One of the biggest fan complaints about Man of Steel was that there was something very un-Superman-like about Superman, levelling Metropolis during his fight with General Zod but doing nothing to ensure the safety of the people; director Zack Synder estimated the death toll at 5,000, but somewhere around 129,000 seems more likely. Synder’s claim that all those deaths are narratively necessary so that Superman can feel, like, really heavy with sadness is spurious; having Superman save people AND defeat Zod at the same time would have given him the moral high ground, but, whatever, this isn’t the time or place.
The reason I mention the absence of a human element to Man of Steel is to highlight its overwhelming presence in Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, which takes the apparently controversial view that heroes ought to be saving lives. It’s a view that underscores the whole film, with Tony Stark sending Iron Man suits into cities near battle zones to warn them of danger and later inadvertently creating Ultron in the name of peace and security. This need to keep humanity safe isn’t restricted to Stark either, with Bruce Banner trying to stay clear of fights that might bring him near innocent people and Steve Rogers refusing to endanger the lives of civilians during a car chase. Two new characters — Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as unnamed versions of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver — are tasked with saving civilians as soon as they’ve switched sides.
All of this gives the film’s climax — when hundreds must be saved from a doomed city — a human focus that Man of Steel lacked, and provides plenty of variety in the closing scenes, eschewing endless, tedious battle for smaller, more personal, moments. Age of Ultron highlights that the purpose of the Avengers isn’t specifically to defeat those that threaten humanity, but to save everyone that can be saved while doing so. Otherwise, what’s the point of any of this, beyond spectacle?
On its own merits, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a solid piece of work. The script is typically-Whedonesque, full of character moments both sweet and comic. Most of the regular cast carry their roles with assured familiarity, and once again, Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow remain the most interesting characters in the mix. James Spader’s Ultron manages to be both comically irreverent and ruthlessly threatening at the same time, and even Taylor-Johnson, so bland when last seen in Godzilla, turns in a tolerable performance.
That said, how much you’ll get out of Age of Ultron depends on how on board you are with Whedon, the Avengers and Marvel films in general, because there isn’t much going on here that you haven’t seen already; I couldn’t shake the nagging sense that this Avengers film is something of a stop-gap, a film that exists to cap off Marvel’s phase 2 when what they’d really rather be doing is working on phase 3, following threads created by Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. That isn’t to say Age of Ultron isn’t any good; this is a polished film with plenty of snappy dialogue, fan-pleasing action and convincing character beats. It’s simply that in a franchise increasingly devoted to ongoing arcs rather than standalone films, this film doesn’t quite feel as if it belongs. Despite its attempts to bring in new blood, there’s still something final about it.
Age of Ultron isn’t going to convince anyone not already a fan of these things to change their mind; equally, even current fans might find things starting to feel a little rote. Me, I left the cinema happy.
After a few more viewings, I think I was a little harsh in my conclusion above; while it’s true that the film doesn’t quite fit with the other Marvel properties, it also doesn’t really matter: Age of Ultron is a strong, confident film. On the first viewing, the film’s missteps — Thor’s awkwardly-placed vision quest for instance, or the fundamental oddness of flying robots that escape in the back of a truck — stand out; on repeat viewings the stronger aspects — the in media res opening, the many great character moments, the humour of Spader’s Ultron and the subtlety of Bettany’s Vision — stand out all the more.
What also shouldn’t be ignored is how good the film looks, like a graphic novel come to life. The opening slow-motion tableaux is begging to be printed and framed, but subsequent sequences, such as the team fighting the sea of Ultron robots in the end, and Vision, Thor and Iron Man all attacking Ultron simultaneously, are panel art come to life. Finally, Danny Elfman’s score is woven perfectly throughout and helps give everything and everyone a firm identity. This is a film that rewards return visits.