This film was irritatingly disappointing. If I had to boil down the my frustration to a single word, it would be safe. Avengers: Age of Ultron was far too safe and didn't take risks with its characters or story. They took an idea that has global ramifications and localised it to an isolated joust for the climax that is only devastating in theory. As such, the stakes are far lower here than it's been in a while. Without spoilers I can't go into the details of my disappointment, but basically you don't need to watch this film unless you are a serious comic book fan. If you only had a casual liking of Marvel movies before, then this is a movie you can and should skip, because the premise of the story and what you see in the trailers alone will be sufficient for you to understand the continuation of the universe for their future films. It is not technically a bad film, it has its moments, but it is overall a underwhelming experience that doesn't up the ante from its predecessors. And given that franchise films need to continually justify their existence, I give this film a rounded up
5 out of 10.
If you want to know why, read on.
Let me preface everything I write (from here on) with this statement: I think a film should be good on its own without relying on the viewer's awareness of the source material or any other aspects of the franchise. The only thing we should normally assume the viewer have seen is the trailers and possibly the prequels. But The Avengers is a different sort of beast. So I am expanding my considerations by judging Avengers 2 based on how it holds up as the re-convergence of Iron Man's films, Thor's films, Captain America's films and Avengers 1. I will not consider anything related to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or the comic books though. Ok? Ok.
As a scientist who on occasion gives presentations and concept demonstrations to people outside of my field of research, one of the most important things I must manage is expectations. We cannot oversell our work to the point that misleads the target audience to think we've done more than we actually have.
I went into this Avengers 2 having watched all the teasers, trailers, TV spots, featurettes and sneak previews, so I almost had the full picture of what the story will be about. In that way I may have spoiled my own enjoyment, as I assumed they have yet to reveal the best bits of the film in those snippets. What really happened was that the best bits were in the preview, and the film itself peaked in those trailers moments, then filled up with standard action, excessive cameos and unnecessary name dropping that may mildly satisfy fans of the comics, but just annoy others wanting to see substantial development with the eponymous characters of the film.
Going into this film, the suspense was already somewhat diminished by the knowledge that these characters will definitely make it out alive (since they need to appear in future films). Compounding on this is the Whedon-esque humour in this film which is incompatible with the story. A story like Ultron demands a darker, more painful atmosphere that would have led to a more immersive experience; it would have benefitted from better soundtrack and pacing. The flashback scenes are uninteresting since it doesn't really give us more information about the characters than we already know. The whole two and a half hours feels more like a television episode than it did a feature length film.
The marketing sold this film as being bigger, more epic, more personal and more engaging than its predecessor, but what we got was an obligatory bridge between Phase Two and Phase Three that is more conventional, smaller and predictable in most way. When you want to convince the audience to watch another 10 films, you need a compelling transitioner.
I got annoyed that none of the original Avengers members were killed off in this film, which I think is required in any extended literature that is begging to be taken somewhat seriously. So lets cover what's wrong (or right) with them in pairs.
Iron Man and Captain America: Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, arguably the duality of what the team stands for, aren't developed at all. They had a stronger and more memorable conflict in the first film, and in this film it becomes murky what either party's vision about the role of the Avengers is. Even if they are saving the main conflict for the next film, this one ends with them parting on good terms. No. That is not what needs to happen if the next film is titled 'Civil War'. As standalone characters they are also not very interesting as they don't have enough time to work off each other like in the last. They are confused and scared more than they are compelling.
Natasha and Bruce: The only good character developments in this film were between Natasha Romanoff as Black Widow and Bruce Banner as Hulk. If Iron Man and Captain America represented the head of the team, then Black Widow and Hulk represented its heart. Both these characters have had it really tough in their respective story arcs, and been denied any options for a normal life, so I can totally see them become each other's soulmate. I was genuinely rooting for them to leave the Avengers together, and their spots on the team can be more cleanly replaced at the end of this Phase. Unfortunately, this was not what happened.
No, instead we get Hulk deciding he was a danger to Natasha and flees to the middle of nowhere again. I really don't enjoy this development because it was established from the start of the film that he can be successfully tamed by Natasha's 'lullaby'. He did nothing in the film to change that trust, since the only time he went out of control was because Natasha was indisposed. If they had a happier ending together, I would've probably given an extra point to the film. At the very least, they were developed enough for me to care about their relationship, so that's something.
