Several years ago the first Avengers movie broke just about every box office record there is. It was the first movie that brought together the four main characters (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and Hulk) together on one screen and was the culmination of a whole lot of planning and storyline development across each character’s respective solo titles.
However, in the three years since The Avengers hit theaters, the interwoven storylines in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) have continued to develop. And while not all of the main characters interacted with each other in the latest standalone movies to the extent that they did in The Avengers, the novelty of them all working together and appearing together in these films has significantly worn off over time.
This was the major challenge that director Joss Whedon and company faced with Avengers: Age of Ultron. We’ve seen these heroes team up already. We know the relationship dynamics at play among all of the team members. So now, how do you keep moving the story along without giving the audience more of the same thematic elements and scenes that they’ve already watched?
The apparent answer: you don’t.
Don’t get me wrong, The Avengers: Age of Ultron is a fun movie experience, and if you have enjoyed any or all of the previous MCU films, chances are pretty good you’ll like this one a lot too.
But the movie’s biggest success is also its biggest failure. It brings together some dynamic characters, which makes for some funny one-liners, a few eye-popping action scenes and a pretty decent adrenaline rush. It’s the same formula that has made the MCU movies so successful over the past seven years.
In the end, however, you leave the theater with a strange feeling that you’ve already seen this movie several times before.
[Fair warning: minor spoilers may be included below, though I tried to stay somewhat general about important plot points.]
The beginning of Age of Ultron joins our heroes right in the thick of a battle against Hydra forces, who still have their hands on the scepter, a mystical weapon featured heavily in The Avengers when it was in the possession of Thor’s evil brother Loki. Upon capturing and examining the scepter, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) discovers that it could hold the pieces to help him and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) finally construct Ultron (voiced and modeled by James Spader), an artificial intelligence concept that the two heroes have apparently been discussing, which Stark hopes will act as a shield for the planet against the same forces that attacked in The Avengers.
But because the Avengers only have the scepter in their possession for a limited amount of time before Thor (Chris Hemsworth) takes it back to Asgard, Stark and Banner don’t have the time to do a whole lot of science-y stuff to make sure that what they’re creating is actually a viable defense system.
The two scientists also realize that the dubious ethical nature of their experiments would get them in a lot of hot water with the holier-than-thou Captain America, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans).
Therefore, the two decide to act on their own, bringing Ultron to life with Stark’s trusty computer/sidekick/butler J.A.R.V.I.S. (Paul Bettany) as something of a safeguard. But of course, their experiments go horribly wrong, as tends to happen in these sorts of scenarios. Ultron comes to life, but by infiltrating J.A.R.V.I.S.’s system, he realizes that despite Stark’s claims that he was created to help defend Earth, he is actually working for a famed weapons dealer and a group of heroes that have caused (in his view) a whole lot of mass destruction by teaming up together.
After attacking the Avengers at a party in his temporary robot form, Ultron escapes through the internet, severely damaging J.A.R.V.I.S. in the process, and begins to seek a permanent “body” to work with, as well as the help he needs to take down the Avengers.
His search leads him to discover the twins, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who had been captives and experiment subjects of Hydra and trained to hate the former overseers of the Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D., and who had apparently also fostered a deep hated for Tony Stark and his family since childhood, when Stark family weapons struck and demolished their hometown.
As it turns out, these twins have some pretty useful powers to a would-be supervillain robot-man. Quicksilver runs faster than a speeding bullet, and Scarlet Witch uses some sort of psychic mind-bending powers to lull her victims into a disturbing dream-like state that causes them to experience haunting visions. She also conjures some exploding red stuff, I guess.
Anyway, without getting too bogged down in the details, the twins ultimately see the light and join up with our heroes, and together they recover from getting knocked around a bit and team up to once again save the world, with the help of another new (yet familiar) hero friend.
There are a lot of comic moments along the way (some produce some genuine laughs, others simply don’t land at all) and you have to tip your hat to the movie’s special effects crew for what they’ve accomplished yet again in this film.
But we’ve already had the novelty of the Avengers teaming up. We’ve already seen them destroy a giant robot alien army with ease. We’ve already seen them halt a seemingly unstoppable attack from Ultron Loki. We’ve already seen them recover from psychic spooky visions Phil Coulson’s death only to emerge as a stronger team and save the world.
On a pretty general level, this film has the exact same structure and plot as the previous Avengers movie and, for that matter, many of the other MCU films.
This is where Age of Ultron falls flat. Without the novelty of the Avengers finally teaming up for the first time to carry the film, it’s up to Whedon to create new, memorable moments that actually make this latest installment a good movie in its own right rather than a rehash of what we’ve already seen.
It would have been nice, for example, to have seen more effort put into making Ultron seem like a legitimate threat. To be fair, Ultron was probably the most interesting villain the MCU has seen outside of Loki so far, but he never seems to be particularly dangerous to the Avengers. His robot army is basically as useless as the Trade Federation droid army in The Phantom Menace, and he himself doesn’t really come off as a physical threat. Hell, the only time the Avengers were on the outs, it was Scarlet Witch who did the damage, and she and her brother wound up being convinced to join the team fairly easily after that, despite that whole decade-and-a-half old grudge thing she had against Stark.
It also would have been nice to see tension created in a more unique way than just the general “saving the world” route the writers opted for in this movie. With Infinity War on its way in a few years and The Avengers in the not-so-distant past, there’s been plenty of talk about saving the world in these films already. Like, how many times do we need to destroy major cities like New York just to emphasize that these villains are some pretty bad guys?
Instead, Whedon opted for a horrendously forced love story out of nowhere between Banner and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and a cliché family backstory for Hawkeye as a way to try to inject some much-needed humanity into the movie.
Ultimately, here’s the verdict: Age of Ultron is a fun way to spend a couple hours, and fans of the franchise will enjoy the film. But one has to wonder how long Marvel can keep remaking the same movie before the general public begins to notice.
RATING (out of 100): 70, “Above Average”
Tim Backes is an editor and co-founder of NovaCritic.com.