Avengers: Age of Ultron is very good.
But it is not as good as the first Avengers.
I feel weird about starting off a review like that, but is the primary thought I am left with about this sequel. I think that it's important to get out of the way because if you go and see this movie and expect it to be The Empire Strikes Back to The Avenger's Star Wars, then it will miss the mark. If you go in accepting that this one does not quite recapture the inspiring cinematic magic of the first, then you can enjoy the movie as it is, which is still quite excellent.
The movie picks up after the events of Captain America - The Winter Soldier as the Avengers are attacking a Hydra base to recover Loki's staff from the original Avengers movie. The opening scene is action-movie heaven. The scenes are not just big and bold, but they are fun and creative. When you have characters with all of these different powers, you want to see them used in new ways. And director Joss Whedon more than delivers. It is here that our heroes face off against super-powered siblings: super-fast Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and telepathic/telekinetic Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). It is here that Scarlett Witch places a deep seeded fear in Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) about the inadequacy of the Avengers to face the world-destroying threats against them.
This leads to the major arc of the movie: Tony and Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), decide that they need to create an AI led army that can protect the world. The script smartly raises all of the obvious "mad scientist" problems with this, but Tony makes a convincing argument as to why this level of defense is needed: The Avengers are not enough to save the world.
Of course things go horribly wrong.
Loki was a fantastic villain for the first Avengers, as he was deadly but charismatic and charming. Ultron (voiced by James Spader), fills this role nicely. This evil AI is filled with seething rage and hilarious sarcasm. He is, in every way, the dark side of Tony Stark. He is the "Iron" without the "Man." He concludes that the problem with human violence is the human race. However, unlike emotionless terminators, Ultron is hyper-emotional, particularly his gnawing anger. This makes for a nice change from most evil robot movies.
Aside from the incredibly action, the movie lingers a long time on the just-as-entertaining character interactions. It is so much fun to watch our heroes kick back and laugh with each other or talk about ethics while chopping wood. These scenes should slow the movie down to a grinding halt, but they are emotional, enriching, and sometimes as downright fun to watch as Iron Man fighting the Hulk (arguably the best part of the movie).
The budding romance that was hinted at in the first movie between Black Widow/Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johanson) and Hulk brings a lot of heart to the movie. The reason why she says she's attracted to the skittish scientist is dialogue gold. And you can see Banner fighting his attraction for reasons that only become clear later.
The other character who gets some much needed character development is Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). In fact, I would go so far as to say that he is the heart of the movie. He is a mortal among gods and monsters. Black Widow proved her essentialness to the team during her interrogation of Loki in the first movie. But Hawkeye provides a different role. He helps the team hold on to their humanity. He alternately funny, deadly, inspiring, challenging, sarcastic, and vulnerable. He gives speech towards the end in the middle of the climactic battle where he says, "We're fighting an army of robots and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense!" And yet in the context of the team dynamic, it does. This is once again due to Whedon's masterful writing.
Tony Stark also has some wonderfully dark turns. He thinks he is the smartest guy in the room and that he knows better than everyone. He moves forward with the Ultron plan so quickly because he says there isn't time to discuss this as a committee. But he is too smart to let things go wrong. When confronted with the horror of his actions, Tony begins to crack. It is Steve Rogers/ Captain America who wisely points out after all the madness: "Every time someone tries to stop a war before it starts, innocent people die. Every time."
Beyond that, however, the other Avengers don't have a lot of character development. They all have cool moments, but they feel like they are there to service a cramped story. This biggest drawback to the movie is that it feels cramped. It is too much story in too small a space. Great actors like Andy Serkis as Klaw pop and shine, but then are quickly eschewed from the scene.
I heard that the original cut was over 3 hours long. This makes sense, as this definitely feels like an abridged rather than streamlined story. This is especially true when the character Vision is introduced. I will not go into the spoiler territory here, but he appears late in the movie and he just feels like a shoe-horned, odd fit. Even the character design felt a little off to me.
Thematically, the movie leans very heavily on traditional values. Tony's arrogance at playing God has lead to a Frankenstein-esque monstrosity. Home and family are seen as the ideal: the reason why the Avengers fight. The importance of children and the pain of their absence is acutely felt. And of course, couraguous Christ-like self-sacrifice is the hallmark of heroism in the Avengers. Whedon's atheism does creep in a little towards the end as he tries to reconcile nihilism with heroism, to questionable success. But the rest of the film keeps things on a traditional moral track.
And there are plenty of geek moments (Thor's hammer plays heavily into these). And there are more scenes that are building to the plot of the next Avengers movie. Age of Ultron has the same struggles that most middle films have: being compared to the past while looking off to the future. This makes it difficult to have the story stand on its own. And this movie does change the Marvel status quo, which is something that I very much applaud the company for doing by taking such risks.
Despite these few criticisms, Avengers: Age of Ultron is everything that you are looking for in a fun, bold, action-packed, smart summer blockbuster.
4 out of 5 stars.