Thor and Hawkeye: both these character annoyed me a fair bit in this film. Thor was annoying because he did nothing to show he was more 'worthy' than the rest to wield the hammer. In fact, that moment when Captain America nearly manages to lift it, the moment where his smile drops, shows exactly why he doesn't have all the qualities to make him better his Earth-based comrades. He lacks real humility, empathy, diplomacy or accountability; traits arguably core to one's worth. He doesn't communicate well with his team, and independently does an investigation that ends with him making a decision to create Vision without consulting his teammates. If you were an employer and one of your employees behaved like Thor in this film, I think you wouldn't want him in charge of anything.
Hawkeye was given too much attention but nothing substantial is actually done with his character. We get a big reveal that he is actually a family man, and has a nice home that is off the books and off the radar, so he is in the best position of anyone in The Avengers to have a happy retirement. You would think that with such a setup, the ultimate drama would be to have him die during the climax. Indeed the film does build up most of the time as if he might actually be the Coulson of this film. Instead, we get one of the newer characters die in his place, you know, the one we barely know anything about yet because he's NEW. So in an anti-climax he was able to join his family back home and happily ever after? I don't buy it.
Hawkeye would have been the best member of the Avengers to sacrifice to prepare the stage for the future conflicts in the franchise. I know it's weird me demanding his death (in the movie, not in real life), especially after stating my desire for Black Widow and Hulk to have a happy ending, but that is the idea of their universe. Not all characters are created equal, and some are better sacrifices by design to spur maturity for the rest. Actually, if Black Widow died as well, that would work too, but hey at least ONE of them should have died; it would have made this film a thousand times more impactful.
Ultron and Vision: I don't really 'get' either of these characters. They aren't given enough screen time or proper dialog to fully understand and appreciate what they represented, which I guess is what a real superhuman intelligence would be like. Their growth is so fast and thinking so complex that they can't and wouldn't bother explaining themselves to a human audience. James Spader lends his voice to a genuinely menacing and also troubled villain, but like most other Hollywood films featuring Artificial Intelligence, most of Ultron's decisions are quite illogical and ineffective. That last dialog he has with Vision before he is destroyed I guess was meant to sum up the duality of their views on humanity, but it's so undefined and vague they might as well have just said "humans are weird".
There are far, far too many characters in this film, even more than in typical Roland Emmerich disaster film. The level of clutter is really as bad as it looks in some of the promotional posters. I spent almost 800 words above to complain about just the main characters, and honestly I could've talked about them even more. But there's still other established characters making an appearance, such as Nick Fury who makes an unexplained return and somehow manages to conjure up a freaking Helicarrier with no details on where it came from. Then there's Maria Hill who has been reduced to effectively the role of a secretary. There's also a large number of secondary/support characters from each film stream making two appearances each, and they do nothing except say one line with their Avenger counterpart, disappear, then come back at the end to do a tiny bit of action and say another funny line. Each of them take up 20-30 seconds in several scenes, and when you have about a dozen of them (plus Stan Lee), that adds up to nearly 15 minutes devoted to characters and character interactions not crucial to a story that is already character thick and action sequence-filled!!!!
Wait, I need a breath. *puff*
By the way, I haven't even mentioned the characters and villains that were INTRODUCED in this film yet. So let's quickly do that in their descending order of importance:
Finally, we have covered all the characters. I need a full minute.
*a minute passes*
Okay. Lets continue.
This film has a lot of action, but it is considerably less creative and engaging to the sequences in the previous film. In fact I would dare say they are starting to feel untenable because we can no longer appreciate how difficult some of the actions are for the characters. Avengers 2 no longer tries to be realistic or consistent with the portrayal of each character's physical and logical limits based on prior films. However those are not the real sins. Instead I'll give just three strikes for other self-contained plot holes.
The first strike is related to Ultron's intelligence and influence. When Ultron takes over Stark's systems and supposedly escapes via the Internet in a matter of minutes, how does Stark still have control of his suit, a communication channel to Maria Hill's tablet, and the Veronica system (the Hulkbuster)? All of these systems are connected to JARVIS and Stark's mainframes in some way and they should have all been compromised within that initial digital rampage. This confuses how powerful or capable Ultron actually is as an Artificial Intelligence. The same could be said about Vision when he emerges.
You could argue that Stark has separate closed circuits as failsafes, but why doesn't Ultron just cause more havoc by ruining the Internet while he's there? Why did he choose to only compromise the iron man suits? Why not tie his fate to the fate of the thing that everyone depends on in our modern society? Hell, he could have run smear campaigns on the Avengers by fabricating footages of them killing civilians and upload those to YouTube! Or just bankrupt everyone by emptying their bank accounts. Based on how fast he learned about humanity and computer hacking, he could have also completed Helen Cho's research without needing to mind-control her.
