we return to Avengers tower for a proper revel. And as much as I loved that first action scene, this quiet follow-up might be my favorite scene of the entire movie. Seeing the Avengers let down their hair and unwind with a few drinks feels almost voyeuristic. We’re getting the rare glimpse of these heroes just being people. And there are so many hilarious moments! Stark and Thor comparing girlfriends; Rhodey failing to impress the Avengers with his story, then killing it with the ‘normals'; and, of course, the team trying to lift Thor’s hammer: the look on Thor’s face when Cap budges the hammer, and the relieved laugh when Cap gives up.
Ultron emerges, stumbling in from the dark, literally cobbled together from scrap parts. Despite his dilapidated appearance, there is real menace in his shuffling, stooped posture. All at once, the air goes screaming out of the balloon: the party is over. Ultron’s introduction puts a bow on the movie’s perfect first act.
2. The Laughs
The Marvel movies have always had a rich, gooey ribbon of comedy running through them. Until Age of Ultron, the first Avengers movie was the funniest, primarily on the strength of Hulk’s sucker punch of Thor and his later mishandling of Loki. They are funny scenes even now, but they seem woefully insubstantial next to the laughs Avengers 2 dishes up.
Laughs pop-up with such regularity and in the most unexpected places that I’m positive I missed jokes the first time. Ultron is funny too, which makes sense given Tony is essentially his father. But the real surprise is the comedic stylings of Thor. Chris Hemsworth steals scenes with a single look, to the point that my eyes were drawn to Thor any time he was on screen.
There’s really no two ways about it: Avengers 2 is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a long time, and it’s far funnier than it’s predecessor.
3. James Spader as Ultron
James Spader was an inspired choice to play Ultron. His voice exudes a sense of superiority and menace that is just perfect. I loved him on The Office as Robert California: his scenes always felt charged with an uncomfortable sort of energy, like he existed on a higher plane of existence from the other characters and he exposed their inadequacies by merely being around them.
Spader humanizes Ultron. The confusion and rage in the scene with the weapons dealer is so real, so human, that you can’t help but almost pity Ultron to some degree.
Make no mistake, Loki is still Marvel’s premier villain. But for bat-shit craziness and the threat he poses all on his own, without an extraterrestrial army backing his play, Ultron is a force to be reckoned with.
It should be said: I am not much of a Hawkeye fan. He’s a soldier who for some crazy reason uses a bow and arrow, which really strains any sense of credibility: in what modern military outfit would that really happen? Not to mention, the guy has no business hanging with these guys, super soldiers and mech-suited billionaires and demi-gods. I was totally fine when Hawkeye went on loaner as Loki’s lickspittle last time around. Even after recovering from Loki’s mind games, Hawkeye possessed all the emotion of a doorknob. He just was not that interesting.
But Joss Whedon won me over to Hawkeye’s side this time, and probably not for the reason you think. I came to love Hawkeye because he was funny. The injection of humor humanized him and gave him a personality. And his sarcasm brought a sense of normalcy to the ensuing craziness (most notably with his fourth-dimension-shattering heart-to-heart with the Scarlet Witch). Hawkeye has always been quick with his bow, but this time around he’s even faster with the quips. And it was so great how he kept the Scarlet Witch out of his head!
Coming into the movie, I was convinced someone would die and thought it would be Hawkeye, and I was cool with that. But a strange thing happened: with signs increasingly suggesting Hawkeye wasn’t long for this world, I started dreading his death. I’d come to like the character and didn’t want him to go.
I do still think it’s a bit ridiculous that he survived Ultron’s hordes, but I’m not disappointed that he did.
5. Hulkbuster (aka Veronica)
So, yeah. Iron Man and the Hulk throw down and it is glorious. I love that the suit is deployed via satellite and remains a kind of floating supply depot to replace parts eventually wrecked by the Hulk. It shows a level of planning on Stark’s part that is both smart and cool, but also kind of chilling: he and Banner are buds, but he has this panic button he can hit if his pal greens-out? How does Banner feel about this? Did he know about Veronica?
