Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

"You want to protect the world, but you don't want it to change. There's only one path to peace: the Avengers' extinction." - Ultron (James Spader)

As someone who didn’t watch 2015‘s Avengers: Age of Ultron in “real time” (i.e., when it came out), I have always perceived its legacy to be the forgotten Avengers film — at least to the extent that movies that gross $1.4 billion worldwide can actually be forgotten. I saw it for the first — and prior to this rewatch, only — time about a year ago when I watched the first three Avengers movies in sequence prior to watching Avengers: Endgame (2019) in theaters. I remember liking it a little more than the first one, feeling there was more meat to the story this time around. However, it also seemed like something of a dead end, since Joss Whedon, the director of both The Avengers (2012) and Avengers: Age of Ultron, never returned to direct another Marvel Cinematic Universe film. Also, since Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame were filmed back to back and were both such a big deal, Age of Ultron does tend to come across as a hugely expensive holding pattern in the grand scheme of things at first glance.

But is that really a fair characterization of this movie? Watching it again in the context of the entire MCU (and the Infinity Saga more specifically), I would actually argue that it isn’t. In Infinity War we will see all of the threads of the MCU converge as Thanos (Josh Brolin) seeks out each of the six Infinity Stones. The Infinity Stones, of course, are explained in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), which also happens to be the movie that directly precedes Age of Ultron in the MCU. Whereas that film was about the purple Power Stone, Age of Ultron is about the yellow Mind Stone. Considering that when I watched Age of Ultron the first time I had not seen Guardians of the Galaxy or Infinity War, the significance of the Mind Stone and the creation of Vision (Paul Bettany) was pretty much lost on me. Granted, at the time of Age of Ultron‘s release, Infinity War was still three years away, so it was hard for anyone at the time to discern the true importance of the Mind Stone, but that’s not really the point.

the mind stone on vision's forehead

The point is Age of Ultron does move the story of the MCU forward more than it perhaps initially appears. And the division in the team that causes them to split in Captain America: Civil War (2016) really takes root here in Age of Ultron and isn’t quite as out of left field as I remember it being in that film. Though the Avengers films essentially dispense with the traditional screenwriting idea of a central character, the Infinity Saga more or less is through the point of view of two protagonists, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). This is evidenced by the fact that each character receives three solo installments, more than any of the other characters, though Civil War isn’t really a Captain America movie in the conventional sense and nearly qualifies as an Avengers film due to its huge cast of basically everyone in the MCU except for Thor and the Hulk.

But these two characters are fundamentally different in other ways, as well, and while the first Avengers film frequently drew our attention to surface-level personality quirks and time-period references, some deeper differences emerge between them in Age of Ultron. On the Myers Briggs, the two are actually opposites: the consensus seems to be (by quite a wide margin) that Tony Stark is an ENTP and that Steve Rogers is an ISFJ. So not only do the two characters have different worldviews based on the respective generations they belong to, but they are also fundamentally opposite people at their cores. Though he’s of course a fictional character, Stark actually is a pretty typical ENTP — if you look at a list of real life ENTPs, you’ll see that most are inventors, comedians and philosophers. Similarly, Rogers is fictional — meaning he is permitted greater latitude to act in a way inconsistent with his type than someone does in real life — but likewise also is a pretty typical ISFJ. Real ones tend to be sensible, protective and practical.

avengers attack the hydra base

Age of Ultron has so many characters in it and is so heavy on prolonged action set pieces that this divide between Stark and Rogers only bubbles to the surface to become a point of real tension occasionally, but make no mistake, it’s certainly there and does have a role to play in the movie’s primary narrative. The film opens with one of its aforementioned prolonged action set pieces: an assault by the Avengers on a Hydra fortress in the fictional and apparently Slavic eastern European country of Sokovia in an attempt to recapture Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) scepter. How does Loki’s scepter get there? This is never quite explicitly spelled out and confirmed, but the implication seems to be that when Hydra takes over S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Loki’s scepter is whisked away to this fortress in Sokovia run by Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann). In The Winter Soldier‘s mid-credits scene, we are taken here and shown the scepter, though I must admit that until now I didn’t make the connection that it was Loki’s.

Perhaps that’s because I was so distracted by the appearance of two new characters that are test subjects (i.e., prisoners) in Strucker’s lab: Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), otherwise known as Quicksilver due to his superhuman speed, and his twin sister Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), better known as the Scarlet Witch due to her powers of hypnosis and telekinesis. Like every mid-credits scene, it’s just a tease, but it more or less sets up the entire plot of Age of Ultron. The early shot that introduces the Avengers here, by the way, shows the influence of director Alfonso Cuarón extending to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well. In 2006’s Children of Men, Cuarón boldly used visual effects to seamlessly blend multiples shots together and present them as if they were all one take. It was strikingly visionary, and in his next film — 2013‘s decidedly more commercial Gravity — he opened the film with an extended take that was an actual “oner” and lasted a staggering 17 minutes.

