There’s snow on the ground, in the trees, in the air – snow everywhere. The sky is grey and the landscape scrubbed white by winter. We see men in black running; hear shots being fired; words being shouted in a foreign language. Flashes of familiarity rush past – Hawkeye’s arrows; Thor’s lightening; Captain America’s shield; Black Widow’s guns; Hulk smashing; and Iron Man whizzing in and out of view. It seems like confusion, but as they weave and duck in and out of each other’s way a sense of organised chaos begins to emerge, and these seemingly disparate heroes are drawn closer and closer together until they suddenly assemble as one and leap into a beautifully choreographed slow-mo (money) shot.
Iron Man gets the first line: ‘SHIT!’
This is how Avengers: Age of Ultron begins – with a bang, and the pace rarely let’s up from that point to the end. In fact, you may have to run at superhuman speed to keep up with it.
For those who have yet to see it, I will keep this first half of the review relatively spoiler-free, and then head into some major spoiler territory later on to discuss the finer points of the Avengers: Assemble sequel, including how it has laid the ground for spin-offs and further sequels.
Following the creation of the Avengers Initiative and their success defending New York from an alien invasion lead by Loki (Thor’s Frost-Giant/Asgardian adopted brother), the team are on the hunt for Loki’s pokey-stick which has fallen into the hands of Hydra.
The Avengers successfully obtain the Loki pokey-stick from Baron Von Strucker (manacle-wearing nefarious dude heading up Hydra) despite the efforts of the super-powered Maximoff twins: speedster Quicksilver (who has also appeared in Fox’s X-Men: Days of Future Past) and his sister the Scarlet Witch who possesses telekinesis and reality-manipulation powers. These two are pissed at Tony Stark as his tech was responsible for killing their parents, and gained their powers through surviving Hydra’s twisted experiments.
Back at Avengers tower, Tony convinces Dr. Bruce Banner to help him use the gem contained in the Loki pokey-stick to realise his dream of creating artificial intelligence so that the Earth can be better protected against the threat of alien invasion. He names the project ‘Ultron’. Banner reluctantly agrees, but when Ultron is “born” he attacks Jarvis (Tony’s computer system) and then the off-guard Avengers, interpreting his “mission” from Tony to bring “peace in our time” as the extinction of mankind so that Earth can evolve into something better. “All that shall remain will be metal”.
To aid his cause, Ultron recruits the Maximoff twins; equips himself with the strongest metal on Earth (Vibranium) and even decides to create life – the Vision – a more biologically composed version of himself powered by the gem from the Loki pokey-stick.
The Avengers finally track him down to a small city called Sokovia, where Ultron’s plan to destroy the Earth culminates in a difficult moral conundrum for the team: Do they sacrifice the lives of a few for the lives of many?
What does the film do well?
The biggest question for any sequel is whether it matches up or surpasses the original, and considering just how successful Avengers Assemble was both critically and commercially, this question must have been making director Joss Whedon really sweat during the film’s entire production. Short answer? Yes, it definitely matches up to the quality of the first film and I think some of the audience may say that it even surpasses it. The strongest points of Assemble – a dynamic team made up of distinctive well-written characters kicking butt and snapping jokes – is replicated in Age of Ultron to the same degree of success and entertainment. The difference this time around being that with their group dynamic already established, no time needs to be wasted on introductions and sizing each other up. The pace is full-throttle, the stakes are high, and you’re never quite sure which is more fun: the gang beating the crap out of each other or getting drunk and trying to lift Thor’s hammer (not an innuendo).
Beyond the explosions, dick jokes, bromance, and Tony Stark’s excellent sunglasses collection, the introduction of artificial intelligence to the Marvel cinematic universe sparks some heated and emotional debates between the team about responsibility, scientific ethics, the ‘greater good’, and complicated parallels between the monstrous and the heroic. Considering this, it is especially fitting that the cyborgian being ‘Vision’ is finally gifted his life by the lightening strike of Thor’s hammer, deliberately invoking the most famous of all artificially made creatures – Frankenstein’s monster.
