Avengers: Age of Ultron Review: Can These Films Get any Bigger?

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The Marvel Cinematic Universe has churned out four films since the first Avengers three years ago, expanding the world these characters inhabit in a vast new ways. The culmination of that, though not the finale of what Marvel calls “Phase 2” (Ant-Man hits theaters in July), is Avengers: Age of Ultron.

By now, each of the main heroes has a bunch of supporting characters from their own films that can and do enter the fray. That’s what makes Age of Ultron feel truer to sitting and reading a slew of comics in one sitting. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has a brief subplot that involves his friend Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard). Falcon (Anthony Mackie) flies in for a party. War Machine (Don Cheadle) attends the same party, but gets some fighting in as well later on. All these minor characters (and they aren’t the only ones) appear fairly briefly, but they certainly help make this whole thing feel like one giant universe. It’s actually a little awkward when Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Thor banter about their girlfriends and neither of them shows up, since it seems like Marvel called just about everyone else’s agents for what are little more than cameos.

The point is, Marvel has gotten so big, and made so much money, that they can literally do whatever they want. They’re not trying to win an audience anymore. It’s likely that more than half the people sitting in the audience for what will surely be a massive opening weekend don’t need these supporting faces explained to them. Marvel has won, and therefore they’ve taken over our summers.

Every film they make doesn’t have to be as good as The Avengers or last year’s surprise Captain America: The Winter Soldier because fans will still go. Age of Ultron isn’t as good as those films, but it is good enough.

In the sequel, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes reunite to take on Ultron (James Spader), a menacing artificial intelligence hellbent on eradicating humanity to save the planet. Spader infuses a lot of sarcasm to Ultron’s metallic persona, which varies between hilarity, menace, and silliness. Loki managed to keep his integrity intact by avoiding that last one.

But while fighting this new foe, the Avengers go through a number of personal struggles. Tony worries about his legacy, Thor gets disturbing visions of the future, and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) reveals a humanizing family life. Some of these work better than others, but most frustrating is the forced romance between Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson). A year ago, I was praising Captain America: The Winter Soldier for bringing a strong female superhero into the fold without forcing her to fall in love. Age of Ultron undoes that by having Johannson do little more than stare longingly at Ruffalo in hope of their better future.

Luckily, the film introduces Scarlet Witch (Elisabeth Olsen) as a powerful new force that anyone on the side of good or evil wouldn’t want to mess with. She is by far the best new character added to the MCU this time around. Her brother Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), however, doesn’t quite fair as well, paling in comparison to what X-Men: Days of Future Past did with the same character last summer (complicated contract stuff allowed that to happen).

It’s actually pretty amazing that with so much going on, Joss Whedon manages to keep the movie pretty coherent. It doesn’t all mesh together, but how could it? Whedon wasn’t just tasked with telling Ultron’s story, but also setting up the next slew of films. It may be true that if Marvel wasn’t so determined to plant seeds for its next nine films in this one, Age of Ultron would probably flow a lot better. But good enough is still pretty damn good. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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