stark and banner debate whether to create ultron

Oners are nothing new — the most famous one is probably the shot that opens Orson Welles’s legendary 1958 film noir Touch of Evil — and neither is the concept of hiding cuts to present a film as one take — Alfred Hitchcock notably did this in his 1948 film Rope, which takes place entirely inside an apartment — but using visual effects the way Cuarón did in Children of Men took extraordinary vision. In the years since, many have borrowed this technique, starting with the Dunkirk evacuation scene in Atonement (2007). It has even popped up on the small screen too, like in the first season of HBO’s True Detective in 2014 and the first season of HBO’s Euphoria in 2019. (The way they do it, incidentally, is to cut when the character the camera is tracking leaves the frame for a second or two.) Keep this in mind the next time you watch the opening scene of Age of Ultron, which uses this same technique for a full minute as a way of plunging us back into this world and re-introducing the original six heroes from The Avengers in the thick of battle.

When the Avengers storm the fortress in Sokovia, they push Strucker aside easily enough, but it’s of course the “enhanced” Maximoff twins that throw our heroes — specifically Stark — a curve ball. The Scarlet Witch uses her telepathic/hypnotic powers to cause Stark to hallucinate what it would look like if the Avengers failed. To her brother’s surprise, Wanda lets Stark grab Loki’s scepter and leave. Of course, since she is a mind reader, she knows what Stark will do with it. Upon returning to home base in New York, Stark has a look at the artificial intelligence in the scepter’s blue gem (in reality, the yellow Mind Stone, but at this point it’s still encased in the gem) and convinces Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to use it to create Ultron, a defense program Stark believes will end the need for the Avengers (or something to that effect). It sounds good I guess, but Stark doesn’t really provide any concrete proof that such a thing can actually exist (even by Marvel standards) and it seems unnecessarily risky to me. (Why is he so quick to trust an alien A.I.?)

iron man fights hulk in johannesburg

Of course, if everything worked as planned, there wouldn’t be a movie, and the program quickly retaliates against J.A.R.V.I.S. (Stark’s A.I.) after it goes online and destroys him, taking control of Stark’s various machines and gadgets. A battle between the Avengers (who are in the midst of a party at the headquarters) and these machines ensues, and as the machines are eliminated, Ultron takes the scepter and leaves, retreating to the same fortress in Sokovia where the movie began. He kills Strucker (who’s somehow still alive) and uses what’s there in the base to upgrade his armor and basically build an army. He also enlists the help of the Maximoff twins, who were orphaned when weapons created by Tony Stark killed their parents and, quite unsurprisingly, haven’t forgotten about it. We are then treated to another very prolonged action set piece, this time in South Africa. Ultron goes there to hunt down some Wakandan vibranium (the same material used to make Captain America’s shield) and the Avengers show up and have a serious brawl.

The Scarlet Witch, though, has her way with the Avengers, plunging each of them deep into hallucination, including the Hulk, who goes so absolutely apeshit that Stark has to put on some kind of Hulk-sized Iron Man suit just to contain him. They destroy about half the city of Johannesburg before the fighting finally ends. It’s certainly spectacular enough, but it really isn’t the most compelling thing in the world to watch two Avengers beat the crap out of each other since the story doesn’t move forward at all as it’s happening. And the Hulk seems like quite a liability in these movies. Can you honestly claim he doesn’t do more harm than good? I never really get the sense the Avengers can’t win without him and if he were ever sent the bill for all the property damage he has caused he would have to fork over billions. Anyway, the sequence is certainly expensive and it’s cool to see the Avengers in Africa for (I believe) the first time, but the whole thing is a bit overblown.

train on the streets of seoul

Needing to get off the grid, the Avengers head to Hawkeye’s house and meet his wife and kids. It’s a nice sequence that successfully shows a more human side to our heroes. Afterward, we are treated to another hugely expensive and prolonged action set piece, this time in South Korea, where Ultron has tracked down Dr. Cho (Claudia Kim). He uses the scepter to take control of her mind and instructs her to create a new body for him derived from her synthetic tissue technology, the vibranium and the Mind Stone in the scepter. However, as Ultron is uploading himself into the new body, the Scarlet Witch reads his mind and sees his plan to exterminate life on Earth. As the Avengers arrive on the scene, she and her brother switch sides, and work together with Captain America to stop a runaway train after it hops off the tracks on the streets of Seoul. It’s all pretty spectacular. Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is taken prisoner by Ultron during the mayhem though.