The second strike is related Hawkeye (this one is a minor one). He never runs out of arrows, and he is rarely seen having time to retrieve the ones he use. I counted at most 30 arrows in his quiver, but during the climax he fires way more than that. Maybe there's like a super advanced 3D printer inside the quiver that just keeps printing him new arrows on the fly using materials he pick up from the ground.
The third strike, which I think is most problematic, is the fight between Iron Man and Hulk who was under the influence. The premise of the Veronica system which is deployed from space is a failsafe system to specifically contain Hulk, however once it is used all the flaws with it is immediately revealed. The initial containment device is stupid, as immediately shown when Hulk just digs his way out under the cage in under 30 seconds. Then Iron Man decides to try subduing Hulk by pushing him through an under-construction tower that ends up flooring the structure completely. That sequence starts off by having Stark's display checking for signs of life in the building before using it on Hulk, as if he wanted to minimise casualty. But the collapse of the building would have surely killed the people below 9/11 style? So no, you cannot pretend no civilians got killed during that fight.
Man this blog post is getting too long. I need to move on to my main complaint.
As I alluded earlier with my rambling about characters, the story is very frustrating because you know they are trying to bridge the past stories with the future ones while still having a self-contained incident. One of the smaller but still significant continuation-related plot holes is related to the sceptre that contained the Infinity Stone. How did the sceptre ever get into Hydra's hands? If I recall correctly, Loki was the last person to hold onto the sceptre, and it was left on Stark's Tower when he got defeated. So shouldn't Thor have brought it back with him at the same time as Loki, or at least have been in the permanent custody of The Avengers? Was Hydra quietly looting Stark's building during the Chitari invasion?
Even if I let that slide, there's also Nick Fury's helicarrier in the climax. This film is full of Deus Ex Machina moments where a necessary miracle just writes itself into the movie, and there is literally no good explanation for how they came about. When did Nick Fury re-establish SHIELD? When did he contact Maria Hill? How did he get his hands on a functional helicarrier after the events of Captain America 2? He just pops up out of nowhere to successfully rescue the residents of the floating city because, you know, we don't want The Avengers to have to make genuinely hard decisions!
And even if I let THAT slide, there's still the 'intelligence' aspect of our main antagonist. The concept of Ultron is similar to Skynet, and based on his learning capabilities he should have already won the instant he overtook JARVIS and escaped to the Internet. It would be impossible to fully erase him unless all infected devices were wiped, which would include resetting the world's financial systems, since he can evidently manipulate and transfer billions of dollars into Klaw's account before disarming him in a fit. In fact, why not just have this film end with the Avengers sort of losing? I think the fact that both Avengers and SHIELD resetting and moving forward so easily at the end takes away any message or meaning to the 'struggles' in the story, or the true menace of a threat like Ultron.
These aren't nitpicks. They are major plot developments that bugs the hell out of me, especially given the quality of the stories in the previous films! Avengers 2 a big step backward for the franchise, a blemish in an otherwise flawlessly executed Phase Two (so far). If other aspects of the film such as character or action was stronger then I probably would've overlooked laziness in the story front, but sadly this just hammers in the disappointment. It is most painful because it isn't thoroughly or deliberately bad, but simply the result of the need to please too many stakeholders within 140 minutes. Sadly I don't know how they could have fixed it, and being only a half-hearted movie reviewer with a subscription in the hundreds, they probably wouldn't care about my suggestions anyway.
I can rant for a lot longer, but I don't think I'm coherent enough to keep going due to the large number of things I was frustrated about. You probably get that this film didn't suspend my disbelief and was basically a disappointing follow up to the last Avengers film, so lets just wrap up with one last thought.
As much as it is out of my control, I don't want Avengers 2 to be a box office record smashing success. I think this is the first real flop within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even worse than Iron Man 2, because they have taken the idea of a shared universe and shared continuity too far. If this film passes the one billion mark, the studio will take it as an indicator to continue with their current filmmaking strategy. They will squeeze even more characters into each film, leave even more plot elements unresolved, have even more cross-referencing and cameos, and more bloated and extended CG action sequences that have doesn't raise the stake in the narrative as the characters must be kept alive.
I fear that Marvel has peaked with their efforts in film, but I have been wrong before. Perhaps they never really cared about the general audience. Maybe they really were just trying to appeal to comic book fans and kids. I will probably still watch Ant Man (the final Phase Two film), but if I am to be won over and continue subscribing to Marvel's Phase Three films, I want to see them begin taking some risks with their stories. Don't milk your characters indefinitely; provide some closures before opening up even more doors with new ones. It's only a matter of time before the people get tired of the same shtick. So if you haven't watched this film yet, don't, so that the studio will stop making 'Age of Ultron'-style profitable mediocrity.