Ever since the first film ended, this has been one of the films I've been looking forward to seeing the most. The prospect of seeing all these characters interact with each other again and how the whole MCU will continue was incredibly exciting, even more so since the release of Guardians of the Galaxy which started the path to Infinity War and Thanos as the main villain. Each new trailer that was released only stoked my excitement and yesterday, I went to an Avengers marathon of Avengers Assemble, Captain America: The Winter Solider and this. The big question out of the way first: is this better than Avengers Assemble? I would say so.
The plot revolves around Tony Stark who, after finding Loki's staff following a raid on Baron Strucker (the villain seen in the mid-credits scene of Winter Soldier), discovers something within it that would allow him to create his ultimate peacekeeping ideal, Ultron, a programme designed to protect the world when the Avengers cannot. However, when Ultron awakens he begins to see humanity as its own greatest threat and resolves to bring about peace through killing the human population, recruiting the Maximoff twins (again seen in the Winter Soldier mid-credits scene) to help him. Right from the get-go this is a classic creation gone wrong story in the vain of Frankenstein, when something designed to advance knowledge and do good ends up turning on its creator. It's also not hard to see why Stark would come to the conclusion that Ultron is a good idea, after his experience with the portal in the first film, he would want to prevent that from ever happening again. The whole film is really more of a continuation of Iron Man 3 in this regard, focusing on Stark needing to remove his ego from everything and still plagued with the fear over what happened. This fear is stoked by the Maximoff's, mainly Wanda, and this allows for the other characters to get a lot of great moments, seeing the worst possible outcome for them and seeing what drove them to who they are. This makes this film a fair bit darker than its predecessor, particularly around the second act.
That's not to say the film is completely dark though, Whedon's signature writing style comes through loud and clear once again, with there being tons of laugh out loud moments throughout the film, in particular a party scene at the start of the film, and it's the dialogue and the characters that are the star here. Whilst the first film was more focused on what it would be like if these characters interacted with each other, this film looks at how they work with each other. How all of the members play off each other and work together and this is best exemplified in the Banner-Black Widow relationship. By the end of the first film, we know that Banner could control the Hulk and use it to help the team, but we also know that there is difficulty in calming him down afterwards and Black Widow helps with this role. After finding out about how Romanoff became Black Widow, it's clear that she is a kindred spirit with Banner and this is probably the most believable relationship in the whole series, made even better due to the excellent chemistry that Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson share with each other. Ruffalo in particular really sells his fear over losing control and hurting Romanoff and this is what drives his character throughout the film.
The main emotional core though comes, suprisingly, from Hawkeye. We find out a lot more about his past and his life prior to SHIELD in this film, making up for how little character development he got in the previous films. This core comes through especially well in his relation with the Maximoff's, particularly Wanda, due to his experience being controlled by Loki in the first film, making him the best person to help turn the Maximoff's and Jeremy Renner is really allowed to shine here, with his whole demeanor helping him with the emotional heft of the film. However, this does lead into a bit of a problem I have with the film. Whilst the performances from Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are great, adding a lot of personality to the characters and their backstory is a great dark parallel to Stark's, it's really only Wanda who contributes to the overall story of the film whilst Pietro is there pretty much for action scenes, and even then there aren't really strong shows of his powers (although I could be judging it a bit too harshly considering how well Quicksilver's action scenes were done in X-Men: Days of Future Past).
Thor and Captain America are a bit more on the sidelines in this film. They help set the major parts of the film in motion, but once the film gets going they do fade into the background a bit, especially Thor who does leave the team for a bit in the second act to figure out what Wanda Maximoff showed him, although there is something lost with the character without Tom Hiddleston as Loki. Personally, I don't really have a problem with this as we've already had 3 prior films with these characters and it is nice to allow other characters a chance in the spotlight on a character development level. Iron Man meanwhile continues to get a lot of character development which, as stated before, builds off of the development in Avengers Assemble and Iron Man 3 really naturally and the main story of the film is helping to show Stark hubris for his actions with Ultron and that he cannot forcefully create peace as it would always backfire.
This leads into Ultron. In the first film, whilst the character was incredibly well written and acted, I never really found Loki to be much of a threat, he could get inside their heads but physically he could be defeated quite easily. It's in this aspect that I think Ultron is a superior villain. Not only is he played perfectly by James Spader, showing how much of a god complex the character has, along with a streak of narcissism clearly inherited from Stark (with a lot of his dialogue moments feeling a lot like a robotic version of Raymond Reddington from The Blacklist), he is an intense physical presence. It's hard to destroy him, if one body is destroyed he'll just upload himself into another, with this helping into the overall message of the inherent initial harm in evolution (due to him violently destroying each previous body when he builds a more advanced one) and in the final action scene, the sheer strength in numbers, all of them with this personality, along with his overall plan, gives the ending a bigger sense of scale than in the first film.
The future of the MCU is also really well shown through some of the other characters in the film. It's great to see more of Don Cheadle and Anthony Mackie, the scenes with Nick Fury and Stellan Skarsgard help to show the future of the team and the MCU effectively and the scenes with Andy Serkis (who is a lot of fun in his brief appearance) help set up Black Panther effectively, but it's in The Vision where the true intent of Phase 3 is shown. He is the most bizarre character introduced in the MCU (even including the ones in Guardians of the Galaxy). The circumstances behind his creation are probably the most overt parallel to Frankenstein in the film, his whole power-set is never fully explained but doesn't really need to be and the whole look of the character shows how much the comic book aesthetic is going to be appreciated in Phase 3. A lot of credit has to go to Paul Bettany for making the character work, the overall detachment from humanity being perfectly counterpointed by Bettany's soulful eyes, which helps make the character so compelling and I'm excited to see how he'll play into Phase 3.
On a technical standpoint, Whedon has improved a lot as an action director since the first film. He was always good at directing the characters and the dialogue scenes but it was also clear he wasn't experienced directing large scale action. Here though, Whedon (along with DP Ben Davis) allow each action scene a lot of breathing room and use these scenes to help advance the characters. The standout in my eyes though is the Hulkbuster fight, there's a clear sense of geography throughout the scene and it builds up on a lot of character moments previously set up, especially the idea of Banner losing control (since the Hulkbuster was designed by Banner along with Stark). All the other action scenes have great moments as well, and I loved the long take used at the start of the film. The overall design of everything is excellent as well, from the threatening, imposing nature of Ultron, to the overall aesthetic of Avengers Tower and Ultron's lair. Each area has it's own unique identity, be it from the design or from the colour scheme and how it's shot, this is much more of a visual treat than the first film. If there is a problem I have with the technicals, and this is really more of a nitpick, it's that the music doesn't really have a strong theme for the team, I like the one they have but they could have done better to fit each character into it. That's not to say the music isn't bad, it's just that it lacks any real presence.
Overall, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a very worthy follow up to the first film with a great focus on character. Whilst it hasn't overtaken Guardians of the Galaxy as my favourite MCU film it is a close second. Whedon's strength with dialogue and character is really allowed to shine, matched by a top notch cast at the top of their game, and it's clear that Whedon's skill as a director has improved between films. This is already an excellent sign for how Phase 3 of the MCU is going to go and I cannot wait for that to happen.
My Rating: 5/5