An In-Depth Review of Avengers: Age of Ultron (50% Spoiler Free!)

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.


Synopsis

 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.

Loki pokey stick

The Loki pokey-stick.

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.

Twincest, anybody?

Twincest, anybody?

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”.

Ultron: Cover Girl.

Ultron: Cover Girl.

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).

Thor Hammer

Totes worthy.

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).

Ultron on his Throne

Age of DOOM.

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

Black Widow and Hulk

What is love, baby don’t hurt me… No seriously, don’t hurt me plz.

 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)

Avengers Infinity Wars

 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.

Thor

You mind doing that scene again but slower, Chris?

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.

Vision

Ummmm.

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.”

WHAT?!

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)

Civil War

 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)

Black Panther

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.

Woman in the Cave

Who dat?

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.

World War Hulk by Greg Pak & John Romita Jr.

I’ve always enjoyed watching and reading about over-powered super heroes like Superman (DC), Goku (Dragon Ball), Kinnikuman (King Muscle), Monkey D. Luffy (One Piece), and Hulk (Marvel). Monkey D. Luffy and Kinnikuman possess bizarre abilities and strength that can solve almost any situation; Superman and Goku have officially become Gods; and Hulk is the strongest there is. However, out of all of these characters Hulk is the one that stands out to me. He may not be my favourite (that’s for another Recommends blog) but he is the one that I find the most interesting. For this blog I will quickly discuss the above characters and what separates the Hulk from them, and then talk about my favourite Hulk comic, World War Hulk.

god group sheer force group superman goku fluffy ultimate muscle comics manga one piece shonen action

The God Group and the Sheer Force Group (left to right)

There are two groups that I will put the above heroes into: Superman and Goku are in the group I call ‘God Group’ and Kinnikuman and Luffy are in the ‘Sheer Force Group.’ I put Kinnikuman and Luffy in the Sheer Force Group because I feel that their power comes from the will power that emerges as they fight. Luffy has the ability called ‘Haki’ and Kinnikuman has the ability Kinnikuman’s ‘Burning Inner Strength.’ Both abilities provide the user with a huge boost in their strength, speed, awareness, insight, and many other aspects. Whenever a wall is met, these abilities help them break through that wall with sheer will power – a typical trait of Shonen (Japanese comics aimed at boys) characters.

Kinnikuman demonstrating his 'Burning Inner Strength' by catching and throwing a sun.

Kinnikuman demonstrating his ‘Burning Inner Strength’ by catching and throwing a sun.

Superman and Goku are in the God Group. Both have grown in strength over time to become classified as Gods. Superman eventually becomes ‘Superman Prime’ and Goku becomes the fabled ‘Super Saiyan God.’ In these forms they have become something that no one can surpass. What can a God do? Pretty much anything it wants.

Super saiyan god goku dragon ball superman prime DC comics

Super Saiyan God Goku and Superman Prime (left to right)

This brings me to the Hulk, who is unique in that he straddles both groups. He fights with sheer force and solves most problems with it. Hulk has been known to put out flames with a clap of his hands and his lungs are so strong that they enable him to breathe underwater and survive the pressure of deepest parts of the Ocean. However, there are times when the Hulk becomes more than just Sheer Force and becomes Godlike. World War Hulk is the best story to exemplify this. (WARNING: For those of you that have not read Planet Hulk there are spoilers ahead!)

Hulk strongest there is marvel

Hulk Strongest There Is!

World War Hulk is one of those big event stories in the Marvel Universe that basically pits characters against one another. In this case, it’s the Hulk vs. EVERYONE. Before I get onto that, I need to give a little back story to what lead up to this epic war. In the Marvel Universe there is a group named the Illuminati – a group made up of the most intelligent and influential super heroes, such as Black Bolt (King of the Inhumans) Doctor Strange (Sorcerer Supreme) Iron Man (“Genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist” to quote The Avengers film) Mister Fantastic (Leader of the Fantastic Four) Namor (King of Atlantis) and Professor X (Leader of the X-Men).

The Illuminati came up with a plan to get rid of the Hulk in light of death count he had racked up during all of his infamous rages, and in their eyes the only logical and physical way to stop him from continuing to destroy the world, was to send him into space – which they managed to do. However, the spaceship malfunctioned and landed on an alien planet. Unexpectedly, Hulk not only became a great Roman-esque gladiator on that planet, but also it’s saviour by freeing it’s people from a tyrannical ruler and rose to become it’s king. He also met a female alien who would become his bride. Unfortunately, nothing stays perfect for long – especially when you are the Hulk. The ship that Hulk landed in exploded, killing his queen and unborn son, and this sent the Hulk into a new rage – a rage that could only be calmed by seeing the monsters that sent him into space and killed his love: the Illuminati.

Now we finally enter World War Hulk – a story of pure revenge. If you love the Hulk then you should love this. Hulk takes on the most powerful Marvel heroes, all of them jacked up to try and equal his power level, and they all fail. The aliens who have allied themselves with Hulk see him not just as a ruler but also as a God, a saviour, and a destroyer. This is why I love Hulk too, as there is so much more to him than a rage monster. He’s a God – both vengeful and liberating, and he’s also a king, a husband, a father, and just a man – Bruce Banner.

