In some ways, Avengers: Age of Ultron was a no-win proposition. Sequels almost always pale in comparison to the first film, and The Avengers was already a massive victory, not just at the box office, but as a cinematic accomplishment of culminating a cinematic universe. Age of Ultron could only move the ball forward in certain ways. It was too soon for Thanos, but it also had to start setting up the big finale. Being the middle chapter is tough enough, and writer-director Joss Whedon had to do in the framework of a cinematic universe where he had to service stories for Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and all the other superheroes. Age of Ultron could have easily devolved into just checking boxes, and instead it ends up as one of the most challenging and fulfilling movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe even though some of the scorn it received was inevitable.
The opening scene is a mission statement for a movie that’s trying to blend blockbuster action with the dark places Whedon wants to send his characters. You’ve got a big, exciting scene (although all of the action in Age of Ultron suffers from the drained Marvel color palette where nothing is allowed to pop against the screen) with terrific jokes (“Language.”), but you can see that Whedon’s real focus is on pulling apart his heroes from the inside. You could conceivably make the primary villain Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) instead of Ultron (James Spader), although then you’d lose the intriguing generational conflict between Tony, Ultron, and Vision (Paul Bettany). If The Avengers is all about the external conflict of throwing these heroes together, then Age of Ultron is at its most dangerous and exhilarating when it puts the flaws of these heroes front and center.
Appropriately, we start with Tony, who started this whole thing, and we see yet again that he’s both the primary hero and the villain of the MCU. He’s a man who overreacts every time, uses his genius to try and control everything, and never seems to learn or grow from his mistakes. It would make for a deeply unsatisfying character if not for Downey’s charisma and how Tony breaks from the superhero mold. He’s not the hero type, not even along the lines of a dark figure like Batman. Tony covers his darkness in charm, but his arrogance continues to cause greater threats to the world. Nowhere is that more clear than in the Ultron program, and toying around with science he doesn’t completely understand just so he can put “a suit of armor around the world.” The road to hell is paved with Tony Stark’s good intentions.
Which is why Ultron is so disappointing as an antagonist. Thematically, he makes sense, but as a character, he feels underdeveloped, coasting on Spader’s masterful voice work and Whedonesque dialogue. The concept seems to be that he’s an angrier version of Tony Stark, and wants to crush his father figure and by extension the entire world. And even his motives kind of make a twisted amount of sense in that he correctly (at least in the film’s view) sees humanity as doomed, so it’s his responsibility to wipe them out and create the next step in our evolution. However, as a character, he falls short because he just shows up and he’s pretty much evil. He doesn’t change, he doesn’t really have his ideas challenged, and he doesn’t have positive connections with anyone. He’s either angry at the Avengers or he uses people like the Maximoff Twins.
The Maximoff Twins present another problem with the movie. It’s clear that Whedon feels more affinity for them, and he relishes Wanda’s power to mess with people’s minds. But again, as characters, they’re stuck in a movie where they’re sharing a lot of screentime and you can see the advantage of The Avengers is that it’s basically not introducing anyone new. With the exception of Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), everyone you meet, you’ve met before somewhere else, and while there’s room for growth, there should be some brief kind of attention, even if it wasn’t more than Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) in a bucket spouting lines about liking Thor in Thor. The Maximoffs present the problem that we have the briefest exposition on their troubles (they suffered due to Stark’s weapons and signed up with Hydra to get superpowers), and then the film just moves them where they need to be. They stop being people and just stand as abilities. Need someone to mess with someone’s heads? Call Wanda. Need a comic relief character who does fun things with speed? Call Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).