‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ – A Spoiler-Free Review!

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Avengers: Age of Ultron is a great superhero film, at least nearly as good as the first Avengers film, and in some ways better. Since the first one is widely considered either the best or second-best (after Captain America: The Winter Soldier) Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, that’s not a bad thing–when you’ve got shoes that big to fill, hitting that mark or even getting close to it is still awesome.

Age of Ultron does a lot of things very right:

It isn’t bloated; it clocks in at one minute shorter than the first Avengers film, and director Joss Whedon has said that he edited it very judiciously, to avoid falling into the trap of thinking that if two hours of a story is good, four hours would be twice as good. Someone really should have told this to Peter Jackson five years ago.

It doesn’t waste time. Whedon doesn’t make you sit through a bunch of scenes of the team getting back together–the movie literally begins in the middle of an action sequence involving the whole team, and moves forward from there. The only origin stories this movie aims to tell are those of Ultron and Vision. Most everyone else gets some significant character development on the way, particularly characters like Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Hulk–which seems only fair, since those are the three members of the team who don’t have their own movies. (Yes, I know Hulk had his own film, but that was seven years ago with a different actor, so I’m not counting it.)

It has a more interesting plot than the first one did. The first one was a great movie, don’t get me wrong, and Loki was an excellent villain. But the Chitauri were just… less than excellent. They had no personality, and really seemed to exist only to give Loki an army to back him up so that his fight against the Avengers could seem plausible. Ultron, on the other hand, is both the main villain and the hordes of his footsoldiers at the same time, and is much easier to take seriously than a guy in green wearing a hat with horns sticking out of it.

At its heart, Age of Ultron is sort of Frankenstein crossed with Skynet from the Terminator films crossed with the Borg of Star Trek. It’s about Tony Stark–the Dr. Frankenstein of the film–finally taking technology past his ability to control it, and in so doing risking all of humanity. Yet the film makes us understand Stark’s motivation, and it’s hard to know whether we would choose a different path were we in his place. It’s a serious, classic science fiction plot, and Whedon makes it sing. He finds new angles on it, all the while adding enough fun and personal moments to keep the large number of characters from getting lost in the plot.

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James Spader does a fantastic job as Ultron–and not with just his voice. They used sophisticated motion capture technology to translate his performance into the CGI construct that is Ultron, and you can tell. Spader also pulls off a rare feat as an actor: making a villain simultaneously funny and incredibly menacing. Ultron comes out of Tony Stark’s work (I think that’s common knowledge), so has inherited some of Stark’s wit. But it’s surprising how truly menacing he is. Most villains are either one or the other–funny or menacing–so pulling off both in one performance is remarkable.

It’s very Joss Whedon, a phrase which I realize may not make a lot of sense to those not familiar with his work prior to The Avengers. It has a lot of quick back-and-forth dialogue that both entertains and provides insight into the characters talking. It has more than a few laugh-out-loud moments. But it also treats the heavier parts of the subject matter seriously–innocent people are being killed, and the Avengers really are the only ones who can prevent that. That doesn’t mean they won’t have some fun together, but it means that, when things get going, you can count on them doing their jobs. This is very much the same kind of feeling I got from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, especially, from Firefly.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is also very much a comic book movie. Many of the angles, particularly during the action scenes, were obviously chosen to make comic book aficionados feel like they were watching a favorite story brought to life in front of them. The special effects are fantastic–it was particularly interesting to see how Whedon handled Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch’s powers: Scarlet Witch sort of dances, almost River Tam-like, as she throws hexes of various kinds here and there. Quicksilver’s lightning-fast running is as believable as any super power can be–if you watch The Flash on TV, you’ll understand when I say that Quicksilver seems somehow more likely than Flash does, and not just because he doesn’t wear a red suit and emit lightning bolts when he runs.

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The movie is not without its faults, of course. While I think Whedon definitely made the right choice in resisting letting the film become bloated, there are bits of it where it’s very obvious a scene or three is missing (and not just because there are a couple of shots in the trailers that don’t actually appear in the theatrical release). I found myself wishing that perhaps one or two of the bits of the film where the Avengers are doing things apart from each other had been cut in favor of, say, a few more minutes of the Hulk vs. Iron Man in Hulkbuster Suit fight. Because that fight scene is epic.

The film could also have used a little more interaction from some of the familiar faces in supporting roles. Nick Fury appears for only a few minutes, Falcon for maybe 30 seconds total, and Peggy Carter for less time even than that. I also might have appreciated it if so much of the plot hadn’t been written to set up very obviously (to those who know the comics reasonably well) some of the future MCU movies–particularly the third Captain America and Avengers installments.

On the whole, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a very good film. Taken on its own, it might even be a great film, but it by necessity has to undergo comparison to the first Avengers film, to say nothing of the other prior MCU movies. As far as superhero films in particular go, Age of Ultron is just about as good as it gets.

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Avengers: Age of Ultron is rated PG-13, just as every MCU film has been. There is some swearing–starting earlier in the film than you might have guessed. There is sexual innuendo, including a line from Stark that (like the infamous “q-word” line of Loki’s in the first Avengers movie) I’m sure was allowed to stay in because the MPAA folks either didn’t know what the phrase meant or knew but figured very few viewers would. I won’t give specifics for fear of spoilers, of course, but I will say that it occurs during the scene (an abridged version of which has appeared in one of the film’s trailers) where the various other team members attempt to lift Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir.

Bottom line: If you have even the slightest interest in any of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies–and I must assume you do, because you’ve read this far–you will not want to miss Avengers: Age of Ultron. And, heck, if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to see it again immediately after it ends.

Note: If you have any questions (that can be answered without spoilers) about the movie, particularly with regard to taking kids to see it, please leave a comment on this post or tweet me @cerebus19. On May 1, when the movie debuts in theaters, I’ll be publishing one of our usual “10 Things Parents Should Know” articles about the film, and I want to be sure I answer the right questions.

The press trip I went on to L.A. for Avengers: Age of Ultron was paid for by Disney. All opinions expressed here are my own.

Images: Marvel/Disney.

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