During the battle for Loki’s pokey-stick at the start of the film, Scarlet Witch uses her reality manipulating mojo to mess with Iron Man’s head and bring to life his greatest fears. In his vision, he sees his fellow Avengers dead and the Earth laid open to an incoming alien invasion that he is powerless to prevent. “We create the things we fear,” Ultron monologues later on. Not only does Scarlet Witch put the fear of God in Tony Stark, but also she allows him to take the gem in the Loki-pokey stick. Does she see a bit of Dr. Frankenstein in Stark and hopes that he will create a monster of his own? It’s not quite clear.
What doesn’t the film do well?
Let’s get nitpicky. Age of Ultron is a solid and character-led action romp and I have little complaints about it, but I did find a few small things to gripe about concerning Ultron. Ultron, as a follow up to fan-favourite Loki, has some big Asgardian shoes to fill. Does he fill them? Well, nearly. Ultron’s first appearance in corporeal form is a limping, skeletal robot, and dripping with oil – as though he really has been birthed from some sort of artificial womb. Very creepy. The next glimpse of him is even more sinister; as he sits alone in an abandoned church, draped in holy cloth and philosophising to Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, he definitely sends out some cool Dr. Doom vibes (the Fantastic Four’s arch nemesis and perhaps Marvel’s most melodramatic of villains).
However, as Ultron’s character develops – and the more he tries to distinguish himself from his baby-daddy Tony Stark – the more like wise-cracking Stark he sounds. Seeing as he essentially copied and pasted a large part of Stark’s personality, this makes sense. After all, if Stark did create what he fears, his narcissism means that he fears himself most. Ultron is all the worst parts of his personality. But, personally I wanted more psychopath and less jokes as the comedy kind of lessened his menace.
My other little gripe with Ultron is a mild spoiler, so you may want to skip this paragraph if you don’t want to hear any. Without revealing too much, Black Widow becomes Ultron’s prisoner for a short time in the second act. Whilst imprisoned by him, she is able to alert Hawkeye to Ultron’s location, and is then able to escape. There’s one big problem with this: Why did Ultron even imprison her in the first place? Why didn’t he kill her? His first directive – before global destruction – is to destroy the Avengers. He has one right in front of him… and doesn’t kill her. If he wanted her to draw the Avengers into a trap, then why didn’t he kill her once her purpose was served? It seems a little sloppy for a supremely intelligent robot. If anyone can offer up an explanation I’d be happy to hear it.
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
If you’ve seen the film already, or if you’re okay with spoilers, then keep reading. If not, STOP. You’ve been warned.
Right, for those still reading, let’s discuss some finer points of the story and uncover some of the teasers dropped for Infinity War, Civil War, and other upcoming Marvel films that may or may not be about wars.
Black Widow & Bruce Banner
Who’d have thought it, right? I mean, these two? The pairing up of Widow and Banner is a bold step away from the continuity of the comics, but provides a clear point of separation between them and Marvel’s cinematic universe, which I think is necessary. For the comic book fans scratching their heads at Widow and Hulk’s compatibility, the film again uses its central theme of the monstrous twinned with the heroic as an explanation. At Hawkeye’s safehouse, Bruce tries to dissuade Natasha from pursuing a romantic relationship with him, reminding her of the green-skinned danger she could be in. She in turn reveals to him that she too harbours a ‘monstrous’ secret. During her training as an assassin she was sterilised in order to also sterilise any empathy that may make her less efficient in her murderous profession. As a woman who cannot have children, she implies that she too feels less than human, and seeing her interact with Hawkeye’s children so affectionately brings this pain to the surface.
Hawkeye’s loving and naturally created family also provides a stark contrast to the man-made monstrosity of Ultron grown in a lab by two “mad scientists”. As the AI genre always dictates, meddling with the natural order of things produces wholly unnatural children.
Infinity War: Part 1 & 2 (2018 & 2019)
THIS is what Marvel has been building towards since the end of Phase One and throughout Phase Two. To cut to the chase, the infinity gems are super powerful on a cosmic level, and when collected together form the infinity gauntlet, which the maniacal Titan Thanos (the big-chinned pink dude first seen in Avengers Assemble) is looking to possess for universal annihilation. For a comprehensive summary on which gem has appeared in which film so far, check out this article on Screen Rant.
