Countdown to Endgame #13: Age of Ultron is Homework

As The Avengers: Endgame approaches, Team Midnight has committed to watch all the Marvel Cinematic Universe films released to date in chronological (story) order: 22 films in 8 weeks. Follow along with us.

Age of Ultron is a critical chapter in the overall MCU story-arc – escalating the conflicts within the group and taking big steps toward the climactic conflict with Thanos that underlies the final two Avengers films. Nick Fury is back, we get a couple new Avengers and we meet ruthless black market arms dealer Ulysses Klaue for the first time. We’ll get to know him better in Black Panther.

In Thor’s vision, we also get our first glimpse at the four infinity stones we have now come across in our journey, all together as part of one story. Take notes, kids, this will be on the test:

  • The Space Stone / The Tesseract (blue) – first appeared in Captain America: The First Avenger, at this point – safely locked away in Asgard’s vault.
  • The Mind Stone / Loki’s Staff (yellow) – first appeared in The Avengers, currently on earth, the Mind Stone is a major player in Age of Ultron
  • The Reality Stone / The Aether (red) – first appeared in The Dark World, locked away in The Collector’s cabinets in Knowhere
  • The Power Stone / The Orb  (purple) – first appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy, locked away now in the Nova Corps vaults.

Hero: The Avengers

“No matter who wins or loses, trouble always comes around.”

– Nick Fury

In this second iteration, The Avengers add a couple folks to the roster:

  • Iron Man
  • Cap
  • Hulkster
  • Black Widow
  • Thor
  • Hawkeye
  • +Scarlet Witch
  • +Quicksilver
  • +War Machine
  • +Vision

Other heroes:

  • Nick Fury
  • Maria Hill
  • Erik Selvig
  • Sam Wilson / Falcon
  • Dr. Helen Cho

Villain: Ultron

“When the dust settles, the only thing living in this world, will be metal.”

Ultron is an artificial intelligence Tony and Bruce create by combining the sentience protocol Tony has been working on for his suits with the intelligence of the Mind Stone, which they discover was hiding all along in Loki’s Staff.

Villain Complexity Rating: 4/5

Still gripped by his fear and unresolved space-trauma, Tony’s reason for building Ultron is to make a protector – a shield around the earth – so that The Avengers will no longer be needed and can all pack up and go home. Tony’s reluctance to talk with Cap about his plans is an obvious strategic tick; this is not going to go as planned. Unsurprisingly, since he is created from the killer combo of Tony’s ego and fear, once he has gained consciousness and built himself a body, Ultron dramatically misinterprets his mandate. Ultron is the most dangerous expression of Tony: the ultimate weapon from the world’s most profitable arms dealer, more intelligent and powerful than anyone, even the billionaire genius who created him.

“What’s at Stake” Rating: 4.5/5

Ultron decides that the only way to truly bring peace to the earth is to extinguish The Avengers – and after them, humankind – returning earth to a “peaceful” state, with no organic life.

What did our hero(es) learn?

By the end of Ultron, our team has saved the earth not only from enslavement, but from extinction – and in the process, they learned to put their disagreements aside, to fight harder than they ever have before, and to put their lives on the line to protect every innocent life, every time. There’s a lot left unresolved here, though – grappling with the damage they’ve done and the many people they have hurt along the way is an undercurrent that flows into future stories.

Heroism Rating: 3.5/5

  • Tony: 2. Even though he does a lot of world-saving afterward, Tony is to blame for this whole mess.
  • Steve: 4.5. Always doing the most, he gets this close to volunteering to die to save everyone. Again.
  • Bruce: 4.5. Bruce goes all the way too – after the world-saving is done, he chooses total isolation and loneliness, adrift in space, in order to prevent Hulk from hurting anyone else. Oof.
  • Natasha: 4. Natasha’s deep damage is on display, and for about half the film, she wants to quit this whole Avengers thing, and who can blame her? She doesn’t, though – instead, she does things no human being should do and gives up her own shot at happiness with Bruce in order to see the mission through. Pretty heroic – but also, maybe she only makes this sacrifice because her assassin trainers programmed her to always put the mission first? Hard to say.
  • Thor: 4. Thor starts to see the bigger infinity stone through line, and has the foresight to bring Vision to life (who ultimately saves the day).
  • Clint: 5. Clint throws himself into the line of fire again and again, and he’s got a pregnant wife and kids at home. He almost dies to save someone…
  • Quicksilver: 3. …except Quicksilver dies saving him. Which, after all the bad things he did, bumps him up to “reasonably heroic.”
  • Scarlet Witch: 2. Although Wanda also ends up in the positive hero points overall, she did way worse stuff than her brother did before joining the white hats.
  • War Machine: 3. He kills some robots.
  • Vision: 3.5. He kills Ultron!

