Why did the second Avengers movie turn into the ugly stepchild of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? I'm struggling to figure this out. It doesn't have the "oh my god, they're actually doing it" factor of the first Avengers, and it certainly doesn't have the epic scope and tragedy of Avengers: Infinity War (no other comic book movie does, honestly). Still, as massive-superhero-team-ups go, Avengers: Age of Ultron (written and directed by Joss Whedon) continues to unfairly get the short end of the scepter.
I don't think that the movie's middling reputation is earned, not in the slightest... no, Thor's "cave of studio notes" is not enough to sink an entire film. Before Infinity War, if I wanted a giant, shield-throwing, hammer-lifting fun fest, this would be the MCU movie that I'd throw on. It's not the best of the MCU, but it is very, very far from the bottom. Granted, there isn't really an MCU movie that I don't enjoy, but still.
This is a vastly underrated film, and I feel that it is my solemn duty as an unofficial Avenger to go through some of the reasons why. Avengers, assemble… and by all means, watch your language!
THE OPENING BATTLE
We don't waste any time getting right into the action! The Avengers are already assembled and storming a HYDRA base. The ways that they work together are even more finely tuned than they were in the previous film, and the ongoing runner about Steve Rogers telling the others to watch their language begins. Bonus: Tony tells a room full of downed HYDRA guards that it was "a good talk" and one of the guards mutters, "No it wasn't."
PARTY IN AVENGERS TOWER
Time for some relaxation, Avengers style. This extended scene is a great look seeing how our heroes interact on a social level, and the contest of different people trying to lift Thor's hammer puts it over the top. Tony's attempt is hilarious, especially when Rhodey joins him and Tony asks if he's on his team… but it is Steve managing to budge the great Mjolnir a tiny bit (and Thor's reaction to it) that is most memorable. This scene sets up one of the movie's best payoffs, which we'll get to in a bit.
SPADER IS ULTRON, ULTRON IS SPADER
Ultron proves to be a formidable villain — he's not Thanos, or Wilson Fisk (sniff), and he's definitely not Justin Hammer... but he's menacing, intelligent, and entertaining as hell. Maybe I'm just a sucker for anything that features James Spader talking, but the enigmatic Spader brings his signature weirdness to the role, and as a result we get a villain that could monologue all day long without ever being boring. His vision of the future isn't entirely wrong, either, which is something that most great villains have in common.
A VISION COME TO LIFE
The MCU's take on the legendary Vision is born in this movie, and he steals the show from the moment he wakes up. Paul Bettany is superb in his performance — he's serious and then hilarious at the drop of a dime. The effects that bring Vision to life match Bettany's work perfectly, and the result is one of the best MCU characters ever to come down the rainbow bridge.
Not only is he a great character, he's a powerful one, as his abilities during the final battle are insane, and this is after he grows a cape out of his back just because Thor was wearing one. The aforementioned Mjolnir payoff directly involves him — everybody is doubting whether they can trust this being until he effortlessly picks up Thor's hammer and hands it to him. Thor trusts him immediately after this, and we do too. This pays off further on in the film when Vision uses Mjolnir against Ultron — he and Thor discussing the balance of the hammer and how to swing it correctly is just so much icing.
HAWKEYE GETS SOMETHING TO DO
The first Avengers film didn't do much with Clint "Hawkeye" Barton, as Jeremy Renner spent most of the film brainwashed by Loki. To compensate, Joss Whedon gives him some wonderful standout moments here, as well as a secret family and farm. What a deal! A lot of Clint's great scenes involve the Maximoff twins, who are also new to this movie — Clint almost (almost) shooting Quicksilver with an arrow ("no one would know…") during the climax is hilarious, but it is his pep talk with Wanda (Scarlet Witch) that hits the hardest.
He full-on addresses the idiocy of their situation: There are robots, they're on a flying city, he's got a bow and arrow, none of it makes sense. He tells the frightened Wanda (who has turned against Ultron, thankfully) that he can bring her to safety, and there's nothing wrong with that. If she decides to fight, however... if she steps out that door, then she is an Avenger.
It might be my favorite scene in the movie, and it's a speech from Hawkeye. I did not see that coming. Needless to say, Wanda chooses to step out that door. With a blast of red magic she enters the fray, and from that point on this former mind-warping villain is one of the strongest Avengers (if not the strongest) and quite literally lights up the screen in every battle she joins. Her accent eventually vanishes too, which is nice.
THE ULTIMATE ULTRON BATTLE
The entire Sokovia-set finale of this movie is loaded with crazy comic book action, but the scene where the entire team goes up against a legion of Ultrons (the team now including the Maximoffs and Vision) includes a new take on the "epic superhero team-up shot" the likes of which we'd never seen before. Even Infinity War doesn't have such a shot — the camera brings us full circle around the main hub, and during one take you see every single Avenger doing their thing in perfect harmony. It's a comic panel come to life, and the score thunders along as it flows. It is perfect, and it climaxes with Tony, Vision, and Thor all triple-teaming Ultron Prime before Hulk smashes him off a ledge. Come on.
The final scene in the woods between Ultron and Vision is surreal and heartbreaking. The two artificial lifeforms discuss humanity, and how they are almost certainly doomed. Ultron calls Vision unbearably naive for thinking that there's hope… to which Vision replies that it's possible, because he was "just born yesterday." After the intense superhero madness of the action finale, this intimate scene is most welcome. I still hold out hope that Ultron is not a "one and done" villain, that surely some bit of him survived somehow — he didn't get the promised "age" of himself that the title suggests, more like a week at most — but if this does prove to be the end of the line for this Marvel legend, then it's a great scene to go out on.
There we have it: the title of the 4th Avengers movie. The "endgame" that Tony Stark is so worried about? Yeah, that came and snapped half of the universe away. He was right to be worried, and now everybody who's left has to deal with the aftermath. The MCU began with Tony, and it is highly likely that the journey begun in Iron Man will see some kind of conclusion with the appropriately titled Avengers: Endgame.
His "endgame" line here, and the entire reason he builds Ultron in the first place, is because he is concerned about what's coming. This is one moment that plays even better now that we've seen what came next — when I saw it the first time, I thought he was overreacting. Now? At least he's being proactive. He goes about it in mad scientist fashion (side note: his "let's be mad scientists" scene with Banner is another highlight), but he's not wrong. The huge doughnut spaceships are on their way.
Like it or not, this movie blasted itself right to the heart of the MCU, and the reverberations are still being felt. Veronica, aka the Hulkbuster, debuts here (in another great scene), and it proves useful in Infinity War. Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) makes his entrance (and loses his arm), and Wakanda gets its first name drop. One of the funniest parts of Thor: Ragnarok was the ongoing riff on Hulk's lullaby, which makes it more enjoyable here. Vision and Wanda Maximoff become major players, and this is where their romantic subplot begins. The actions in Sokovia lead to the Sokovia Accords, and Tony and Steve's bickering in this film only gets worse. Also, Romanoff and Banner are due for a really awkward conversation and perhaps a less awkward makeout session.
If it's been a while since you've given this MCU adventure a spin, I highly suggest you revisit it… especially since we now know what happens after it. Ultron is part of a sprawling cinematic puzzle, and it's a vital one. With that, allow me to close with this—sun's getting real low.