As the culmination of Phase 2 of The Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avengers: Age of Ultron sees Earth’s Mightiest Heroes teaming up to save the world once again. While The Avengers have been clearly on the job for awhile, here they are faced with the threat of Ultron – a rogue artificial intelligence created by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) hellbent on destroying humanity. Meanwhile, they face the continued threat of Hydra, division within the team, and the looming problem of The Infinity Stones.
It’s not just the plot points that have to be juggled in the film, it’s the many characters, each of whom have their own mini arcs and interactions with one another. AOU features the six returning members of The Avengers, the newcomer twins Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), The Vision (Paul Bettany), and multiple side characters. By just listing them all out, it’s clear that not everyone will get their due within the span of the film.
Thanks to their previous films, each character comes with a complete and robust personality for those who have kept up with the Cinematic Universe. However, there really is not much development for most of the characters. While a few people end in different places from where they started, most have not changed much. Most notably, Tony Stark, who is responsible for creating the AI who may destroy the world and does kill hundreds if not thousands of people, has no real character development beyond being less likable than before.
As the other two biggest characters with their own franchises, Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) have little to do besides destroy as many robots as possible. Fans of these two will enjoy seeing them stay true to the essence of their characters and take part in some thrilling action set pieces, but that is about it for these two. Additionally, Black Widow (Scarlet Johannsen) is given more backstory with part of her tragic past revealed and a potential relationship with Bruce Banner, aka The Hulk, (Mark Rufallo) fleshed out. Banner is constantly tormented by his Hulk persona and his romance with Widow highlights his struggles, but the constant back-and-forth between the two ventures into soap opera territory early on and stays there, killing any potential of depth to be explored.
Most interestingly, it’s Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) who benefits the most from AOU. After being turned into a mindless drone in the first film, Clint Barton is given tons of development that makes him just as compelling as any of his fellow team members. Not only that, but his storyline truly gives the film it’s emotional core, as well as some of it’s best scenes and lines. As new participants, The Maximoff Twins and Vision are all exciting and give new shades to the film as they step into the fray.
As a villain, Ultron is a mixed bag who neither ranks among the best or worst of the antagonists featured in Marvel Studios’ movies so far. James Spader leaves an indelible stamp on the character with his voice work, giving him real personality that prevents Ultron from feeling like another bland robot bad guy. However, his plan is far from unique, as it quickly turns into another world-ending threat like the first movie, but with robots instead of aliens. His creation is also extremely rushed, leading to little motivation beyond pure evil. He also barely interacts with Stark, his metaphorical father, keeping potentially thought-provoking themes from blossoming.
As a lynchpin in the grander Marvel Cinematic Universe, AOU can’t help but be a slave to a bigger master. Thor is shunted off into a brief sidestory to explain The Infinity Stones in a way that partially explains a piece of the film, but is mostly in service to the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War. Additionally, Marvel’s announcement of all of its upcoming films can’t help but suck the thrill from some of the Easter eggs, since it’s already clear where the Cinematic Universe is headed.
Of course, it’s the action scenes that consistently thrill the most and fulfill the promise made in the first Avengers film. AOU starts off with a bang as the team raids a Hydra base and shows off their skills. You want massive superhero action? It’s right there upfrnot. And there are plenty of vibrant fights throughout as The Avengers clash with the twins and Ultron.
The Hulk versus Hulkbuster fight in particular is one of the true highlights, being a thrilling fight that is funny, action-packed, and a comic book fan’s dream. It’s also not just fan service, as it plays a role in the larger arc. Beyond that, AOU ends with a massive battle that gives every character at least one great moment and features The Avengers in a huge slow motion single shot action piece akin to a living and breathing comic book splash page. It’s an emblematic moment that shows the strengths of Age of Ultron and why these movies have become such an event.
Will every movie featuring pre-established characters in the MCU from here on out be forced to be bigger and bigger? Films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy have shown the power of a more focused narrative. Maybe Avengers will be where fans get their biggest action scenes and the most set up for the huge narrative. It’s classic blockbuster fun, but it’s far from Marvel’s most compelling and dynamic work.