The fight itself is incredibly well done, with both heroes getting their shots in. What’s especially cool is Iron Man’s approach. There’s just no way he’s winning that fight, and he knows it. His focus is to give the Hulk a nice shiny target to entice him away from the civilians. Then he’s just hanging on, buying time.
I really hope there will be some kind fall-out from all the destruction they visited on the city, maybe something that pays-off during Civil War.
6. Black Widow
I’ve loved Black Widow from the start, especially Whedon’s take on her. Unlike Hawkeye, it somehow doesn’t matter that she is a ‘normal’. She’s a smart, tough character, fully capable on her own, and she doesn’t get upstaged by the other characters. During Cap’s fight with Ultron, I was seriously pumped when Widow dropped out of the jet on her bike to come help out.
I know some have complained, but I didn’t have any issue with the Banner/Widow romance. It felt real to me, and was a nice contrast to their relationship from last time, when she was deathly scared of the Hulk. I don’t know if it’s the Beauty & Beast motif, but the scenes where she soothes the Hulk and gets him to revert back to Banner were emotionally powerful. There’s a nice little reversal when she makes him Hulk-out at the end, but its also a betrayal of his trust. On some level, he’ll always be the big green guy to her, and he knows it. That realization, as much as anything else, dooms the relationship.
My favorite Widow moment though was the peek into how she came to be the Black Widow. To this point, we’ve been left to wonder about her backstory with only the faintest clues to go on. But here, for the first time, the curtain is pulled back and we get her origin story. It’s powerful and sad, and it completely informs the present day character.
My only real disappointment: I’m still bummed we aren’t getting a standalone Black Widow film.
7. Captain America Kicks Butt
There is an interesting, evolutionary sort of thing happening with Captain America. Each movie, he increasingly becomes more awesome. I don’t know how else to say it. In First Avenger, his initial solo flick, Captain America isn’t all that super, honestly. Yes, he’s obviously strong, and he has the shield, but there were never any real moments of impressive physicality. This carried over into the first Avengers movie. Next to Thor, Hulk, and Iron Man, Captain America was just sort of average.
The tide changed with the Winter Soldier. Between the initial boat scene and that amazing elevator fight, we finally see Captain America as a physical beast. Avengers 2 keeps this momentum going and even further ups the ante. The motorcycle-throw is an early standout, but seeing Cap go mano a mano with Ultron and completely hold his own? Yes, please. Probably not coincidentally, that truck chase / Ultron vs Cap fight was my favorite action scene. Very tense!
Iron Man still feels like the overall star of the show, but Captain America has seriously narrowed the gap. In the first Avengers movie, it felt like the team followed his lead because he was Captain America and he’s supposed to lead the Avengers. Now it feels natural, something he’s earned.
8. Banner and the Hulk
There is a scene midway through the movie that continues to haunt me even a week later. It’s when the Avengers confront Ultron in Africa. Things quickly escalate, and we cut to Banner in the jet, asking if it’s a code green (love that, btw) and getting no response. And then he emerges from the jet to find the twins waiting. It’s just a quick shot but he seems so vulnerable and alone at that moment. It’s almost heart-wrenching.
Mark Ruffalo’s portrayal of Banner is so nuanced that his body language speaks as loudly as his words. Even the Hulk’s facial expressions are powerful: the dawning realization as he awakes from Scarlet Witch’s mind-trip and sees what he hath wrought; the sadness as he hangs-up on Black Widow and settles in for the long, lonely flight.
In the first Avengers flick, the Hulk was mostly a giant rage monster. What makes the Hulk so interesting is not the monster itself but the tortured man underneath all that green, and Age of Ultron does a great job of giving us a glimpse.
9. The End Game
Initiating an extinction level event by dropping a city from the sky? That is a really cool idea, and much more interesting than invasion by a group of faceless aliens. It also presents an arresting tableau upon which the final matter could be decided.
Alas, the climax didn’t quite rise to the level of the spectacle itself, but you’ll have to tune in to part 2 for reasons why.
Continued in Part 2
What did you like about Avengers: Age of Ultron? Comment and let me know! And come back in a few days to find out why Avengers is the Mightiest of the Two Films.