In Age of Ultron, we get the first name drop for the infinity gems from the beautiful bearded mouth of Thor. After Scarlet Witch gives Thor a scary vision of a dark Asgardian brothel (?) complete with creepy dancing girls and a blind Heimdall, Thor also glimpses a red face for a split second. He decides to take time out from the main plot to visit his old drinking buddy Dr Selvig, who takes him to a mystical pool (yes, this really happens) that enables Thor to see his vision again.
Meanwhile, nerd-mates Tony Stark and Bruce Banner decide to mess with the natural order of things once more and put the not dead Jarvis into the bio-tech hybrid body Ultron has been creating for himself. Just as Captain America, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and Hawkeye arrive to shut the fun down, Thor storms (literally) through the ceiling to bring the body to life with his lightening, having ascertained that the face he saw in his vision was The Vision. At the centre of the Vision’s power – and forehead – is the gem from the Loki pokey stick. Whether this gem is an infinity gem or not is kind of up to debate at the moment, especially since the gems’ colours have changed in translation from page to screen, but seeing as Loki used it to take control of people’s minds previously, it seems to be a safe bet that it’s the Mind gem.
Then there’s Thanos’ little cameo in the post-credits scene. This is the most intriguing Infinity Wars teaser of the film. We see Thanos reaching out towards the gauntlet, pulling it over his fist, and uttering: “Fine. I’ll do it myself.”
Was Thanos in control this whole time?? I mean, Thor does mention that he suspects someone has been “pulling the strings” when he explains what the infinity gems are. But if so, what has Thanos even been controlling? Could it have been that strangely fortuitous moment when the formula for creating Ultron just magically solved itself the second Banner and Tony left the lab? Or maybe it was the moment that Scarlet Witch decided to let Tony take the Loki pokey-stick? Or is his pawns failing him in Guardians of the Galaxy? I NEED TO KNOW MARVEL.
Civil War (2016)
Those not familiar with the comics would have probably missed any Civil War hints, but for the eagle-eyed (and eared) fans, there were some palpable undercurrents of what is to come nestled in the dialogue. Most notably, the existing tension between Captain America and Iron Man resurfaces more than once as they clash on some fundamental ethical issues surrounding Stark’s way of doing things. This is essential for the prelude to Civil War, which pits Cap and Iron Man squarely against each other upon the introduction of the Superhero Registration Act.
Plus, given the mass destruction that is dealt by the team to various miscellaneous Asian and East European cities, it’s not a jump to expect that public opinion will start to turn sour towards the self-proclaimed ‘heroes’ that have essentially been cleaning up their own messes, and the registration act seeming more and more imminent to curve their activities.
Black Panther (2018)
The most obvious hints at the Black Panther film was the visit to Wakanda – home of the Panther – and the name check for Vibranium, the strongest metal on Earth that makes up both Cap’s shield and Ultron’s armour.
But I have reason to suspect that there was originally supposed to be a lot more featured from Wakanda than the final cut of the film gave us. Cast your memory back to the trailers for Age of Ultron and you may remember a shot of what appeared to be a woman disrobing in front of the mystic pool that Thor took a dip in to go down memory lane. This woman appeared to be African, and many assumed she was Wakandian. This entire scene was interestingly nowhere to be seen in the cut of Age of Ultron that I saw here in the UK.
One plausible explanation is that Black Panther was originally going to fulfil the important role that Spider-Man plays in the Civil War story, but after Marvel retrieved the rights back from Sony for the web-slinger, Whedon could have been forced to take some Black Panther content out at the last minute as it was no longer important to establish his presence strongly. But that’s just a theory… A comic book movie theory. (Sorry MatPat, I couldn’t resist.)
Written by Hannah Collins. Check out her own blog on pop culture and gender representation here.
For original manga-inspired comics, head to the Cosmic Anvil website and Comixology.