The bigger the sequel is, the harder it is to pull off. Avengers: Age of Ultron is arguably a sequel to multiple different movies at once, and its direct predecessor, The Avengers, was a massive success — so the bar was set fairly high for it. I’ve seen some criticism of it here and there suggesting that it didn’t live up to it, which suggests that perhaps expectations were simply set too high.
It’s not the home-run that the previous Avengers film is. But it’s still a pretty solid hit.
Like the previous one, it draws from the related Marvel Comics franchises to build both its own story and the ongoing story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) continues his most prominent trend from his own movies of quite literally creating his own enemies. When his plan for a peacekeeping A.I. goes awry, the Avengers find themselves in the crosshairs of Ultron, who plans to keep the peace in the most absolute method: annihilating every living thing so that they can’t fight.
While I’ve read my share of comics, somehow I’d never read any featuring Ultron, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. The somewhat affably evil, somehow constantly befuddled depiction voiced by James Spader was not even close to what I had expected… but it worked. While it adds an element of humor to the villain, it doesn’t downplay his danger; he’s arguably even more dangerous for his failure to understand human motivations and inability to believe he’s in the wrong. This is contrasted with his subordinates, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, known to comics fans as Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver (played here by Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Quicksilver of course also showed up last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, as part of Fox’s and Marvel Studio’s shared custody of the Maximoff characters. Fox’s portrayal was more humorous, while Marvel’s is mostly played straight. Neither devotes a lot of development to him, but on the whole I think Joss Whedon’s script did a better job of turning him into an actual character. Scarlet Witch, a character whose comic-book portrayal could have come across as being very goofy due to vaguely-defined powers, gets the definition she needs here and Olsen’s portrayal works very well.
The film also gives a moderate amount of character development to Hawkeye and Black Widow (Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson), who probably needed it after the first film. There’s been a lot of discussion about the scene in which Widow discusses her past with Bruce Banner, a lot of it negative, but I thought it worked reasonably well… just not perfectly. I think it was more an issue of awkward, incomplete dialogue giving a less-than-apt expression of what she meant when she called herself a “monster”. I think the intended notion was that it was about the cumulative effect of her upbringing rather than her inability to have children, but I can easily see how it would be taken differently.
Maudlin character moments aside, the film still accomplished its main goals. It was exciting to watch the action sequences, it had some decent comic relief moments, it had an interesting story, and it advanced the overall Marvel Universe story. It left me interested to see where the characters go next. And it made the Vision (Paul Bettany) look interesting, which is something the comics had never done for me.