Warning: This review contains minor spoilers.
Here it is. Blockbuster season is upon us. And the film starting things off is none other than the highly anticipated and sure to be one of the most successful films of the year: Avengers: Age of Ultron. The Avengers (2012) managed to assemble all the characters coming from solo movies in a compelling way, without facing any pacing problems. It struck an extremely good balance between epic action scenes, funny banter, and characterization. I don't know about everyone else, but when I left the theatre in April of 2012, I felt euphoric, overjoyed by what I had just witnessed. Did I leave the cinema with the same sentiment this time? Not exactly, but maybe that's the point. Read our review below.
This new movie shows that some cracks are starting to form within the A-Team. Sure, the film opens on an epic action scene very reminiscent of the New York battle: Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye are working together to defeat the forces of evil, as they should. But everything changes when Tony Stark and Bruce Banner accidentally create a destructive Artificial Intelligence: Ultron. From that moment on, the team is not what it used to be, as Ultron and two enhanced twins called Wanda (Scarlet Witch) and Pietro Maximoff (Quicksilver) are proving to be a real challenge for the Avengers.
As you'd expect, all the characters get their moments to shine, but some are given more back story than others (and not the obvious ones). Jeremy Renner's Clint Barton, for example, is a real surprise in the movie. He is much more than an after-thought this time, and is one of the emotional centres of Age of Ultron. Also intriguing is the romance between Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner. The other main characters are pretty much up to their usual tricks.
About the new guys, now; Ultron is a pretty menacing villain. There's something about James Spader's voice that is immensely chilling, and you feel both the physical and psychological danger in the Artificial Intelligence. Wanda and Pietro Maximoff are good enough, but aren't given enough material to be particularly three-dimensional characters. And The Vision is, simply put, awesome. Saying more would just ruin it.
For all its funniness (because Age of Ultron can be very funny -- hilarious at times, even), the film is also very tense and a shade darker than Marvel Cinematic Universe productions usually are. This is serious business here, and the stakes are extremely high for planet Earth. There's a sense of impending doom throughout the whole movie. Even the colour scheme isn't as bright as it used to be. Is this a problem for Age of Ultron? I don't think so. It's just a different tone. Writer/Director Joss Whedon wants to take us somewhere else - more specifically on the Liberty Vs. Security debate - and, for the most part, it works.
Now, I have a theory: in a way, Avengers: Age of Ultron is the structural opposite of The Avengers. If you put the two films back to back, you could argue that one is the mirror-image symmetry of the other; while The Avengers was all about assembling Earth's Mightiest Heroes, Age of Ultron shows us that they are dramatically different and don't pursue the same goals. The 2012 film ended in a colossal, gigantic battle? Well then, the 2015 flick kicks off with the Avengers being the Avengers, in an action scene that references the climax of its predecessor. I have other examples, but will stop there to keep this review relatively spoiler-free.
There's something uneasy about seeing these characters we consider good guys being at odds with each other, but that's probably the point Joss Whedon is trying to make, as the growing tension between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark will be the focal point of Captain America: Civil War, due to be released next year.
So the fact that I didn't leave the theatre in an euphoric state is normal. It makes sense: there's some unresolved plot lines. It's simply one part of a bigger story. A story that is going to culminate with Infinity War Part I (May 2018) and Part II (May 2019).
But this is an Avengers: Age of Ultron review, and something still feels off about this movie. The action, the humour, the direction are all great, but Age of Ultron fails somewhere The Avengers succeeded: this time, you feel the weight of the shared Marvel universe on Joss Whedon's shoulders. It's sometimes very obvious that certain plot points were required, and that the writer had to create a story around them. I won't spoil it for you, but among other things there's a character who is an evident tease for an upcoming movie. Sometimes, characters from previous Marvel instalments just appear out of nowhere, and if you've not seen The Winter Soldier, you'll wonder who the guy with the big mechanical wings is (also, you should probably watch The Winter Soldier. Come on, guys).
You can almost hear Kevin Feige (the President of Marvel Studios, who oversees the MCU) whispering nods and Easter eggs into Joss Whedon's ear. And that's a shame. Easter eggs and generosity are good, but are even better when it comes from the creative people who are actually making the film. Ultimately, just like Hulk does for Bruce Banner, the shared universe represents both a power and a burden for Marvel.
As a result, the film is messier than it should be. It loses itself in plot points that will be relevant years from now and take you out of the story; which means the pace is far from being perfect.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is still a glorious and spectacular film, though. It is almost everything you want, and more (probably too much for its own good, sadly). Some moments are extremely powerful, the action sequences look spectacular, the music is epic, you're invested in the characters, it's funny. What more do you want?