World War Hulk Marvel Comics

King. God. Hulk

World War Hulk is rare in that Bruce sees eye-to-eye with Hulk (bear in mind this is before Banner and the Hulk realise they are the same, so it make sense to refer to them as two individuals). Bruce wants this revenge because he was finally happy and he and the Hulk were finally living a perfect life. He had an empire, a woman who loved him, and a son on the way. There is a scene in World War Hulk between Bruce, Hulk, and Doctor Strange, in which you see the rage in both the Hulk and Bruce… It’s brilliant.

World War Hulk truly shows all of the light and shade of Hulk that people often don’t see in him. We see the God, the Sheer Force, the humble man, and ultimately, we see the hero.

Written by Huw Williams@big_huw on Twitter.

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Young Avengers: Style > Substance by Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie

“Read the book that understands that hyperbole is the BEST! THING! EVER!”

Phonogram: Rue Britannia Cover

Phonogram: Rue Britannia Cover

One of the great joys of the comics industry for me is following a writer and artist partnership from success to success. I borrowed Gillen and McKelvie’s Phonogram: Rue Britannia from my local library – which was my one-stop-shop for graphic novels and manga when I was teenager (because I was just that cool.) Mixing Britpop, mysticism, and a distinctively British dark sense of humour, Phonogram’s black and white world left such a lasting impression on me; I instantly bought Marvel’s Young Avengers: Style > Substance without a second thought upon seeing their familiar names on the cover.

I had already been following the YA through creators’ Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung’s run, and as a huge Teen Titans fan, I think it was pretty easy for me to also fall in love with Marvel’s teen equivalent. But if it was Heinberg and Cheung who got me to bite, it was Gillen and McKelvie’s subsequent run that got me hooked and reminded me just how good they were together.

I’ve always thought that the hardest thing about writing as a teenage character is that you’re never really the right age to do it. Children can’t do it because they’ve obviously never experienced it, teenagers themselves can’t do it because they’re too close to it to have any proper perspective, and adults can’t do it because they can’t remember it properly. It’s a hard job… but not impossible. Gillen not only cracks it in YA, but he makes it look easy, and beyond even that – he makes it look convincing.

“I have no powers and not nearly enough training. But I’m doing this anyway. Being a Super Hero is amazing. Everyone should try it.”

The underpinning of Gillen’s writing on YA amplifies relatable and believable problems and heartaches of everyday teenagers through their larger-than-life super-powers within the chaotic and bizarre Marvel universe around them. This makes it sound deceptively serious, and although there is a fair share of angst and arguing, the thing that makes the book the most appealing is that it’s fun. It’s just really good fun. And the characters are really funny, too. Kid Loki in particular – I mean, how can an amoral Norse God trapped within the body of a teenage boy not be hysterical.

One of the other things that drew me to YA initially was its inclusion of a more diverse character roster. In terms of race, gender, and sexuality, I have to applaud YA for not just using the ‘outsider’ theme as a metaphor, but also actually embodying it with characters such as Patriot, Miss America, Hulkling, and Wiccan. Moreover, I have to applaud Gillen for making Hulkling and Wiccan’s relationship – in particular – more than just ticking an equality and diversity quota box, but fleshing it out into one of the most fully realised and emotionally charged in the Marvel universe that I’ve come across, and one of my favourites.

Hulkling & Wiccan

Hulkling & Wiccan

In terms of the artwork, I’ve been trying to work out why McKelvie’s style resonates with me so much as it’s not the kind of artwork I normally favour. My all-time favourite comic book artists are people like Dave McKean and Alex Ross – artists who are far more painterly and…’fine arty,’ for lack of a better word. However, as a Tintin fan since childhood, I think McKelvie’s clear-line style owes a huge debt to Hérge and makes me all nostalgic and tingly when I see it. It’s also a deceptively hard style to pull off. If you’re someone like Frank Miller with an unrealistic – almost abstract – way of drawing, you can kind of get away with not being a master of anatomy. If you’re a clear-line artist like McKelvie, there’s nothing to hide behind, and of course, he doesn’t need to. His neat and slick approach perfectly meets and compliments Gillen’s similar stylistic execution of the story and dialogue.

McKelvie's GLORIOUS layouts

McKelvie’s GLORIOUS layouts

What I love the most about McKelvie’s artwork for YA in particular though is his layouts. I don’t hear people talking a lot about layouts when they talk about comic artists, but as an artist who is still learning her craft, I really appreciate seeing creative and unique layouts in a book. A layout can be more than just telling the story in a series of pictures – it can be a whole, cohesive idea. Going beyond just square boxes on a comic page takes guts, skill, and most importantly: passion. Someone who is passionate about what they do will always go that extra mile to show that passion off, and seeing a really wacky and fun layout when you turn the page is the earmark of an artist who loves what they do and is also having fun doing it, which makes you as a reader have fun looking at it.

I’ve read YA: Style > Substance twice to date, and there are very few books that I revisit besides well-worn copies of my childhood favourites, so for re-readability alone I recommend it, as well as the other collections – Alternative Cultures and Mic Drop at the Edge of Space and Time. And if you read and like those then please track down Phonogram, too. It needs more love.

Variant Cover by Bryan Lee O'Malley

Variant Cover by Bryan Lee O’Malley

FYI: For die-hard fans, my favourite YA variant issue cover to track down is the one by Scott Pilgrim creator Bryan Lee O’Malley (pictured right).

Written by Hannah Collins.