Visual Aesthetic/CGI Rating: 2/5

There is a lot of unnecessary gummy-body CGI schlock in here. Especially after how dazzling Guardians is, Ultron looks sloppy. The first fight in the woods has a few good moments, but way too many cartoon motorcycle flips, and the action sequences, especially the final conflict with Ultron, are frantic and hard to follow. Ultron always kind of looks like he’s being superimposed onto the room, rather than being present in the light and grit of the action. On the plus side, Vision looks fantastic – the scene where he leaps from the casket is one of the film’s most memorable – and the heroes’ nightmare visions are vivid and surreal. The Hulk CGI is getting better and better too.

Heroic Cinema Saturation Index

Betsy Rating: 2.5/5

The thing I like a lot about Ultron is the way this encounter adds depth to the central conflicts between the Avengers, and starts to stretch and tug on their weak points. Our heroes struggle quite a bit in this movie. Cap’s distrust of Tony and Tony’s blind belief in his own superiority begins to pressurize, and the feeling that a crack is coming is potent. Bruce struggles with the horror of the violence Hulk incites and Natasha yearns for the domestic normalcy that she knows she will never have – as the lure of happiness together teases them both. Clint’s emergence as the heart, conscience, and common sense of the group is a thoughtful move from Joss Whedon, who loves to help us imagine what it would be like to be the normal guy in a situation like this. These struggles – and the way they shape the future of The Avengers – make this movie a critical piece in the MCU storyline.

Unfortunately, it’s just not a great movie on its own. As soon as Ultron hits the scene ~20 minutes in, the intensity and pace increase and neither ever really comes down again. By the end, many of the high stakes decisions and heroic moments start to blur together into a glom of heroic groupthink. Instead of highlighting the unique characteristics of each individual, accentuating the special ingredient they bring to the group (which is what The Avengers does so magically and so well), the action in Ultron feels more interested in on-brand showmanship: for example, making a slower, more complicated, more delicately spiraled shot of the group, fully assembled in the midst of the big fight. You notice it when it’s happening and say “oh neat I see what you did there”- but that moment, rather than drawing you deeper into the complexity of the characters and story, draws you out into the expensiveness of the filmmaking.

In the plus column, James Spader makes an excellent robot supervillain… and Vision is such an interesting character, his introduction redeems the whole third act. The joke about who can lift Thor’s hammer is giggle-worthy and in general the movie’s humor feels honest and warm, but I don’t know – it all just kind of feels like it is floating on the surface. For a movie so packed with characters, action, and ideas, its impact is light and the details are forgettable.

Justin’s Rating: 2.5/5

The opening scene from Age of Ultron is a bacchanal of CGI team-ups, heroics, and Captain America throwing his shield so that it pings off 14 different Hydra operatives’ chests, pinball style. It’s visually superlative, like a literal representation of the way your loser step brother talks about his high school football glory days, it’s doing a little too much to feel true. Yes, I’m going to talk about how this scene is an apt metaphor for the overall action and feel of the film, starting off hot and spending the remainder of it’s runtime struggling to maintain the exasperating pace it has set for itself. I know it’s a bit obvious and more than a little inaccurate, but bear with me, this is supposed to be fun. What I mean to say is that this is a plot heavy film with long, CGI action sequences and a muted emotional palette.

It’s not that Joss Whedon’s second effort with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes fails to appeal to our pathos, it’s just the emotional waveforms generated here are a bit flatter than they were last time. There are high points, like Clint revealing his secret family life to the team, which brings his character closer down to earth with us normal type humans. But lots of the other bits are less successful. Cap and Tony’s feud over Stark’s AI defense protocols feels light, and Romanoff and Banner’s budding romance feels rushed. Though Whedon wrote the screenplay, it feels like some of these decisions may have been made without his input, which could be why this was his last MCU film.

Ugh, and can we talk about Elizabeth Olsen’s “accent”? What in Community Theater Hell was that? I know Sokovia is a made up country, but that thing was the laziest amalgam of eastern european nonsense since Ivan Vanko. I’m so relieved they let her drop that thing by Infinity War. Dosvedanya.

I think my favorite scene from Age of Ultron is the party scene near the beginning. It’s one of only a couple breaks in the action, but it’s also far and away the most fun. It’s a relief to experience these characters in a stress-free setting, which allows them to reveal a bit more of themselves There are a couple of very brief moments here where you get these kind of Linklater-y scenarios playing out. Everyone trying to lift Mjolnir isn’t just funny, it’s relaxing and revealing of who these characters are on their days off. Don Cheadle in particular kills in this scene with his portrayal of wounded masculinity and subsequent “still got it” moments. It’s a nice reminder that he’s a genuinely funny actor, something we didn’t get to see much of in the Iron Man flicks.

So yeah, Ultron is flawed but passable. It contains so many intersecting plot lines and seeds for future development that you really should watch it. Too bad it’s not more fun.

OVERALL: 3.2

If you want to make sense of all this MCU business, Team Midnight recommends you hunker down and watch Age of Ultron, even though it’s not our fave. Available to rent online for a few dollars through Vudu or the Google Play/iTunes app stores.

Want to come see Endgame with us?

If you’re a Minnesoter and would like to join us, we’re going to see The Avengers: Endgame at 8:30pm at the Rosedale AMC on Thursday, April 25th (opening night). Let us know if you plan to come – the more the merrier.

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