If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’m going to do a little reminiscing of my own. Something along the lines of the letter you penned to your younger self when you first saw 2012’s The Avengers.
I’m not sure what stage of superhero worship you would have found yourself in during the spring of 1984 – you’d have been what, 4 years old? – but it was probably deeper than mine. I was 11-years old, and more of a Transformers and G.I. JOE comic guy. Like The Avengers, they were published by Marvel, but even back then I knew the truth: they were monthly, 30-page advertisements for toys. Superheroes just weren’t my thing.
But that day in May when I wandered into Checkers Convenience and saw Secret Wars #1 on the spinner rack, even my Hasbro-addled brain knew it something special, something big.
That I wasn’t quite up-to-speed with the convoluted mythologies behind Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, Spider-Man, The X-Men didn’t matter—I wanted in. I ate up all 12 issues of the miniseries as fast as I could. And as a marketing vehicle, Secret Wars achieved its purpose: it drew me into the larger Marvel Universe: Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man and The Uncanny X-Men became regular reading for me.
For a time.
You see, the following year, Secret Wars II came out. And in the very first issue – which managed to cross-reference every single Marvel title being published at the time –I checked out. Making sense of it all was just too much damn work.
You must be worried about where I’m going with this. You probably think that I’m going to say that Avengers: Age of Ultron is the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Secret Wars II; it buckles under the burden of too much baggage from past filmsand too many future plot-threads to establish; that it too obviously exists only to propagate more Marvel films.
Those things did worry me going into the film. And I’ve levelled similar complaints against the the ever-expanding Marvel Universe before (no one wants to have to do homework just to watch a summer blockbuster).
But don’t worry. I come from the future to tell you to rest easy, slightly-younger Jared. For in the end, Avengers: Age of Ultron is … fine. Your endlessly optimistic twelve-year-old-self might find Age of Ultron a huge disappointment, but now that you’re old enough to know that all things are not, in fact, possible, and that recreating past triumphs is mostly a fool’s errand, and that very few things in life are as fun the second time round, then...you’ll probably like this movie.
Like, not love.
As much as I was looking forward to this second instalment – even with my misgivings, I was excited – I did feel a little bit of disappointment when Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, The Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye reassembled on screen. Not disappointment in what I saw onscreen, but disappointment in my visceral reaction to it. Everything is executed as well as it was the first time around, but this time around it all felt kind of...well, expected.
And, yes, you might argue that this is the curse of any sequel. About Jurassic Park: The Lost World, Roger Ebert asked: where is the awe, the sense of wonder? (Answer: in the first movie.) I get it. I myself am always quick to point out that you should never review any film – even a sequel – by comparing it to another. But expectations are fair game. Expectations that, in these past three years – as Marvel schools other studios and publishers on how to build the ultimate interlocking franchise – have grown impossibly big.
Avengers: Age of Ultron certainly wastes no time in trying to meet those expectations. It opens with an extended action sequence, the scale of which any regular-sized movie would save for its climax. It’s way too long, sure, but it does immediately give us what we came for: The Avengers at their ass-kicking best. It also serves to introduce a new super-powered duo: the twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (of the two, Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda makes much more of an impression, even if I still don’t understand exactly what her powers were supposed to be).
That Olsen stands out is no small feat. This playing field is crowded with big personalities. While Age of Ultron might not have the same reverence for the characters you found in the original, Joss Whedon is determined to use his second outing as writer and director to give each of them their due—almost to a fault (the one exception is Thor, who is reduced to a walking joke delivery system when he’s not smashing things with his hammer). One thing that can be said for Whedon: he loves his character-building, and things get pretty Whedon-y in Age of Ultron. For the most part, this is good: Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is an actual character this time around, and the action slows down enough to explore budding relationships and tensions within the group.
I’m not going to give you a point-by-point plot summary here. The amount of footnotes I’d need to explain everything would make this the Secret Wars II of reviews. So I’ll itemize what you, so recently in love with Whedon’s first installment, will want to know.
Yes: the show-stopping fight between The Hulk and Iron Man is just that.
No: as the movie’s big bad, James Spader’s Ultron is no match for Loki. Spader does admirable voice work, and Whedon makes him an interesting screen presence, but when you’re forwarding the story by cutting away from the goddamned Avengers, you better have something on-screen with hell of a lot of charisma. Charisma that the sleek, all-CGI Ultron just doesn’t have.
No: the plot is not particularly tight. Wanda Maximoff’s ill-defined powers left me confused about who was affected by what and for how long. And, not to pick on Thor again, but his particular arc seems to exist only to set up future installments.
No: the climactic action scene is not any more sensible this time around. Which is a shame, given that it’s the exact same urban destructathon.* Ultron’s army of indistinguishable robots is almost as indistinguishable as the armoured Chitari in The Avengers. When this much pyrotechnic skill is on display the last thing I need to be thinking is, “I don’t know where anyone is.”
And, finally, yes: Marvel has shoehorned as many extra characters into this film as it possibly could, all in the interest of franchise building. War Machine, The Falcon, and The Vision (a brand new character introduced in the film’s last act) add very little, story-wise, but provide a way forward for more adventures. It’s here that you will see where Whedon’s idiosyncrasies come up against the behemoth that is Marvel. The mechanics of world building push Whedon’s interests out of the picture, quite literally. The side effect of this tension is that Avengers: Age of Ultron feels more like a product than an entertainment.
But, hey, don’t let me ruin the 2012 afterglow. I still enjoyed the movie. Whedon’s dialogue and attention to (and love for) the characters goes a long way in overcoming the larger business interests of Marvel. And look on the bright side: when it came time for your childhood heroes to be turned into movies, the reigns were handed to Joss Whedon.
*I’ll take the liberty here to jump forward a year in time to tell your 32-year old self that you should be excited at the prospect of seeing a super hero movie where the heroes actually save people. In what might be considered a cinematic F-U to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, Whedon goes out of his way to show various Avengers take the time to bring ordinary folk to safety as the battle rages on.