At the same time, the rest of the Avengers capture the body that Ultron was uploading himself into. As Banner is about to destroy it, Stark discovers that J.A.R.V.I.S. isn’t gone after all, and has simply hidden himself in the internet. Stark manages to convince a skeptical Banner to upload J.A.R.V.I.S. to the body (even though this is what caused this mess in the first place), but Captain America arrives on the scene to prevent it from happening. Meanwhile Thor, who has been off in Europe having a weird walkabout vision kind of thing, shows up and activates the body with an electrical charge, creating Vision. Thor gives a very brief overview of the Infinity Stones (having seen them in the vision), and explains that Vision has the Mind Stone on his forehead. Long story short: in addition to having Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch in their corner, the Avengers also have Vision, who is J.A.R.V.I.S. as a physical being with, well, a lot of power.

iron man watches ultron lift a city into the air

The story then moves into the third act, which is a gigantic action set piece containing no less than Ultron using the vibranium to lift an entire city (and the Earth’s crust beneath it) up in the sky so it can fall back to Earth and cause an extinction-level event à la the impactor that struck the Yucatán Peninsula and killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. It’s a truly epic climax and it’s suitably spectacular. Frankly, it’s absurd how much this movie cost to make, and you can see the money on the screen. (According to this document, $444 million was spent, though the production received $78.52 million back from incentives. Regardless of whether the budget was $250 million — as estimated by Box Office Mojo — or $444 million, an awful lot of money was spent to make this movie.) Somewhat shockingly, however, Age of Ultron was not nominated for Best Visual Effects. (Wondering what movie won instead? Ex Machina, which apparently cost a mere $15 million to make (and, let’s face it, was a much better movie).)

I suspect a large part of why Age of Ultron‘s visual effects were snubbed had to do with the Ultron character. Frankly, the robot approach to a villain never feels very natural, though this is perhaps understandable. The voice of Ultron is James Spader, who’s a terrific actor and provides a pretty witty performance, but at the same time the actor’s inherent jokiness adds to the difficulty of taking this character all that seriously. (As is pointed out, Ultron’s character is reflective of Tony Stark’s personality, since he created him.) And it’s a shame, because while the individual elements that make up the character tend to be pretty strong, as the big bad villain he doesn’t really quite come together and has no lasting impact. We’re told he’s evil, but ultimately he’s just a corrupted computer program and any human dimension is just a projection. And besides, in a philosophical sense, can a robot or a machine actually be evil?

ultron is attacked

In science fiction, the answer always seems to be yes, but that’s because we’re told stories with machines as antagonists. In real life the answer is certainly no, since even machines that become self-aware only do so because they are programmed to do so, even if it is just by mistake. Incidentally, there’s an undeniable Terminator and Matrix influence on display here, but ultimately Age of Ultron doesn’t really explore anything interesting as far as those influences are concerned. Rather, it takes the form of Transformers much more often, especially during CGI fuckfest-heavy action scenes with endless streams of robots to take down. Anyway, what is interesting is that unlike The Terminator and The Matrix, Age of Ultron actually does show the creation of the “evil” machine by one of the story’s main protagonists (who of course isn’t evil). Of course, Stark basically does the same thing again when he creates Vision and gets away with it. (Does it really just come down to whether the A.I. that’s uploaded is “good” or “evil”? If so, did Stark really not see anything wrong with the A.I. uploaded into Ultron?)

It’s a typical example, by the way, of how Stark always jumps at the chance to invent something and push the boundaries. Rogers, on the other hand, is cautious of technology and is usually pretty quick to distrust it. During Civil War, these opposing worldviews will come to a head. The seeds are planted here in Age of Ultron, and as a chapter film, it’s a pretty good one on the whole even if it certainly has its share of flaws. The story is tighter and stronger this time around than it was in the first Avengers film, and it’s gobsmackingly spectacular, adding some new characters (Scarlet Witch chief among them) to the mix. And what’s more, it serves as the story of the Mind Stone and moves the Infinity Saga forward. The cast is good, as always, with no weak links in the cast. Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) are no-shows, but you can’t have everything. (Don Cheadle and Anthony Mackie make appearances though.)

iron man, vision and thor shoot beams of light

If you are interested in reading about how Avengers: Age of Ultron looks and sounds in 4K, I would recommend reading Blu-ray.com’s review of the 4K Blu-ray disc. For me, watching Age of Ultron on 4K turned out to be a somewhat uneven experience. I thought everything shot with natural light (i.e., during the day) looked pretty good and was a clear improvement on the 1080p Blu-ray, but scenes either at night or indoors in darker environments were a bit hard to see. Age of Ultron was shot digitally at an uncharacteristically wide variety of photographic resolutions — 1080p (2K), 3.4K, 4K, 5K and 6K — and reportedly finished on a 2K digital intermediate (DI), so the 4K version of the movie is just an upscale of that finished 2K image and not a true 4K image (i.e., from a 4K source). It’s really a shame that these MCU films aren’t finished on a 4K DI instead (Black Panther is the lone exception so far), but given how heavy the movies are on visual effects that take gobs and gobs of processing power and time to render, it isn’t a complete surprise.

Summary
AGE OF ULTRON is certainly a success (and an improvement on the first Avengers film), but the whole is less than the sum of its absurdly expensive parts.
Good
  • Interesting influences -- Tony Stark essentially pulls a Skynet
  • Production values literally couldn't be higher
  • The cast, as usual, is simply outstanding
Bad
  • Plotting is a bit murky; it's not always easy to follow every single thing that's going on
  • Often it seems like the filmmakers are spending a ton of money just to spend a ton of money
  • As a villain, Ultron never comes across as particularly menacing; he's too tech-based to really seem evil
8
Great
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